Volume V · Winter 1950 · Number 2
Inside the Treasure Room
Of what use is the Treasure Room in Rush Rhees Library? Indeed friends of the library, who give rare books, manuscripts, and letters, may wonder if the Treasure Room has any other function than as a depository for rarities consulted by scholars and displayed now and then to students and visitors. Though such is the primary purpose in having a Treasure Room in a university library, and though prestige collections are highly desirable and useful, the Treasure Room should also function as a workshop for research.
Perhaps a word about prestige collections is necessary before I describe some of the material now being purchased in a buyer's market and with great care being integrated into a useful collection for research in the humanities. The R. B. Adam Collection of Johnsoniana which was on deposit in our Treasure Room, is a prestige collection. Yet it was built up through many years of generous and judicious buying, item by item, until finally it gained an international reputation for its fine copies, unique items, and remarkable inclusiveness of the writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, and their circle of friends.
Such a collection adds prestige to the library and the university, but it is primarily a possession, no longer a scholar's workshop. For the generosity of Mr. Adam had made this fabulous store available to scholars many years before the collection came to our Treasure Room. And though its prestige remains undiminished and it will always yield new light to scholars, the scholarly furrows were already plowed and the scholarly harvest of books and articles based on this magnificent collection were nearly all written and published when it came to the Treasure Room. But since money could not be found for us to buy this treasure-trove of rare editions, manuscripts, notebooks, and letters, we should now try to build our own collections, however modest they must be.
It is about the more humble and yet useful additions to our Treasure Room that I would tell you, matters which have already provided and will continue to offer opportunities for research. Two years ago, within a few days, five separate items went on sale in London. Four of them fitted neatly together and formed an opportunity for explaining the collaboration of Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock in writing the popular play Milestones. The fifth item was a set of letters written by Sir Arthur Pinero, supplementing our already substantial collection described in a previous Bulletin. Our bids were promptly made and all five items were brought to Rochester. Any one of these offerings would have been interesting but the combination made them useful for research. Such good fortune with five separate orders, as all collectors know, does not happen often enough!
Our good fortune did not stop there. A year ago, additional offerings, complementing those previously purchased, were successfully obtained, forming an integrated collection of materials in one of the most important periods of the drama. My own enthusiasm should be understandable, since the drama is only one of many fields in which purchases must continually be made. Catalogues and announcements of sales bring moments of anxiety as well as expectation. The manuscripts, or letters, are unique; once offered, they are either purchased by us, or given up to other treasure seekers. And so it is with out-of-print books. Inter-library loans do help, but delay is inevitable and the two-weeks' use of the book may come just when the main job of teaching has become complicated with grading examinations and papers. So the possession of adequate material with which to work holds durable satisfaction for the investigator, whether scholar or graduate student.
The study of the drama involves the full area of theatrical events. It is not only the explication of texts but also the understanding of background. Hence theater programs, first-night reviews from newspapers and magazines, letters from actors and critics as well as from playwrights are necessary for proper evaluation of the play. For the dramatist writes, unlike the novelist, a very condensed story which he gives to actors for interpretation on the stage. More than one good play has been ruined by poor actors, unimaginative direction, or uninterpretative stage setting. Sometimes actors seem almost as important, if not more so, than the playwright in the success of a play. Who is acting in it? The actors' names invariably appear in larger type on the program than the name of the playwright. Though the play is the thing, its writing took place some time ago when we were not present; what we pay to see in the theater is the living actor! So the reader of old plays must recreate in his mind's eye as much of the movement, sound, color, and immediacy of the stage production as he can if he is to receive the full impact of the dramatist's ideas.
For the study of the collaboration of Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock, we have the "first clear-copy manuscript" of Milestones with numerous emendations, together with two scenarios of this play, showing the struggle of two minds to turn ideas through words into a play. Moreover, we have 135 unpublished letters written by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock to one another during the years from their collaboration on Milestones in 1912, when it became an international success in London, Paris, Berlin, and New York, until Bennett's last illness in 1931. (This material is appearing in an article entitled "The Genesis of Milestones.") In particular, these letters reveal the plans and changes wrought by these collaborators in transforming Bennett's novel Mr. Prohack into a play. And it was in the title role of Mr. Prohack that a then unknown young actor by the name of Charles Laughton scored his first London hit and became famous twenty-five years ago. These letters also contribute to our understanding ofLondon Life, the third play on which they collaborated.
