Promptbooks and Acting Editions


Select a promptbook or acting edition from the list

promptbook: master copy of the script of score, containing all the actor moves an technical cues, used by stage management to control the performance.
acting edition: printed copy of the promptbook on which a production is based, published for the audience to recall their theatre experience and to make further performances possible.

At the Turn of the Century
The first notable set of promptbooks in the Nineteenth Century is formed by John Philip Kemble’s promptbooks collected mainly in the library of The Shakespeare Centre, Stratford, in the Folger Library, and in the library of Harvard University.
It is worthwhile noticing from the start that Shakespeare’s texts followed two different tracks to reach the new century, that of the transmission among the learned people through a long series of collected editions with critical apparatuses and that of the transmission of the performance texts in the theatre, very often published after the first production, either as audiences’ reminders or for enticing their reproduction, real parameter of success on the stage.
Emendation and interpretation had absorbed the editors’ interests in the 18th century in the wake of the philological studies devoted to classical authors. ‘Shakespeare as classic author induced the birth of English Literary Criticism. Emendation reckoned necessary now as then became a science by means of analysis and comparison while sensitivity or taste made decisions between alternative readings.’ [Franklin, Shakespeare Domesticated, Aldershot: Scolar Press 1991, 2]
Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century a collected editions of texts ‘as they are performed at the Theatres Royal in London; Regulated from the Prompt-Books of each House by Permission’ was published. It is known as the Bell’s Edition 1773-4, and marks the arrival of Bell, the publisher, on the book scene of the period. This edition, put together by an actor, Francis Gentleman, perhaps known at the time as the author of The Dramatic Censor, two volumes of theatre criticism, had an astonishing success, since in a week’s time it sold eight hundred copies of the entire printed sets amounting to 1,300 on ordinary paper and 134 in large paper sets. This publication, in nine duodecimo volumes and with engravings inspired by the actors and productions currently in the theatres at the turn of the century, gives us a fairly good idea of “the” Shakespeare that was heard and watched at Drury Lane (official prompter Mr Hopkins) and at Covent Garden (official prompter Mr Younger). The texts are not at all accurate from a philological viewpoint, rather they are ‘bowdlerized’ 30 years in advance of ‘The Family Shakespeare’ by Bowdler himself, with dropping of vulgar or disturbing features, necessary to comply with the intent of rescuing Shakespeare from the cheap tastes of Elizabethan audiences which had corrupted his style, naturally noble in imprint. An issue Francis Gentleman solved brilliantly and, again, in advance with his times is the distinction between adaptations and emendations.
Bell’s Hamlet reproduces the text with the cuts consolidated in the stage tradition from Davenant and Betterton to Garrick. In the plot were omitted the first exchange between Hamlet and his father’s Ghost; the episode of the ambassadors to Norway and the whole political plot concerning Fortinbras; the scenes between Polonius and Laertes, and Polonius and Reynaldo in the second act; most of the First Actor’s ‘Pyrrhus’ monologue and Hamlet’s advice to the actors.
When J.P. Kemble started working on Hamlet, he started from Bell’s text. Kemble’s first known printed acting version of Hamlet published in 1796 is the to be considered the starting point of a long process of revisions made apparent by the several Nineteenth Century versions collected in this document.