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Reader Services Guides: Pre-20th Century Performance History

In this Reader Services Guide, find out more about pre-20th century theatre ephemera in our collection and how to research performance history in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Madeleine Cox
Edmund Kean as Shylock, Richard III (carrying the Drury Lane Theatre) and Hamlet in 1814. From the picture collection.

In this Reader Services Guide we are going to explore the wealth of pre-20th century theatre ephemera in our collection (although the suggestions apply equally to early 20th century material). These items relate mainly to productions in the 18th and 19th centuries at the London theatres as well as in other venues such as Manchester and Dublin (and even abroad), but we will also give a brief introduction to early material relating to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (now RSC). This exciting part of our collection comprises illustrations, early prompt books, theatrical scrapbooks, printed playtexts, newscuttings and pamphlets, tickets, programmes and souvenir items and thousands of original playbills. This guide is particularly important as much of this material is not yet available to search on the online catalogue and relies upon traditional card catalogues and paper listings. This makes it one of the most exciting parts of our collection for researchers to explore! You may also want to explore the collections of other organisations that are part of APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections)

King Lear Playbill 1797 — Liverpool

Researching pre-20th century performance history in our Collection

We have a wealth of original material, but a good starting point for any research into performance through the centuries is secondary literature


Classmarks of particular interest would be:

72 Shakespeare in Performance (On open access, each play has a sub-number e.g. Hamlet = 72.07)

83 English Theatre History (To be ordered up from basement)

83.1 English Theatrical History to 1660: General (On open access shelves)

83.6 Theatrical Biography

Many editions also provide useful information in their introductions. Books can be found on the online catalogue and in the card catalogue. Books with RR are on open access in the Reading Room. All other books can be ordered up using the request slips (1 per book).

Early prompt books are catalogued as books and we will look at how to find these later in this guide.

An excellent source for anyone wanting a detailed overview of the performance history of a particular play is Shakespearian Criticism. This subscription periodical, located on the back wall of the open access books, gives a list and where available, reviews, of productions since the very earliest recorded performances. It brings together material that might otherwise take weeks to find and really brings productions to life with reviews and even diary entries. Don't be deceived by the very dull brown cover! There is an index at the start of the sequence to help you find the volume you need.


Not familiar with Shakespearian Criticism? Find out more about it here!


Mrs. Yates as Cleopatra, 1777 Wearing a full-length dress and a rich gown, with hair piled high and surmounted by a small crown, Mrs Yates  points imperiously to our right. One of two maids behind her clutches her outstretched arm. Background is columns.
Mrs Yates as Cleopatra
He stands with his legs apart, leaning to his right and looking to his left, with his hands extended in protest or defence. The legend relates this to Hamlet, Act 1 scene 4.
David Garrick as Hamlet


This collection consists of loose pictorial material which is arranged following the same classification scheme as is used for books, and covers the same range of subjects. Areas of particular interest may be pictures of theatres, of actors (if in Shakespeare, these will have a reference 72 by play, otherwise they will be under theatrical biography at 83.6 and literary/ artistic interpretation of each play). As an example of how the numbering works, PC72.07 is a set of folders of pictures of Hamlet in performance, the same class mark as for books on Hamlet in performance.

The 72 Picture Collection folders follow a standard format and include a collective section (often autographed pictures from a scrapbook), followed by engravings, mezzo-tints and other early images up to early 20th century photos (excluding Shakespeare Memorial Theatre productions, which are kept in the main photo sequence). The earliest pictures date from the 18th century. These show scenes or individual characters and show how interpretations and costume have changed over the centuries. Amongst them are some 'penny plains', handcoloured by their original owners. At the end of the folders there is a section on foreign productions.

There is a card index for the Picture Collection in the Catalogue Room. This is arranged alphabetically by name of person, play title, artist or subject. The index also includes some references to items in books and scrapbooks. The location of the items is marked on the cards to allow you to fill out a Request Slip for these items. It is often easiest to order the entire set of folders (each play has 1-5 folders) for the play you are interested in. In this case, please fill out a slip giving the play title,“Picture Collection” and if you know it, the reference number for the play.


OSPC stands for Oversized Picture Collection - these include a curious illustration of the many kinds of Hamlet ('tall', 'short', 'slim' etc.), images of the famous Tommaso Salvini and stunning staff photos from the SMT/RSC.


To learn more about 'penny plains' take a look at this blog by Ashley M. Nary of Harvard University's Houghton Library.

Find out more about David Garrick and his image in this article by Heather McPherson on the Folger Shakespeare Library's Folgerpedia site. Garrick was so popular and used his image so successfully that he wrote to his brother George from Paris on November 20th 1764 asking him to send more prints of himself (perhaps such as the one above), saying 'I am so plagu'd here for my Prints or rather for Prints of Me'.


