“Archives, Numbers, Meaning:” A Coda

Cross-posted at…


In our 2016 essay, “Archives, Numbers, Meaning: The Eighteenth-Century Playbill at Scale,” we presented a quantitative analysis of over 1,400 archival playbills from mid-eighteenth-century London (you can download our data here). Our analysis showed that in this period, the seemingly empty designation “a Play” functioned as a marker of mixed and sometimes indeterminate genre. As an example, we examined playbills for thenumerous theatrical adaptations of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko that proliferated in this period:

“Over the course of the eighteenth century this novella was adapted to the London and Edinburgh stages at least six times, advertised variously as a tragedy, a tragicomedy, and “a Play.” This case study reveals that eighteenth-century theatrical publics had an idiom, previously unrecognized by scholars, for talking about generic ambiguity and even using it to market performances. Oroonoko and other plays that similarly challenged conventional generic and authorial categorization were often advertised as “a Play,” a seemingly empty label that is revealed to carry significance when these playbills are subjected to quantitative analysis.” (599)

Last month, Mattie conducted further archival research at the British Library (thanks to the generous support of the Center for Women and Gender at Utah State University) that has borne out some of the claims that we made in that article.

One of the items she saw at the BL is a scrapbook of theatrical materials collected by Sir Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852-1896), an actor and dramatist who, in the 1870s, took on the project of bringing back the abandoned Drury Lane theater — earning him the nickname “Druriolanus” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). In his short life, Harris collected 45 volumes of playbills and six volumes of newspaper clippings, donating the latter collection to the British Library in 1888.

Scrapbooking was a common practice, not only among theater professionals like Harris but among theatergoers and enthusiasts; as Sharon Marcus notes, the practice of clipping theatrical advertisements, news items, and reviews had its roots in early modern commonplacing and was popular over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (287). Many scrapbookers preserved ephemera from their own playgoing, but in this case Harris also attempted to compile a history of the London theaters a century earlier, primarily through cuttings of newspaper advertisements for performances.

Newspapers began carrying theater advertisements regularly in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Early notices were minimal and directed readers to the “great bills” (broadside playbills posted around town) for additional information; gradually the newspaper ads became more detailed, recording cast lists, entr’acte entertainments, benefit announcements, and other selling features of a given performance.

[1720]  Not Acted this Season,  For the Benefit of Mr. Pack.  By the Company of Comedians,  At the Theatre in Little Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, this present Tuesday, being the 6th Day of December, will be presented a Comedy, call’d The Amorous Widow; or, The Wanton Wife. The part of Barnaby Brittle to be perform’d by Mr. Pac. With Entertainments of Dancing by Mons. Dupre, Mr. Newhouse, Mr. Cook, Mr. Sandham and his Son, Mrs. Hutton, Mrs. Bullock, and Miss Francis.  [1720]  By the Company of Comedians,  At the Theatre in Little Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, to Morrow being Wednesday, the 7th Day of December, will be presented a Play, call’d OROONOKO. The Part of Oroonoko by Mr. Ryan. With several Entertainments of Musick to be performe’d by Two Germans lately arriv’d, who imitate the French Horn and Trumpet with their Natural Voices, in all their different Parts: And also several other Entertainments of Vocal Musick.

Reproduced with permission from British Library General Reference Collection Th.Cts.6.

Volume 6 of Harris’s collection of clippings (dated October 1719 to August 1736 on the binding) includes 21 separate ads for Oroonoko performances between 1719 and 1723. The examples below are taken from Harris’ scrapbook; Harris must have clipped them from the Daily Post or the Daily Courant, the two papers that carried such advertisements during the 1719-20 theatrical season (The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part 2, Volume 2, page 547). As the juxtaposition of these two ads suggests, the phrase “a Play” occupies the same space in the advertisement for Oroonoko that the phrase “a Comedy” occupies in that for The Amorous Widow.


Without exception, the 21 advertisements tout performances of “a Play, call’d, OROONOKO,” language that mirrors that which we found in playbills from later decades. These advertisements expand the archive of our earlier study to documents beyond playbills and broaden the time period to the earlier part of the eighteenth century. They demonstrate that the practice of using “a Play” as generic appellation in theater publicity (and notably, in advertisements for Oroonoko) dates back decades before the earliest items in our playbills dataset.

