We had one answer right on the money for this July’s Crocodile Mystery—each of the images featured evidence of lost plays. The first image is a scrap from the Henslowe papers, recording a payment for John Day for the third part of The Blind Beggar. The second image shows a payment for the performance of Sir John Oldcastle (probably not the one spuriously attributed to Shakespeare, but a later play) before the King and Queen on March 12, 1630/1. The texts of these plays and many more have been lost. What little we know of them are traces such as these: receipts, descriptions of performances, lists of publications, diaries, letters, and fragments of parts. They have been gathered together by scholars in the Lost Plays Database, a repository for all the traces of plays that we’ve lost since the early modern period.
What is the Lost Plays Database?
This major clearing house for early modern theatrical information has recently found a new home at the Folger. Edited by Roslyn Knutson, David McInnis, and Matthew Steggle, the Lost Plays Database is an open-access forum for information about lost plays from England that were originally written and performed between 1570 and 1642. As Andrew Borlik said in a 2014 review of the project, “Lost plays are to early modern drama what dark matter is to physics.” We can explore them by the gravitational pull they exert on surviving plays, and through the traces they’ve left behind, whether fragments or reports by audience members. As Roslyn Knutson argues, “Lost plays are the new ‘found’ in early modern studies. Formerly considered ‘repertorial chaff’ or ‘filler’ if mentioned at all, lost plays have proved to redefine the theatrical marketplace in Shakespeare’s time.” David McInnis points out that “Our picture of the English Renaissance theater (c. 1570 – 1642) has been shaped exclusively by the plays that were printed and have survived, but at least 744 plays have been lost or exist only in manuscript fragments—and that’s just from the London commercial theaters alone.” The Lost Plays Database, or the LPD, provides a place to gather evidence and shape a fuller picture of the world of early modern drama.
Lost Plays (Database) at the Folger
Supporting the Lost Plays Database closely aligns with the Folger’s goals to foster projects that preserve and promote elements of early modern culture, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama, and indeed, Shakespeare’s works. We have early printed examples of Shakespeare’s known plays … all except two. Love’s Labour’s Won, the sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost, exists only in references. Frances Meres describes it as one of Shakespeare’s great comedies in Palladis Tamia (1598), and a bookseller named Christopher Hunt shipped at least one copy to Exeter sometime between 1603 and 1607. The entry in the Lost Plays Database for the lost Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration Cardenio features an audio recording (made on modern copies of historical instruments) of the surviving song from that play. If you find a copy of either of these plays, do let us know, won’t you?
As part of the move to its new home, the Lost Plays Database has gotten a bit of a facelift. If you’re familiar with the previous version, hosted by the University of Melbourne, you’ll notice some updates to the layout and design. Under the hood, we’re also working towards reshaping the database to make it easy to discover and analyze information about these plays. Come explore the new (to us!) Lost Plays Database, and let us know what you think!