Sunday, February 5, 2012

Off With His Head! A Broken and Rebound Collection of 18th Century Drama

This week’s book is a fine owner-made collection of seven plays (six comedies and one historical tragedy) written and staged by the famed London actor-manager Colley Cibber (1671-1757; right) in the early eighteenth century. It is evident from the signatures that a previous owner had disbound the plays from what had been a two-volume collection and then the owner who purchased the disbound works had them bound together himself into the extant single volume.

The contents in the volume (not including two initial blanks and two final blanks inserted by the second owner at the time of re-binding) are as follows:

Love’s Last Shift: or, The Fool in Fashion. A Comedy. As it is Acted At the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane, By His Majesty’s Servants. Written by C. Cibber. Printed in London, 1721. [Premiered and first published in 1696.] (viii) 74. 4o: [#]A4-C4(-C4+π1.2) D4(±D4?) E4-L1: $2. Roman numeral signatures added in the lower margins of the fourth leaf in occasional gatherings indicate that this play was taken from Volume I of the original collection. The preliminaries include: title-page; Cibber’s dedication to Richard Norton, Esq., of Southwick; prologue “By a Friend” and spoken by “Mr. Verbrughen”; epilogue spoken by “Miss Cross (who sung Cupid)”; full dramatis personae with character descriptions and the names of the players (Cibber played Sir Novelty Fashion, “A Coxcomb that loves to be the first in all Foppery”).

The Lady’s Last Stake, or, The Wife’s Resentment. A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Queen’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, By Her Majesty’s Servants. [Written by Cibber and premiered in 1707.] [viii] 97. 4o: A4-N1: $2. This play was the first in the second volume and gathering N continues into the next play in the collection. The preliminaries include: title-page; Cibber’s dedication to the Marquis of Kent, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain; prologue; sparse dramatis personae with the character names and the names of the players (Cibber played Lord George Brillant [sic]). The play ends with an epilogue, spoken (and sung) by Cibber.

The Rival Fools: or, Wit, at Several Weapons. A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal By Her Majesty’s Servants. [Written by Cibber and premiered in 1709; an adaptation of John Fletcher’s Wit at Several Weapons of c. 1609-20]. [iv] 103-184. 4o: N2-4 O4-Z4: $2. This play was continuous from the previous in Volume II of the original collection. The preliminaries include the title-page, prologue (ending with the ridiculous couplet: “But if [our] humble Jests shou’d fail to win ye, / We beg some Grace for Signior Cibberini.”), and the sparse dramatis personae giving the actors’ names with their parts (Cibber played Samuel Simple). The play ends with an epilogue in the form of a comic dialogue between the actors Pinkethman and Bullock. According to the catchword on Z4v, the next play after this in the original Volume II was Ximena, a comic adaptation of Corneille’s tragicomedy The Cid, written by Cibber in 1712. In the extant collection, however, Ximena is missing.

The Non-Juror. A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Theatre-Royal, By His Majesty’s Servants. [Cibber’s politicized and heavily anti-Catholic 1717 adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe.] [271]-364. 4o: 2N4-3A2. The preliminaries include the title-page, a lavish dedication to the new Hanoverian King George I (in which Cibber alludes to the defeat of the Jacobite rebels of 1715), a prologue (largely political and anti-Catholic and bearing no real relevance to Cibber’s play) written by English poet and first editor of Shakespeare’s plays (in 1709) Nicholas Rowe, and a sparse dramatis personae with actors’ names (Cibber played Doctor Wolf) and the scene. The play ends with a rousing rhyming couplet that takes the characters out of the world of the play to address the royal audience (“Grant us but this, and then of course you’ll own, / To guard that Freedom, GEORGE must fill the Throne”) and an epilogue, spoken by Mrs. Oldfield, that continues in the same vein (“How wild, how frantick is the vain Essay, / That builds on modern Politicks a Play! / Methinks to write at all is bold enough, / But in a Play, to stand a Faction, Buff! / Not Rome’s old Stage presum’d (or Fame’s a Fibber) / And Moderns to attempt it! well said CIBBER!”). The play that follows this in the original Volume II is again missing (whatever it was, according to the catchword on 3A2v it began with “The”).

