Holding the Manuscript, Pining the Actress: A Special Guest Blog by Robert W Jones

20 July 2016

History | Literature

Dr Robert W Jones is a Senior Lecturer in English at University of Leeds, UK. Dr Jones has spent much time working with the Larpent plays housed at the Huntington Library, all of which are included in Adam Matthew's Eighteenth Century Drama collection.

In 2009, supported by an Andrew W Mellon Foundation Fellowship, I spent a month at the Huntington Library. My intention was to research how eighteenth-century plays were translated from manuscript into performance and later print. My focus was the Larpent manuscripts, the play scripts submitted to the examiner of plays prior to their production.

 

Sarah Siddons, one of the most prolific actresses of the eighteenth century. Image © the Garrick Club Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

My expectation was that they would be presentable documents of the kind appropriate for the censor’s eye. The manuscript of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (LA383), prepared at Covent Garden in 1775, was, though a bit battered, a carefully-prepared, legible document. Other manuscripts were more surprising. Crossings out were extensive. The manuscript was a mess of layers. Nor was it possible to attribute the excisions and seemingly irate cancellations to the censor. These wasn’t much evidence of his involvement at all. The manuscripts revealed instead a collective effort to prepare a play for performance.

One of the many edited pages of Fielding's The Fathers. Image Â© the Huntington Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

The much-altered manuscript of Henry Fielding’s comedy The Fathers (LA461; performed at Drury Lane in 1778) is a case in point. The preface to the print edition expressed gratitude to ‘the liberal and friendly assistance of Mr. Sheridan’ but several people had helped rewrite the text. The cumulative effect was to endow the manuscript with a sense of work in progress. I was looking at process; and holding a key tool used in that work. What was really striking was the volume, almost bulk, that some manuscripts possessed. Lines had not only been removed, but added.

Some of the additions were on smaller sheets carefully inserted, their place secured by dabs of sealing wax. These could be carefully folded out. Sometimes the new material met with the approval not just of the actors, but the play’s author and duly appeared in the print edition. On other occasions the additional lines existed only in the Larpent.

The manuscript of Elizabeth Griffith’s comedy The Times (LA499) contained all these possibilities, revealing the successive efforts of Drury Lane personnel to make it work as theatre.

A heavily edited page from The Times. Image © the Huntington Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

By far the most striking example was the manuscript of the Shakespeare forgery Vortigern (LA1110) performed to much mockery in 1799. As with The Times, Drury Lane staff had laboured to make a wooden script work. Crossings out abounded; new text was devised and glued in. The censor had made a few interventions, fearful that Vortigern’s themes of betrayal and invasion might resonate with contemporary events.

More captivating still was the evidence of human presence. In Act III Edmunda laments: ‘Last Whit Sunday they brought me/Roses and lilies fair’. Fixed to the script with a pin is a memorandum reading: ‘If Mrs Siddons does not sing this song – it will be necessary to insert a line to introduce the person who is to sing it’. The note might be for a co-worker, or simply a reminder to self.

The note from Act III of Vortigern that references Sarah Siddons. Image © the Huntington Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Either way, it indicated a practical response to a particular, perhaps pressing issue. Mrs Siddons did not perform the song; in fact she was not in the production. The role of Edmunda went to Jane Powell but the song was taken by Elizabeth Leak, a younger actress and a better singer. The memo and its pin, so carefully threaded through, provide a window on the work and personal relationships at the heart of theatrical work, bringing it alive across a great distance of time. At the same time they give the manuscript a tangible bulkiness, another testimony to labour.

The plays featured in this blog will be available to access for 30 days.

Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Robert W Jones

Dr Robert W Jones is a Senior Lecturer in English at University of Leeds, UK. He has written essays and articles on several aspects of eighteenth-century art and culture, including a study of the manuscripts of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 'The School for Scandal'. His current project is a book length study of theatre and politics in the late eighteenth-century entitled 'The Theatre of Richard Brinsley Sheridan: Drury Lane, Politics and Performance 1775-1787'.

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