Tuesday, September 2, 2014

19th-century playbooks


Brandeis Special Collections is home to a captivating collection of playbooks published in the latter half of the nineteenth century. With over eighty separate plays, the collection covers a full range of genres, from farces and comedies to dramas and tragedies, and includes a popular adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, entitled Katharine and Petruchio. The playbooks were personally acquired by Victor Berch (Brandeis’s former and first Special Collections Librarian), who donated them to Brandeis early in 2013.


Roughly half of the plays in this collection were published by William V. Spencer (May 3, 1821 - May 26, 1870). Spencer opened shop in Boston in 1852, at a time when the legal system surrounding publishing was somewhat more relaxed than it is today. Most importantly—especially for publishers like Spencer, who mainly published British works (only a quarter of Spencer’s publications were written by Americans)—British copyrights were not honored in the United States and British works could be published without any authorization or payment of royalties. Interestingly, even among the American works he published, Spencer copyrighted very few, in order to allow their playwrights to retain production privileges (1). Despite its relatively short life span, Spencer’s business had considerable influence in American play publishing, and a number of these plays are still published—using Spencer’s plates and format—by major publishing houses, such as Samuel French in New York (2).

The Spencer plays in this collection contain an unusual research tool which allows for greater understanding and study of many lesser known plays. They were published under Spencer’s Boston Theater, a series which ran from 1855 to 1862, and had two hundred sixteen titles published under its heading. In addition to standard notes on properties, costume, and set design, each Spencer’s Boston Theater play includes notes on the play’s production history, right up to the point of publication: all the theaters and companies that staged the work, the year in which the production opened, and the actors and actresses who portrayed each role. Spencer’s decision to include this information provides modern readers with access to rare details of theater history.


Several of the Spencer-published plays are translations or adaptations of earlier works, and several were themselves later adapted. Satan in Paris or, The Mysterious Stranger exemplifies popular culture’s omnipresent fascination with Faustian bargains. The play is Charles Selby’s translation and alteration of Clairville and Damarin’s Satan; ou, Le Diable à Paris. Comedian J.M. Weston’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Lucrezia Borgia tells the history of the titular daughter of the influential Renaissance family and Still Water Runs Deep, by Tom Taylor, was later turned into a silent crime film directed by Fred Paul in 1916. 


Among the playwrights represented in this collection is the prolific John Baldwin Buckstone (September 14, 1802 – October 31, 1879). Buckstone, an actor, writer, and comedian, published some one hundred fifty plays by the time of his death, appearing in and producing countless besides. It is said that his ghost haunts the wings of the West End’s Haymarket Theater, appearing when he is particularly pleased with a performance. Sightings of Buckstone’s specter have been reported throughout the decades, including a recent sighting by Sir Patrick Stewart during his 2009 performance in Waiting for Godot (3).


The remaining plays in the collection come from a variety of American publishing houses, including a number from Samuel French. The aforementioned Katharine and Petruchio is a French publication and is a unique take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Adapted and altered by David Garrick, Katharine and Petruchio cuts Taming to three acts concentrated on the titular characters, and removes any plot surrounding the romance of Hortensio and Bianca. An editor’s note indicates that the play had enjoyed considerable popularity since its initial publication a century prior, and that over the course of the eighteenth century Katharine and Petruchio had been performed more often than Shakespeare’s original Taming.


Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this collection lies in its provenance: these playbooks seemed to have all been originally collected by a single family. A number of the playbooks bear the names of one of three actors or actresses who were using them as performance scripts. The handwritten names of Franklin (Frank) Hardenbergh, Oriana Hardenbergh (née Marshall), and Margaret Marshall all appear regularly. Some cursory research reveals that Frank, his young wife Oriana, and (we think) her sister Margaret, were sometime members of the Boston Theater Company in the 1860s. It was with this company that the three performed in numerous productions, including undoubtedly many represented in this collection. It was also in this company that Frank and Oriana met, engaged, and were married. Sadly the marriage was not long lived, and neither was Oriana. It appears she died at the age of seventeen or eighteen in 1862 (4). One hundred fifty years after her death, her family’s collection of playbooks have found their way to Brandeis University’s Special Collections.


For further reading see The History of the Boston Theatre in our rare book holdings, here. More information about this 4-volume work can be found here. The digitized version can be found on the Internet Archive, here.

