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Oct 1, 2012

18th Century Plays

The Early History of Play in Eighteenth Century

Jacob Tonson was the first publisher to adapt successfully the French practice of including engraved frontispieces to editions of plays, his success largely dependent upon the assemblage of expert foreign engravers which he lured to England with offers of employment. The first illustrated collections of plays published by Tonson were those of Shakespeare, edited by Nicholas Rowe and released to the world in 1709. The choice of Shakespeare may seem rather natural to a modern mind, but, in fact, no complete English edition of Shakespeare had been published since the first folio.

Thus the novelty of Tonson's edition lay first in the very fact of its publication and secondly in -his inclusion of engraved frontispieces - a practice then unfamiliar in England. More than one art historian has pointed out the logistical problem Tonson must have had of how to illustrate a set of plays which had rarely been illustrated before, and thus had no iconographical precedent. The anonymous designers of the Tonson frontispieces solved this problem by recourse to the theatre where an established visual tradition existed. Another explanation for the use of theatrical motifs in the Tonson Shakespeare was tendered in 1916 by M. Salaman who suggested:
The day of the book-illustration in England had
not arrived, and the readers of Shakespeare cannot,
up to the publication of Rowe's edition, •
have been exceedingly numerous. The popular
conceptions of the scenes of the plays were,
therefore, inseperable from the stage-representations
and the personalities of the players.

Salaman's explanation is compelling, but not entirely accurate in relation to the illustrations themselves. The Tonson frontispieces include such theatrical motifs as obvious backcloths (Henry V) (Figure 120) and stage curtains (Twelfth Night) (Figure 121), but these motifs 103 are general, and related to all plays, rather than to specific ones. The one confirmable contemporary theatrical motif in the Rowe/Tonson edition is the fallen chair in the ghost scene of Hamlet- a stage trick practised by Betterton- which, by itself, hardly substantiates Salaman's theory that all the illustrations represent "popular conceptions". Furthermore, Salaman's suggestion that "the personalities of the players" can be discerned in the Tonson frontispieces is not confirmed by the parade of anonymous cardboard cut-outs of Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, et al, in the illustrations themselves. Portraiture, and other forms of theatrical specificity, therefore, play very little part. It is significant that even these theatrical allusions began to disappear in Tonson's second edition of Shakespeare (1714) when du Guernier took over the programme of illustration and rid the series of many of its more obvious stage props.

This depletion of theatrical formula in the 1714 edition is symptomatic and precursive of the gradual infiltration of the rococo into English illustration, largely through the agents of expatriate French illustrators. The very artifice of the rococo necessarily led book illustration on a course away from the naive theatrical realism of Tonson's first edition of Shakespeare. The movement gained momentum in England when the Prince of Wales began to patronise its artists, and, in 1732, at the height of Prince Frederick's enthusiasm, Hubert Franiois Gravelot came to England, and within a few years was called upon to illustrate Theobald's new edition of Shakespeare. Whether or not England had any influence on Gravelot is a moot point, but it is certain that Gravelot had a profound effect on English illustration at that time. His illustrations for Theobald's (1740) and Hanmer's (1744) editions of Shakespeare did much to crystallise the fanciful, non theatrical portrayal of Shakespearian scenes in England for many years. However, Gravelot's rococo delicacy was particularly inappropriate for representation of the more robust Shakespearian characters, as a glimpse at his portrayal of Falstaff or Henry VIII (Figure 123) will reveal.

Not only are these figures alienated from Shakespeare's text, but they reveal that Gravelot was oblivious to the standard characterisation of such figures perpetuated by actors on the English stage. Gravelot's mannerisms were, to an extent, adopted by Hayman when the two worked together on Hanmer's Shakespeare in 1744. 14 Hayman's choice of scene for this edition was substantially limited by his contract with Hanmer, which stated:
The said Francis Hayman is to design and delineate
a drawing to be prefix'd to each play of Shakespear
taking the subject of such scenes as Sr Thomas
Hanmer shall direct —15

