It’s time to pull back the curtain on last week’s crocodile mystery: that weird woven material is a close-up photograph of the cover of a promptbook! Both commenters who took a guess last week came pretty close.
This particular promptbook was used during an 1838 production of Woman’s wit, or, love’s disguises at the Tremont Theatre in Boston, probably by an actor named Thomas Barry, who performed in New York and Boston during the mid-19th century.
This book is a great example of how stage directions traveled from prompter to prompter, and from stage to stage: on the fourth page, an inscription reads: “Correctly marked from the Covent Garden Prompt Book by D.A. Sarzedas-Prompter, Tremont Theatre, Boston. Octr. 25th 1838, Property of Thos. Barry”. None of its annotations offer any insight into whether its coarse cloth cover was a stylistic or pragmatic choice, though.
Very few of our promptbooks are bound in cloth; we also have a handful of others formally bound in leather. The majority of our promptbooks are exclusively paper products. Many of them are based on published “acting editions”; these then were heavily altered with annotations, interleaved pages, pasted-in stage diagrams, and more. Some acting editions were even disbound and pasted onto larger sheets of paper to allow more space for notes. Many promptbooks also include newspaper clippings, playbills, and extra pages of notes tucked in, as you can see in some of the examples below.
A smaller subset of our promptbooks are unpublished typescripts, put together specially for stage productions (for instance, play text is printed only on the recto of each leaf, leaving the verso blank for annotations and stage directions). Most of these date to the late 19th or early 20th century, aligning with the increasing commercial availability of typewriters.
Recently, I’ve begun working on improving the catalog records for modern (post-1830) promptbooks. Almost all of the items in our promptbook collection have records in Hamnet, but some are only brief records transferred from catalog cards, while others have a wealth of detail trapped in free-text fields that is not easy to parse. Additionally, our approach to cataloging the promptbooks has evolved over time. For a while, we cataloged each promptbook as though it was just another copy of an acting edition with a lot of marginalia. This discounts a lot of the preparatory work that goes into the altered play text, however—at what point should the altered text be considered a distinct “edition”?
We then decided to treat each promptbook as a unique item, and catalog them not as “copy of the 1878 Samuel French edition of Hamlet, with manuscript promptbook annotations,” but as “promptbook for a production of Hamlet, marked for Ophelia, at the Lyceum Theatre, 1878.” When a promptbook is based on a published play text, we still note the base text, of course—but by treating it as a unique object, we can emphasize the purpose of the promptbook, and provide improved access to its distinctive features. As with much of our cataloging documentation, you can read more about it on Folgerpedia.