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  • Laboratory, Library, Database:London's Avant-Garde Drama Societies and Ephemeral Repertoire
  • Matthew Franks (bio)

In November 1901, a London play-producing organization known as the Stage Society sent circulars to its 523 members announcing one Sunday evening and one Monday matinée performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession. The Lord Chamberlain had banned George Bernard Shaw's play three years earlier, and although the Stage Society's members-only performances technically were exempt from both the pre-performance licensing requirement and the longstanding prohibition on Sunday theatrics, managers feared the loss of their operating licenses. By the time the play premiered at the New Lyric Club in January, the Stage Society had been forced to change venues three times, after approaching at least twelve theaters, two music halls, three hotels, and two galleries. The society also had postponed the production once due to an actress's last-minute scheduling conflict. With each change, the society printed new sets of circulars, programs, and tickets—sometimes only a day apart.

Dedicated to the discovery of new or very old drama, subscription societies were experimental coterie clubs composed of members whose annual fees financed, and secured tickets to, a season of private productions. In 1891, J. T. Grein founded the first such group in Britain, the Independent Theatre Society, in order to stage a performance of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, which the Lord Chamberlain had banned from the public stage. Over 140 subscription societies followed; the Stage Society (1899–1939) ran longest and most successfully.1 Though extreme, the case of Mrs. Warren's Profession demonstrates the extent to which subscription societies lacked actors and theaters of their own, and relied on printed ephemera to constitute, as much as to communicate, their performances. Compared to bound books, ephemera—from the Greek for things lasting no more than a day—better approximated the transience of live performance. But ephemera also could virtually assemble repertoires and audiences beyond a single theater or performer. The Stage Society's annual report meticulously recounted the Mrs. Warren saga and boasted of the speedy production of ephemera: "Tickets and programmes and a circular to Members were printed and ready within twenty-four hours." The curtain would go up after the letterpress had come down: when the theater changed five days before another performance, members "[suffered] no further inconvenience than a late receipt of programmes and tickets consequent on the delay due to reprinting."2 Subscription societies produced more ephemera than plays, such that Shaw received a prospectus from the fictitious "Pornographic Play Society (Limited)," which stated that the success of Mrs. Warren's Profession "encourages the Committee of the P. P. Society to follow it up by a series of performances suitable to the taste of supersensuous audiences."3 The prospectus satirized the tastes of subscription society members and the plays promised to them by committees. It also mocked the "limited" nature of such societies, conflating legal registration with limits on influence.

How did these avant-garde societies shape the performance repertoire? In this article, I quantitatively analyze a database of over 23,000 London productions from 1890 to 1959 in order to determine the extent to which subscription societies introduced a modern dramatic repertoire to the public stage, otherwise known as the commercial theater.4 I further argue that subscription societies virtually assembled the very idea of a modern dramatic repertoire using ephemera such as prospectuses, programs, annual reports, and tickets. My methodological aims with respect to the study of repertoire are twofold: to demonstrate the potentials and limitations of digital databases and to make a case for integrating them with book history. As Debra Caplan has observed, databases "tackle a recurring and significant challenge in [theater and performance studies]—the ephemerality of our medium and the dispersal of theatrical ephemera that may shed light on a performance event."5 In this article, I follow through on Caplan's pun by tracking the relationship between theatrical ephemera and performance databases in the era of modernity, when Britain's professional not-for-profit theater sector first emerged, and with it, a quantifiable avant-garde.6

By combining book-historical and digital-quantitative methods, I propose a new model...


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