Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Announcing Each Day the Performances": Playbills, Ephemerality, and Romantic Period Media/theater History

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Announcing Each Day the Performances": Playbills, Ephemerality, and Romantic Period Media/theater History

Article excerpt

OF THE DIVERSE RANGE OF PRINTED EPHEMERA IN LATE GEORGIAN BRITAIN, the playbill, with the significant exception of the lottery ticket, was the most ubiquitous. Its presence as part of a late Georgian media ecology is apparent in a comment made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a letter to Sara Hutchinson in 1802. Fancying himself as a stage manager of the deity's theater of nature in the Lake District, Coleridge writes: "Blessings on the mountains! to the Eye & Ear they are always faithful. I have often thought of writing a Set of Play-bills for the vale of Keswick--for every day in the Year--announcing each Day the Performances by his Supreme Majesty's Servants, Clouds, Waters, Sun, Moon, Stars, &C." (1) Coleridge imagines himself as a kind of diurnal historiographer, the playbill representing the possibility of inscribing and retaining traces of the constantly changing beauty of the natural "scene." As stage manager of God's theater of the world Coleridge not only exemplifies a Romantic poetics of ephemerality--which in its epistolary instantiation is itself to the moment--but also the embeddedness of such a poetics in the practices of collecting, as indicated by the fact that a file of playbills for the Keswick Theatre does in fact survive, in the playbill collections of the British Library. (2) These playbills serve as a correlative of and also, we might say in their status as printed ephemera, an enabling condition of Coleridge's theater historiography of the everyday natural world.

The playbill, which is of central significance to the history of Georgian ephemerology, thus deserves to be recognized as having a place in a cultural history of Romantic textuality as a whole. (3) Throughout her career Jane Moody was attentive to how the playbill could evoke the specificity in time and place of the performance event, vividly imagining, in Illegitimate Theatre in London, "many a spectator poring over the contents of a bill by the light of a candle in a gloomy rented two-pair back." (4) The playbill enunciated the play to be performed, the actors, the existence of the playhouse, and implicitly, a potential audience, while at the same time signifying dimensions of theater and theatricality beyond the specific performance event. This dual dimension of the playbill, I want to suggest, accounts for why Georgian men and women were attracted to it, why they collected it, and why, for such an apparently "ephemeral" document, so many playbills survive. I am interested in the playbill as an artifact of both the theater and Romantic print culture, a zone in which print textuality and theatricality are profoundly imbricated. The playbill can be said to make visible the performative aspects of print, specifically its embedded orality and ocularity--the appeal to both "the Eye & Ear"--that made Coleridge think that the playbill was an appropriate metaphor for the panorama of the vale of Keswick.

Holding the Playbill to the Light

The importance of the playbill in theatrical and urban culture dates from the early modern period, the records of the Stationers' Company showing that a succession of printers were authorized to produce playbills from 1587 onwards. As well as being distributed within and around playhouses, these bills would have been posted on walls and doorways, amplifying the impact of the theater, as Tiffany Stern has argued, within the cityscape as a whole. (5) No playbills survive from this period. It was in the eighteenth century, with the expansion of both the print trade and the theater that the playbill became widely used and also archived. The production of playbills was a significant dimension of the jobbing trade for printers, both in London and the provinces. Some of the major metropolitan theaters had their own in-house printing shops, while there was a close association between local print trades and theater in the provinces, particularly after the boom in theater building caused by changes in the regulation of the theater in 1788. …

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