Instead of a long run of the same play, audiences in Garrick’s time expected a variety each night and throughout the season. A typical season at Drury Lane might include fifty different mainpieces, plus countless musical interludes, dances, afterpieces, prologues and epilogues. Playbills like this, posted in advance, advertised an evening’s “bill of fare” like a multi-course restaurant meal. The five-act mainpiece served as the main course, with a prologue as appetizer to set the stage, and music or dancing between the acts to cleanse the palate. The brief afterpiece—usually a farce or rollicking pantomime—provided an enjoyable dessert, the lighter the better if the mainpiece had been a heavy tragedy.
Printing expenses formed no small part of the Drury Lane budget, with each night’s playbill requiring a new press run. This bill is fairly typical, with thirty-four lines of type plus a horizontal rule. The mainpiece (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) is listed first, with the male roles in order of importance, then the female roles in reverse order of importance. Next comes a description of the “extras” in the mainpiece: a procession, a masquerade dance, a minuet, and a new prologue. Last comes the afterpiece (George Colman’s farce The Musical Lady), with its special feature (a country dance), followed by pricing, any special instructions, show time, and a note on an upcoming performance.
For a comprehensive list of Garrick bills in the Folger collections, see: Guide to the Playbills in the Folger Shakespeare Library Relating to the Theatrical Career of David Garrick, 1741-1776, compiled by Joe Donohue.
London, Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Every Man in His Humour, The
Double Disappointment. Playbill, 31 March 1753
London, Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Tempest, Harlequin Ranger. Playbill, 11 November 1757
Mainpiece: the principal comedy or drama performed on a given evening, typically five acts.
Afterpiece: one- or two-act farce, pantomime, or other light entertainment used to close the evening. Introduced during the Restoration, and common through the early nineteenth century.
Prologues and epilogues: direct addresses to the audience before and after the mainpiece, sometimes in character, sometimes not. Management used prologues to comment on the play text, the production, current events, house policy, etc.