Description by Ryan Kacani, undergraduate student in History, Theater, and Medieval & Renaissance Studies and Archives & Special Collections assistant.

Notes:
(1) & (2) Stoddard, Roger E. A Guide to ‘Spencer’s Boston Theater’ 1855-1862, Worcester, MA: The Society, 1969.
(3) Hampson, Nora. “A Visit from John Baldwin Buckstone.”  Finding Shakespeare, posted March 28, 2014 [http://bit.ly/1nu15JR].
(4) Stebbens, Oliver, “The Oldest Theater Now in Boston,” The Bostonian 1 no. 2 (1894), pp. 113-130. [http://bit.ly/1usvoEY]The Boston Morning Journal, Nov 22, 1862. [http://bit.ly/1A1AOZf].

Friday, August 1, 2014

Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964

Brandeis’s Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964 showcases the work of a man fully immersed in the cultural world of the early twentieth century. Van Vechten (June 17, 1880 – December 21, 1964) is best known for his photographic portraiture, for which he used his many famous friends and acquaintances as subjects. Comprising 1,689 of these black-and-white portraits, the collection (donated to Brandeis in 1966 by the executor of Van Vechten’s estate) depicts clearly Van Vechten’s vast knowledge of and influence in the cultural world of his day.


Beginning his career as an arts critic for the New York Times, Van Vechten became acquainted with many of the artistic and intellectual greats of the first half of the twentieth century. At times, he even became a newsworthy subject himself, as his eccentric personal style and lifestyle garnered him notice among the fashion and gossip columns. His connections and influence led him to become a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, in which his interest in the arts united with his lifelong interest in black culture.
 
Van Vechten wrote a number of novels as well as several volumes of literary criticism. His career as a writer granted him access to the major artists and intellectuals of his time, but it is in his photography where his lasting influence is shown. With new portable camera options, affordable film, and financial independence secured through an inheritance, Van Vechten took up photography in 1932 without the need to worry about commercial success. In this way, he was able to record a burgeoning era of history as it unfolded, and his work is important for remembering this time and its most prominent cultural figures.

Van Vechten was known for throwing lavish parties that brought his black artist and powerful white friends together, hugely influencing the careers of many during the Harlem Renaissance. One such encounter orchestrated by Van Vechten was that between his close friend (and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance) Langston Hughes, and his friend and editor, Alfred A. Knopf. This meeting resulted in the publication of Hughes’s first book, The Weary Blues, for which Van Vechten wrote the introduction (Special Collections holds a rare signed copy). Later, both of these men would appear in Van Vechten’s portraits.

Van Vechten’s portraits reveal the personality of his subjects in a way that only true intimacy can show, and he himself would refer to photography as a way of capturing people. One photo that illustrates the personality of its subjects is that of Salvador Dali and Man Ray. Photographed in front of an exhibit in Paris, the two surrealists give a wide-eyed expression for Van Vechten, reflecting their own work as artists. His subjects appear sometimes in costume, sometimes with wild patterned backgrounds, and sometimes in dramatic poses that reflect their professions. Subtler shots too reveal something about their subjects, allowing larger-than-life personas to be translated to a static image. Van Vechten shot many of his portraits far from his New York City studio, during his travels abroad to places such as Paris and Florence.

Often his subjects were just on the cusp of stardom when Van Vechten photographed them, which can be seen as evidence of his taste as well as his influence. But Van Vechten caught his subjects before and amid success alike. His 1948 portrait of a young Marlon Brando is from the initial stage run of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Brando would first become famous. Conversely, Van Vechten’s 1946 portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois was taken well into Du Bois’s long career championing civil rights.
Van Vechten’s many portraits illustrate not only the cultural world of his time but his influence in its formation. They provide a rare view into a world as seen by the man who seemed to know everyone in it.

Description by Brittany Joyce, Classical Studies and Italian Studies undergraduate student and Archives & Special Collections assistant.

The detailed finding aid for Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964 can be found here
The letters of Langston Hughes and Van Vechten can be found in the library stacks, here
The signed copy of The Weary Blues can be found here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

One could hardly hope for a more exquisite emblem of modernist print culture than the Hogarth Press 1923 edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, recently acquired by Brandeis University Special Collections. Printed in a run of 460 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s private press, with type set by Virginia herself, the Hogarth Waste Land offers tangible evidence of the interconnectedness of English modernism.


