Saturday, October 16, 2010

Packaging a Restoration Play Quarto for the Eighteenth-Century Book Trade

Title Page
John Dennis (1657-1734),
A plot, and no plot : a comedy, as it is acted at the Theatre-Royal, in Drury-Lane / written by Mr. Dennis.
London : Printed for R. Parker, at the Sign of the Unicorn under the Royal Exchange in Cornhil: P. Buck, at the Sign of the Temple, near the Inner Temple Gate, Fleetstreet: and R. Wellington, at the Lute in St. Paul's Churchyard,  [1697].
[8], 79, [1] p. ; 21 cm. (4to).

In most cases I wouldn't get too excited about a Restoration play quarto, especially this one, since it isn't that rare (ESTC lists 38 copies) and the play itself isn't that good (I doubt John Dennis will make it into the Arden Early Modern Drama series). I like the paradoxical title, because it was probably inspired by Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy A King and No King (1619), which enjoyed a considerable vogue during the Restoration. The author is also interesting in his own right. John Dennis was better known as a literary critic than a dramatist, and in a piece of travel writing he recorded an early articulation of the aesthetic concept of the "sublime" that would become famous in the works of Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His career in the theater was not a success, although one of his failed performances occasioned his coining of the phrase "to steal one's thunder." Dennis had invented a new way to make thunder for theatrical performance, but since his play flopped, he didn't get much use out of the innovation. When a performance of Macbeth used the same thunder a few nights later, Dennis claimed they "stole his thunder."

In any case, what interests me about this book is not its contribution to the history of dramatic literature, but its material form, especially what that material form may reveal about the market for drama in the early English book trade. Unlike most extant play quartos one can find in research libraries today, this particular play has not been rebound. Not only does the quarto bear remnants of its early stab-stitched binding, it also contains the front cover of a nearly contemporary blue paper wrapper. Throughout the hand-press period (and even today) pamphlets and other examples of ephemeral literature are rarely seen bound into codex form (unless they were bound together with other items in a sammelband or nonce collection): a crude stab-stitching or stapling job has proven sufficient for cheap print over the centuries. But this isn't to say booksellers and binders didn't worry about protecting the printed contents of their pamphlets, because they did: they just used cheaper materials to do so. The paper wrapper, therefore, was widely used to create a pamphlet's "covers," and would have been the first defense between the printed text and the outside world. To state the obvious, these paper wrappers just don't survive that often.

recto of front wrapper

This particular paper wrapper has a number of unique qualities. First it must be noted the wrapper isn't contemporary with the printed pamphlet; that's not to say this piece of paper dates to the modern age, but the evidence suggests the wrapper was added about ninety years after the play was printed. I will delve into the details of this evidence in a moment, but for now what this ninety year gap between printing and packaging suggests is that the wrapper was not part of the pamphlet's original packaging, but part of a repackaging, probably for the second hand book trade. And we can can be fairly certain a bookseller (rather than a private or institutional owner) added the wrapper because it bears a few written and printed clues related to the trade. In what could very well be an eighteenth-century hand, a few manuscript notes on the wrapper's recto note the play's title ("Plot & no Plot"), its price ("1s"), and an unidentified number ("6764"), probably an inventory code of some kind. But the wrapper fragment's verso offers even stronger evidence that this is in fact a bookseller's wrapper.

verso of front wrapper: English book advertisement ca.1787

The wrapper fragment doubles as a piece of a broadside advertisement marketing a book published in the 1780s. The book in question is Ephraim Chamber's Cyclopedia (editions from 1728-1787), the first major English encyclopedia and a huge influence on important eighteenth-century writings such as Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and the Encyclop├ędie of Diderot and D'Alembert. The advertisement markets the book as the source of "information and improvement for mankind," noting its influence in France "where science hath been...cultivated and encouraged." The ad exists in only one full copy at the British Library, so it is an extremely rare piece of printed ephemera. The ESTC record (ESTC T14278) dates it to [1787?], probably because internal evidence refers to the 1753 Supplement of the Cyclopedia issued "some years ago." The record also contains a note identifying the bookseller responsible for the advertisement, a piece of text on the ad missing in the fragment shown here: "Communications may be addressed to the editor, Mr. Longman’s, bookseller..." The title page to the five-volume 1786-88 edition of the Cyclopedia lists a "T. Longman" as one of over a dozen booksellers authorized to sell the work.

This particular book seems to answer a few questions I have about the early English book trade. What could a play quarto have looked like on the stalls of a bookshop in the hand-press period? How were books packaged for the second-hand book trade? What sorts of materials did booksellers use and reuse to package their wares? Although the case of this book can only answer such questions for the eighteenth-century book trade, considering that the ad/wrapper dates to the hand-press period and that it is so rare for these book advertisements to survive, I think it is fair to say this copy of A Plot and no Plot could offer an approximate model for how plays were packaged and sold in earlier periods, perhaps even during Shakespeare's career. The book remarkably demonstrates the ephemeral nature of the play quarto in a number of ways; in this case, the ephemeral printed pamphlet is protected by an even more ephemeral piece of early advertising. The quarto also records an instance of booksellers reusing old advertisements to package their products, modeling a practice of material recycling that must have been vital for a trade in which raw materials were expensive. All things considered, modern readers and scholars may never read this play for its contributions to the history of dramatic literature, but its material form could very well help illuminate the history of the early English book trade and the market for early printed drama. 

1 comment:

  1. Packaging is about to representation of your product. So, book packaging plays very important role in the regard and many of successful businesses opt it for the marketing.