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The Folger Spotlight

Louis Butelli: Some Prompting!

336x850_adHello once again from your pal Louis Butelli. This Tuesday, April 2nd, we will commence rehearsals for Robert Richmond’s production of Twelfth Night, beginning April 30th at the Folger Theatre – get your tickets here!!

I’m going to be playing the role of Feste, the play’s resident sad clown and wandering minstrel. To prepare, I’ve taken on a little experiment. With the assistance of my “Library Sherpa,” Alan Katz, I’ve been exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library’s world-class collection of books, music, art, and other media relating to the work of William Shakespeare. In the last post (click here to read), Alan helped me locate and pull some very inspiring books. This time, he had something even more exciting to share with me: the Folger’s collection of Prompt Books.

WARNING: things are about to get long and nerdy.

The Folger collection is generally divided into two categories, Rare and Modern, with the year 1831 serving as the current dividing line between the two. With the advent of industrialized printing, the old methods of pulping wood for paper proved to be too labor-intensive – and time-consuming – for mass production. As such, paper manufacturers started to use acid to break down the pulp leaving us with…paper that is itself acidic. Not only do books made with acidic paper break down more quickly – flaking, yellowing, cracking – but they also “poison” nearby books, causing them to degrade as well. So, to protect Rare books from their poisonous Modern neighbors, the Rare books reside in the vault.

In this case, by “rare,” we mean anything that is “primary source” material, from Folios and Quartos to the personal papers of Laurence Olivier and Lynn Redgrave, and everything in between. According to Alan, many of the rare books in the Folger’s collection are studied by scholars today more as “objects” or “artifacts” than they are as literature.

Detail of a page from a Prompt Book, with cuts in dialogue for Sir Toby and Feste.

Detail of a page from a Prompt Book, with cuts in dialogue for Sir Toby and Feste.

Which leads me to Prompt Books. Easily the most utilitarian version of a Shakespeare play, a Prompt Book is the text of the play used by actor/managers – and later producers, directors, and stage managers – to actually put on said play. In a Prompt Book, one can find everything from cast lists, to theater accounting, to show reports, to light and sound cues, to actors’ entrances, exits, and blocking. In essence, a Prompt Book is the blueprint for mounting a production – and a fascinating way to imagine what it might have been like to attend an old production.

Of course, theater itself is fundamentally ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow. It is an immediate art form, one that requires collaboration by a large team of people to present something that is never exactly the same twice. Even a single production of a play changes from night to night – to say nothing of the way that theatrical conventions morph and evolve over centuries. With a Prompt Book, we can listen for the ghosts of past productions whispering to us.

In fact, the oldest available Prompt Book for Twelfth Night is from a production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. It’s not possible to determine the actual date, but we can narrow it down. First, the text the company used to mount the production was an actual Second Folio, which was published in 1632. Next, the earliest archeological evidence for Theatre Royal dates to 1663. Finally, the theater burnt to the ground in 1672. So, in a way, we can feel fairly comfortable in dating the production as “1660s.”

Regardless, for an actor in the 21st century, looking back to see a “precious” Second Folio marked up with handwritten notes for blocking and entrances by an actor in the 17th century…well, it’s just chilling. Who was he? What role was he playing? Was he as excited for his production as we are for ours? Impossible to tell and, though it’s the oldest Twelfth Night Prompt Book in the collection, it is also lightest on notation. Fortunately, there are others that get much more specific.

Before we get to that, though, I have to mention a few quick things about JSTOR, Shattuck, and Microfilm.

Boxes of reel and microfilm.

Boxes of reel and microfilm.

There is such a huge amount of material in the Folger collection that one can easily get overwhelmed. If you’re like me, a library lay-person, and you find yourself in the building to do some research, I can’t begin to tell you how valuable it is to have a Library Sherpa. Alan’s constant refrain is to start broadly (a general search on HAMNET, for instance), to take note when names and details are repeated, and to focus in on those details, in order to dig deeper.

In this case, we began with JSTOR. As Wikipedia says, “JSTOR (JAY-store, short for Journal Storage) is a digital library founded in 1995. Originally containing digitized back issues of academic journals, it now also includes books and primary sources, and current issues of journals. It provides full-text searches of more than a thousand journals.” JSTOR is a subscription service, but you can certainly feel free to visit the website by clicking here.

Anyway, I logged in and, as Alan suggested, I started broadly, searching just for the word “Feste.” Ironically, perhaps, the more enticing journal articles that came up, were from Shakespeare Quarterly, published in-house at the Folger. Reading through a few, I found myself most compelled by an article called “A Star Is Born: Feste on the Modern Stage” by Karen Greif (Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 39, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp 61-78).

Several interesting things emergedmost pertinently, for Prompt Book sleuthing, were two versions of Twelfth Night cited by Ms. Greif, both presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford:  Peter Hall’s 1958 production, and John Barton’s 1969 production.

