Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Admission Prices at the Dorset Garden Theatre: An Analysis of the Duke's Company's Bill for Nell Gwyn's Attendance (1674-1676)

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Admission Prices at the Dorset Garden Theatre: An Analysis of the Duke's Company's Bill for Nell Gwyn's Attendance (1674-1676)

Article excerpt

In a note published by the Harvard Library Bulletin in 1950, William Van Lennep described a manuscript bill presented to Nell Gwyn for her attendance at the Dorset Garden Theatre between September 1674 and November 1676. (1) Van Lennep offered a transcription of its contents, filled in some missing pieces of information, and added some details concerning the nature of the plays seen by Gwyn. The bill is virtually the only source available for information on the plays staged at this time by this company, (2) and is therefore a valuable account of the activities undertaken by Gwyn as a playgoer and by the Duke's Company. Inasmuch as he made it possible for theatre historians to have access to the bill, Van Lennep's note is quite substantial, as its information proved essential in the elaboration of the calendar of theatrical activities for this period, (3) and became a regular reference in The London Stage. In other respects, however, Van Lennep's contribution must be regarded as insufficient: most of the weight is placed on the bill itself, and Van Lennep merely added brief explanatory notes. The result is that both the original bill and his transcription raise some questions that remain unanswered. The aim of the present essay is to address some of these questions, particularly those concerning the Duke's Company's policy in the ascription of prices for admission.

1. The manuscript bill

The manuscript is one of several bills sent to Nell Gwyn that she later submitted to the Exchequer for payment. It was kept in the Exchequer until the mid--nineteenth century, and then passed to the hands of various collectors, until it was purchased by the Harvard College Library, where it remains to this day, shelfmarked as 'Fms Thr 56'. In format, the bill is very similar to those presented to the Lord Chamberlain for the king's and the royal family's visits to Dorset Garden, and also to a list of the plays seen by Lady Penelope Morley between November 1696 and June 1701. (4) The information is organized in three columns: the first gives the date of the performance; the second names the person to whom the bill is charged, together with the number of people who accompanied him or her, the kind of seats taken, and the title of the play seen; and the third column states the full amount to be paid for that particular performance. Part of Gwyn's manuscript is badly deteriorated: the upper and lower left corners of the recto side are lost, and with them much of the information originally placed there. Some dates, the names and number of those who attended and titles of plays are missing on that side; and a considerable amount of information on those who attended, titles and fees is lost on the verso. Some of those data were added by Van Lennep by relying on existing materials (mainly from Nicoll and Hotson); but much of it must be regarded as conjectural. My own analysis is based on Van Lennep's transcription and on a xeroxed copy of the original manuscript, kindly provided by the Librarian in charge of the Harvard Theatre Collection. The copy shows some further deterioration of the manuscript, as it is no longer possible to discern some particular details that Van Lennep was able to see in 1950 (e.g., the entries for Abdelazer and The Wrangling Lovers are not readable).

The following table reproduces the data in Van Lennep's transcription. For the sake of clarity, date format and titles have been modernised. The data within square brackets represent to Van Lennep's additions.

The neatness and regularity of the scribe's hand show that all the data were entered together. But the manuscript is unlikely to be the original source for the information it provides, as the scribe probably copied the data from one, perhaps even several, bills. The procedure followed by the playhouse doorkeepers in order to keep records of Gwyn's visits is not known. According to Montague Summers, the door-keeper's main tasks consisted in taking either cash or tokens from patrons as they arrived and, if they managed to come in with the pretence of staying for no longer than one act, in ensuring that they paid or left the playhouse (47-52). …

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