A reading of Hanmer's instructions to Hayman indicate that the artists deviated in only minor detail from Hanmer's description for each scene, possibly out of a timid fear of not receiving the three guineas per drawing promised him should be diverge from the accepted formula. However, another possibility presents itself. Within the limitations of Hanmer's instructions, Hayman could express fully his rococo style largely because Hanmer's instructions were concerned almost exclusively with costume and characterisation. The focus of Hanmer's emphasis suggests that he not only knew the texts of the plays, but that he derived some of his more decisive ideas from contemporary stage practice. This is particularly true of costume. For example, Hanmer's choice of the casket scene for the Merchant of Venice (Figure 124) seems in part an excuse to portray Portia's Moorish suitor in his national dress:
Towards the other side of the room Morocchus a
Moorish Prince richly habited in the garb of
his Countrey with a turban and scymitar.16

In other passages he refers to Italo-Spanish costumes, servants' livery, the dress of shepherds and shepherdesses, and, in his description of the scene from King John, he insists that "the habit of the times must be consider'd in this and the following designs".

All of these types of costumes were standard stage dress, and theatrical managers of the period were beginning to attempt to promote historical accuracy in costume, albeit in a haphazard and non-archaeological way.

It would be going too far to suggest that Hanmer's descriptions of character recall specific actors, and such a supposition would be unprovable in any case. However, his very obsession with the essential character and physiognomy of Shakespeare's creations was alien to the work of rococo artists who tended to integrate figure and landscape. Thus, Hanmer's instructions combined with Hayman's rococo style to create an anomaly between the theatrically expressive physiognomy of the characters and the stylistic virtuosity of the scenes. For example, amidst the feathery Athenian landscape of Hayman's Midsummer Night's Dream illustration (Figure 125), Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, and Starvling run away from the metamorphosed Bottom "with different actions expressing their astonishment and fear".

Hayman depicts each of these characters with gestures fully in keeping with John Bell's later dramatic portraits. One cannot deny that an essentially English obsession with character prevented Hayman from whole-heartedly adapting the Gravelot idiom, but Esther Gordon Dotson's attempt to see Hayman's figures for various Shakespeare illustrations as microcosmic examples of a more general shift of obsession from plot to character in all eighteenth century thought is simplistic. 19 What is more likely is that Hayman's expression of character reflected a concern that had long been present in England with the predominance of portraiture and which began to re-emerge when Hayman combined rococo fantasy with a more literal interest in human character. The logical first step in this re-emergence was a recourse to the theatre as the most accessible visual source for play illustration.

Unlike Tonson's illustrators, Hayman never used obvious theatrical motifs such as rippling stage curtains or visible proscenium doors, but in at least two instances, it has been proven that Hayman borrowed ideas from David Garrick.

In his illustrations for Jennens edition of Shakespeare (incomplete, published 1770), Hayman follows instructions given to him in a letter from Garrick even more closely than he had followed Hanmer's - undoubtedly realising that, with regard to illustration, Garrick's unscholarly knowledge of the great Shakespeare plays was more useful to him than Hanmer's erudition. In his letters, Garrick offers suggestions for scenes in King Lear (Figure 126) and Othello - both of which were in his own acting repertoire. Not surprisingly, his ideas focus primarily upon character, and one can assume that his own experience formed the basis for his confident suggestions:
If you intend altering the scene in Lear ... what
think you of the following one. Suppose Lear mad,
upon the ground, with Edgar by him; his attitude
should be leaning upon one hand & pointing wildly
towards the Heavens with the other. Kent &
Footman attend him, & Gloster comes to him with
a torch; the real Madness of Lear, the frantick
affectation of Edgar, & the different looks of
concern in the three other carracters (sic), will
have a fine effect. Suppose you express Kent's
particular care & distress by putting him upon
one knee begging & entreating him to rise & go
with Gloster.

