The Folger performance history collection includes a massive array of resources on past productions, including about 250,000 playbills and some 2,000 promptbooks. Although Shakespeare is well represented, these materials are not restricted to his work. Films, recordings, and more continue to be added to the collection, as do the papers of major theatrical figures. Some highlights of the collection are shown here, with more information about the scope of our performance collection below.
David Garrick (1717–1779) was the most famous actor of his day and is credited with reviving Shakespeare’s plays on the English stage. A natural self-publicist who encouraged the production of hundreds of portraits of himself, Garrick played a key part in the cult of bardolatry that continues today. The painted copper roundel shown here illustrates his 1750s production of Romeo and Juliet, starring himself and George Anne Belamy in the title roles. This production featured a new death scene (written by Garrick) between the lovers; in Shakespeare’s text, Juliet awakens in the tomb only after Romeo has died. The Folger contains one of the largest collections of Garrick materials. More information about Garrick and his career can be found in the Folgerpedia article based on the 2005 Folger exhibit, "David Garrick, 1717–1779: A Theatrical Life."
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, founded by Royal Charter in 1663, is the oldest English theater company still in operation. The interior shown here is of the third theater on the site, which opened in 1794. The Folger has a major collection of records from Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres, dating from 1714 through 1880. These include journals, nightly accounts, pay books, inventories, etc. A detailed account of these records can be seen in our finding aid.
Charles Kean (1811–1868) was an important actor/manager in 19th-century London who staged lavish productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the Princess’s Theatre. Kean was especially known for his attempt to set Shakespeare’s history plays in their proper time period with elaborate scenery and costumes. For Henry V he created an interlude showing the king’s triumphal return to England after the Battle of Agincourt, set at London Bridge. The Folger owns a number of promptbooks from Kean’s productions, many made by T. W. Edmonds and containing watercolor set designs.
The actor/manager Charles Kean was hired by Queen Victoria to produce Shakespearean plays for the royal court and guests at Windsor Castle, the Queen’s palace outside London. This is an example of the kind of elaborate, decorative souvenir playbills that were designed for such occasions.
E. H. Sothern (1859–1933) and Julia Marlowe (1865–1950) were popular Shakespearean actors on the American stage at the turn of the 20th century, performing together in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado, and Hamlet, among other plays. Sothern was born in New Orleans to English actors who happened to be there at the time, and Marlowe emigrated from England and began a successful acting career before meeting (and marrying) Sothern. This photograph is an example of a carte-de-visite, small photographs on cards of about 2½ by 4 inches which were widely popular in the 19th-century as a way of circulating images of family members and celebrities.
This costume was worn by Julia Marlowe in the role of Juliet. The dress is made of white silk velvet, trimmed with iridescent spangles. Marlowe first performed Juliet in New York in 1887 to great acclaim from the audience—if not the critics, one of whom wrote: “Nobody was disappointed to find that she was not the ideal Juliet,” though most thought she had great promise. This costume probably dates to her reprise of the role with E.H. Sothern in 1904.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1856–1917) was an English actor/manager, famous for his Shakespearean productions. He is perhaps best remembered today for his early 20th-century lavish production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with gorgeous costumes, a stage filled with flowers and woods, the inclusion of live rabbits, and extra children playing the fairies. The note on the page seen here describes an owl hooting twice, after which a child/fairy enters, sees a rabbit, and pulls its tail. Promptbooks are copies of plays that are marked up to record the action in a production (as seen here), or marked by an individual actor to record cuts, movements, and tone of voice.
This pen and wash drawing by Fred Pegram is of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1900 London production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It shows Titania, Queen of the Fairies, waking in her woodland bower and about to notice Bottom, who sleeps in his ass’s head behind her. Oberon, King of the Fairies, watches from behind the trees to the left. The elaborate scenery and costumes of Tree’s production are evident.
Performances of Shakespeare plays were often on the cutting edge of new technologies, as seen with this 1908 recording of Ellen Terry reciting the “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice, made not long after the Victor Company started making phonographs for their “talking machine” in 1901. Other prominent actors of the time whose voices were preserved for the future include Terry’s partner, Henry Irving, as well as Johnston Forbes Robertson, Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, and Frank Benson. The Folger has a substantial collection of Shakespeare recordings, from these early ones to more recent productions.
Paul Robeson graduated Columbia Law School in 1923, but soon left the legal profession to pursue an acting career. However, as a black actor in the segregated United States, he was frustrated by the limited opportunities available, and sought (and found!) success on the London stage. There, Robeson played the title role in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones in 1925 and stood out in the 1928 musical Show Boat. This promptbook documents the 1930 London production of Othello in which he starred opposite Peggy Ashcroft—a mixed-race casting for the classic play that would have been unthinkable at that time in the United States. The promptbook meticulously records the cuts, musical cues and staging for the production, as well as the set, costume, lighting and prop designs.
This exhibitor’s campaign book, with parallel text in English, French, and Italian, presents marketing material for the international release of Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet. Publicity includes behind-the-scenes photos, costume design sketches, and an article about William Walton’s score (“Famous British Composer Writes Brilliant New Film Music”). Product tie-ins include a half-page Dolcis Shoes advertisement for “'Ophelia' sandals and matching handbag” and a full-page advertisement for a booklet of toy theater characters and scenery from the movie.
An overview of the performance history collection
Playbills and other ephemera
"Ephemera" is a general term for cheap, often fragile, items that were never meant to last for long. Needless to say, this makes them more likely to be rarities today, and a challenge to conservators. The ephemera collection at the Folger includes more than a quarter of a million playbills, primarily from the 19th century, and not limited to Shakespeare—an invaluable resource for research into American and British stage history. Scrapbooks, programs, theater tickets, paper toys, and more round out the collection.
The Folger has about 2,000 promptbooks, roughly half of which are for Shakespeare productions. Promptbooks, the marked copies of plays prepared for professional productions, are among the best evidence for details of staging, effects, costumes, and cuts and adaptations of the text. Some of them are working promptbooks, reflecting the process of creating a production by its makers; others were produced as souvenirs, designed to capture the end result of a production, rather than its creation.
Films and recordings
The Folger has a substantial collection of Shakespeare productions on film, video, and DVD, from silent films to recent television and movie versions. Other materials in the collection, including press kits, souvenirs, and working screenplays, add context to works on film.
The Folger also holds many audio recordings, ranging from a dozen Victrola records to modern digital recordings.
Costumes and props
The Folger performance collection includes about three dozen complete or partial costumes, most of them from 19th-century or early 20th-century Shakespeare productions. Stage props include crowns, scepters, swords, money (for the character of Shylock), and a tambourine.
Actors and actresses represented by full or partial costumes include the married team of E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, Ada Rehan, Lewis Waller, Charles Kean, Edwin Booth, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
The Folger collection of objets d’art is anchored by the Babette Craven Collection of Theatrical Memorabilia, one of the strongest postwar collections of early English ceramics. The Craven collection includes numerous rare English ceramic figures from potteries such as Derby, Bow, Wedgwood, and Minton, as well as plaques, tiles, boxes, and more. All of them celebrate figures of the 18th- and 19th-century English stage.
There are almost countless Shakespeare-themed objects in the Folger collection, including snuffboxes, teapots, and spoons. Many of the wooden examples are said to be carved from the wood of a mulberry tree that once grew at New Place, Shakespeare's last house at Stratford-upon-Avon.