The Lord Chamberlain's Plays

Published: 23 March 2009
Reporter: Peter Lathan

The Loves of Arcadia

Jacky Bratton, Professor of Theatre and Cultural History from the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently completed a joint project with the British Library.

Over the last three years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Resource Enhancement Scheme has funded Professor Bratton and her Research Assistants Dr Laurie Garrison, Dr Caroline Radcliffe and Dr Kate Mattacks, working with Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, to create more than 2,500 new electronic catalogue entries for manuscripts of the Lord Chamberlain's Plays collection.

Between 1737 and 1968, the Lord Chamberlain's office licensed and retained a copy of every play newly performed in London and later throughout the provinces as well. Due to the ephemeral nature of play scripts, particularly during the Victorian era, the collection is filled with unique manuscripts that offer an invaluable insight into nearly two hundred years of theatre history.

The majority of the playscripts entered were previously unpublished and many were in French, while almost all were in difficult varieties of Victorian handwriting. However, despite the staggering number entered, these 2,500 entries only cover the decade from 1852 to 1863 of the collection held by the British Library, with thousands more remaining to be read and brought back to life.

The entries are unique in the British Library's catalogues as they include keywords, in addition to the standard information about titles, the author, where the play was put on and whether it was ever printed. This is a departure for the British Library, and one which required hours of dedication, since every play had not only to be noted, but also read through.

Following the project, anyone interested in the social and political history of the period 1852-63 can make use of the plays put on in London as primary sources for contemporary ideas and attitudes. Comedies, melodramas and pantomimes can reveal a lot about scandals such as the garrotting scare, episodes like the moustache craze and Bloomerism. So too does the rage for Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was dramatised all over town; and the many versions of the sensational play The Corsican Brothers can now be traced in detail, and its history corrected.

Professor Bratton said, "I am delighted to have had the opportunity to work with the British Library on this project. The Lord Chamberlain's Plays have been an intriguing source of unique texts ever since I first became interested in the Victorian period, but like everyone else I have always thought there must be so much more to find if one only knew where to look and how to search through them."

She added, "We have made a brave beginning on opening the plays up, and the British Library is now very much more aware of them too. I hope to follow this up with a new research project bringing some of the texts to the Royal Holloway website and into live performance over the next two years."

For more information about the Lord Chamberlain's Plays or the Collection, visit the web site.