The Woolfs first met the expatriated Eliot through publishing his Poems of 1919. Friendship followed, and Eliot promised Hogarth the British publishing rights to his epic in 434 lines. Typically interpreted as an elegy for civilization, “The Waste Land” draws together multiple modes and voices, as well as an erudite command of the poetic tradition, in sounding its themes of loss and decay (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”). As much a feat of scholarship as poetic imagination, “The Waste Land” is a poem that demands elucidation. Virginia Woolf’s own first impression of the poem, recorded in her diary, was characteristic in its mix of admiration and confusion: “Eliot dined last Sunday & read his poem. He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it. It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure. But he read till he had to rush… & discussion thus was curtailed. One was left, however, with some strong emotion. The Waste Land, it is called; & Mary Hutch [Hutchinson], who has heard it more quietly, interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography — a melancholy one”(1).


Indeed, Eliot himself would later plead that the poem represented “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life... just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”(2). And yet what grumbling! Autobiographical elements notwithstanding, the verses quickly came to be seen as a quintessential expression of modern disillusionment. For all the pessimism between its covers, though, the Hogarth Waste Land is an uncommonly beautiful volume, emblematic of the Woolfs’ idea of literature as a labor of love. Holding the book one is struck above all by its delicacy, the blue marble cover drawing the eye into its recesses (one thinks of William Gass: “Blue is [the] most suitable as the color of interior life”). It reminds us that before “The Waste Land” was crowned by Harold Bloom as “indisputably the most influential poem written in English in [the twentieth] century,” it was a thing to be passed between friends.

 

The Hogarth edition was actually the fourth printing of Eliot’s poem, following appearances in British and American magazines (The Criterion and The Dial, respectively) as well as a book edition brought out by the American house Boni and Liveright. Eliot was reportedly happiest with the Hogarth edition, which surely owed to Virginia Woolf’s care in preparing the pages. Historians note with characteristic understatement that “The Waste Land” is “typographically challenging.” Woolf put it more vividly in her letter to Barbara Bagenal of July 8, 1923: “I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr Eliots [sic] poem with my own hands: You see how my hand trembles.” The Woolfs were typically more staid in their poetry selections, and it’s tempting to imagine that Virginia’s experience typesetting “The Waste Land” by hand might have influenced her own increasingly experimental approach to language. Reading her later novels, one often has the sense that each discrete word and phrase has been carefully selected not only for its meaning but also for its sound and even its appearance on the page: a degree of attentiveness that is usually the province of poets.



The Woolfs would not be the last publishers to lavish special attention on Eliot’s epochal poem: in 2011, Eliot’s own publishing house, Faber & Faber, released an enriched version for the iPad. With its dazzling web of reference and allusion, “The Waste Land” would seem a natural subject for the electronic environment. The app proved a hit in spite of Wired’s amusing complaint that the program “eats up a staggering 951 MB of memory”(3). One imagines Eliot being disappointed that his erudition didn’t total a gigabyte and Virginia Woolf similarly disconcerted by the name of the app’s production company: Touch Press.


Description by Max Goldberg, Archives & Special Collections Reference Assistant.

See Cassandra N. Berman’s earlier Women in Publishing post for more on the Hogarth Press.

(1) Quoted in Willis Jr., J.H. Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers: the Hogarth Press, 1917-1941. (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1992), 72.
(2) Quoted in Pericles Lewis’s article on “The Waste Land”: http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/The_Waste_Land
(3) http://www.wired.com/2011/12/the-waste-land-app/

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Buffalo Bill Dime Novels

The Dime Novel collection at Brandeis includes more than a thousand items characteristic of America’s turn towards mass market publishing at the turn of the last century. First introduced in 1860 by the firm Beadle & Adams, the dime novel exploited cheap printing, newly efficient distribution, and a broader reading public hungry for sensational yarns involving detectives, cowboys, and romantic heroines. Built with major donations by Edward G. Levy, Edward T. LeBlanc, and former Special Collections librarian Victor Berch (MA ’66), the Brandeis collection offers valuable material resources for students of popular culture and genre literature.

