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GILLIAN RUSSELL “Announcing each day the performances”: Playbills, Ephemerality, and Romantic Period Media/Theater History O F THE DIVERSE RANGE OF PRINTED EPHEMERA IN LATE GEORGIAN BRITain , the playbill, with the significant exception of the lottery ticket, was the most ubiquitous. Its presence as part ofa late Georgian media ecol­ ogy is apparent in a comment made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a letter to Sara Hutchinson in 1802. Fancying himselfas a stage manager ofthe de­ ity’s theater of nature in the Lake District, Coleridge writes: “Blessings on the mountains! to the Eye & Ear they are always faithful. I have often thought ofwriting a Set of Play-bills for the vale ofKeswick—for every day in the Year—announcing each Day the Performances by his Supreme Majesty’s Servants, Clouds, Waters, Sun, Moon, Stars, &c.”' Coleridge imagines himself as a kind of diurnal historiographer, the playbill repre­ senting the possibility of inscribing and retaining traces of the constantly changing beauty of the natural “scene.” As stage manager of God’s theater of the world Coleridge not only exemplifies a Romantic poetics of ephemerality—which in its epistolary instantiation is itself to the moment—but also the embeddedness of such a poetics in the practices of collecting, as indicated by the fact that a file of playbills for the Keswick Theatre does in fact survive, in the playbill collections of the British Li­ brary.2 These playbills serve as a correlative of and also, we might say in their status as printed ephemera, an enabling condition of Coleridge’s the­ ater historiography of the everyday natural world. The playbill, which is of central significance to the history of Georgian ephemerology, thus deserves to be recognized as having a place in a cul1 . Coleridge, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, vol. 2: 18011806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 825. 2. British Library Playbills, 291. SiR, 54 (Summer 2015) 241 242 GILLIAN RUSSELL tural history of Romantic textuality as a whole? Throughout her career Jane Moody was attentive to how the playbill could evoke the specificity in time and place of the performance event, vividly imagining, in Illegitimate Theatre in London, “many a spectator poring over the contents of a bill by the light of a candle in a gloomy rented two-pair back?’3 4 5 The playbill enunciated the play to be performed, the actors, the existence of the play­ house, and implicitly, a potential audience, while at the same time signify­ ing dimensions oftheater and theatricality beyond the specific performance event. This dual dimension of the playbill, I want to suggest, accounts for why Georgian men and women were attracted to it, why they collected it, and why, for such an apparently “ephemeral” document, so many play­ bills survive. I am interested in the playbill as an artifact ofboth the theater and Romantic print culture, a zone in which print textuality and theatri­ cality are profoundly imbricated. The playbill can be said to make visible the performative aspects of print, specifically its embedded orality and ocularity—the appeal to both “the Eye & Ear”—that made Coleridge think that the playbill was an appropriate metaphor for the panorama ofthe vale of Keswick. Holding the Playbill to the Light The importance of the playbill in theatrical and urban culture dates from the early modern period, the records of the Stationers’ Company showing that a succession ofprinters were authorized to produce playbills from 1587 onwards. As well as being distributed within and around playhouses, these bills would have been posted on walls and doorways, amplifying the impact ofthe theater, as Tiffany Stern has argued, within the cityscape as a whole? No playbills survive from this period. It was in the eighteenth century, with the expansion of both the print trade and the theater that the playbill became widely used and also archived. The production of playbills was a significant dimension of the jobbing trade for printers, both in London and the provinces. Some of the major metropolitan theaters had their own in­ house printing shops, while there was a close association between local 3. “Ephemerology” was the body ofknowledge about quotidian life, associational culture, customs and amusements, the mundane and the marvellous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 241-268
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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