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NY Public Library's Technical Assistant Suzanne Lipkin on Shakespeare's Promptbooks

BroadwayWorld.com continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Suzanne Lipkin, Library Technical Assistant III, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on: Shakespeare's Promptbooks.

Archiving the performing arts is a challenging task: the very nature of performance is ephemeral. Though contemporary performances can now be captured by any device-wielding individual, there's a reason that people still pay to attend live events. As Hamilton fans know, nothing comes close to being in "the room where it happens." The blend of performance-as-it-happens and the vibe of the audience produces an ineffable quality that can't be replicated through film, audio, or photography.

That being said, the archivists and curators at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are trying their best to overcome these challenges and bring past performances to the present. Beyond our vast troves of audiovisual documentation of live performances, the Library holds thousands upon thousands of physical items that bring people closer to past performances.

One type of object is the theatrical promptbook. These handwritten or typed scripts were used by actors preparing for roles, stage managers, and other members of a production's creative team. As working documents, they contain plenty of evidence of the art-in-progress: scribbled notes in the margins, rough drawings of stage blocking, scenery, and costumes, cast lists, even musical notation. A very special segment of our collection of these objects is the Shakespeare promptbooks. Hundreds of promptbooks from All's Well That Ends Well to The Winter's Tale show the artistic process of some of the most prominent stage actors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Take, for example, Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet as presented by Edwin Booth. Though the text was published 16 years after his death, this volume contains a complete rendering of Booth's take on the role, "observed and noted" by critic Edward Tuckerman Mason. On each page, in red and black ink, Mason has marked every physical movement made by Booth onstage; These impressive notations show the endless details the actor kept in mind as he performed his role. For Booth, whose Hamlet was his most famous role in a storied career, this book leaves an unparalleled record for understanding exactly how his performance was played. All this in a promptbook marked by someone other than the actor!

There are many other promptbooks in our collection that were heavily used by the actual actor at the time of a particular production. The promptbooks of E. H. Sothern, famous for his Shakespearean acting partnership with Julia Marlowe, reveal extensive lists of props and music and Sothern's notes on the stage business that made their productions unique. Sometimes actors copied notes from other actors' promptbooks of previous productions to emulate their portrayals for themselves. Other actors, like Fritz Leiber, created full-fledged scrapbooks centered around their promptbooks, pasting in photos, illustrations, programs, playbills, reviews, and other memorabilia as a total encapsulation of their experience.

The best thing about our collection of Shakespearean promptbooks is that you are welcome to visit the Library at any time and request to see one with your own eyes. And for those that can't get here, we are in the process of digitizing these items for you to access online. Many volumes of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are already available. In this year marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, these promptbooks bring us one step closer to the generations of performers who have brought his words to life.

Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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