- Accounting for Plays in the Long Eighteenth Century
expanding upon a series of Panizzi Lectures given by Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume at the British Library in 2011, The Publication of Plays in London, 1660–1800 promises to shed light on the roles of “playwrights, publishers, and readers” (xii). In addressing the relation between the first two, the authors have excelled; however, the third term should really be “market” (as it is in the book’s title), since readers’ interests are represented by their purchasing practices rather than their reactions to what they purchased.
Organized in three broad parts addressing (1) the basic mechanics of publishing new plays in the period between 1660 and 1800, (2) the financial realities that influenced the publication of plays, and (3) the generally neglected variations or additions to texts as initially printed (such as collections, reprints, and illustrations), the organizational schema of Milhous and Hume’s book positions it as a resource for those interested in bibliographic history. Clearly, its emphasis is economic, and thus the text is richly supported by quantitative data generated by the authors and other scholars. Richly illustrated by materials drawn predominantly from the British Library and replete with visual representations of data, including easy-to-consult footnotes, this work represents the first systematic effort to catalogue all aspects of publishing a play in this period. Those readers who seek to undertake the book as a whole will be rewarded with an extensive panoramic view of the interplay between playwrights and publishers that shaped publication practices. At times, the material may seem overly [End Page 179] general or repetitive as a result of its ambition to offer a wide survey to the novice student; the work, however, with its detailed table of contents and penchants for lists and—at least in the beginning section—question-and-answer format, enables the selective reading of sections or subsections by scholars with more focused interests.
As befits a survey-style work, the book is not governed by one main argument or style of argumentation: in some instances, bare facts are laid out; at other times, conflicting opinions are presented for consideration without much comment; in still other instances, the authors advance their own, local arguments. In their refreshingly brief epilogue, the authors acknowledge the “dense, detailed, highly particular and quantified” nature of their book and offer sixteen main conclusions suggested by their research into playwrights, publishers, playbooks, and their contexts (361). This is not simply a summary of the earlier sections’ main points of contention, but a synthesis of those observations and arguments. Here, too, is a final attempt to indicate several areas in need of further study, reminding readers that the purpose of this book is to advance the consideration of plays in the fields of print studies and theater studies, among others.
A specific strength of the book is its detailed prologue on staging and publication practices prior to 1660: Milhous and Hume here display their interest in the principled tracing of cause-and-effect relationships where possible; they excel at embedding research on quantifiable economic issues pertaining to publication within specific historical circumstances. Most importantly, the authors remind readers that Renaissance plays were not held in the same esteem in their time as they are retrospectively; the assumption that they were colors much of the available scholarship.
Of the three main sections, it is “Financial Contexts” that makes the most sustained original contribution to scholarship. Drawing upon the work of three long-eighteenth-century political arithmeticians in demographic economics, each whose studies looked at a different period in the long eighteenth century, Milhous and Hume establish an approximate average family income during the period. This allows the authors to address the question of a universal factor by which to convert eighteenth-century currency into present-day values. They then apply those theoretical abstractions in an effort to determine the pricing decisions and potential profits behind a collection of plays by Colley Cibber (Plays, 1721), John Gay’s...