The numbers of The Buffalo Bill Stories, for instance, present the reader with a wellspring of enduring iconography and storytelling tropes. Buffalo Bill (né William Cody) was already a legendary figure and bona fide international celebrity by the time these books were published. After stints working as a cattle driver, teamster, innkeeper, and military scout, Cody found his calling as a guide to wealthy easterners desiring a “true” experience of the west. He caught the eye of Ned Buntline, an early dime novel impresario who prevailed upon Cody to play himself in a Chicago stage melodrama called Scouts of the Prairie in 1873. Cody soon formed his own touring company, and from here it was a few short steps to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a hugely popular pageant of historical melodrama and spectacular displays of marksmanship, riding, and other feats of derring-do. Prominent westerner Larry McMurtry contends that,

William F. Cody’s “invention,” begun with a nudge from Ned Buntline and developed with the help of his long-suffering assistants Nate Salsbury and John Burke, was to take the kind of pageants current in Barnum and others and focus them on the West, the winning of which thus came to seem a triumphant national venture. The audiences not only bought it, they loved it, at least as long as Cody was there himself, on his white horse. What his career proved is that there is almost no limit to how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse; and Buffalo Bill looked so good on a horse that it was almost as if the animal had been created just for him to ride.1

One person taking careful note was Theodore Roosevelt, who would eventually nick Cody’s “Rough Riders” brand for his own run at the White House. Authenticity was a key element of the Wild West’s publicity machine: eastern audiences could see skirmishes re-enacted by historical actors well before the actual conflicts had been settled. The cycle of history, performance, and myth could become quite dizzying, as when Cody interrupted a Wild West tour to join up with the Fifth Cavalry at first news of Custer’s Last Stand. He killed a Cheyenne warrior during the engagement, shrewdly working the event into his act within a few months and even going so far as to invite the very Indian warriors with whom he previously battled to join his Wild West show.

Given this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that many of the issues of The Buffalo Bill Stories in the Brandeis Dime Novel Collection should come with a prefatory note admonishing the reader to “Beware of Wild West imitations of the Buffalo Bill stories. They are about fictitious characters. The Buffalo Bill weekly is the only weekly containing the adventures of Buffalo Bill, (Col. W. F. Cody), who is known all over the world as the king of the scouts.”

The air of realism extends to the back matter included after the stories: how-to guides of dubious practicality to the largely urban readership (“How to Tie a Wire”) and pseudo-ethnographic excursions (“The False-Face Dance”). The books also follow the example of the Wild West plays in offering dual titles: for instance, “Buffalo Bill’s Cumbres Scouts: or the Wild Pigs Corralled.” The economic logic here is obvious enough (why settle for trying to hook the audience with one title when you can use two?), but André Breton himself would have been hard-pressed to best the likes of “Buffalo Bill and the Pool of Mystery: or the Hand of the Prophet.”

If the dime novels were somewhat late arrivals to the burgeoning Wild West industry, their cover illustrations and dialogue-rich scenarios provide a crucial link between the touring circuit and the coming nickelodeon boom. With its emphasis on action and heroic figures, the western genre proved natural fodder for the new medium—even as early westerns like The Great Train Robbery (1903) were filmed no further west than New Jersey. In the cover illustrations of The Buffalo Bill Stories we find the basic repertoire of gestures and compositional framings familiar from thousands of western movies. Cody’s body is invariably outstretched, and the corresponding text boxes offer a complimentary burst of excitable talk (“‘Up with that left hand of yours, quick, Death Notch Dick, or my bullet hunts your heart!’ cried Buffalo Bill”). Even in those illustrations not depicting daring rescues, action remains paramount. Take the cover of No. 418 (May 15, 1909), in which the only weapon being brandished is the umbrella of an “irate female.” In the foreground of the image, a barrel has been knocked over on its side. It appears mid-fall, a photographic freeze of action that seems to hasten the retreat of the “thieving Yankee” as an assembled crowd watches on.

Cody himself would find himself on the sidelines when the film medium encroached upon his territory. His 1913 film epic, The Indian Wars, was by all accounts a flop, and Cody eventually fell back upon a series of ill-advised business ventures and cut-rate performances. So too did the dime novels eventually give way to the neatly packaged narratives available via radio and cinema. But even with their all-but-inevitable obsolescence, the issues of The Buffalo Bill Stories remain ripe for rediscovery—not only as fascinating objects in themselves but as documents of a popular culture still very much with us.

description by Max Goldberg, Archives & Special Collections Reference Assistant

A preliminary finding aid to the Dime Novels and Juvenile Literature collection is available here

1. Larry McMurty. “Inventing the West,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 2000, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/aug/10/inventing-the-west/.