Skip to main content
The Collation

What's in a playbill?

The Folger collection includes approximately 250,000 playbills, the single-sheet precursors of today’s multi-page theater programs.1 By the 1750s, London playbills had developed the standard layout you see in this blog post. They presented an evening’s entertainment as a sort of theatrical equivalent to a modern restaurant posting their daily bill of fare, where a repertoire of various dishes for each course appears in a different combination every night. The 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. A brief afterpiece—usually a farce or rollicking pantomime—came at the end, for dessert. Playbills showed audiences the upcoming menu at each of London’s two patent theaters, the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, and the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.

Let’s take a closer look at a fairly typical example:

Folger Shakespeare Library BILL Box G2 D84 1765-66 no.2

The name of the theater appears at the top, followed by the performance date. The title of the mainpiece appears next, in large letters: ROMEO and JULIET, in this example. As was customary, the playbill lists all the male roles first, starting with the most important character: Romeo by Mr. HOLLAND. The list of female roles runs in the opposite order, starting with the least important character.2 Last named is the female lead: Juliet by Mrs. PALMER. The director’s name doesn’t need to appear because that didn’t change from night to night. Everyone knew David Garrick managed productions at Drury Lane, and John Beard managed productions at Covent Garden.

Special features of the evening’s entertainments come next in the playbill, beginning here with the FUNERAL PROCESESSION. If you don’t recall the funeral procession scene in Romeo and Juliet, don’t worry. Ever the showman, David Garrick knew that adding a procession with lavish costumes and beautiful vocal music would be a big draw, so it became a standard part of his productions. The last special feature in this playbill’s list was actually the first part of the evening’s performance: A NEW Occasional Prologue, To be Spoken by Mr. KING. The “occasion” for this new prologue was the opening of the 1765-66 theater season.

Last in the list of performance elements comes the afterpiece (a farce, The Musical Lady), with its special feature (a country dance).  The fine print follows, with prices, conditions, and the show time. Some playbills, like this one, ended with an advertisement for an upcoming night’s mainpiece and starring role. Note that the phrase “No Money to be received at the Stage-Door, nor any Money returned after the Curatin is drawn up” was a standard disclaimer by 1765, not a special circumstance. It translates as “No, you can’t pay your way into being allowed to stand backstage to watch what’s going on, nor will you get a partial refund if you leave before the afterpiece begins.” Both practices had once been customary, and management didn’t want anyone holding those expectations to be able to say they hadn’t been warned.

Now let’s take a look at a playbill for a benefit performance:

Folger Shakespeare Library BILL Box G2 D84 1752-53 no.1

This playbill has the same elements in the same order as the previous one, but it begins with something different: the announcement that the evening is “For the Benefit of Madlle. Auretti.” On a person’s benefit night, he or she covered the costs of the production, but got to keep all profits from ticket sales. Actors and other entitled employees had their benefits at the end of the season, and often relied on them for the bulk of their income.

We know that Mademoiselle Auretti was important to the company (and able to draw large audiences) because of the special conditions named below the title of the afterpiece:

In order to accommodate the Quality and Gentry with Places, the Pit and Boxes will be laid together, and the Stage will be form’d into an Amphitheatre for the Conveniency of Ladies and Gentlemen.

This arrangement allowed her to sell the maximum number of high-price tickets. Someone with less clout would only have had “Part of the Pit laid into Boxes,” leaving some of the three-shilling seating still available instead of replacing it all with five-shilling seating. In addition, Mademoiselle Auretti had the privilege of selling extremely expensive seats on the stage itself, something not normally permitted.3 By the 1750s, this disruptive practice was only allowed on benefit nights.

There’s just one more thing I’d like to point out about the playbill for Mademoiselle Auretti’s benefit, and that’s the year and the monogram written in pencil near the top right:

Detail of Folger Shakespeare Library BILL Box G2 D84 1752-53 no.1, showing “1753 GWS” in pencil.

Playbills from the period only give the day and the month of the performance, not the year. Sometimes an early collector will have added the year, like the penned “1765” in the first example. Other times (but not nowadays!) a scholar was given permission to make annotations himself. The monogram is “GWS” for George Winchester Stone, Jr., co-editor of The London stage, 1660-1800: a calendar of plays, entertainments & afterpieces, together with casts, box-receipts and contemporary comment compiled from the playbills, newspapers and theatrical diaries of the period (Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-1968), which is freely available online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

George Winchester Stone personally authored part 4 of The London Stage, the three volumes covering the years 1747-1776, based on research done at the Folger between 1935 and 1960. His on-site work included cross-referencing playbills to diary entries, account books, and newspaper articles in order to verify the year. The “GWS” monogram identifies bills whose year he added or corrected. I am deeply indebted to Stone’s introduction to part four (which runs about 200 pages) for my understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of theater production in Garrick’s day. I was lucky enough to be able to buy a second-hand copy of the introduction (published separately, in paperback, in 1968) when I started at the Folger over 20 years ago, and can’t imagine how I would have managed without it. On the other hand, I also can’t imagine someone initialling 18th-century playbills to keep track of their research, or a full-length book with page numbers entirely in small roman numerals, from xix to ccxviii, because it’s “only” the introduction.

Arcturus Books paperback edition of The London Stage, 1747-1776: A Critical Introduction (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1968).

  1. Many theater programs in the United States have a striking yellow banner with PLAYBILL in black letters on the front cover. These aren’t playbills, they’re free issues of the monthly magazine Playbill. The free issues have covers and middle sections customized for particular productions, and get handed out to audience members as the program.
  2. More accurately, the least important main character appears first. Unnamed members of the company played the minor roles. According to Appendix D of George Winchester Stone and George M. Kahrl, David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), the performance company for the 1765-66 season numbered seventy-three people (58 actors, 11 dancers, and 4 singers), which was on the small side for the time.
  3. Prices for seats on the stage rarely appear in playbills of this period. The only one I recall having seen is for a Covent Garden performance on 3 March 1739. After the customary prices (“Boxes 5 s. Pit 3 s. First Gallery 2 s. Upper Gallery 1 s.”) a separate line appears with “STAGE Half a Guinea” (which is 10 s. 6d., more than twice the price of the next most expensive seats).


So glad Erin addressed playbills in this post; it’s the item in the Folger collection with the most examples, close to 250,000. Henry Folger bought them in 1898 from Chas. F. Libbie, Boston auctioneer, following the death of a playbill collector, James Hutchinson Brown. 180,000 playbills became “a good load for two horses.”

Dr. Stephen H Grant — November 16, 2021

Those must have been strong horses! The Folger continues to acquire playbills, but it’s unlikely that such a large single collection would come on the market again.

Erin Blake — November 16, 2021

Our thanks to Erin Blake for the splendid commentary, with images, on early playbills — impressively complete, nicely assembled. In the 1980s, Arthur (‘Joe’) Scouten, one of the distinguished editors of the great LONDON STAGE (that multi-volume reference work most of us know well by now), sent me a few facsimile copies of the old playbills. I put them to good use when teaching Shakespeare and also Global Literature at St John’s University, Manhattan campus. I always appreciate Folger’s ‘Collation’ posts. ///

Maureen E. Mulvihill, Princeton Research Forum, NJ. — November 18, 2021