Reviving the VPP : a start

The Victorian theatre has not enjoyed documentation or digitization as systematically as has the Victorian novel, reflecting perhaps scholarly perception of their comparative artistic significance. Yet it is a truism that the influence of the Victorian popular theatre on the development of the novel during this period was by no means limited to the efforts of dedicated amateur enthusiasts such as Dickens and Collins and their circle. In Emily Allen’s words “Victorian theatre was the novel’s ally, inspiration, and competitor”. As an ongoing expression of popular culture, nineteenth century theatre has deep roots and many branches; its lineage runs from the high gothic of romantic melodrama to the memes of cinema and modern day television, embracing both the theatre of sensational spectacle and that of domestic realism. Yet for those wishing to see the phenomenon as a whole, to perform a kind of distant reading of its texts, there is nothing approximating to Bassett’s At the Circulating Library database of Victorian fiction (http://www.victorianresearch.org/atcl/search.php) in terms of completeness or coverage. Such attempts to document the Victorian theatre as do exist, have generally done so in terms of the careers of individual actors, writers, or institutions. Although collections of the primary source materials exist in a few libraries, it is as a consequence of individual collections or bequeaths, rather than any attempt at systematic coverage.

One notable exception is Richard Pearson’s Victorian Plays Project (VPP), originally funded by the AHRC 2005-2007, and still hosted at the National University of Ireland in Galway. A key deliverable of this project was an online catalogue of the approximately 1500 titles making up Lacy’s Acting Edition of Plays, derived from the (apparently unique) surviving copies of that edition preserved in what was then the Birmingham Central Library.

Thomas Hailes Lacy began publishing contemporary plays at his Covent Garden printing house shortly after the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 which removed the duopoly previously enjoyed by the Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres. In a far-sited move, Lacy acquired the rights to print plays from the theatrical managers, ostensibly to protect their copyrights, though he was not averse to a little piracy himself. These “Acting Editions” contained everything needful to produce a play: including details of costumes, settings, blocking, accompanying business etc. as well as cast lists and the text of the play itself. New titles appeared every year until the 1870s when Lacy sold the whole collection to Samuel French, an American publisher with whom he had exchanged plays for publication for the previous two decades.

According to the existing VPP website (http://victorian.nuigalway.ie/modx/index.php?id=187), in addition to producing this on-line catalogue, the project aimed to “generate e-texts in .pdf format that replicate the original texts re-edited for electronic usage” and also to “create a database of plays marked up using TEI encoding in XML that will be searchable”. The website also states that “Transcription of the Lacy’s Catalogue, and editing and encoding of the texts was undertaken by the Victorian Plays Project using OxyGen TEI mark-up software and Acrobat Professional. ” (http://victorian.nuigalway.ie/modx/index.php?id=182).

As of today, the website does provide a list of all 1428 titles in the Acting Edition, including basic data about their authorship and performance history. It also makes available a set of 239 titles which have been transcribed and reformatted as PDF files preserving much of the typography of the originals. Other formats, if they exist, are not visible on the website, though a small number of titles have clearly been annotated and indexed at some point in the past with separate lists of named entities and striking phrases. (Some further information on this and a closely related sister project concerned with the records of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office is provided by Radcliffe, C. & Mattacks, K., (2009) “From Analogues to Digital: New Resources in Nineteenth-Century Theatre”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 8. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.499 )

However, the VPP website does not seem to have been developed since 2015, and the untimely death of Professor Richard Pearson at the end of 2018 (https://bavs.ac.uk/uncategorized/obituary-richard-pearson/) casts its future development into serious doubt. As is all too often the case, preservation of a digital archive turns out to depend as much on individual personal support as on technological constraints.

I have therefore applied for funding to carry out an initial scoping study investigating the feasibility of reviving and bringing up to date the Victorian Plays Project. If accepted (and there’s no reason to suppose it will be) this would naturally begin by reviewing any additional digital materials which have been archived, and by interviewing personnel associated with the original project at Galway. The inventory resulting from this review would be extended with a survey of other digital versions of the Lacy Acting Edition now available online (for example, in transcribed form at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere and in digital facsimile via the Hathi Trust or the Internet Archive). Contacts at Galway and elsewhere (for example in the library and special collections community, and in the professional Victorian studies networks) would be approached for information about existing related endeavours, and to raise awareness of the project.

If sufficient suitable materials can be found, the next step will be to design, document, and implement procedures to convert them all to a single simple TEI encoding, consistent with (for example) that used by the DraCor project, or the ELTeC. Following these de facto community standards has many advantages, such as the ability to re-use existing software tools, or the ability to leverage existing community familiarity with the format. The resulting digital archive would be initially maintained as an open repository on GitHub, with all converted materials made available under a CC-BY licence.

It is probable that automatic conversion to this (or any other) target format will be much easier for texts already transcribed than for texts only available in digital image format. In a second phase of the project it is planned to explore and report on the applicability of “machine learning” techniques to enhance the performance of existing OCR platforms. By comparison with novels and other print material from this period, the Acting Edition texts are unusual in the complexity and variety of their typography. This complexity, derived from the need to clearly distinguish speaking parts, stage directions etc., is however regular and systematic and should thus be potentially beneficial in the task of automatic markup.

The availability of a consistently organized and encoded corpus of Victorian play texts will make possible the application of emerging distant reading methods and tools to a component of victorian cultural history which has been curiously neglected, if not undervalued, hitherto.

In the meantime, I have been tracking down other existing online resources for the description of the 19th century theatre. But that, as they say, is another and a different blog posting perhaps.

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