The Theatrical Scrapbook: Librarian’s Nightmare or Researcher’s Dream?
The latest issue of Theatre Survey includes an essay by Sharon Marcus which considers the importance of the theatrical scrapbook as a key to understanding the history of performance and spectatorship. The paper focuses on evidence found in the Scrapbook Collection at the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University. The OSU collecion includes 172 scrapbooks and documents performances from 1859 until the early 1960s. In this blogpost, Sharon Marcus outlines the insights offered by these scrapbooks and remembers some of the memorable scrapbook-keepers she encountered.
Why is the theatrical scrapbook such an important archive and medium?
Today, online media allow audience members to respond directly to performances they attend and to argue with critics and with one another. The experiences and mentalities of earlier spectators are more elusive. Theatre historians have made ample use of scrapbooks related to individual star performers, but tend to neglect scrapbooks kept by ordinary, often anonymous theatregoers. Those scrapbooks deserve our attention as valuable historical sources. They can help us understand how theatregoers perceived what was onstage, especially when compilers try to recreate on the page something of the kinetic dynamism of live performance, or demonstrate the loving attention fans paid to the bodies of celebrity performers [Image 1]. If we encounter a review in a scrapbook, we know that someone cared enough about it, or the play it discussed, to preserve it. Scrapbooks express as few other sources do the audience preferences, desires, and obsessions that sustain performance culture.
What do theatrical scrapbooks teach us about the history of performance?
Albums tell us a lot about the economics, geography, and sociology of performance and spectatorship. They tell us how often compilers went to which theatres, what kinds of performance they attended, who accompanied them, where they sat, and where they went before and after the show. Most albums include numerous theatre programs whose advertisements for pawnshops or pianos offer hints about the social class of the venue’s clientele. These ads can help us reconstruct the surprisingly long history of practices such as celebrity endorsements of consumer goods, usually cosmetics and cigarettes. These programs also provide evidence about when theatres all over the world introduced electricity, what tickets cost, how seating arrangements varied, and what kinds of promotional books, photographs, and sheet music were for sale in theatre lobbies.
How did the theatrical scrapbook evolve?
The history of scrapbooks is bound up with the history of publicity and of print culture. The golden age of the theatrical scrapbook was 1880-1920, when newspapers and theatre programs became much more pictorial. In those decades, theatre programs, newspapers and magazines began to incorporate more and more images in increasingly imaginative ways. Layouts became more free, less bound to grids and columns, and magazines began to frame photographs of actors with elaborate graphic designs, as though they were encouraging readers to clip those images and place them in a scrapbook [Image 2]. Scrapbooks, as Ellen Gruber Garvey points out in her recent book, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013), anticipated many aspects of today’s websites, with compilers grabbing images from one kind of print matter and rearranging them in their personalized albums.
What did the scrapbooks you studied reveal about the people who kept them?
Many of the scrapbooks I’ve studied were anonymous; even when there is a name inscribed on the cover, it’s rare for a theatrical scrapbook to contain personal memorabilia that would help us reconstruct its compiler’s life story. Nonetheless some albums reveal a lot. One scrapbook in the OSU collection, kept by a Quebecois Canadian, documented a very long European trip that included many theatrical outings. In 1906 the compiler was scandalized by a Parisian play that portrayed marriage as superficial and materialistic; after commenting that it was a good thing marriage wasn’t like this everywhere, he or she declared, “Vive le Canada!”
Perhaps the most revealing items in the OSU collection are a set of albums that I discovered had been kept by a married couple. Her album, an expensive book designed to be both scrapbook and theatre journal, was probably a present from her future husband, because the very first entry records her attending the theatre with him on her birthday, April 14th 1892 [Image 3]. They had dinner and saw the renowned Ada Rehan at Daly’s Theatre in New York. In that inaugural entry she refers to him very formally as “Mr. Harris Whittemore,” but by December her entries simply call him “Harris.” Unfortunately their albums also suggest they began to drift apart as their theatrical tastes diverged. She liked light entertainment — Trilby and The Prisoner of Zenda — while he became an increasingly avid Wagnerian. Her album shows that she increasingly went to performances without him.
To read the full paper free of charge for a limited period, click here.
All three images are used courtesy of the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University.
Image 1 – Joseph Santley and Gaby Deslys in Stop! Look! Listen! SPEC.TRI.SCRAPBOOK.2, Scrapbook Collection, Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University.
Image 2 – Nellie Butler bursting out of the page. SPEC.TRI.SCRAPBOOK.78, Scrapbook Collection, Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University.
Image 3 – SPEC.TRI.SCRAPBOOK.37, Scrapbook Collection, Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University.