Othello playbill, 1833


We have a collection of over 8,000 printed playbills dating primarily from the mid 18th Century to the end of the 19th Century. The loose playbills collection is arranged chronologically within individual Shakespeare plays whilst bound playbills are arranged by performance venue. The collection also includes non-Shakespearian performances, especially for early 19th century productions. The collection covers performances in a variety of venues across the UK with particular emphasis on London playbills from the Theatres Royal at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, the Lyceum Theatre, and the Haymarket. There are separate files for Stratford-upon-Avon playbills pre-1880. We also have a small collection of silk playbills, foreign playbills (C.19) and playbills for other entertainments.

Playbills were originally handwritten and were pasted up on the day of a performance to advertise it. From 1587, they were printed. Fashions changed and playbills became more elaborate over the years – often with dramatic incitements to potential audiences. French trends lead to the introduction of red ink. Our playbills generally include the names of the actors and the roles they played, together with details of additional shows (the main show was often accompanied by a farce). From the early 19th century, advances in commercial print-making lead to the introduction of new typefaces. Some playbills also summarise the plot of the play at considerable length e.g. those of Kean, or give vivid descriptions of the set such as the 'Pleasure garden of the Princess Linda'(!), part of the set of a play accompanying an early production of Romeo and Juliet.

Occasionally (as is the case with our Ira Aldridge playbill) they may also feature a woodcut image. These items are useful to get a sense of how productions were promoted to audiences and also show which characters and aspects of the plot were favoured at the time.

We have a card index for playbills in the Catalogue Room. Alternatively, these can be ordered by folder (play title and either Stratford / other venues). Playbills are special access items. If you would like to view them, you will need to bring a letter of recommendation from a supervisor or tutor and order these in advance. Generally playbills should be viewed on microfiche. These are listed in the blue folder in the microfiche area to the right of the open access books. Playbills are in section 3i and the fiche themselves are in the boxes on the shelves. Our newest reader-printer is best for viewing these (and allows you the option of printing them out). Staff are always happy to help if need help finding items or operating equipment.


Thanks to our volunteers we have started to list our Shakespeare playbills on our online catalogue at ML1/

You will also find playbills at RSC/PRO/3 for pre-20th century SMT posters.

There are also playbills in our ER and DR collections, some of which have been digitized.

A simple way to browse all of these is to enter 'playbill' as your search term in our online catalogue. Please be aware that these are a fraction of our complete holdings.


We have a wonderful illustrated playbill from Ira Aldridge's performance of Othello in Stratford-upon-Avon. Find out more about this and about the life of Ira Aldridge in our online exhibition, which shows how early theatre ephemera can be used.



The Pamphlet Collection contains many items such as programmes and newscuttings that may be of interest to theatre researchers. In some cases these link in to other parts of the ephemera collection – for example for Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s Richard II (1903), we have a souvenir scroll and newscuttings (in the Pamphlet Collection) and early photos (in the Picture Collection). Pamphlets are catalogued in the same way as books and again, the 72 section may be most useful. These items are not on the online catalogue and you will need to use the card catalogue to find them (they are interfiled with the book cards). Please fill out a slip in the usual way, giving details of the play concerned, any author / key person and the year.


A souvenir scroll from Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Richard II

A paper lace programme of Kean's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Windsor Castle

Beerbohm Tree Richard
Items relating to Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Richard II, 1903, including a souvenir scroll


In addition to the main sequence of Shakespeare MemorialTheatre/ RSC prompt books we have an extensive collection of earlier prompt books from other locations. These are primarily Shakespearian prompt books from a variety of 19th-century productions with one significantly earlier, 'Macbeth' prompt book from the 18th century. Of particular interest are those prompt books associated with renowned actors and theatrical managers such as Oscar Asche, William Creswick, Samuel Phelps, Barry Sullivan, and the prompt books of John Kemble from productions at Covent Garden at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. The small number of non-Shakespearian prompt books document Benson Company productions. Henry Irving's prompt book for Hamlet is part of the Lyceum Theatre Collection. Whilst Benson Company prompt books are on the online catalogue together with other company material including music, other early prompt books can be found in the card catalogue as part of the book sequence.


All early prompt books should be viewed on microfilm where possible. In fact, the microfilm list is often the most convenient way of searching our holdings. This red volume can be found on the Quick Ref shelves in the Reading Room. The microfilms are on open access in the Reading Room. We also have microfilm/ fiche copies of prompt books held in other collections:


  • Prompt books from the Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Prompt books from the Harvard Theatre Collection


  • University of Bristol theatre collection (Old Vic, Beerbohm Tree etc)
  • Theatre Museum prompt copies
  • Garrick Club prompt copies

Lists of these also live on the Quick Ref shelves. Microfilms can be found in the open access microfilm cabinet in the open access book area. Fiche of items from other collections will need to be ordered from the basement.

Antony and Cleopatra prompt book, Princess's Theatre 1890
Illustrated prompt book from a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Princess's Theatre, 1890


Some acting copies have been printed, allowing researchers to look at cuts that were made to the text, as well as any additions and moves. Printed versions of acting copies can be found within the book sequence at class mark 50, searchable in the card catalogue. They may take the form of modern publications e.g. Cornmarket facsimiles or may be small pamphlet publications from the 18th or 19th century. As with all early printed books, we will ask you to bring a letter of recommendation stating your particular need to consult originals should you wish to see these books / pamphlets. They can be identified as they will have “SR” before the class mark.