She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not, or, The Kind Imposter. A Comedy. As it is Acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. By His Majsty’s [sic] Servants. Written by Mr. Cibber. Printed in the Year 1721. [Premiered in 1702.] [241]-324. 4o: 2I4-2T2: $2(-2T2). The preliminaries include the title-page, Cibber’s (again, quite political) dedication to James, Duke of Ormond, the prologue and epilogue, and slightly detailed dramatis personae list with actors’ names (Cibber played Don Manuel) and scene (Madrid, a refreshing change from the usual Cibber setting of London). Based on the pagination, this play likely came out of the original Volume I, but – oddly – no clear designation of this appears in the signatures. It’s possible that the play came from another book altogether; the font is of a smaller size than in the other plays (the others fit 36 lines per page; this fits 38 lines per page) and some of the devices don’t appear elsewhere in the collection.

The Tragical History of King Richard III. As it is now Acted At the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane. Alter’d from SHAKESPEAR, by Mr. CIBBER. Printed in London in 1721 [premiered in 1699]. [75]-140. 4o: [L2-4] M4-T2: $2. The preliminaries are remarkably sparse given that this was probably Cibber’s most famous play: a single leaf with the title-page on the recto and elegant by spare dramatis personae list on the verso, with – oddly for Cibber, no actors’ names. Based on markings in the lower margin this was from the original Volume I of the collection and, based on the pagination, this was the second play in the book, following Love’s Last Shift. Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III – participating in the Restoration and eighteenth-century tradition of “improving” Shakespeare by adapting his works for the radically different English stage of the period – is the source of the now famous line, “Off with his head!” (see below).

Love makes a Man: or, The Fop’s Fortune. A Comedy. As it is now Acted at the Theatre Royal In Drury-Lane. By His Majesty’s Servants. By Cibber and premiered in 1700; Cibber made this play by merging two plays by John Fletcher (The Elder Brother and The Custom of the Country). [141]-[220]. 4o: [T3-4] U4-2F2: $2(-2F2). The preliminaries include the title-page, prologue, and dramatis personae list with actors’ names (Cibber played Clodio, “a pert Coxcomb”); the play ends with an epilogue.

Throughout the entirety, additional marks (asterisks, daggers, and inverted crosses in the plays taken from Volume I and tiny Arabic numerals in the plays taken from Volume II) in the lower margin of some sheets may have been used at the time of printing in order to aid in imposition or binding.

The printer has used very elegant devices, decorated majuscules, and ornaments throughout the play. At times the ornamentation – often constructed by carefully arranging tiny pieces of decorative type into large patterns – competes with the text of the plays themselves for the eye’s attention. Only rarely do any devices, ornaments, or majuscules repeat, even within the two different volumes; this speaks to the elaborate nature of the printing project and suggests it was expansive enough to merit essentially all of the attention and equipment of the compositor(s) who were working on it. The printing was very careful and cleanly done; there are few immediately evident errors and judicious use of page space makes the text extremely clear and readable. The printer was also attentive to how his work could illuminate the plays themselves; for example, he used tiny crown ornaments to separate the end of Act II in Richard the Third from the start of Act III – a point in the play where Richard ominously welcomes his nephew, Prince Edward, to London (see below).

The paper used for both volumes is a typical sturdy laid stock measuring 22.5cm x 27.5cm, with horizontal chain-lines that vary between 2.5cm and 3cm intervals. In the plays from Volume II, the chain-lines actually alternate between the two distances; in all the plays from Volume I except for Love’s Last Shift they are largely consistent at 3cm. (In the blanks added for the rebinding, the chain-lines are 3.5cm.) This suggests that two stocks of paper were used; the first stock was split between Volumes I and II and the second stock reserved only for Volume II. This is confirmed by the distribution of watermarks. 