With this point of entry, Alan directed me to “the Shattuck,” which is, basically, the most comprehensive listing of the world’s existing Shakespeare Prompt Books, and where, geographically, to find them. Named for its author, Charles H. Shattuck (1910-1992), the listing comes to us in two publications, “The Shakespeare Promptbooks: A Descriptive Catalogue” (University of Illinois Press, 1965) and the 11-volume “John Philip Kemble Promptbooks” (Folger Shakespeare Library, 1974).

Microfilm reader showing image from a page of a Twelfth Night Prompt Book.

Microfilm reader showing image from a page of a Twelfth Night Prompt Book.

As it turns out, the Folger does not have the Hall and Barton Prompt Books in the collection – rather, the originals are housed at the RSC in Stratford. However, the Folger is full of surprises. While they do have a significant number of originals on-site, more stunningly, they also have Microfilm of pretty much every Prompt Book listed in Shattuck – including the Hall, the Barton, and many, many dozens more.

Brief side note: there is no denying that we live in a digital age, and that it has revolutionized the way we process, store, and share information. That said, more than any .jpeg ever has, the crisp immediacy of the documents on Microfilm made me feel like I was in the presence of the original works. Somehow, I spent several hours with the Microfilm viewer without noticing the time go by, and had to be asked to leave because the Library was closing. Sorry, for any inconvenience, y’all.

So! To conclude this entry, I’ll just take you through a small handful of things discovered amongst the Prompt Books. And please note, though I dealt only with Microfilm images of the works below, Alan points out that, had something about the image been unclear, or had any handwriting seemed indecipherable, the Folger is always happy to bring out an original object, and to provide a handwriting expert to assist in deciphering.

Print of the "Malvolio gulling" scene from Twelfth Night.

Print of the “Malvolio gulling” scene from Twelfth Night.

Quick note: One of the most tricky scenes in any production of Twelfth Night is the so-called “gulling scene,” wherein the clowns hide while Malvolio reads their false letter, which he believes to be a love letter from his mistress, and unrequited love, Olivia. (To read the scene, click here). I wondered how others had dealt with it, and that’s why it’s mentioned so much below.

Twelfth Night Prompt Book: “A Compilation of Stage Business,” adaptation by Fred Grove, London, 1900s (?)

-Gulling scene was played with a large “hedge,” placed left of center stage, behind which all of the clowns could hide, and with Malvolio down center stage.

-Notes indicate that the running gag was to keep the entire crowd of clowns moving constantly around the hedge, barely avoiding Malvolio’s sight.

-Sir Toby continually keeps ruining the gag with his interjections, and has to be tackled repeatedly to avoid detection.

-Sir Andrew pops his head “through the hedge” for his interjections.

-Malvolio had a hat, which figured into the business of discovering the letter.

Twelfth Night Prompt Book: Charles Kean’s Prompt Copy, Princess’s Theatre, London, performed September 28, 1850

-Blocking for gulling scene not noted, but includes simple underlined stage directions like “the men hide themselves,” and “they advance from behind the trees,” which would suggest the presence of false trees, at the least.

-Sir Toby’s interjection “Out, scab!” is changed to “Out, patch!”

-Malvolio was played by John Liston, Feste was played by John Fawcett (not much known about them), and Orsino was played by a “Mr. Barrymore.” While it would be nice to imagine “John Barrymore,” this production came before he was born, and when his father, Maurice, was only 3 years old. This ghost is some other Barrymore.

-The stage manager kindly listed the running time for the show: “1st Act – 33, 2nd Act – 20, 3rd Act – 25, 4th Act – 30, 5th Act – 20. Total, 128. Plus Waits – 12, 140. 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Detail of the JP Kemble Prompt Book showing the handwritten additional scene.

Detail of the JP Kemble Prompt Book showing the handwritten additional scene.

Twelfth Night Prompt Book: J.P. Kemble. Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, 1810. Original book sold for “Price, 18 pence.”

-OK, I didn’t even get to the gulling scene in this one, because there was too much other fascinating stuff. First of which…

-This production, some 29 years earlier, also featured a Mr. Barrymore as Orsino, a Mr. Liston at Malvolio, and a Mr. Fawcett as Feste. Really??

-Weird: this production of Twelfth Night seems to have been a Musical, with Viola doing quite a lot of singing, including a “sonnet” after her very first scene, a love duet called “Henry 8” with Olivia, and a quartet with Valentine, Curio, and “Benvolio,” who appears to be on loan from Romeo & Juliet.

-Weirder: at the end of the play, Act IV, scene 4, they have inserted a big masque for Juno, Iris, and Ceres, which owes a huge debt to The Tempest.

-Weirdest: somebody added an original scene, handwritten, for Roberto the Sea Captain and a Sailor at the top of the show. It’s too good not to share…

Act I, Scene 1 (Thunder, lights a little down)

The seashore. A vessel discovered wreck’d, the sky chequered, marking the clearing up of the storm. Enter Roberto and two sailors (U & R)

1st Sailor: Even so, our self devoted bark is dash’d upon the trembling shore.

Roberto: I have seen many a tempest; but, till tonight, such bursts of thunder, sure none e’er heard – the seaman’s whistle was as a whisper in the ear of death.

