J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

“A Comedy of Three Acts, Never Before Printed”

When I read the broadside seeking money to print William Clarke’s play The Miser: or, The Soldier’s Humour in 1768, I thought the (very few) published interpretations of this artifact were all wrong.

This wasn’t a sincere solicitation for a new play, I theorized. It didn’t really come from Pvt. William Clarke of the 29th Regiment. Elisha Brown didn’t print it, as many bibliographers had guessed. Instead, it was a satire using the format of a play proposal to comment on the recent Manufactory siege. In early 1770 the Boston Chronicle played the same game, running an advertisement for a tragedy called The Witches to criticize the non-importation protests roiling the town.

In the case of The Miser, I theorized, the broadside preserved some jokes that the people of Boston recognized but which are lost to us today. “The SOLDIER’S HUMOUR, A Comedy of Three Acts, As it is acted by his Majesty’s Servants,” had to refer to the actions of the king’s soldiers in town. Pvt. Clarke, named on the sheet, must have made himself notorious in some way. And the last paragraph’s reference to “ELISHA BROWN, at the Manufactory-House,” drove home the joke. After all, it was silly to think that a private soldier would be publishing a three-act comedy in Boston, selling copies through a cloth weaver whose family had just been fighting off the army.

But on 27 Feb 1769, a notice appeared in both Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette and Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy (this version of the text from the latter):
This Day Published,
(Price Eight Pence, covered in blue Paper,)
And sold by Ezekiel Russell, at the New Printing-
Office, a few Doors Northward of Concert-Hall,
Hanover-Street: The
MISER:
Or, The
Soldier’s Humour.
A
COMEDY
Of Three Acts,
Never Before Printed:
By WILLIAM CLARKE, of the 29th Regiment.
Non possum placeto Omnibus.
Ezekiel Russell and his wife Sarah were printers who had no newspaper in pre-Revolutionary Boston but kept busy printing two other things: crowd-pleasing ballads about recent events and whatever authors or sponsors were willing to pay for. Isaiah Thomas, who worked briefly for Ezekiel Russell as a runaway apprentice in 1766, had little praise for the shop’s publications in his history of printing.

But the Russels actually issued a lot of interesting material—they were bold or desperate enough to take chances. Ezekiel Russell was the printer, though not the publisher, of the Censor magazine supporting the royal administration in the early 1770s. The Russells issued Phillis Wheatley’s first proposal for a collection of poems and James Swan’s argument to abolish slavery. They partnered with Joseph Greenleaf when he decided to go into printing. They published the disabled young almanac-maker Daniel George and the female poets Hannah Wheaton and Jenny Fenno.

And the Russells evidently published Pvt. William Clarke’s comedy, The Miser, exactly as proposed in December 1768. Clarke must have raised enough money through Elisha Brown and other people passing out his broadside proposal (no doubt printed at the Russell shop, not in the Manufactory). Maybe the customers were British military gentlemen—that seems more likely than Bostonians investing in an unproduced play by a soldier.

It’s still a mystery how Elisha Brown came to be soliciting advance orders for Clarke. I suspect an important factor is that, just as Clarke was an unusual redcoat with literary ambitions, Brown wasn’t a typical Boston craftsman. I believe the Browns were English by birth, bringing their weaving skills to Massachusetts. Elisha Brown might therefore have been more open to working with a soldier and peddling a play than the sons of Puritans.

Unfortunately, no copies of The Miser are known to have survived. That comedy wasn’t the end of Pvt. William Clarke’s literary ambitions, however, or of his adventures in Boston. It looks like he’ll play a notable role in Serena Zabin’s upcoming book Occupying Boston: An Intimate History of the Boston Massacre.

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