A sample of Cibber's writing style.
No watermarks appear in Love’s Last Shift or any of the plays from Volume II. The remaining plays from Volume I, however, bear a watermark that indicate the use of a side-by-side paper mould; as is typical of quarto imposition, the mark crosses the middle of the spine fold – meaning that when the mark appears, it is either the top half or bottom half and it is within the inner gutter of the page. With only a few exceptions, the mark tends to follow the conventional quarto format of division across conjugate leaves (for example, if the top half appears on S4, the bottom half is on S1, or if the top half is on Q3, the bottom half is on Q2). The mark is virtually identical to what paper historians describe as the “Strasbourg bend” (Gaskell’s fig. 30 on p. 68, but without the countermark), consisting of a fleur de lys sitting atop a shield design bearing a stripe, or “bend”, diagonally across it.

The book that these plays came from was clearly Plays Written by Mr. Cibber, In Two Volumes published in London in 1721 by a consortium of stationers made up of Jacob Tonson, Bernard Lintot, William Mears, and William Chetwood (OCLC #228742382). Tonson’s name was evidently dropped from the imprint of Volume II, which suggests he pulled out of the project prior to the printing of that part of the book. It was a subscription publication and a list of subscribers can be found in most extant copies of Volume I. The OCLC description confirms that this is the source of the plays in my collection with the following note: “Each play in vol. 1 has a separate dated title page, but pagination and register are continuous in each volume.” No indication is given, however, as to whom the accomplished printer was that produced the project for the stationers.

My copy has been bound into paper-covered boards; the front and back paper has a feathered marbling that has been subjected to some wear and damage over time. The spine is a heavily painted brown paper meant to imitate leather; there are six compartments separated by raised gilded bands. A red leather label bears the gilded title “Plays”. The hinges, front and back, are cracked and rather loose from use, but nothing is detached.

The only marginalia in the entire book is an owner’s inscription in a confident eighteenth-century hand using copperplate ink, on the front pastedown:

Thomas Beecroft
No 23
Pater Noster Row.

Scouring genealogical records turns up a Thomas Beecroft born to John and Elizabeth Beecroft of London on January 16, 1754. Pater Noster Row in London was the city’s principal book trade neighborhood and so my initial suspicion is that Beecroft was somehow associated with the industry. Consulting the Exeter Working Papers in Book History, which lists individuals who were part of the book trade in eighteenth century England, confirms my suspicions. 

Thomas’s father, John Beecroft – son of gentleman John Beecroft of Norwich – was a wholesale bookseller working and living on Pater Noster Row since 1740. In 1767 he moved to 23 Pater Noster Row. In 1773 he became one of the masters of the Stationers’ Company, the guild for printers and booksellers. He was particularly known for his publication of music and because he served as a bookselling agent for Cambridge University. In 1779, however, he died of an apoplectic fit and his twenty-five year-old son, Thomas Beecroft, who had likely served his apprenticeship under his father, inherited the shop at 23 Pater Noster Row. He ran the shop for only about two years, from 1780 to 1781; after being elected to a livery in the Stationers’ Company in 1781, he pulled up roots and moved to Walthamstow, Essex. He died on June 1, 1787 in Saxethorpe, Norfolk.

Because Beecroft was likely working in his father’s shop as a boy – or at the very least living in the family’s quarters on the floors above the shop – it’s impossible to say when he owned these plays and if he was the person responsible for having them bound together. The handwriting seems rather mature, so perhaps he was at least an adolescent when he inscribed the book. But why these plays in particular? City apprentices were famously dedicated attendees at London theaters, so perhaps he had actually seen them staged in reprises. The fact that most of them had appeared on stage around fifty years before Thomas was even born suggests they must have had staying power for him. Had a previous owner, perhaps closer to Cibber’s day, bound the book together to include plays he had seen, or read, and liked? Or had Beecroft, through his connections with the book trade, obtained the disbound plays and simply lumped them together with no regard for order (the order is not chronological, alphabetical, or even generic)? Or was it simply a matter of availability: a copy of the original two-volume collection was damaged and these were the only salvageable portions. I somehow doubt this last option because the text block is in remarkably good condition and has survived completely intact. I suspect, sadly, that this was simply a case of some unscrupulous owner or dealer taking the knife to a complete book so that he could sell many books rather than just the one.

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