1st Sailor: And, save ourselves, all in a watery grave.

Rob: No, – others have escap’d, and ‘mongst the rest, thank Fortune, one, whose gentleness, and dulcet sounds so often cheer’d us on our voyage! Behold – she comes!

Enter Viola

Viola: What country, friends, is this?


Twelfth Night Prompt Book: RSC, Stratford. Director: John Gielgud. First Performance: April 12th, 1955.

-Viola was played by Vivien Leigh, Malvolio was played by Laurence Olivier, and a young fellow named Ian Holm was in the ensemble.

-For the gulling scene, they used three “tree-boxes,” (which I can only imagine were large, portable hedges) arranged in a semicircle around an ottoman for Sir Larry.

-Business, again, featured lots of hiding, peering, popping up and down behind the hedges, and elaborate chases around all of the furniture.

-Another frequently discussed component of the scene is Malvolio’s line, “If this fall into thy hand, revolve,” after which, possibly, the actor playing Malvolio spins in a circle, thus “revolving.” I am happy to report that Sir Larry did so, and in a “clockwise” fashion.

And finally…

Sir Peter Hall.

Sir Peter Hall.

Twelfth Night Prompt Book: RSC, Stratford. Director: Peter Hall. First Performance: April 22nd, 1958. (Prompt book also used for tour of Russia)

-Malvolio was played by Mark Dignam, Feste was played by Cyril Luckham, and Ian Holm had been promoted from the ensemble to play Sebastian.

-The ensemble carried on a “tree and two bushes” for the clowns to hide behind for the scene.

-The business is not explicitly notated, but apparently, they devised a bit to make Malvolio aware of the fake letter, which he was resolutely not noticing.

-It’s not clear if Mr. Dignam did the “revolve” bit, but in the text, there is a pause noted after the word “revolve,” so it’s very, very possible.

-He did, however, ask that the rest of the ensemble hold for a very big piece of business about Malvolio’s smiling at the end of the scene.

OK! Wow. I’ve gone on for far too long. I’ve got to tell you, though, do yourself a favor and check out these Prompt Books.

Don’t have a Library Sherpa? Not to worry! In mid-September, 2013, the Folger is presenting an exhibition featuring originals of the best and most exciting Prompt Books from the collection. Free and open to the public, the exhibition will appear in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Great Hall, and will also feature costumes and artwork from the collection. Dr. Denise Walen is curating, assisted by Alan Katz. So, see? You do have a Library Sherpa! Please check back soon for further details.

And please pick up your tickets for Twelfth Night now! Click here!

Until next time.


These blog posts about the library are terrific. I’d be interested in knowing if Louis’ studies and exploration these past weeks have changed his approach to his role as Feste.

dawnforsythe — March 29, 2013

Thanks, Dawn! Glad you’re enjoying.

I’m not sure yet exactly what impact the research will have on approaching the role. One of the interesting things about rehearsal is that, for all the preparation an actor might do on their own, as soon as you start to interact with other actors in the rehearsal room, you’ve got to deal with what they’re giving you. This may or may not match up with the ideas one brings in oneself.

What the research has done, though, and this is a great thing, is put me in a relaxed, open state of mind. It’s given me lots of options for characterization, business, and, most valuably, a sense of who Feste might be and how he might function in the world of the play. Now, I can go into rehearsal with multiple options, and we can try them all out, see which ones work, which ones don’t, and which can be tinkered with.

For me, the most enjoyable part of the research is becoming immersed in a community of people – artists, scholars, designers, critics, etc – who all love this play, and have for 400 years. This sense of connection is powerful, and reminds me that “community” is what is unique about the theatrical art form. At its essence, theater is a big group of strangers who get together in the same room and agree to set aside their disbelief for a few hours, and imagine a story together.

And for all of the invention that the modern age has brought us, we practice theater today in the same way that group of players, marking their blocking in the Second Folio, did in the 1660s. It’s an honor.

Anyway, thanks again for reading. Come back soon!

Louis Butelli — March 30, 2013

Fortunately, I have a ticket for opening night. It will be great to see how your Feste comes to life!

dawnforsythe — March 30, 2013

Dear Louis:
I enjoyed your journey into the vaults to see the promptbooks, etc. I was glad to see your reminder that the papers of Lynn Redgrave are now at the Folger. She was a lovely actor who graced the Folger’s stage. Twelfth Night was very special to her from early in her career.
Your blog reminded me of another great Shakespearean I met at the Folger–Charles Shattuck (1910-1992). I took a seminar on Shakespeare with Charles Shattuck back in 1985. Thanks for telling us that “the Shattuck” is, “basically, the most comprehensive listing of the world’s existing Shakespeare Prompt Books, and where, geographically, to find them.”
Now it’s great to have yourself gracing the Folger’s stage, vaults, and cyberspace.
As Feste would sing:
A great while ago the world began,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain . . . .
But we are glad that you still “strive to please [us] every day.”

Christopher Griffin — April 3, 2013