Further enumeration is necessary. We obtained the manuscript of Knoblock's Home on Leave, a comedy, for comparison with that of Milestones. Then came a set of twelve letters written by Knoblock to Dr. Meyerfeld, a distinguished German translator highly regarded by John Galsworthy, dealing with the translation of Knoblock'sKismet and especially the translation of Milestones.
Having once spent several months in the newspaper branch of the British Museum, located in Colindale just far enough from London to be a time-wasting trip each day, I particularly appreciated finding in the "copyright edition" of Milestones a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, representing the London Times, The Daily Mail,The Daily Telegraph, The Weekly Times, The Eastern Morning News, The Era, The Stage, and The Graphic. Several of these reviews are of the premiere of March 5, 1912; others cover the revivals of Milestones on October 30, 1913, February 23, 1914, October 30, 1914, November 20, 1920, and February 4, 1930. For each occasion, however, there are sufficient reviews to sample the critical reception of Milestones over a period of eighteen years. In fact such revivals of a modern play indicate a record of note before this play can be dismissed as merely popular. Certainly its life was longer than that of other so-called popular plays.
Our collection of Pinero material received several important additions. Two unpublished letters from Sir George Alexander, written at the beginning of his career and dated April 24, 1880 and May 3, 1881, cast light on the tenacity of the man before he became the successful actor-manager of a famous West-End London theater and dared to produce Sir Arthur Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray after all other managers had refused the risk in doing so. That was the play, you may remember, that established Pinero as "the father of the modern English drama." But we may appreciate Alexander much more as we read these letters in which he applies as a stage-struck youngster for the juvenile role in The Upper Crust and, failing to get the job for the London production, comes back the next year for the same part in the company scheduled to tour the provinces. Two letters written by Pinero to Lowne, who appeared with success in Pinero's His House In Order are correlated with letters obtained elsewhere written by Sir Henry Irving to Lowne and Toole, a collection of forty-six letters. Forty-one additional letters concern contributions from famous actors and actresses to a memorial for Sir Henry's talented son Lawrence, who was drowned at sea just as he was beginning a brilliant career, emulating his father in the theater.
Four theatrical contracts of Mrs. Pat Campbell are of particular interest and use since she sprang from obscurity to fame as Paula in Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Two of these contracts are with the fabulous Frohman, for her appearance in New York and on tour in specified cities under his management in the seasons of 1903-4 and 1904-5. For those times her weekly salary ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 for a season of twenty or twenty-six weeks was indeed remarkably high. In addition, however, we learn from these contracts that she received fifty per cent of the net weekly income of the theater as well as all kinds of expenses paid, even including the carriage from the hotel to theater and return! A provisional tour of ten weeks was to be at $1,850 per week. (And she came to Rochester.)
These contracts not only are important in the study of the theatrical profession after the under-paid years of the nineteenth century, to which I shall allude later, but they also tell us much about the continuation of certain plays in popular esteem. What matters very much to me, for instance, is the inclusion in her repertoire of Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith. These plays are also mentioned in her contract with Liebler and Company for the season of 1907-8 in the United States, when she received a weekly salary of $1,900 with a variable percentage of the net income of the theater and all expenses paid. In the season of 1914-15, according to her contract with Mrs. Cornwallis West and George C. Tyler, Mrs. Pat Campbell continued her high earnings as Eliza Doolittle, the cockney-accented flower girl in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. You may remember how a philologist became interested in the wretched enunciation of an impoverished girl and taught her so well that she was able to appear in society and be received as a lady. The London premiere of Pygmalion came after, not before, the successful production of this play in Austria and German, an amusing instance of the redoubtable Shaw's disregard of the London critics as the first appraisers of his new play. Though Shaw had been caustic enough as a drama critic, his sensitivity to criticism is here illustrated. But the American run of Pygmalion, described in this contract, was successful in no minor degree because of Mrs. "Pat's" artistry.
A set of "copyright editions" of plays by Henry Arthur Jones offers several significant correlations. First, Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero both scored their first hits in the London theater of 1880. They were born within a few years of each other and became friendly rivals as playwrights for more than a score of years. These editions are inscribed to Ellis, a well-known drama critic of the time. And along with the set came some reviews of these plays together with illustrations cut from newspapers and magazines. Although I had spent many hours some years ago copying extracts from these reviews of Jones' plays, as well as of Pinero's, here they are in their entirety.
The manuscript of W. L. Courtney's Undine reminds me that Pinero wrote the Preface for Courtney's Idea of Tragedy in 1900. Thus it may be seen that if a collection has a basic idea, it is possible to correlate many inexpensive items into a comprehensive and significant group.
