Two weeks ago my post was on the subject of the relationship between different, often seemingly contradictory, forms of information media. I’d like to pick up that thread again this week. This book was a gift to me from a professor who specializes in the history of the book; he uses a similar book in his classes to teach this concept of the persistence of material forms as media change, and when he gave it to me he suggested that I might find it useful to do the same.
The book is the first edition of Seven Famous One-Act Plays, published by Penguin Books at their then-new headquarters near Heathrow at Harmondsworth (Middlesex, England) in 1937. It retailed for six pence (about $1.70 in modern money) and was one of many titles that, beginning in 1935, Penguin sold through numerous outlets, including the unique Penguincubator vending machine (the spine title on the early Penguins is inverted from the customary direction -- running from bottom to top rather than top to bottom -- because it was designed to be loaded into the machine cover down so it would be dispensed cover up upon purchase; the inverted spine title allowed it to be read through the machine’s display glass).
It is, as the title indicates, a selection of brief plays ideal for reading and amateur production -- book number 117 in Penguin’s famous paperback series. Each of the plays includes a brief introductory “note” about it, its performance, and the playwright. The book itself begins with a longer introduction (pp. 11-14), likely written by J. A. Ferguson (whose play Campbell of Kilmohr is included) principally dedicated to explaining and defending the then-relatively new genre of the one-act play (essentially, the one-act play is not an incomplete or partial version of the conventional two-act play; rather, through an “extreme of verbal economy”, the one-act play is a complete and whole dramatic narrative of its own).
The seven plays included are (in order of appearance):
A Marriage Has Been Arranged, by Alfred Sutro; first produced at London’s Garrick Theatre on March 27, 1904 and published that year by Samuel French. pp. 15-31.
The Cloak: A Studio Play, by Clifford Bax; first produced by the Travelling Theatre of the Arts League of Service (undated) and apparently first published in this collection. pp. 33-49.
Two Gentlemen of Soho, by A. P. Herbert; first produced by William Armstrong at the Liverpool Playhouse on September 3, 1927 and first published in 1927 by Samuel French. pp. 51-77.
Campbell of Kilmohr, by J. A. Ferguson; first produced by Lewis Casson for the Scottish Repertory Theatre Company at Glasgow’s Royalty Theatre on March 23, 1914 and first published by Samuel French in 1915. pp. 53-100.
The Maker of Dreams, by Oliphant Down; first produced by the Scottish Repertory Theatre Company, directed by A. Wareing, at Glasgow’s Royalty Theatre on November 20, 1911 and apparently first published in this collection. pp. 101-123.
The Dear Departed, by Stanley Houghton; first produced by “Miss Horniman’s Company” at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre on November 2, 1908 and first published in 1910 by Samuel French. pp. 125-147.
The Monkey’s Paw, by Louis N. Parker, adapted from the story by W. W. Jacobs; first produced at London’s Haymarket Theatre on October 6, 1902 and first published by Samuel French in 1910. pp. 149-180.
Following the plays, the book concludes with eight pages (unpaginated) of a “Complete list of all Penguin and Pelican Books to the end of 1937” (“NB: New books may have been added to the series since this book was printed. Ask your bookseller for the latest list.”) The list of Penguin Books, in which each title has a number, is organized by genre: fiction (orange covers), crime fiction (green covers), travel and adventure (cerise covers), and biography and memoirs (dark blue covers); the list concludes with a grouping of titles under the heading “November, 1937” (which includes Seven Famous One-Act Plays) and another under “January, 1938” (presumably forthcoming at the time this was published). These lists are repeated on the back cover of the book, but in numeric order.
In the advertising on the final pages, there is also a list of Pelican Books (numbered but with the letter “A” prefixed; in light blue covers), a “series of books on science, economics, history, sociology, archaeology, etc.”. The last page of the advertising is for “The Penguin Shakespeare”: “A sixpenny Shakespeare specially edited for Penguin Books by Dr. G. B. Harrison” (numbered with a “B” prefixed; only 12 published at that time). The advertising concludes with the welcoming comment, “If you have any suggestions to make for future books, please don’t hesitate to send them in.”]
Collationally, the book may be described as 16o: A16-F14: $1. The stock is flimsy and acidic (though it is in very good condition, with no foxing, tearing, or staining). It is a softcover, bound in paper. What makes this copy so peculiar is that, though it is a paperback, the book has a dust-jacket. Eventually dust-jackets on paperbacks vanished -- a product both of paper rationing during the war and the eventual realization that using paper to protect paper covers was pointless. But when Penguin first began popularizing these cheap, handy paperbacks, the idea of a book was that it had to have a dust-jacket: putting a jacket on a paperback -- especially during the strict paper-rationing during wartime -- is a testament to the durability of certain publishing conventions. Despite radical changes in the material form of the book and the increasing costs of paper, the old ways only gradually changed. New forms, after all, so often mimic the old forms simply because that is what is known and familiar: the first printed books looked like manuscripts, the first films resembled stage plays, and even the latest e-books are made to emulate the appearance of the printed page.
The oddity of a paperback bearing a dust-jacket is perhaps best captured by surveying dealers’ listings for this particular book: 16 dealers list carrying a “complete” copy of the 1937 Seven Famous One-Act Plays; only 6 mention the dust-jacket. And simply looking at a photograph of the book won’t indicate the presence or absence of the jacket, since the front cover, spine, and back cover were printed to look exactly like the dust-jacket itself. The new changes the old, but it can never absolutely replace it.