In his suggestions for Othello, Garrick offers to demonstrate the gestures mentioned, and this fact throws an additional light on Hayman's Lear illustration, and on Garrick's directorial habits as well. However, these theatrical influences are still sporadic and it was not until Bell issued his Shakespeare character plates that the scene was dispensed with in favour of an unquestionably theatrical character portrait. A3 I have mentioned before, these plates were issued separately; the frontispieces to the editions actually sold were traditional scenes from the plays designed by E. Edwards. Several of Edwards' scenes were obviously influenced by Hayman's illustrations for Hanmer, but Edwards' efforts are more literal. For example, both Hayman and Edwards illustrated act IV, scene ix from A Comedy of Errors (Figures 127 and 128) in which Antipholus and Dromio are cornered in the street. Hayman dwarfs his characters in a street which flows off in a recessive diagonal, but Edwards offers no recession, no strange angles, no virtuosity, only a mere hint of houses in the background, in effect, a stock theatrical scene. Edwards' works are, for the most part, minimal and hardly merit Bell's extravagant advertisements, but in his careful depiction of theatrical costume, Edwards carried some incipient tendencies in Hayman's 1744 illustrations a step further.

Before discussing the Bell editions, it is necessary to mention briefly the nature of the texts of plays in the eighteenth century. Tonson's editor, Rowe, was one of the first in a long line of scholars 108 who attempted to establish a definitive text of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in particular was subjected to a series of atrocities unlike anything perpetuated on a less notable author. His plays were re-written, re-organised, made into operas; new characters and scenes were added, and others were taken away. A large amount of this manipulation was for the purpose of creating a satisfactory acting text, but often these adulterated acting versions were advertised erroneously.

in playbills as "by Shakespeare". These alterations necessitated a series of scholarly editions of Shakespeare, and an increase in the reading public as the century progressed created a greater demand for them. Shakespeare was not the only author to have his plays appearing in multi-volume editions through the century: Johnson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the popular French neo-classicists, Miliere and Racine appeared in print between 1709 and 1780, although these editions were only rarely illustrated. The ancient classics were also subjected to translation and published. Bonnel Thornton's translation of Plautus (1764-5) immediately preceded Colman the Elder's translation of Terence (1765-6); and the works of both Sophocles (1759) and Euripides (1781-2) appeared in English versions. However, despite the fact that plays by Voltaire, Moliere, Euripides, et al appeared in heavily revised and adapted versions on the English stage through most of the century, the texts mentioned above were meant to be perused and absorbed "in the closet" and thus bore only an academic relationship to the theatre. Popular and contemporary plays were usually published only in cheap un-illustrated individual editions, possibly for the purpose of being sold at the theatre where the play was currently being performed.

Aside from the novelty of adorning his editions with portraits, John 109 Bell was also the first man to publish multi-volume editions of the current acting versions of plays, thus moving away from the highly literary and scholarly text to a more popular and accessible one. Bell's concession to the more fastidious litterati was to include "Lines omitted in representation" in inverted commas, although he almost never indicates which bits and pieces were added at the whim of the Covent Garden or Drury Lane managers. Bell's edition of Shakespeare's plays could be characterised by a purist as all the most execrable into one, and, indeed, it has been Shakespeare that ever appeared.

alterations of Shakespeare rolled dubbed the worst edition of However, perhaps even a lover of Shakespeare's original texts might be prepared to recognise the dramatic logic behind many of the altered and added lines. What was done to Shakespeare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the name of entertainment is no worse than what many modern directors do to his plays in the twentieth century in the name of artistic expression.

Most of Bell's potential clients were men and women of leisure who were undoubtedly delighted at the prospect of reminding themselves of their favourite play by perusing the same text that the actors themselves used. In an eighteenth century polemic for the cause of authors, James Ralph characterises the reasoning behind the actions of book sellers:
The sagacious Bookseller feels the Pulse of the
Times, and according to the stroke prescribes;
not to cure, but flatter the Disease: As long
as the Patient continues to Swallow, he continues
to administer; and on the first symptom of a
Nausea, he changes the dose.

Bell's shrewdness in choosing such non-academic works for the enjoyment of the theatre-going public also had a great deal to do with his own lack of literary accomplishments. As Leigh Hunt says of him:
He had no acquirements, perhaps not even grammar;
but his taste in putting forth a publication, and
getting the best artists to adorn it, was new in
those times and may be admired in any.


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