Multiple authorship

As noted previously Nicoll’s Handlists are organized by author name, which makes them manageable, but also can be seriously misleading. In particular, where a play is to be credited to more than one author, Nicoll’s practice is to repeat the information about the play in a second slightly degenerate entry, thus inflating the number of entries in the Handlist. Here for example is the “main” entry for a play co-authored by A’Beckett and Lemon:

<entry type="Bsq.">
<author>A'BECKETT, GILBERT ABBOTT</author>
<title>The Knight and the Sprite </title>
<note type="perf">Strand, M. 11/11/1844</note>
<note>L.C. 9/11/1844.</note>
<note type="auth">[Written in collaboration with M. LEMON]</note>
</entry>

And here is what I have unkindly termed the “degenerate” entry for same:

<entry type="Bsq.">
<author>LEMON, MARK</author>
<title>The Knight and the Sprite </title>
<note type="perf">Strand, M. 11/11/1844</note>
<note>See G. A. A BECKETT.</note>
</entry>

I assume Nicoll’s rationale for this redundancy is to make it easier to find everything written by a given author when flipping through the pages of a printed volume. But this makes much less sense in a digital resource. What we would rather see (I think) is an entry which makes explicit its multiple authorship: like this

<entry type="multi">
<class>Bsq</class>
<author>A'BECKETT, GILBERT ABBOTT</author>
<author type="also">LEMON, MARK</author>
<title>The Knight and the Sprite </title>
<note type="perf">Strand, M. 11/11/1844</note>
<note>L.C. 9/11/1844.</note>
<note type="auth">[Written in collaboration with M. LEMON]</note>
</entry>

(Note that to get there I have had to rethink the way I encode Nicoll’s genre tags, initially by moving them to an element of their own rather than using the @type attribute of the <entry> element. And note also that I am preserving those arguably redundant <note type=”auth”> elements so I can tell if something goes wrong)

I have spent the last week or two slowly making this possible. Slowly because I am slow, but also because it is not entirely straightforward to translate the string “M. LEMON” (as given in the note in the main entry for A’Beckett) into “LEMON, MARK”, which is the handle used on other main entries for the distinguished editor of Punch. (The same would apply, of course, if I decided to use the note within the degenerate entry to effect the join: I would then have to map “G.A. A. BECKETT” to “A’BECKETT, GILBERT ABBOTT.” ) And these are easy cases: Nicoll’s canonical format for names can get quite complicated. Consider, for example, “YORKE, ELIZABETH, Countess of HARDWICKE” or “ADDISON, Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) HENRY ROBERT” … Anyway, I made the job easier for myself by extracting from the entries a lookup table mapping name components (as given by notes within main entries) to canonical full names: like this

<author f="49">
<s>LEMON</s>
<w>MARK</w>
<str>LEMON, MARK</str>
</author>

This all worked quite satisfactorily for the 1800-1850 entries, for which there are only 58 additional name entries to handle, though getting to the point of being reasonably confident in that number took much longer than you might think, involving as it did quite a lot of OCR error correction.

However, things got much more challenging when I looked into the 1850-1900 entries. Firstly, there are many more entries to deal with: 1299 cases of “collaboration” . Secondly, some cases (34 to be exact) use an abbreviated form like this:

<entry type="P.">
<author>BYAM, MARTIN </author>
<title>The Babes in the Wood </title>
<note type="perf">R.A. Woolwich, 14/12/57.</note> L.C.
<note type="auth">[Written in collaboration with F. GRAHAM and W. T. VINCENT.]</note>
</entry>

This main entry will need to get two additional author elements, one for “F.GRAHAM” and one for “W.T. VINCENT”, not just one – which means revising my simple-minded XSLT script yet again. And it will also have to handle notes like this without too much fuss:

<note type="auth">[Written in collaboration with A. R. SMITH, F. TALFOURD and W. P. HALE.]</note>

The script does a good job of alerting me to cases where Allardyce has apparently nodded, and named as a collaborator someone who does not appear anywhere in the rest of the Handlist. This happens precisely once in the 1800-1850 volume, but seemingly many times more in the later volume. However, on examination, many of these discrepancies are a consequence of my cavalier editing praxis. Things like the kinds of quotation marks used to flag up pseudonyms, or whether or not surnames can contain spaces, return to bite me. Others are caused by OCR failures – occasionally lines seem to have just dropped out.

