Promptbooks and Publication

As is no doubt evident from my last few posts, I’ve been looking into Francis Gentleman and his work on John Bell’s 1774 edition of Shakespeare quite a lot. I’m now writing my ideas up, and – as ever in this process – there’s quite a lot that won’t fit into my chapter. This includes a bit of work on the copytexts used by Bell and Gentleman for their publication.

Bell’s Shakespeare is rather neatly divided into plays that claim to be set from the promptbooks of Drury Lane or Covent Garden, and those that are not. On a whim, I started looking at how the printings of plays in the first category matched up with performances recorded in the period, using the enormous (and enormously handy) London Stage, 1660-1800.

John Bell's monogram
John Bell’s monogram

Doing this, I noticed that Bell’s Shakespeare has a slight bias towards Drury Lane, using the promptbooks from this theatre even when there were recent productions at both patent houses. There are also a few cases where recent London revivals do not provide promptbook copytext for the edition: Two Gentleman of Verona (at Drury Lane in 1763), Comedy of Errors (1762 and 1770, at Covent Garden), and Midsummer Night’s Dream (at Drury Lane in 1755 and 1763).

The bias towards Drury Lane is probably due to Gentleman’s links with Garrick (even if they weren’t always amicable), while I don’t really have a hypothesis for strange case of copytext for the recent revivals, apart perhaps a desire to keep these versions under wraps.

Talking of sharp business practices, there is also one interesting case where the publication of King John in Bell’s Shakespeare, set from the Drury Lane promptbook, appears to be a preview of the theatre’s revival of the play, due later that year, for the first time since 1769.

If anyone can make of these little observations, they are welcome to them. Do let me know in the comments, though….

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