the workings of the theatrical trade
Engraving of the exterior of the Olympic Theatre, engraved by J. Hinchliff from a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd, February 1831 (RW/7/4/1/21)
Roy’s collection not only educates us about performance and stage craft from the position of an audience member, but allows us backstage into the metaphorical ‘engine room’ of the theatre. Manuscript letters for instance reveal the challenges and practicalities of the life of an actor, from finding work to locating suitable lodgings during a season’s touring.
A letter from Henry Renouf to Leon M. Lion in 1905 (RW/2/1/5/44) reads:
"So here I am in a worse position than last year. I really don’t know what we are going to do, as this is a fatal time to be out & the people I borrowed from last autumn after ‘The Storm’ I cannot approach again until they are paid – it’s really terrible. My spring, I think will be good – when I reach it – as I have had nice letters from Hall Caine & Collins about Magnus in ‘Prodigal Son’ – a fine part – this is entre nous strictly."
Another letter from Charles James Matthews to Wybert Reeve written on the 27 October 1873 (RW/2/1/4/78) provides some advice about an actor's life across the pond:
"The lodging I mentioned in New York is very comfortable and for New York moderate in price. A nice drawing room and bedroom with bath and W.C. attached. The address is “Mrs Bowen 38 East 20th Street”. The terms $ 40 per week. You know I am, like yourself a “very quick moderate fellow in my habits” and I think if she boards you as she did me you will be perfectly satisfied.
I know nothing, and wish to know nothing of “agents”. I believe Colonel Allston Brown- Broadway, holds the position in New York that English does in London, but the terms these agents exact something preposterous. I have heard of twenty five per cent on the receipts. The only advice I can give you is to take somebody else’s advice on the spot and be careful how you make your agreement. Mind I know nothing about them but I have heard much and have no confidence."
The Lodgings List booklet shown here demonstrates both the solidarity of a profession pooling their collective knowledge, and reveals involvement with the preoccupations of the wider world, with the still active Actors Church Union seeking to support the spiritual needs of the profession.
A.C.U. [Actor's Church Union] Theatrical Lodgings List booklet, 1929 (RW/8/4)
The collection includes evidence of the craft behind the final performance, with a photograph of Noel Coward holding forth during rehearsals for ‘Sail Away’ in 1962 (RW/9/9/2/10). We also have the working copy of the script for a Shakespeare Festival production of ‘Macbeth’ (RW/8/1/3/1) which directs us to the logistics of managing a production, with annotations conjuring up the activity occurring behind the polish of the performance, the inner workings of stage magic.
Tins of stage make-up, with instructions on application, finally help us bring to mind the dressing room preparations of actors and actresses (RW/17/6/2-3) as they prepare to take to the stage.
Next - 'The play's the thing...'