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Playbills for King Lear: 1752-1827

Alexander Thom begins to shed light on how King Lear has been viewed over the centuries, thanks to research undertaken in our collection.

Alexander Thom

Alexander Thom is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, working with the Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate for Midland 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

I’m currently researching the afterlives of King Lear in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections. Over the next few months, I will blogging about individual holdings that tell us about how Shakespeare’s King Lear has been thought about over the centuries. This post is about the first set of items I called up: a bundle of playbills from 1752-1827.

Playbills are promotional documents, like flyers, which were handed out to market individual performances. How something is advertised often reveals a lot about the way people think about products. This is no less true for ‘high art’.

Carefully moving through this bundle of tattered playbills, I decided to focus on the first half in the collection, spanning nearly 75 years of English theatre. The format broadly stayed the same — as you can see in the photographs — but the details offer some surprising insights.

The actor playing Lear is consistently billed first (with one notable exception below). The first thing that sprung out, across the earliest period (1752-1774), was that Edgar frequently received second-place billing — a more prominent position than he would usually be afforded today. 

King Lear Playbill 1756 — Covent Garden
1756, Covent Garden, Spranger Barry as Lear

His position moves in 1775-1800, receiving final billing among the male characters, i.e. “And Edgar by [actor]”. This is a no less prominent position, however. We can recognise this marketing tactic of saving an important supporting actor until last in the film industry today.

Something else that the playbills can tell us is about the actual casting of the roles. With this in mind, Edgar again appears to be the choice part. The famous actor Charles Kemble moved from Edmund (1801) to Edgar (1809), playing Edgar twice in 1820 (opposite Booth’s Lear and Vandenhoff’s Lear) and again in 1827 with Young. Vandenhoff, having played the title role, then went on to play Edgar to Kean’s Lear in 1827. The playbill for this production also promoted Kean’s Othello, in which Vandenhoff played Iago. The recurring impression then — quite contrary to what we might think today — is that Edgar was very much the second best male role in Lear.

King Lear Playbill 1827 — Liverpool
1827, Liverpool, Edmund Kean as Lear

Another preconception that we might have today also is that, among the women’s parts, Goneril is the choice role. Relative to her sisters, she has the largest number of lines across the play. Her conflict with her father and her husband, and her affair with Edmund, are explored in more detail by Shakespeare, offering rich opportunities for a skilled actor. This is borne out in modern practice, where Goneril routinely attracts the biggest name of the three sisters. In these older playbills, however, Cordelia often seems to take pride of place, attracting star actresses. The iconic Sarah Siddons (elder sister to Charles Kemble and John Philip Kemble) is a notable example. She played the role repeatedly and, in one instance, magnificently topped the play-bill ahead of the actor playing Lear. Likewise, in Kean’s Lear-Othello playbill, the actress playing Cordelia also plays Desdemona, the third and last name attached to Othello.

King Lear Playbill 1797 — Liverpool
1797, Liverpool, Sarah Siddons as Cordelia, note “And Edgar, Mr. Whitfield” also

From 1801 onward, the billing order becomes standardised, apparently according to the ranks of the characters (King Lear, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Albany, etc.). My suspicion is that this uniform shift reflects the publication of new editions of Lear with revised dramatis personae. This is perhaps supported by the increasing reference in playbills to editions “printed in exact conformity with the performance” being available in performance, some even citing an editor. Much like theatre gift-shops today, audiences were able to buy copies of the play they had come to see.

King Lear Playbill 1809 — Haymarket
1809, Haymarket, J. P. Kemble as Lear, C. Kemble as Edgar

Image: standardised cast list by rank, “The Publick are respectfully informed that the Tragedy of KING LEAR, printed in exact conformity with the performance, will be to be had at the Theatre this Evening.”

The last important detail we can discern from the character lists — due to the absence of the Fool or King of France — is the fact that the performances being advertised are not strictly for Shakespeare’s King Lear. Instead, these are performances of Nahum Tate’s adaptation, which featured a romantic subplot between Cordelia and Edgar and a happy ending, which explains their relative preeminence on the playbills. Tate’s version was so popular that it completely displaced Shakespeare’s from English professional theatres for over a century. In my next blog post, I’ll be looking at Tate’s version, and its controversial happy ending, in a little more detail.