And, further to keep me on my toes, I have now discovered that there are three cases in which Nicoll gives up entirely on this painstaking method of documenting multiple authorship. The first concerns 18 titles to be attributed to the pseudonymous “Richard Henry”: these all appear once only under “HENRY, RICHARD”, like this

<entry type="Bsq.">
<author>“HENRY, RICHARD" [RICHARD BUTLER and H. CHANCE NEWTON] </author>
<title>Lancelot the Lovely; or, The Idol of the King </title>
<note type="perf">(Aven. 22/4/89).</note> L.C.
<note type="music">[Music by J. Crook.]</note>
</entry>

None of these 18 titles is listed, however, under NEWTON, nor indeed under BUTLER. A further, and apparently disjoint, batch of titles is listed under “NEWTON, H. CHANCE (“RICHARD HENRY”), I think I am going to pretend I haven’t noticed them. Likewise this one:

<entry type="D.Sk.">
<author>GORDON-CLIFFORD, E. and H. </author>
<title>A Black Dove </title>
<note type="perf">P’s. H. Kew, 12/9/94.</note>
</entry>

Hand Lists – The Return

Three weeks ago, I wrote an interim report on the work I was doing to make Allardyce Nicoll’s Handlists more machine tractable. I didn’t actually spend all of the previous month correcting OCR errors, writing bits of XSLT to manipulate the OCRd text, figuring out what had gone wrong with my matching algorithm etc. It just feels that way.

Anyway, here’s a result:

This camembert shows how all the 25,000+ entries in the two Handlists are classified. The categories used (Drama, Farce, Panto, etc.) are ones I made up by grouping together the much finer-grained but trickier text types Nicoll provides (of which there are more than a hundred values) into the 15 basic classes you see above. More of that another day.

The size of each wedge is, as you might expect, proportionate to the number of entries so classified, and (reading anti-clockwise) they are in descending order. As I noted last month, the top six categories together account for three-quarters of the data.

I also said last month that my next mission would be to see how these proportions change over time. And indeed they do. Like this:

Each column here represents a decade for which the Handlists provide data, from 1810s on the left to 1890s on the right. Each column summarizes theatrical events recorded for that decade, using the same 15 crude classifications as the camembert. The size of each coloured blob is proportionate to the percentage of events in that decade classified in that way. For example, in the 1860s column, the pale blue blob is much bigger than any of the others, because nearly half (48.6% to be exact) of the available theatrical events that decade are classified as “Drama”. In the same decade, the pale green blob above it is smaller because “Farce” accounted for a smaller proportion (15%). I haven’t included the numbers in the graphic to make it easier to read, but they are available.

Note that all the blobs are stacked on top of each other in alphabetical order, so you can detect changes over time for a given category by reading from left to right. For example, a blue blob for “Panto” appears near the top (row 4) in each decade, demonstrating the this particular form of theatre formed part of each decades offerings, getting perhaps a little more popular as the century wears on, but never disappearing. Contrast that with “Melodrama” (the purple blobs in row seven) or “Burletta” (the dark yellow blobs near the bottom) both of which are flourishing in the decades before mid century, and almost entirely eclipsed thereafter.

Now, I am certainly not claiming to have discovered that melodrama and burletta were both seriously unfashionable from round about 1850 onwards, despite their earlier mode-ishness. But it is always satisfying (and reassuring) to find “common knowledge” backed up by actual observed data.

How old is that play?

Nearly every play in the Lacy catalogue – 1468 of them to be exact – now has a date of first performance, either explicitly given in the front matter of the text, or (for about 100 other cases) diligantly extracted by me from Nicoll’s “Handlist”. These dates supply a terminus ad quem for the play’s composition : it cannot have been written after its first performance. Similarly, although the individual volumes are not dated, we may reasonably assume that the volume itself cannot have been printed before the latest “first performance” date it contains. This is not an entirely satisfactory procedure if we want to track changes over time, since the number of volumes allocated to a particular year varies over the 38 year period, but it is the best I can do.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to plot for each volume how many of the plays it contains are recent, not so recent, or positively antediluvian. One hypothesis might be that the proportion of recently composed material declines over time, whether because less of it is available for Lacy to reprint, or because the bourgeois drawing room for which the later volumes are primarily intended prefers its drama antiquated. Another might be that the proportion of old warhorses in each volume is pretty much consistent over the whole life time of the Acting Edition.

Here’s my first attempt at visualising the data. It shows that there are a few volumes round about the start and end of the 1860s when the quantity of older material seems to shoot up, but that for the most part each volume contains a majority of material less than 10 years old. It also, however, suggests that the amount of new material in the 1870s starts to decline.

How balanced a sample is the VPP?

