By Kathryn Gilmour. MLitt Theatre History
If you happen to be a Glasgow native, or indeed a student past or present, the name ‘John Smith’ will inevitably read as ‘bookshop’. A bookseller from the early 19th Century, John Smith is indivisible from Glasgow. This is largely because he had many interests in Glasgow society, of which bookselling was just one: town councillor, estate owner, citizen, and merchant bailie, were but a few of the pies in which he had many of his fingers.
I’ve been cataloguing some of Smith’s vast collection over the past few weeks as part of a placement within my M.Litt programme of study. Smith’s collection was bequeathed to the University in 1842 and presented upon Smith’s death in 1849. As a theatre historian in training, I’ve been concerned with Smith’s theatrical ephemera – in other words, playbills. As such, I’m not going to provide an overview of Smith’s life or any other aspect of Smith’s collection, basically because it’s already been done for me. How handy! Check out these pages for more detail on John Smith’s background and other aspects of his collection which is as interesting as it is varied. Or even better, pop up to the Special Collections Department and see it for yourself! It’s a hugely varied collection, so whatever your interest, you’re bound to find something that, to quote Typhoo, makes you spontaneously ‘Ooo’
So, playbills. The majority of the playbills I’ve been working with are dated 1840-1845, although I have come across a couple of super old ones from 1801, which defintely did make me spontaneously ‘Ooo.’ I’ve selected just a few for us to have a look at, so let’s get stuck in!
The first two I’ve picked because they are relevant to my own research in chivalric culture within theatre, and are brilliant examples of how enthusiastic the Victorians were for all things medieval, particularly when it came to theatre. The Victorians saw the medieval period as a ‘golden age’ for all things romantic, chivalrous, and gallant. This is evident in lots of things, mainly cultural, dating from the 19th Century. The pre-Raphaelite movement of the era, for example, famed for its portraits of red-headed women, are a good example of this in Victorian art. Lady Godiva and Ophelia are but two famous images popularised by the Pre-Raphaelites at the time. But back to playbills
This one, from June 1840, is advertising a ‘mock tournament’ taking place at the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street, Glasgow. Take a look at the description of the event about the heading ‘Mock Tournament.’ The number of adjectives used to describe the event is an indication of its tone!
The next playbill, complete with fab illustrations is advertising a ‘Siege of Jerusalem.’ Notice the heraldry on the ship’s sail and the medieval costumes, particularly the lady’s head piece; all typically medieval and are still what we would think of today as indications of the medieval period.
You may think staging a ‘Grand Equestrian and Dramatic Chivalric….’ entire siege is a somewhat bizarre, not to mention ambitious, feat for a Glasgow city theatre. But these spectacles were commonplace in the Victorian theatre and certainly within the collection of John Smith. Among the sample of playbills I’ve been cataloguing, there’s been many instances of shows advertised that we today wouldn’t consider to be strictly dramatic performances, suitable for a theatre venue. For example, there are numerous examples of playbills advertising displays of paintings, including the landscape of Queen Victoria’s Grand Tour, which we would perhaps more likely associate with art galleries, or exhibitions of wild animals that we would think might be more suited to a zoo enclosure than a theatre. But Victorian theatre was no holds barred. A whole night of entertainment was laid on, as you can see from these examples, and a wide variety of performances took place as part of the same bill. A night out at the theatre really was an entire night out in the 1840’s.
The final two playbills give you some sense of the society and also the hugely varied purpose of playbills. Compared to the modern day theatre ads, these two examples are brilliant; you’re unlikely to see a message from ‘Binks the Bagman’ acknowledging support of the audience, or polite but yet firm requests from the Management to the public to stop spitting from the top gallery (delightful).
I’m not sure what the story is with Binks the Bagman. At first I thought it seemed to be a bit of a Theatre Royal in-joke – but have a look and see what you think. At first read, it seemed to be what I thought was a stagehand or ‘bagman’ visible to the (apparently cheering) audience during intervals, who’s getting stick from his pals but regardless, quite likes the raucous cheers he receives. Having done some research, Binks the Bagman is actually a one act farce by Joseph Coyne. Either way, I love how the theatre management use playbills to address their potential audiences; they’re not purely advertising shows. Furthermore this gives a real sense of how language is used on playbills in a number of different ways; this particular example is playful and no doubt engendered numerous laughs.
Equally, the request to stop spitting from 1841 is a fabulous piece of Victorianism at its best. I can just imagine all the theatre-goers complaining about a very undesirable rain falling from the heavens/top gallery. The wording is exactly how us modern day-ers imagine Victorians to speak. My two absolute favourite bits are the description of the spitters as ‘evil-disposed’, and the emphasis on the need to catch such rotters with a REWARD (in capitals, no less) for the spittees. Marvellous stuff. The wording alone is a theatrical masterpiece. It reads
‘For some time past, several evil-disposed persons in the GALLERIES have been in the habit of “SPITTING OVER INTO THE PIT,” and otherwise annoying the frequenters of that part of the Theatre. The manager hereby warns all such individuals to desist from this disgraceful practice. Persons will be placed in the Gallery to watch offenders, and a REWARD paid by the Manager to any one giving evidence sufficient to convict offending parties. It being his determination to make an example of any one found persisting in this disgusting and uncivilised practice.’
So, there we are; a quick foray into the collection of John Smith and the amazingly versatile theatrical work of 19th Century theatre in Glasgow. In true Victorian over-emphasis, I absolutely IMPLORE you, dear reader, to come up to the Special Collections Department and have a look for yourself. The few playbills I’ve featured are but a drop in the ocean of those available and indeed of the material within Smith’s collection. Zoom up to level 12 of the University of Glasgow Library, settle down for the afternoon and you can view 5 items at a time from the numerous ephemera boxes. Each playbill is completely different, yet all are wonderfully eclectic. You might very well get lost in a world of farces, operas, burlettas, musical numbers, of course ‘EXCEEDINGLY dramatic AND thrilling plays.
Categories: Special Collections