A hand-coloured and partially handwritten copy of Julius Caesar illustrated by Ethel Webling. This has been digitized (eighty six images!) and you can download images of it for free under Creative Commons License.

Learn more about Ethel Webling in this blog by Ella Hawkins.

Julius Caesar, illustrated by Ethel Webling, 1898 SR Fol 50.15


The title page from "The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle" by Dryden. 1762.
The title page from "The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle" by Dryden. 1762.

In the same sequence as printed texts, you will also find altered versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Many of the plays were staged in very altered forms in the 17th and 18th centuries to cater to the tastes and staging practices of the time. Some even changed the title such as Garrick's Catharine and Petruchio and Johnson's Love in a Forest. We are lucky enough to have originals of some of these, but have modern copies of many more.


Read about some of our adaptations in this blog by Victoria Joynes.


Henry Irving as Hamlet
Henry Irving as Hamlet

Part of the archive collection of Abraham (Bram) Stoker gathered during the last twenty years of the 19th century when he was Manager to Henry Irving and his company at the Lyceum Theatre in London. It was formerly known as the Bram Stoker Collection and was purchased anonymously from Stoker's widow and donated to the SMT in the 1930s. The collection covers Lyceum Company productions of Shakespeare and other plays, in London and on tour, including tours to North America and pertains mainly to Henry Irving’s theatrical career. The Collection includes Irving’s play texts, some annotated or abridged, programmes, tickets and playbills, menus and seating plans for after-performance dinners and other official or prestigious occasions, reviews, caricatures and photographs of Irving’s stage career and extensive correspondence with Stoker and others. Material relating to Ellen Terry is also included. Only a very small amount of material relating to Stoker's own literary career.

Some of our favourite items!
  • Poster for Dracula
  • A letter from Oscar Wilde
  • A beautiful illustrated menu in French
  • Henry Irving's handkerchief
  • An advert for Beecham's cold medicine featuring Henry Irving
  • Sketches by Ellen Terry
  • Some curious sections of portraits, including two hands!

Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

There is a list of items in the Lyceum Theatre Collection in a ringbinder in the catalogue room (above the book card catalogue). A top-level description of the collection is available here, together with some images. Generally these items should be viewed on microfilm. The film list and films are on open access in the Reading Room. If you wish to consult originals, you should bring a letter of permission from a tutor or supervisor stating your particular need. Items can then be ordered by box (where many items are required from the same box) or by box and item number. They are organized by year, apart from special sections e.g. letters.

Find out more!

Read some of our blogs about this collection!

Bram Stoker, Walt Whitman and a few famous fingerprints, by Robyn Greenwood (RSC)

Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, by Dr. Ella Hawkins.

Dracula or the Undead, by Annette Ormancyzk

The Friendship of Henry Irving and Thomas Nast, by our BYU intern (2019), Kimber Shepard

Bram Stoker collection Conan Doyle letter
Letter to Bram Stoker from Arthur Conan Doyle


Ada Rehan as Rosalind
Ada Rehan as Rosalind

Augustin Daly (1838-1899) was an American theatre manager, playwright and drama critic who owned theatres named after him in both New York and London. We have souvenir volumes for certain plays which include a text of the play, numerous photos of his productions adjacent to the text and a beautiful souvenir silk programme (often featuring adverts for pianos and corsets!). They offer a wonderful insight into staging and costume at the time with really sharp, fresh photography showing every scene and character. They are located at SR Folio 72. We have these for:

As You Like It – 1890

Love’s Labour’s Lost – 1891

The Merchant of Venice – 1898

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 1888

Much Ado About Nothing – 1897

The Taming of the Shrew – 1887

The Tempest – 1893

The Two Gentlemen of Verona – 1895

EARLY SMT (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre) MATERIAL

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Auditorium, c. 1885 (SC4/35/31)

Some RSC archive materials are pre-20th century as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879. Programmes, posters and photos for these early years are in the main RSC sequence. Early photos are simply grouped in folders by play title pre-1926, so you can order up individual years (which may just be a single photo) or the entire folder. 19th century SMT photographs tend to be taken outside, but do give a good idea of costume. One exception is the famous photo of As You Like It featuring the stuffed stag, supposedly from Charlecote Park, that was used in productions for decades (until Nigel Playfair broke with tradition in 1912).

Posters of any date can only be consulted by prior arrangement and upon provision of a letter of recommendation. They are available on microfiche in the Reading Room.

Early programmes can be ordered by play title and year (or whole boxes by year)


An extra oversize folio volume of watercolour set designs by John O'Connor from the first 10 years of the SMT.


Please email us to find out more: [email protected]

Many of the items featured in this leaflet are very old and fragile and may be subject to special access requirements. Staff will be happy to advise you. We reserve the right to decline access in the Reading Room or for copying and may ask you to look at a surrogate where the item is on exhibition, part of a closed collection, undergoing conservation work or too large or fragile for production.

Please check our page on the website to find out more about access and our services in general.

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