The full catalogue of Lacy’s Acting Edition comprises some 1500 titles, produced by just over 320 different authors. Over a third (583 to be exact) of all titles are produced by a small group of a dozen or so recidivists, each of them accounting for more than 25 titles. These include some predictable exceptions like “Anon” (65 titles), but also some extraordinarily prolific writers like John Maddison Morton (82 titles or 5% of the LAE), J.R. Planché (69 titles), and Henry James Byron (51 titles). In the second rank of creativity, there are 20 authors each of whom is responsible for producing between 10 and 25 titles, and who collectively account for 346, about a fifth of the whole. These include such familiar names as William Shakespeare (24 titles), just ahead of the less famous Thomas Egerton Wilks (23 titles) and some distance from George Colman (12 titles). At the other end of the scale, only a tenth of titles (171) are the product of an author otherwise unrepresented.

One of my first questions when looking at the Victorian Plays Project catalogue was the extent to which it might be considered a representative sample of the whole LAE. That of course depends on the basis on which you are sampling: as a first exercise, I consider here authorship. The VPP sample contains 343 titles, which are the product of 130 authors, only 8 of whom produce more than 10 titles, and nearly half of whom (74) produce only one title. This seems like a markedly different frequency distribution. Moreover, the ranking of authors within a “top twenty” list for the two corpora shows some surprising differences. Some authors who appear high in the upper half of the LAE list, e.g. Williams and Selby, trail near the bottom of the VPP list. It is unsurprising to find that titles low down the VPP list are also low down the LAE list; what does surprise me is the disparity in ranking for the comparatively frequent authors. Tom Taylor, the highest ranking VPP author of all, is only the 10th most frequent author in LAE; and John Palgrave Simpson, who ranks 12th in LAE, only just scrapes into the 25th row of VPP. Some of these oddities may be attributed to editorial decisions by the VPP: for example to exclude entirely titles by one William Shakespeare, even though these are ranked 14th in LAE.

Anyway, here are the Lacy Acting Edition Top Twenty authors, ranked by the number of titles attributed to them.

LAE rank VPP rank Titles (LAE/VPP) Author SDA dates
1 3 82/15 Morton, John Maddison * 1811-1891 A1
2 4 69/14 Planché, J.R. * 1796-1880 A1
3 6 65/13 [Anon.]    
4 5 51/14 Byron, Henry James * 1835-1884 A2
5 7 41/12 Suter, William E.   1811-1882 A1
6 2 40/17 Brough, William * 1826-1870 A2
7 16 38/5 Williams, Thomas J. * 1824-1874 A2
8 19 37/5 Selby, Charles * 1802-1863 A1
9 11 36/7 Burnand, Francis C. * 1836-1917 A2
10= 1 34/20 Taylor, Tom * 1817-1880 A2
10= 8 34/12 Coyne, Joseph Stirling * 1803-1868 A1
12= 25 28/4 Simpson, John Palgrave * 1807-1887 A1
12= 20 28/5 Oxenford, John * 1812-1877 A1
14 0 24/0 Shakespeare, William   1564-1616 A1
15 24 23/4 Wilks, Thomas Egerton   1812-1854 A1
16 14 19/6 Stirling, Edward   1809-1894 A1
17= 0 18/1 Wooler, John Pratt   1824-1868 A2
17= 18 18/6 Talfourd, Francis * 1828-1862 A2
17= 21 18/5 Jerrold, Douglas * 1803-1857 A1
17= 11 18/7 Halliday, Andrew * 1830-1877 A2
LAE Top 20 Authors

 

There is of course much more one might wish to say about these authors. It is unsurprising to find that they are all males, and equally that they are mostly members of the Dramatic Authors Society, the agency which had been founded to ensure their copyrights were observed, and which also required payment of a fee for provincial representation. Their dates, with four exceptions, are taken from Wikipedia, where there is much else is to be found. (The exceptions yet to be immortalized on Wikipedia are William Suter, Thomas J. Williams, Thomas Egerton Wilks, and John Pratt Wooler : their dates are taken from the Hathi Trust catalogue record). Just for fun, I decided to categorize them into two age groups on the following basis:

A1: born before the Battle of Waterloo (1815)

A2: born after Waterloo but before the Great Reform Act (1832)

Unexpectedly there are equal numbers in each group.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that the list of plays so far converted to TEI format demonstrates a tiny and even more divergent sampling of these authors. The most frequent author so far converted is J Maddison Morton with 6 titles, which corresponds well with the LAE ranking, but the next three in that ranking are all so far missing entirely. In fact, of the authors in the LAE top twenty, the following are all so far missing: Planche, Byron, Suter, Williams, Selby, Shakespeare, Wilks, Stirling, Wooler, Talfourd, and Halliday. Only five authors are so far represented by more than one title (Morton, Coyne, Courtney, Oxenford, and W.S. Gilbert).

