Unravelling the Theatrical Tapestry: A Glimpse into Special Collection’s Rare Books and the Legacy of the Playbill

Written by Megan Hardiman, an undergraduate English Literature student.

Over the last few months, I have been working within the Special Collections team, focusing on material from the Rare Books collection. Here, I was tasked with collecting metadata for over two hundred playbills that advertised performances from 1819-1820 at the Theatre-Royal, Newcastle. From the Shakespearean classics of ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Hamlet’ to the forgotten plays of ‘Bamfylde Moore Carew’, each playbill offered a unique window into Newcastle’s theatre scene.

Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820 with the title 'Mr Young and Mrs Garrick, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'
Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820 [Rare Books, RB 792(4282)]

As a third year English Literature student, I am admittedly an avid theatregoer, and often find myself at Northern Stage or Alphabetti Theatre indulging in upcoming and new material, so to see experimental plays were the heart and soul of the theatre in the 1820s was a pleasant surprise. However, the very nature of the plays has changed significantly, with titles such as “Of Age Tomorrow” and “The Day After the Wedding; Or, a Wife’s First Lesson” seldom featured in contemporary theatre. After reviewing the collection, there were thirty-four different titles that had negative gendered connotations, with some performances featured several times throughout the recorded year. The attached playbill illustrates the relationship between male and female performing bodies. Both Mr Young and Mrs Garrick are advertised as featured actors from London, yet Mr Young plays Hamlet, the fallen hero in Shakespeare’s tragedy, whereas Mrs Garrick is cast as Ophelia, who is driven to suicide as a consequence of Hamlet’s control, and Maria, the principal female role in ‘Of Age To-Morrow’. The playbill, like a time-traveling portal, allowed me to witness the disparity in roles assigned to male and female actors. While Mr. Young graced the tragic heights of fallen heroes, Mrs. Garrick drew the short end of the stick, predominantly featuring in what was deemed a musical farce.

 Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820, with the title 'Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'
Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820 [Rare Books, RB 792(4282)]

Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Hamlet’ was also paired with ‘Ladies at Home; Or, Gentlemen, we can do without you’. This disparate pairing seemed strange at first, and I spent a while scratching my head as to why the company would have done this. After some deliberation, I came to the assumption that it was an opportune moment to trial the new experimental play and measure its success with a large audience. ‘Hamlet’ generally attracted a bigger reception due to its popularity, and this is evident through the notice at the bottom of the item stating, “Nothing under FULL PRICE will be taken”, which suggests that a sell-out audience was likely. This then gave way for the Farce “Ladies at Home” to be aired. Perhaps this was revolutionary, or simply a marketing technique to test the waters of a female cast, but either way the playbills have given scope for a gendered analysis.

 Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820, with the title 'Fazio; or, the Italian Wife's Revenge.'
Page from Play bills and notices, 1770-1820 [Rare Books, RB 792(4282)]

The relationship between the Theatre Royal and gender has inspired me to write a dissertation on the lying-in hospitals around Newcastle, by using the playbills as a portal into the comparative analysis of the presentation of performing female bodies and pregnant women. As seen in the playbill, there were benefit performances for the building of a lying-in hospital, that was completed in 1826 and built opposite the city library. As such, the playbill has become a window into the gendered expectations imposed on both actors and women during the nineteenth century, and I will use the research gathered in Special Collections to inform my third-year dissertation. 

Shakespeare’s Comedy of Twelfth Night

Door No. 12

Reproduction print depicting Duke Orsino first seeing Olivia, from ‘Shakespeare’s Comedy of Twelfth Night or what you will’ (Rare Books, RB822.33 SHA)

The reproduction illustration by W. Heath Robinson is from Act I, Scene I; ‘DUKE. O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first’

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is reference to the twelfth night after Christmas Day (6th January). This is called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany and prior to Shakespeare’s play, had become a day of revelry. Servants often dressed up as their masters, women dressed as men and men as women, and so forth. This Carnivalesque reversal is the basis of the play’s gender confusion-driven plot.