Nineteenth-century material and that of earlier periods were also augmented with printed books and pamphlets of importance, including either the work of, or reference to, Mr. Kemble, Marie Roche, David Garrick, Colley Cibber, and Alexander Pope. The collection of first quartos of plays from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has much use in a graduate seminar on the drama as well as in a graduate seminar in bibliography. Advanced students under appropriate supervision thus examine the theories expounded in books about books and discover at first hand the variants in printing and paper. In particular the first quarto of John Dryden's Troilus and Cressida, which is of primary interest because Dryden tried to improve on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, has made possible the publication of a correction of a widely used book on the drama.
Recently some letters of Charles and Ellen Kean were offered for sale along with the first edition of George M. Lovell's The Wife's Secret. The letters have turned out to be of more importance than we dared hope from the description of them. For Mrs. Kean writes about American playgoers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia during the season of 1846-7, a rather low point in the history of the drama. Yet the Keans spent nearly two years in America at that time, arriving in August in 1845 and returning home in the early summer of 1847. Kean's biographer reminds us "By the close of the first year they realized and sent safely home a greater profit than had ever before been accomplished on the same prolific ground within the same time." Though they came to play Shakespeare's Richard III and King John, they produced during the second year Lovell's new play, The Wife's Secret, and did so with great success. Four of these letters, those written by Ellen Kean to George Lovell, describe the production of his play and the reaction of the audience. In addition we have obtained a scrapbook filled with reviews of Lovell's plays from 1835 to 1852.
Although this period in the history of the drama, the middle nineteenth-century, produced no literary genius at all and consequently has been neglected, it is nevertheless a time of historical importance in the development of the theater. An Act of Parliament freed the theaters from the monopoly of the Royal Patents which had been continued practically without interruption for nearly two hundred years after 1660. During all those years only three of the many theaters in London were permitted to present English plays. So until 1843 new writers for the theater were few. The accumulation of English plays not only from Shakespeare and his contemporaries but also from the Restoration and eighteenth-century dramatists more than sufficed for the stage.
The Act of Parliament in 1843, however, restored incentive by giving playwrights ample opportunity to produce their plays on the boards of a theater and not merely for readers. But a fashion of writing in verse for readers was well established and such a playwright was George M. Lovell, a transitional figure. As a matter of fact, the authoritative historian of the nineteenth century has called The Wife's Secret "one of the best plays I have read in this period." And Charles Kean, the son of the famous Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, was now establishing the main trend for the next sixty years of Shakespearean productions. According to one of these letters, Charles Kean commissioned George Lovell to write a play for him, the terms being £300. Another letter written by Ellen Kean after her husband's death restores all the rights in this play to the author.
This correspondence of Charles and Ellen Kean with George M. Lovell becomes relevant to our collection of material dealing with the genesis of the modern English drama as soon as we perceive that it was in 1860 that Tom Robertson began writing his "cup-and-saucer plays" for Marie Wilton at the Prince of Wales's Theater in Tottingham Court Road, London, for it was upon Robertson's beginning with realistic comedies of contemporary life that Pinero and Jones built with adaptation of the French "well-made play" the technique of the modern play of our theater.
Yet if I were to tell you how few dollars these items cost, you would doubtless suspect their importance; nevertheless, supply and demand still operate in this business! And I hazard the judgment that if we can have sufficient funds to develop this field, we shall have in our Treasure Room within a few years a collection of outstanding importance for study of the origin and development of various features in the modern drama. But many graduate schools in search of material for their drama students are apparently, from the correspondence I have had, turning to the nineteenth century. How long we can continue to acquire this material at minimum cost remains problematical. The letters of the poets and novelists who were the literary geniuses of this period are now almost prohibitive. And awakened interest in this period of the drama, if only for its historic significance, will increase the cost.
In conclusion I must point out that fashions in scholarship change with each passing decade as the major opportunities for spectacular research decrease. I have observed three or four of these waves of scholarly enthusiasms in the field of humanistic studies reach their zenith and wane. New scholarly reputations require new approaches. The present interest in Bernard Shaw's plays may be indicative of the trend. But remember that Shaw was born only one year after Pinero. And Shaw at ninety-three has had a new play produced, not so bad in his opinion as the London reception of it would have us believe! His lifetime covers the period in the drama for which we are trying to form a unique collection in our Treasure Room.
- The British and American Theater Subject Guide of the Manuscript Collection