“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.

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