Before the pages of advertisements, the scrapbook begins with a detailed index of play titles labeled “1719-20”, which includes the following entry for Oroonoko:

“Oroonoko‡.Tragedy ^A Play by Southern. Drury.  ‡ First produced at the same house in 1696. It was from the first highly successful, + long remained popular.”

Reproduced with permission from British Library General Reference Collection Th.Cts.6.

“Oroonoko‡.Tragedy ^A Play by Southern. Drury.

‡ First produced at the same house in 1696. It was from the first highly successful, + long remained popular.”

Not once do Harris’s newspaper sources designate Oroonoko a tragedy, yet he has written “Tragedy,” crossed it out, and inserted the superscript words “A Play” — reaffirming our conviction that “a Play” serves as a designation of genre previously unrecognized as such by theater scholars.

Furthermore, this entry and its revision suggests how the term “a Play” was mobilized and re-mobilized in British theatrical culture as a generic marker. Harris signals the accreted history of the adaptation and re-adaptation of Behn’s novella first as a tragic play with a comic subplot and later as a straight tragedy. Harris’ move to strike out “Tragedy” reverses the typical temporality of the palimpsest. Though “Tragedy” — a later generic designation — is visible beneath the strike-through, it is “a Play” — the designation from earlier adaptation — that emerges from its erasure to sustain the resonance of Oroonoko’s complicated generic life on stage.

Taken together, these advertisements establish the broader practice of using “a Play” as generic appellation in newspaper ads (which go hand in hand with playbills) going back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, while Harris’ emended index points to the continued resonance of the appellation well into the nineteenth century. These archival findings, then, affirm our previous conclusions based on our quantitative analysis and suggest how computational and archival work may be brought together in an iterative process.


BH and DH: Book History and Digital Humanities Conference CFP

BH and DH: Book History and Digital Humanities

September 22-24, 2017 | Madison, Wisconsin
web: http://www.wiscprintdigital.org/conferences/

Call for Individual Papers and Complete/Partial Panels

Proposals due to printculture@slis.wisc.edu<mailto:printculture@slis.wisc.edu> by April 15, 2017
Decision Notification by May 15, 2017

Organizers: Jonathan Senchyne, Heather Wacha, Mark Vareschi
Questions to: printculture@slis.wisc.edu

Keynote Lecture: Matthew Kirschenbaum, Professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination and Track Changes A Literary History of Word Processing.


Often celebrated and criticized as the next big thing in humanist research and teaching, “the digital humanities” get a lot of press for shaking up the way things are done. But is “dh” a continuation of some of the most “traditional” scholarly work in the humanities: bibliography, textual criticism, and book history? This conference, convened by the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aims to study how digital humanities grows out book history, how “bh” and “dh” continue to be mutually informative and generative, and how also they contradict each other.

In Mechanisms (MIT 2008), Matthew Kirschenbaum brings together the methods of digital forensics and book history, noting that his study of the inscription of data on hard drives “draws heavily from bibliography and textual criticism, which are scholarly fields dedicated to the study of books as physical objects and the reconstruction and representation of texts from multiple versions and witnesses.” D.F. McKenzie, Kirschenbaum reminds us, similarly emphasized the continuities rather than the ruptures between studying manuscript, print, and electronic media, remarking in his Panizzi lectures: “I define ‘texts’ to include verbal, visual, oral, and numeric data in the form of maps, prints, and music, of archives of recorded sound, of films, videos, and any computer-stored information.” Criticizing the politics of the field in the digital pages of the LA Review of Books<https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/#!&gt;, Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia argued that “to understand the politics of the Digital Humanities, it is necessary to understand the context from which it emerged. One crucial point of origin, rarely remarked in discussions of the subject, is in the literary studies subfield known as ‘textual studies’ …. [in] two broadly defined forms…. ‘book history’….[and] ‘textual criticism.’” This conference is an occasion to think broadly and provocatively about fields and formats – to trace these genealogies and debate their meaning, to think about what difference it makes to position the hand written or printed word on a continuum with digital inscription rather than insisting the latter is a clean break from the former, and to broaden views about whose labor – intellectual and physical – makes all kinds of reading, writing, and scholarship possible.

