Sunday, March 1, 2009

From a 91 BC Chinese manuscript to a 1759 London drama to a 2009 bibliophile's blog.

While attending a professional conference in Boston this weekend I paid my first visit to the Brattle Book Shop, which has been operating as a bookstore in Boston since 1825 and has been owned by the Gross family for the last sixty years. The Brattle has a terrific collection of affordable used books packed onto discount carts in the lot next to the building. Inside there are two floors of more higher-end used books and on the third floor one will find thousands of rare, antiquarian, and collectible volumes. The selection was eclectic and broad (which I love) and--on the third floor--priced within the assessed value range for most of the books (which I don’t love...what can I say, I’m cheap).

Among the books I picked up is this second edition of Arthur Murphy’s mid-18th century tragedy The Orphan of China, which 

was staged at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London in 1759. The role of Zamti, “a Mandarine”, was played by the legendary Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Murphy’s play was popular enough to go through two editions in one year, both published by Paul Vaillant, whose shop was on the Strand near Southampton Street. The book sold for 1 shilling, 6 pence (the equivalent of $13 in today’s money; its actual assessed value today is $50-$100). The play was revived in 1772 and Vaillant released a third edition to coincide with the performance run; a fourth edition was published by W. Gilbert and H. Chamberlaine in 1787.

The pages of the book measure 13cm x 20cm with vertical chain-lines space approximately 3cm apart. There are no errors in pagination ([1]-88 on B1-G4 verso), though the running-titles occasionally read “The Orphan of China:” instead of the more frequent “The Orphan of China.” suggesting at least two skeleton-formes were used for the printing. The title page (A1) is unsigned, as is the second page of the dedication (A3) and the Epilogue (A4). While gathering A contains only 4 leaves, gatherings B through F are of 8 leaves (signed on the recto of the first four of each, with the exception of F3, which is unsigned). The final gathering (G) is only four leaves. Often the preliminary matter in plays (the title page, dedication, dramatis personae, etc.) was printed last -- after the body of the play had been printed; perhaps the four leaves signed as A in the book are actually the absent four leaves from G.

The contents of my copy include a blank modern flyleaf, followed by: the title page (A1) with a blank verso; the dedication (dated April 30, 1759, Lincoln’s Inn) to John, Earl of Bute, Groom of the Stole to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (A2-A3 recto; paginated “iv” on A2 verso and “v” on A3 recto); the Prologue (A3 verso) and Epilogue (A4 recto), written by Poet Laureate William Whitehead; the dramatis personae list and location identification (A4 verso); the play proper (B1-G4); and a blank modern flyleaf at the end. A Latin quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid (IX.v.474-8) appears on the title page. Fancy tiny figures are arranged in careful geometric patterns at key places in the book (at the start of the play proper, for example, between acts and at the end); they give the text a very exotic feel that corresponds to the exotic narrative and setting of the play itself (and to the “Orientalism” fad that was sweeping 18th century England). The only marginalia in my copy is an inked “5” at the center top of the title page (suggesting that the copy had once been bound fifth into a collection of other plays; the same ink may be responsible for the accidental spotting on the title page) and, in what might be the same hand, a series of (accurate) sums written in pencil in the outer margin of A3 recto. Aside from some tears in the margins of a few pages (none affecting the text) the copy is in excellent shape.

The play itself is, like most Georgian English tragedies, is sensationalist in plot and rhetorically florid in dialogue; the drama revolves around a fantastic dispossession and vengeance plot, coupled with sword fights, royal power struggles, and staged deaths. Murphy based his Orphan of China on a French translation (by Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare) of a Yuan Dynasty-era play published in a French work (Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s 1735 Description géographique, l’empire de la Chine). The play, Tchao chi con ell (“The little orphan of the family of Tchao”) was also used by Voltaire for his 1755 Orphelin de la Chine and is generally recognized to be the first Chinese play staged in Europe (the Chinese original--The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao Family--was itself based on an episode from The Records of the Grand Historian, also known simply as Shiji. Shiji is the first continuous historiographic narrative of China, an epic recounting of Chinese history from the age of the Yellow Emperor (ca. 2600 BC) through the age of the work’s author (Sima Qian) around 91 BC.

Though Voltaire and Murphy came to the drama from the same source (Prémare’s translation), there are many significant differences between Murphy’s version and Voltaire’s dramatization (Murphy actually wrote a letter to Voltaire after the French production and before staging his own).

Born in Ireland, Murphy (1727-1805) was a celebrated legal mind--as a lawyer, writer, and law review editor--who shaped many important cases in late 18th century London. He also wrote three biographies (of Samuel Johnson, Henry Fielding, and David Garrick), eighteen plays (of which The Orphan of China was his third), and numerous essays and poems (sometimes under the pseudonym of “Charles Ranger”).

Before I conclude this entry, I wanted to share a lesson that I learned from buying this book at Brattle: it's the old cliche about not judging a book by its cover. While browsing the shelves on the third floor I spent most of my time looking for “old” bindings (vellum, faded leather, etc.). But this book--in a very tight, immaculately plain full-calf with very simple gold embossed lines on the spine--is a reminder that, frequently, old texts are to be found in newer bindings; indeed, old texts that are very well taken care of are more likely to be in newer bindings. Just a cautionary tale for those browsers out there: don’t skip over the shiny spines for the decayed volumes with the boards pulling apart. You never know what you might miss.

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