Sunday, June 21, 2009

plays begetting books

I'm in the midst of my working vacation, and have been slogging through--I mean, thoroughly enjoying--lots of As You Like It promptbooks. It's not not fun, it's just that there are so many productions, and at the moment I'm only looking at the Royal Shakespeare Company ones! Starting with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind in 1961 through Katy Stephens in the production I saw the other night, there are thirteen different RSC productions. It's being staged every 4 years! And that doesn't even count the transfers to London or Newcastle.

Aside from being struck by the huge popularity of this play (at least, a popularity with the audience; the reviewers tend to range from blase to a despairing animosity toward the play), I've been struck by the staggering number of books that these productions generate. And I don't mean books like the sort I'm writing, books that are about the productions or about the play. I mean books that come into being through the process of putting together a production. There's the published text that is the basis of the production, the rehearsal promptbook(s) in which the blocking and cuts are worked out, the production promptbook recording the final versions of those blocks and cuts, the stage manager's script with cues for entrances, lighting, and sound. There are of course the individual actors' scripts (which don't tend to be kept in production archives), notebooks that the director or other theatre artists keep during the rehearsal process, the musical score, the stage manager's reports, the costume bible.

After my last post on printed drama, in which I insisted that plays aren't books, a friend wondered whether I wasn't being overly simplistic--can't plays sometimes be books as well as performances? I'm still reluctant to think of printed books as plays rather than as, say, drama, or playbooks, or some other category that is subtly different. But I am struck doing this research how many books come into being during the process of creating a performance.

The picture at the top of this post is from the very tidy promptbook of the 1930 Othello starring Paul Robeson at the Savoy Theatre in London. You can see that it's a workbook made with the cuttings of a printed text, reassembled with diagrams and cues and other performance details. The picture below is from an earlier promptbook, David Garrick's working out of his 1773 Drury Lane production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There's lots of cutting and rearranging going on. A better example of Garrick's working method can be found online as part of the Folger's past exhibition about Garrick, in the section "What is a promptbook." There you can see his working book for his 1773 Hamlet, full of tipped-in sheets, and folded down pages. It's really remarkable, and a great example of how books are adapted by their readers for their own purposes as well as of how playbooks are remade into performances.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

being a reader in rare book libraries

I've been thinking recently about what it means to be a reader in a rare books library, a place like the Folger, or the British Library, or the Beinecke, for instance. That is, the sort of place where the lucky among us get to do research and routinely handle rare materials.

I think about this topic often while I am teaching my undergraduate course on book history. Undergraduates are not typically allowed into rare book libraries--I've heard stories that even some university special collections don't like to let students handle their materials, an attitude which is sorely misguided and shameful and not, I hope, actually common. But because undergrads are only a recent, and quite small, presence in the Folger reading rooms, I worry that they might be looked at askance by other readers. And because it is a wonderful thing that the Folger lets my students have full access to the collections, I am especially careful to train them on how to be good library citizens.

I tend to think of being a good library citizen as common sense: there are the usual rare materials guidelines (no bags, no food or drink, no pens) and the usual library protocal (cell phones off, voices quiet, don't turn up your ipod so loud that others can hear it--actually, that last one comes from my own private distate of ipods in libraries, a quirk that might be mine alone).

What needs to be taught more explicitly, of course, is how to handle rare materials: use foam supports and book weights, don't force the binding to open further than it wants to, turn the pages carefully, wash your hands frequently. In my experience, students take to this instruction quite well. They are thrilled with the privilege of having access to these books, and they want to treat them with care and respect. And they really get it, especially once you explain the principle behind proper usage: the oils on your skin will leave marks on the page; if you force the binding it will break; if you flip through the pages, the edges will tear. If you can show them the structure of a binding--how the boards are attached, how the gatherings are stitched together--then it makes even more sense. The basic point of such handling techniques is obvious, especially to students of book history. Use the books with respect so that others can learn from them in the future.

But what I've been thinking about recently is not how to handle rare materials, but how to handle rare materials users. This is something that librarians are always conscious of, along with the need to balance access to materials with preservation of those materials. Go too much to either extreme, and nothing makes sense anymore. Too much access, and the materials will disintegrate. Not enough access, and what's the point of keeping them? I kvetch about digital surrogates sometimes, and how much information is lost when you are looking at an image of something rather than the thing itself. But one thing that facsimiles do is to protect materials. The first round of information that a reader is looking to gather can often be found through looking at a facsimile or other surrogate; some will need eventual access to the original, but even if the number of uses is reduced by only a third, it's still a reduction.

More tricky is the need to balance attracting readers into your collection with protecting the collection. The British Library's recent installation of hand sanitizers during the swine flu scare is a perfect example of this. They installed the sanitizers to make their visitors and readers feel more secure in coming to the Library, but then they had to remind readers that the sanitizer could damage Library materials if it wasn't used properly (let it dry, people!). In her post on this, bookn3rd saw this as "as a tug-of-war between our society’s panic over disease and the continuous, low-level panic of managing library collections" (her parenthetical insert in the previous sentence would have been the even more sensible injunction, "just wash your hands, people!").

But I want to think about the question of what it means to be a reader in a rare book library not from the perspective of a librarian (since I'm not a librarian) or of an institution (since I'm not an institution, either). What does it mean to us, as readers in libraries, to be a reader of rare materials? What are our responsibilities to those materials, to the library, and to the other readers?