The organizers welcome proposals for papers, entire panels, partial panels (to be filled in with individual paper submissions), posters, or other forms of presentation from scholars and practitioners in all fields that have claim to these questions: literature, history, religious studies, librarianship, information studies, area and ethnic studies, computer science, feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, digital studies, library and information science, art history, preservation, forensics, curation, archival practice, and more.

Topics may include (but are certainly not limited to):

* Book as technology
* The relationships between and among librarians, technologists, and humanities faculty and students
* The making of digital bibliographies, catalogs, and archives out of analog ones (and librarian, largely women information laborers)
* Histories of digitization (and/or of microfilm, other storage and transmission media)
* What happens to the “traditional humanities” vs. “digital humanities” antagonism when we see the latter as a continuation or inheritor of book history?
* Critical Race Studies in BH and DH and the critiques of both from African American studies, postcolonial studies, and Native American studies
* digital remediation of manuscript, print, and books
* Histories of particular institutions that connect BH and DH such as the American Library Association, the UVA English Dept, the William Blake Archive.
* Printing history and digital humanities (e.g. understanding circumstances of production key to OCR, etc)
* Importance of labor to create metadata, reference books, accumulate information – what kind of labor is acceptable, privileged, valuable?
* Quantitative methods in Book History (esp. Annales school, French/Continental tradition) and continuity with digital humanities methods
* Bibliographical methods in Book History and continuity with digital humanities methods
* How has DH dealt with/expanded what “reading” means and how is this connected to book history’s approach to history of reading?
* BH and DH methods for studying group reading, collaborative reading and writing, institutions of reading, reading “against the grain”, readers as writers, etc.
* Encoding the physical book – how to make computers understand and display what book historians care about
* DH and BH and the collecting/accumulating/”cabinet of curiosities” tradition; media archaeology
* history of information organization/data collection as part of history of science, book history and digital humanities, structures of digital and pre-digital information
* web archiving and preservation of information about readers and texts in the present
* And more. We welcome an expansive, capacious, and argumentative field for this conference!

Other relevant details:

Affordable (below market) accommodations are available in a reserved block of rooms at an on-campus hotel on a first-come first-served basis. We offer a reasonable registration fee on a sliding scale, especially to keep fees very low for graduate students and adjuncts. Information about accommodations and registration will circulate with panel/paper acceptances. While on campus, attendees will be able to experiment in the CHPDC’s “Text Technologies Press,” a full service hands on letterpress shop, and the iSchool’s “RADD: Recovering Analogue and Digital Data” center, a media archaeology lab for personal archiving of endangered media formats. In the past, conference goers have made productive research use of materials in the Special Collections department in Memorial Library and the vast holdings of the Wisconsin Historical Society while on campus.

Participants will be invited to submit edited and expanded papers for possible inclusion in a volume within our series<https://uwpress.wisc.edu/series/history-print-digital-culture.html&gt; at the UW Press.


Archives, Numbers, Meaning: The Eighteenth-Century Playbill at Scale

Just out from Theatre Journal, co-written with Mattie Burkert (Utah State University), our article on 18-c playbills and data mediation.

Archives, Numbers, Meaning: The Eighteenth-Century Playbill at Scale


Frankenstein, Robocop, Big Data in the news

The Fall 2016 issue of Badger Insider has a very nice write up of my English 178, FrankensteinRobocop, Big Data course. The article doesn’t seem to be online yet, but here’s a photo of the print article by Niki Denison.



Mark Vareschi ~ Assistant Professor  ~ Department of English  ~ University of Wisconsin – Madison – e-mail

My current book project, Everywhere and Nowhere: Anonymity and Mediation in Eighteenth-Century England considers the ubiquity and near invisibility of both anonymity and mediation in the publication and circulation of literature. Anonymous authorship was typical and therefore everywhere; James Raven, for example, has shown that 80% of new novels from 1750- 1790 were published anonymously. However, because anonymity is largely characterized as absence, it was also nowhere. So, too, has anonymity been consigned to “nowhere” in literary studies. Literary critics and literary historians have been generally unable to account for anonymity as anything more than a footnote or curiosity.