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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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeing Early Plays at the Boston Public Library

Earlier this month, Jay Moschella of the Boston Public Library tweeted news of the library’s ongoing project to digitize its sterling collection of early British drama. So I took a look.

More than 350 playbooks have been digitized and can now be read through archive.org. To find those items, follow this link to the B.P.L. catalogue. Then click on “More Search Options” in the center of the page and when the window opens choose “Boston Public Library - Online” at the upper left. Click “Set Search Options” below. Or, if you just want to browse, you can go straight here.

Among the late-eighteenth-century items is a 1771 edition of Nahum Tate’s version of The History of King Lear, first performed in 1681. Tate removed the Fool and finished big with the marriage of Cordelia and Edgar. That became the standard form of the play for the next century or so.

Here’s William Henry’s Ireland’s late-1795 booklet announcing his discovery of various William Shakespeare manuscripts—all of which he had forged. Ireland ran into trouble the next year when he produced an entire play called Vortigern, which was quickly recognized as awful. Ireland’s own literary ambitions weren’t easily quelled, however, so here’s the script of Henry II, proudly credited to “the author of Vortigern.”

There are also many lesser-known plays like this 1778 edition of Thomas Middleton’s A Tragi-Coomodie, called The Witch. And David Garrick’s manuscript of The Jubilee, a play he wrote for a celebration of Shakespeare in 1769. One might think the best way to celebrate Shakespeare would be to perform Shakespeare, but that’s not how Garrick managed that event.

As you can tell, much of the B.P.L.’s early drama collection relates to William Shakespeare. The library owns copies of each of the first four folio editions of his collected works and no fewer than thirteen editions of Hamlet published before 1709. That collection was the basis of a big exhibit last fall.

All of which brings up the question: How did this collection come to Boston, of all places? After all, the same people who founded the city also tried to drive London’s theaters out of business as sinful. Boston’s selectmen discouraged any public theater, even puppet shows, until after the Revolution. Surely those early settlers weren’t secretly keeping a stash of forbidden playbooks!

The answer to that mystery is that these publications were collected by Thomas Pennant Barton, a nineteenth-century diplomat who married a granddaughter of Stamp Act Congress delegate Robert R. Livingston. Barton got obsessed with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He bought practically anything associated with Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, as long as it was in good condition (which means these items are easy to read online).

Four years after Barton’s death in 1869, his widow sold the collection to the Boston Public Library for $34,000. That was less than half of its appraised value. I’m still not sure why she chose to be so generous, and why she chose Boston over New York. (She still lived in New York.) But the result is a fabulous local resource now becoming available for anyone to study worldwide.

(The portrait above is David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough.)


sbh said...

I'd noticed the copy of Ireland's Henry II while looking for material for a Wikipedia article on the play; this one is interesting because it has a note by George Chalmers bound with it discussing a possible production. William Henry Ireland had nothing to do with this publication of Henry II; his father Samuel Ireland put it out in the belief that the author was Shakespeare. Friends dissuaded him from making this claim on the title page; Malone's exposure of the forgery was considered unanswerable, especially combined with the son's confession. (Samuel Ireland did in fact try to answer Malone with a volume claiming that he should have relied on literary taste rather than mundane details of handwriting and orthography to settle the question.) Anyway, Samuel Ireland finally settled for describing the work as by the author of Vortigern (which he still believed to be Shakespeare's) rather than directly claiming Shakespeare's authorship.

Anyway, thanks for the back story on the Boston Public Library's release of these books online; I definitely intend to look through them to see what else they've got.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that comment with more information. I first learned about young Ireland a long time ago, but I recall thinking that his public admission seemed to have more chutzpah than sincere regret. But we can read the whole thing in the B.P.L. collection!