Folger manuscripts W.b.110 and W.b.111 are an oddly mis-matched pair. W.b.110 is nearly 46cm tall (almost 18 inches, for those playing along at home) and nearly 160 leaves, while W.b.111 is a good 10cm shorter and about a third the length. But both have nearly identical titles in our catalog: “Bills and receipts for the wardrobe, stage properties, writings and printing” (W.b.111 adds that they were “used in productions of Shakespearean and other plays” but the same is true of the contents of W.b.110 as well).
Both volumes cover the theatrical seasons for the mid 1710s at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and together they provide a fascinating look into the wide variety of objects, processes, and people that went into a professional theatre production in the early 18th century. They are, of course, not without problems and caveats: one of the Associate Name headings on both of the catalog records is “Halliwell-Phillipps, J. O. (James Orchard), 1820-1889, former owner.” This should be setting off alarm bells for quite a few readers right now.
W.b.110 and W.b.111 are, indeed, two Halliwell-Phillipps scrapbooks: documents gathered together (and sometimes deliberately ripped apart) by this 19th century antiquarian and literary scholar, and compiled for posterity with more or less organization and deliberation. These two volumes definitely fall into the “less” category, as there are few discernable organizing principles and some bills that are clearly related are pasted into completely different places in the volumes (such as laundry bills, which were divided into men’s and women’s clothing but were billed in one total).
Still, bearing in mind the artificial non-organization of these bills, many interesting and informative tidbits can be gleaned from even a brief look at them. For a much more comprehensive look at these bills see Judith Milhous’s article, “Dates and Redatings for 141 Theatrical Bills from Drury Lane, 1713-1716”.1
For me, one of the most interesting finds were twenty-three bills “for Printing” scattered throughout the two volumes. Caroline has already looked at Drury Lane’s own in-house print shop from about a century later, but these bills show that, at least in the early 18th century, much of the advertising printing was sent out. The twenty-three surviving bills certainly represent only a fraction of the printing costs that the theatre incurred in a season, but do seem to give a nice representative spread for the time period January 1714 to May 1716 (which would be two and a half theatrical seasons). The spread also provides some interesting economic information: since the bills are relatively consistent in what is being printed—advertisments (probably in the form of playbills) for the shows for the week and daily adverts in the London Daily Courant—it is possible to see how much the cost of printing went up over about two years.
In a related vein, one of my favorite bills is one “For Writing” in a predictably lovely hand. Though unnamed, Judith Milhous asserts that it is the hand of James Wright, who performed his services for the theatre at other times as well—we can see why! (Milhous also points out that the “February 18, 1714” that was added in a later hand (JOH-P’s?) should actually read 1714/15, based on the plays mentioned.)2
The names that appear on these bills are also fascinating. The signatures of Robert Wilks, Colley Cibber, and Barton Booth appear on nearly all of the bills—for very good reason. At the end of the 1709 season, Drury Lane was closed by the Lord Chamberlain in response to complaints against the then-manager Christopher Rich. The theatre was reopened for the 1709-1710 season, but had a couple of rocky years. Finally, for the 1711-1712 season, a “triumvirate” of actor-managers took over: Wilks, Cibber, and Thomas Doggett. They agreed that to minimize monetary disputes, all three of them needed to sign off on bills before they were paid. In 1713, however, the Lord Chamberlain (likely under pressure from Booth’s patron, Lord Bolingbroke) ordered that Booth be added as one of the managers. Doggett then “stalked out in a huff,” leaving a new triumvirate of managers. Wilks, Cibber, and Booth kept the same arrangement regarding the bills, and moreover, carefully kept all of the bills in anticipation of a lawsuit from Doggett, who was expected to try to claim a portion of the theatre’s profits.3
Other names are also scattered about the bills. Names of the people providing the goods and services to the theatre are frequently seen. Two names in particular caught my eye: those of Sarah Norris and Mary Kirkham. Both of these women appear on multiple bills throughout the two volumes, but what really caught my eye is that they’re most often found at the bottom of the bills, signing (or possibly countersigning?) with the triumvirate.
Sarah Norris’s name appears on bills related to wardrobe expenses—which supports the idea that she was one of the wardrobe mistresses for Drury Lane at this time period. So, despite working for the theatre, she would still submit specific bills documenting her work. (She is not alone in this practice: there are a number of bills from the prompter—what we would now call a stage manager—as well, and even one from Booth himself!)
Mary Kirkham’s position is a bit more difficult to figure out. Her signature appears on the bills for the oil and candles that provided the light in the building. In fact, it appears on over forty such bills in this collection! Which makes sense as both types of fuel were delivered to the theatre on a weekly basis. Highfill’s Biographical Dictionary of Actors and Actresses… (a critical—but problematic—resource for theatrical history) has the following to say about Kirkham: “Mary Kirkham is named occasionally in the Drury Lane accounts at the FSL, but it is not clear what her position was in the theatre, or indeed, if she was actually on the theatre staff. But she seems to have been a house servant about 1715.” However, as I have been surveying this subset of these bills, I’m growing more and more skeptical about the claim of “house servant”. I will need to do a lot more digging and investigating to try to sort out what Kirkham’s actual position might have been, so stay tuned for a follow-up.
The property bills (that’s stage properties, as in props) in this collection are a real goldmine for anyone interested in the technical/staging aspects of 18th century theatre. They show both items that were purchased for the theatre to have on hand to be used as needed, and also consumable goods and once-in-a-while “rentals.”
Consumable items often included things such as cut flowers, which would certainly wilt after a few days, or items that were literally consumed, such as tea or candles. They also included items that would be used for stage effects, such as blood (I’m guessing something like pig’s blood from a butcher?):
Other productions, like Julius Caesar and The Tempest required a lightning effect. I haven’t managed to figure out yet what might have been used (if anyone has any thoughts on what would be used to create a lightning effect, I’d love to hear it!):
In the “rentals” category, musical instruments appear not infrequently, such as this bill from April 21, 1716, which records “the use of a guitar”:
Combining the information found on this bill with that found in The London Stage (a key reference work for 18th and 19th century theatrical performances, which has now been turned into a searchable database) and Highfill’s Biographical Dictionary tells us that the “Mr Sorin” who was using said guitar was likely the dancer Joseph Sorin. He, along with his partner Richard Baxter, had their benefit night at Drury Lane on Friday April 20, 1716; the night included an unnamed dance piece, an Italian(?) pantomime (which seems to have been Sorin’s specialty) called “La Guinquette,” and a performance of Congreve’s The Old Bachelor.
Using these bills in conjunction with other theatrical history resources, like the ones just mentioned, can help us enrich our understanding of the complexity of 18th century theatre. Judith Milhous demonstrated this beautifully in her article “The First Production of Rowe’s ‘Jane Shore'” (Theatre Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Oct., 1986), pp. 309-321).
And sometimes, it gives us a window into the weird and wacky world of the theatre. Haven’t you always wanted a monkey?
- Judith Milhous, “Dates and Redatings for 141 Theatrical Bills from Drurpy Lane, 1713-1716,” (The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Fourth Quarter, 1985), pp. 499-521).
- Milhous, “Dates and Redating,” p. 510.
- Batty, Mark. 2004 “Booth, Barton (1681–1733), actor.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 9 Jan. 2019. and Milhous, “Dates and Redating,” p. 500.