Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.
The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?
The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.
This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows
This image of the title page to William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream reads, “A Midsommer Nights Dreame, As it hath beene sundry times publikely acted, by the Right Honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants.” Below the title, the printer and date are identified as James Roberts, 1600, but this is a misrepresentation. Although 1600 was the first date of publication of the play, this image is of the title page of a second edition, printed in 1619 by William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier. Jaggard ran the printing shop that had been founded by James Roberts, and his edition was an unauthorized printing that upset Shakespeare’s playing company, the King’s Men. The company asked the king to order the immediate ban of publication of their works by other parties. Jaggard continued to publish the play, however, by using the date of the first edition to sell it as old stock. Notably, William Jaggard had previously printed an unauthorized collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1599 under the title The Passionate Pilgrim. As was customary in Elizabethan publishing, Jaggard retained copyright as publisher, and no profits of the sale went to Shakespeare or his company.
The Jaggard printing from 1619 was later used as the publisher’s copy for the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1623 First Folio. Shakespeare’s plays were published in a number of early editions. The first single-play copies were published as “quartos,” so called because pieces of paper were folded in four to make the pages. The first collection of all of the plays—the First Folio—was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death by John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King’s Men who would have known Shakespeare. Their edition was published in the larger “folio” format, with the paper folded in two, and it contained the 36 plays generally accepted as Shakespeare’s. The first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1600 had contained few errors or corruptions, but the second quarto by Jaggard in 1619 contained many errors. When Heminges and Condell put together the First Folio, they used a corrected copy of the second quarto as the text for this play. Because of their knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays, they could make the First Folio more accurate than either of the previous quartos. The First Folio is particularly important because it covers the full body of Shakespeare’s work. Half of the plays in the First Folio, including Macbeth and The Tempest, had never been published before and would have been lost had they not been collected at this time. The 1623 First Folio was also the first licensed printing of the works of Shakespeare.
Among Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the closest example to the Renaissance genre of the masque, and itwas most likely written in the mid-1590s for the occasion of an important wedding. Popular court entertainments, full of music, dancing, and pageantry, masques were written by many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson. A Midsummer Night’s Dream explores romantic desire through the wedding of the mythological royal couple Theseus and Hippolyta, and features four young people of Athens (Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena), a squabble between King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Fairies, and Bottom and his company of actors who are rehearsing a play (Pyramus and Thisby) for the nuptials. The title alludes to the rites of Midsummer’s Eve, but the setting is May Day—a day associated with madness and an appropriate time for young lovers to get swept up into an argument at the fairy court. The themes and characters would have been familiar to the Elizabethan audience: Theseus and Hippolyta are a couple who had appeared in works of Chaucer and Plutarch; Pyramus and Thisby, from the play within a play, had been written of by Chaucer and Ovid; and Oberon was from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.
This copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer library at the Harry Ransom Center. The Pforzheimer library of early English literature comprises 1,100 books and was purchased in 1986. Acquiring this collection was a coup for the Ransom Center because it includes many of the finest examples of the plays, poems, novels, essays, polemical writings, and translations of the most influential English writers from 1475 to 1700. It includes first and important editions of John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, William Congreve, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon. In addition, the Ransom Center’s collections of British and Irish Literature are rich in the publishing, performance, and reception history of Shakespeare. Early editions in the Pforzheimer, Wrenn, and other collections include several quarto plays printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and all four Folio editions, including three copies of the First Folio (1623).
Ransom Center volunteer Sara Childress wrote this post.
By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.
Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.
Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”
Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.
Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.
Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.
Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about Shakespeare’s “life” as currently written. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Shapiro specializes in Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture and is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Cultural Compass spoke with Shapiro about his research, the sparse data on Shakespeare’s early life, and his favorite play.
In your book 1599, you focus on a year in Shakespeare’s life in which he wrote five plays. How did Shakespeare, an actor himself, find the time to write such masterful works?
Shakespeare somehow managed to finish Henry V, write As You Like It and Julius Caesar in quick succession, and draft Hamlet in the course of that year. He seemed to have written plays in inspired bursts. The pressure of drawing audiences to his company’s new theater, The Globe, must have had something to do with it as well in 1599. But we do well to remember that playwrights turned out plays then fairly quickly. Thomas Dekker either wrote or collaborated on ten plays that same year. How Elizabethan playwrights did it without caffeine—neither coffee nor tea were available yet in England—makes that achievement even more remarkable.
With relatively little information to work with from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s life, how do you piece together his life?
It takes time—and patience. I started working on 1599 in 1988 and didn’t publish it until 2005. I started another year book—on 1606, the year of King Lear and Macbeth, five years ago—and don’t expect to finish it until 2016. Slowly but surely, over time, and with enough dogged research, the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together. It can get frustrating—and happily it’s not the only project I work on at one time, or I’d go mad.
In several interviews you have hinted that biographers of Shakespeare are drifting toward fiction in their work. What amount of theory do you think is appropriate in a biography? Where is the line?
Well, that’s the subject of my talk on “Unravelling Shakespeare’s Life.” So come to the talk [or watch the live webcast] where I’ll address this—and will answer any questions you might have after. It’s less about theory than fantasy and invention, what biographers have to supply when the facts of the life, especially the inner life, haven’t survived.
You said that you hated Shakespeare in grade school. What changed your mind?
What changed my mind was seeing terrific productions. I spent a lot of time backpacking overseas in my teens and twenties and ended up spending a good deal of that time in England, where it was possible to see extraordinary actors taking on Shakespeare. I was hooked. Over the course of a decade I may have seen 80 or 100 productions of Shakespeare’s plays—and much of what I know of Shakespeare derives from those formative experiences. I never did take a college class on Shakespeare, though that’s what I teach these days. I also spend a lot of time now working with theater companies and helping to train teachers to teach through performance.
Do you have a favorite play?
Usually the one I’ve seen most recently, onstage or at the movies. The recent and brilliant film by Ralph Fiennes of Coriolanus has made me want to spend more time with that often overlooked tragedy.