Since I assume that you, my lovely readers, either know how to handle rare books or would teach yourselves how to do that before you start handling them (more on that in a minute), one of our collective responsibilities is to help other readers handle their materials safely. That might mean intervening yourself, or it might mean getting a librarian to come to the rescue. I certainly realize that it's not as easy to do as that. We tend to come from a world that punishes snitches and whistle-blowers rather than the wrong-doers. And most of the time we come to libraries to do our research, not be on the look-out for what other people are doing. (Well, I hear stories about rampant flirting in libraries, but you know what I mean.) I can think of instances when I saw something in a reading room and I thought "what?!" and let that be the end of the situation. In my defense, the most recent time, I was stunned that someone would try to staunch their bloody nose while sitting in the reading room rather than in the privacy of a bathroom--and the books on the table weren't from a restricted collection but from the modern stacks. But still, I wish I had said something. Blood on a rare book is bad, but blood on a modern book isn't good either.

The problem with my reticence, and the reticence that I know many of us feel in the face of poor library behavior, is that we too often rely on librarians to be the caretakers of rare materials, rather than seeing it as a collective scholarly responsibility.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be visiting a number of libraries (including the fabulous British Library), looking at promptbooks and other rare materials. I'll wash my hands thoroughly and let them dry completely, I promise! I'll be careful with the materials. And I'll try to speak up if I see someone who needs help. Or at least I'll go find someone who can speak up.


For those of you who would like some instruction on how to safely handle rare materials: The best way to learn what to do is to ask a librarian; she or he will be able to inform you about general practices and show what the policies are of that specific library. You can also find some information online, including written guides from the libraries at Univerisity of British Columbia and University of Southern California, and videos demonstrating handling practices for a wide range of materials from the BL.

One last word: The photo heading this post is of a highly responsible reader in the Folger's Old Reading Room, a reader who happens to be one of my former students. And check out the use she's making of surrogate materials: she's comparing two copies of a book, one held in our collection (nicely supported on foam) and one from EEBO. Just makes you want to come for a visit, doesn't it?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

plays aren't books

This is getting a bit far afield from early modern books, but since I posted on the subject recently and since it is near and dear to my non-book research interests, here goes...

Today's featured New York Times contribution to idiocy comes not from the Style section (although see the blather on Plan B careers for matter for someone else's blog) but from the front page. There, just beneath the fold, you can read a piece by Dwight Garner on "Submitting to a Play's Spell, Without the Stage." The premise is that, on the eve of the Tonys, Garner is going to read the playbooks for the four nominees for best play. And so he does.

Why would he do this? Because he hadn't seen any of the productions and he hadn't read a play in a while. And what does he discover? Lo and behold, they're not bad plays!
Reading this small pile of plays turned out to be a joy. If none are blinding classics destined to be heavily revived 10 or 50 years hence, the best are as sharp and thrilling and concentrated as first-rate short stories. Even the weaker ones are jangly and distinctive, and I’m not sorry to have made their acquaintance. They linger in the memory the way novels often do not.
The best ones are as good as short stories! They could be even better than novels! Aargh! There's something about the book form that has thrown this whole thing askew--reading a book, regardless of genre, invokes a set of reading conventions that, without examination, shifts immediately to prose, and not poetry or drama.

But, oh, it gets even better. Here's my favorite part, just two paragraphs later:
Theater is a social and collaborative art form, and a playwright’s work is no doubt most fully realized on the stage. But to encounter plays on paper is to encounter them in their platonic form. You’re glued to the playwright’s words, not sitting in Row K jostling for an armrest while gawking at, say, Jane Fonda (who stars in “33 Variations”), wondering if all her years of aerobics paid off. While reading, you can submit more perfectly to the author’s spell and, what’s more, you are your own casting director.
Where even to begin with this? How about the fact that although the collaborative process of theatre is the means by which plays come to life, the ideal form of a play is in the platonic union between playwright's words and reader's armchair? Then there's the weird digression about Jane Fonda's body--can a woman in her 70s possibly still be attractive?--and the horribly present bodies of other viewers.

I'll stick to the book/reading thing, since that's closer to my blog's subject, and will list my objections to this rather than throw up my hands in disgust:

Objection #1: Garner assumes that the imagined performance he creates in his head is an equivalent for watching the play in a theatrical performance. But given that plays are created always through a collaborative process--between playwrights, actors, directors, audience, scenographers, just to name the obvious agents--an encounter that bypasses that process does not result in a play, but something akin to closet drama.

Preface to Objection #2: Garner is particularly interested in playbooks, not playscripts, for this piece. He starts off by noting that people used to read playbooks more regularly than they do now, and that published books of plays are readily available through Amazon and other sources. One of the reasons that published plays sold well was that not everyone could get to New York to see the latest hot thing, but that there was a cultural imperative to be familiar with it. A trip to your local bookseller, and there you go! Edward Albee, even in East Lansing.

Objection #2: Given Garner's interest in playbooks, not playscripts, it seems particularly foolish to imagine that those books give you access to the playwright's words without all that collaborative claptrap. What it gives you access to is a whole different set of collaborative claptrap--an encounter between playwright, print conventions, and often the stage manager's and scenographer's early staging. There's nothing transparent about the relationship between text and form. Ever. And I know you all know that.

There is something interesting to be said about the experience of reading plays rather than watching them, especially when it comes to contemporary plays, and not those that we've been taught to think of as "classics." And I certainly don't want to argue against reading contemporary drama, for fun or for edification. But this piece--on the front page!--simplified both the theatrical experience and the print one.

Thanks for indulging me on this. My next post will be completely about early modern books, I promise, and I'll try to work in a nice picture or two. So stay tuned! And enjoy the Tonys!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

what do Daily Show correspondents read?

This is not my usual style of post, but since my last topic was that of reading, I cannot resist this timely contribution on the subject from The Daily Show's correspondents:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
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