How I brought together the most important documents in the history of English theater for the first time in 200 years

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Most of what we know of the early days of English professional theater as a financial and artistic enterprise comes from thousands of manuscript pages in the archives of Philip Henslowe (1550-1616) and his son-in-law and business partner, the actor Edward Alleyn (1566-1626).

Henslowe and Alleyn have funded numerous acting companies, including Lord Strange’s Menthe first to employ Shakespeare, and The Lord Admiral’s Men, the important troupe of his time. These manuscripts, now held at Dulwich College, London, constitute the largest and, arguably, the most important existing archive of material on professional theater in early modern England.

Among the manuscripts are the only surviving records of box office receipts for any play by Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus and Henry IV) and Christopher Marlowe (Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine).

The manuscripts remained stored in Alleyn’s locked vault, in their original folded state, for 260 years, and access to them was gained through visits to the college library. For many years they remained uncatalogued and sticky-fingered visitors stole pages, sending archival fragments across the country and later around the world.

In 2004, I founded a project digitize these documents. By 2022, with the help of other researchers and the Dulwich College Archives, I had collected all known fragments, along with pages of correspondence, legal documents, receipts and other documents for the first time in over 200 years.

Thieves and scholars

In the early 18th century rumors began to spread about uncatalogued records and a flood of people went to Dulwich College (a school founded by Alleyn) determined to uncover the history of Shakespeare’s dramas, theaters and performances.

In addition to box office receipts, Henslowe and Alleyn’s archive includes the “part” (or script) of the only surviving actor of the play’s age. furious orlando and the “plot” (or prompter’s plan) of the anonymous play The second part of the seven deadly sinsone of only six plots from this period known to survive.

Portrait of actor Edward Alleyn, who played the role of Doctor Faustus.
Dulwich College, Author provided (no reuse)

The archive also includes the 1587 partnership deed between Henslowe and his associates to build the Pink Maisonette on London Southbank and the 1600 contract between Peter Street, who built the Globe Playhouse, and Henslowe and Alleyn to build the Fortune Gambling House north of London.

The most important document in these records, and in the history of English theater, however, is Henslowe’s account book. This document provides detailed records from 1597 to the early 1600s of payments to Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, Henry Chettle and many other playwrights. The document mentions more than 325 commissioned plays, many of which no longer exist, as well as dealings with royal and local officials, actors, censors, costume designers and other theater workers. It also has many signatures (or autographs valuable to thieves).

As scholar and editor Edmond Malone announced in an addition to his influential Historical account of the rise and progress of the English stage from 1790, the document completely reshaped the understanding of modern English drama.

pages are disappearing

Unfortunately, the Dulwich College librarians were not as vigilant in protecting this important archive. They allowed some visitors unsupervised access to the manuscripts – many of whom did not leave empty-handed. The most infamous of these thieves was the Shakespearean scholar and notorious forger John Payne Necklace. Collier not only read the “diary” for his scholarly work on Henslowe and Alleyn, but also stole pages.

Collier stuck pages he stole into a literary autograph album, which he later sold to the British Museum claiming he found them in various bookstores. Other collections sold to the British Museum included fragments also compiled by Collier or those to whom he sold them.

In the 1880s, the manuscripts were finally cataloged into over 20 volumes by the British Museum’s assistant curator of manuscripts, George Warner. Warner understood their immense importance to the cultural history of England and acknowledged that some items had been stolen over the centuries.

A scanned page from an old account book.
Henslowe’s diary showing box office receipts in 1594 for plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Dulwich College, Author provided (no reuse)

Fortunately, the famous Shakespearian bibliographer WW Greg played the role of literary detective, locating most of the fragments, many of which are still uncatalogued, while preparing his first edition of the journal in 1904.

But, as Shakespeare scholar RA Foakes mentioned in his 1961 edition of the diary, at least 69 pages were still missing and others were deleted or partially cut out by autograph hunters. Fragments of some of these pages, bearing the signatures of poet George Chapman, playwright Thomas Dekker and others, ended up in 18th and 19th century auctions and later in manuscript collections at the British Museum, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Belvoir Castle. in Leicestershire (discovered by Greg in 1938) and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.

Since the 1800s, appeals by Dulwich College librarians for the return of these materials have been met with polite denials.

With the help of Calista Lucy, keeper of the archives at Dulwich College, I contacted all the librarians responsible for these stolen items, asking if I could upload them to the electronic archive.

Scholar Paul Caton and I have now downloaded all known fragments, along with letters, deeds and other manuscripts – digitally bringing the diary and archive together for the first time in over 200 years.

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