Twelfth Night is a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity. Twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola fears Sebastian is dead and disguises herself as a boy, calls herself Cesario, and takes up service with Duke Orsino, falls in love but can’t do anything about it due to her disguise. Orsino falls in love with a girl called Olivia but rejects him. Orsino sends Viola (Cesario) to Olivia to try and win her round, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Meanwhile Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, is trying to keep order in the house but her uncle Sir Toby Belch and his friends have other ideas. They convince Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him and make him look extremely foolish – Olivia thinks her servant has actually gone mad. When she sees Sebastian, who has survived the shipwreck, she naturally thinks he is Cesario and promptly marries him. Orsino is furious when he finds out but once Viola and Sebastian meet and reveal their true identities there is a happy ending – for everyone but poor Malvolio.

Find out more about the Rare Books Collection.

Shakespeare at the old Theatre Royal – May 2016

Shakespeare performed by Children

May 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Newcastle has played host to the bard’s plays ever since – in more recent times, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed almost annually at the Theatre Royal by the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1977. Unfortunately, they will not be returning in 2016.

Our Theatre Royal Playbills (RB 792 (4282) – NEW) feature many notices for performances of Shakespeare at the old Theatre Royal on Mosley Street between 1770 and 1820, including this one by a Georgian/Victorian theatre sensation and her two sisters.

King Richard The Third playbilll (RB 792 (4282)–NEW).

King Richard The Third playbilll (RB 792 (4282)–NEW).

Clara Fisher (b.14 July 1811, London, died 12 November 1898, Jersey, U.S.) was an Anglo-American actress who inspired an enormous following in the United States. She made her stage debut in 1817, at the age of six, in a children’s adaptation of David Garrick’s Lilliput at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Her performance in that and in excerpts from Richard III captivated the audience. She then began a 10-year period of touring up and down Great Britain, winning popular acclaim in a variety of child’s and adult’s roles.

By the time she and her sisters Amelia and Caroline started their three-night engagement at the Newcastle Theatre Royal on 17 May 1819, Clara would have been only seven years old. On the opening night, she played the leading role in  ‘Shakespeare’s Historical Tragedy, called KING RICHARD THE THIRD; Or, The Battle of Bosworth Field. Clara was known for her ‘breeches parts’ (men’s roles), including Hamlet on at least one occasion. At the Theatre Royal, her sister Amelia was Henry VI, and Henry, Earl of Richmond, was played by Caroline Fisher.

On the second night, she played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and then, on a lighter note, performed ‘A COMIC SONG. (IN CHARACTER)’.

The third, and supposedly final, night was Shakespeare-free.

Such was the success of the Fisher girls’ engagement that they were held over for an extra performance on Friday 21 May, 1819, performing ‘some of the best scenes from the most popular Plays . . .’. This included acts four and five of King Richard the Third, with the sisters reprising their ‘breeches parts’ of the previous Monday.

Fisher went to the United States in 1827 and made her debut in New York City that same year. She was a sensation – her name was given to babies, racehorses, stagecoaches, and steamboats – and she was regarded as America’s leading stage actress. Her last performance was in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1889.

This performance, and about 240 others, is promoted by notices in one volume of our Theatre Royal Playbills collection, a bound collection of ‘posters’ for the ‘old’ Newcastle Theatre Royal in Mosley Street. The bills were printed in 1819 and 1820, and are typical of the early nineteenth century –  i.e. very small compared to the modern-day concept of ‘posters’ –  and utilising revolutionary display typefaces which had begun to be manufactured in about 1810 for advertising.

Fittingly, the bill was printed by Edward Humble, at the Shakespeare Press. Humble was a respected local printer, and a proprietor of the County Durham Advertiser.

If you are interested in coming into the reading room to see playbill and others from the collection…

# This item is held within a volume of our Theatre Royal Playbills (Ref Code RB792(4282) NEW.

# You can place your order by linking to our request form. The reference code and title will be RB 792 (4282) – NEW – Theatre Royal Playbills.’

Henry V – March 2013

Illustration of Henry V
Illustration of Henry V from History of the battle of Agincourt: and the expedition of Henry the Fifth into France, in 1415 by Sir Nicholas, Harris, London, 1833 (White (Robert) Collection, 942.042 NIC)

21st March 2013 marks the 600th anniversary of Henry V’s accession to the English throne. Widely considered to have been an excellent King, Henry is renowned for winning the Battle of Agincourt against the French and his immortalisation in Shakespeare’s play of his life.

Henry V, the eldest son of Henry of Bolingbroke and Mary de Bohun, was born in 1387. In 1399 his father deposed Richard II of England and claimed the throne for himself after the King disinherited him. Richard died soon afterwards (he was very probably murdered in captivity) and Henry was created Prince of Wales at his father’s coronation. Henry and his father were of the House of Lancaster and this seizure of the throne was one of the first acts in the Wars of the Roses, which were to continue until 1485.

Henry showed his military abilities as a teenager, commanding his father’s forces in the Battle of Shrewsbury against Harry Hotspur in 1403. He also spent five years fighting against Owen Glendower’s rebellion in Wales. He was keen to have a role in government and ruled effectively as regent for eighteen months from 1410 when his father was ill. However, once recovered, Henry IV dismissed the prince from his council and reversed most of his policies.

Henry became king in 1413. In 1415,he successfully crushed a conspiracy to put Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, on the throne. Shortly afterwards he sailed for France, which was to be the focus of his attention for the rest of his reign. Henry was determined to regain the lands in France held by his ancestors and laid claim to the French throne. He offered to fight the French Dauphin for the throne in personal combat but was refused. He defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415. The battle was notable for the fact that the English army of no more than 6,000 men defeated the supposedly far superior French army numbering around 20,000.

Between 1417 and 1419 Henry followed up this success with the conquest of Normandy. The French were forced to agree to the Treaty of Troyes in May 142. Henry was recognised as heir to the French throne and married Catherine, the daughter of the French king. Unfortunately, Henry died two months too early to be crowned King of France. He died suddenly, probably of dysentery, on 31st August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes. He was only 35 years old. His nine-month-old son, whom he had never met, succeeded him as Henry VI. It was a dangerous period for a child to be King with rival claimants to the throne everywhere. The following 50 years saw the throne change hands several times and Henry VI’s eventual murder in the Tower of London, reputedly by the princes of the House of York.

Henry V’s reputation is one of a chivalrous warrior but he had another side. Described as a man of conviction, Henry was a well-educated and pious man. He was a lover of art and literature and had a particular interest in liturgical music. He gave pensions to well-known composers of his time, and he ordered a hymn of praise to God, which was sung after Agincourt. From 1417, Henry promoted the use of the English language in government, and was the first king to use English in his personal correspondence since the Norman Conquest.

We have William Shakespeare to thank for forming most people’s opinions of Henry. Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. It forms the fourth part of a tetralogy dealing with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. Written in approximately 1599, it tells the story of King Henry V, focusing on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt. Readers have interpreted the play’s attitude to warfare in several different ways. On one hand, it celebrates Henry’s invasion of France, but it also speaks of anti-war sentiment. Henry is portrayed as a hero but he has invaded a non-aggressive country and killed thousands of people. When Shakespeare wrote the play in the late sixteenth century, Henry was considered to be a hero. Henry VIII aspired to be like him and as a Lancastrian he was idolised by the Tudors. He was a warrior King who could not rule today but in his time he restored national pride to England and became a hero the people admired.

Battle scene illustration from Shakespere's Historical play of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare, Manchester
Image from Shakespere’s Historical play of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare, Manchester, 1872 (19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll. 822.33 SHA(Cal)