As comparison, I also took a look at the author counts for the 45 or so LAE titles selected for inclusion in the Chawyck Healey “English Drama” collections. Only 10 authors appear here more than once, all of them represented by no more than 2 titles, except Simpson, who clocks in three. Only four of these authors also appear in the LAE Top Twenty (the inescapable John Maddison Morton, J.R. Planche, John Palgrave Simpson, and Thomas Egerton Wilks). Clearly these titles were selected on some other grounds than their frequency in the LAE.

Hunting for Lacy traces in the digital world

Title

Lacy’s Acting Edition was published in a series of 100 volumes, each containing up to 15 plays, between 1850 and 1874. (All dates approximate and unreliable). In addition to the collected volumes, Lacy sold individual play titles in cheap (6d) paper copies, many of which also found their way into private collections and public libraries. Consequently, copies of various components of the Lacy Acting Editions are now scattered across many research libraries. In some cases, they also exist in digital form, usually as scanned page images.

It is relatively easy to recover details of a library’s holdings from an online catalogue, for example by searching for the string “Lacy’s Acting Edition” or by specifying “Thomas Hailes Lacy” as publisher. It is less easy to restrict the search to generally available digital versions as there is still no reliable joint catalogue of digitized texts in major public collections, combining the digital holdings of say the British Library, the Bodleian, and other UK libraries, in the same way as has been done for many US libraries by the Hathi Trust, or more generally by the Internet Archive. (A project at the National Library of Scotland did set up such a site, under the name opentexts.world, a few years back, but its status is currently unclear and unsupported.

The ease with which the results of such searches can be obtained in a machine-tractable form (rather then simply displayed on a web page) is also quite variable. One is usually forced to fall back on web-scraping techniques and quite a lot of manual post-editing. This note documents my fairly uneven progress towards a definitive collection of links to existing and freely available digital copies of the plays constituting the Acting Edition on various sites. The fairly good news is that, as of today, of the 1498 titles making up the 100 volume Acting Edition, I have identified 586 which are freely available in some digital form somewhere. Track progress by looking at my online catalogue.

Hathi Trust

A search for the string “Lacy’s Acting Edition” anywhere in the catalogue record at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/ produces 294 hits, of which 246 are available in “full view” (i.e. should be downloadable without formality). A search for the string “Thomas Hailes Lacy” as publisher somewhat counter-intuitively produces only 94 hits. The web page displaying results looks like this:

  1. Results from a HT search. Setting page length to the maximum allowed (100) makes it feasible in this case to download all pages with minimal scrolling.

As usual, the easiest way to screen scrape is to save the HTML page as a file, use tidy to make it into well-formed XML, and then write XSLT to extract the useful information. In this case, the generated XML uses an undefined prefix “xlink:”, which I had to remove by hand, but apart from that everything needful was done by the XSLT stylesheet htScraper.xsl, resulting in a document (htListFull.xml) containing entries like this:

<bibl>
 <title>The first night; a comic drama in one
   act.</title>
 <pubDate>1800</pubDate>
 <author>Lacy, Thomas Hailes, 1809-73.</author>
</bibl>
<bibl>
 <title>After the party; a comedy in one act.</title>
 <pubDate>1870</pubDate>
 <author>Lacy,
   Thomas Hailes, 1809-1873.</author>
 <ref target=”https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044072039373″>HT</ref>
</bibl>

No <ref> element is generated for entries which are not accessible in “full view” mode. Also note that the handle quoted above is for the Hathitrust index page; to download the whole text as a single PDF file you must visit that page, and wait while the PDF is constructed. Oh, and yes, you must also be logged in at a HathiTrust member institution. So much for “full view” access.

Open Texts

I blogged about this now sadly un-maintained site back in October 2020. The site was dark for a while, but seems to be back for the moment: this morning I visited and was able to download a list of 106 hits in CSV, XML, or JSON in one click, which was nice.

This is what I like to see at the foot of my first page of results

Individual results looking like this:

<doc>
 <str name=”organisation”>Bodleian Libraries</str>
 <str name=”idLocal”>016930688</str>
 <str name=”title”>King of the Merrows, or, The prince and the piper : a fairy extravaganza / written by F.C. Burnand, from an original plot constructed by J. Palgrave Simpson.</str>
 <str name=”urlMain”>http://purl.ox.ac.uk/uuid/42d1488e99284fef9421268c33e4730d</str>
 <int name=”year”>1862</int>
 <arr name=”date”>
  <str>1862</str>
 </arr>
 <arr name=”publisher”>
  <str>Thomas Hailes Lacy</str>
 </arr>
 <arr name=”creator”>
  <str>Burnand, F. C.</str>
 </arr>
 <arr name=”description”>
  <str>First performed at the Royal Olympic Theatre, 26th December, 1861.</str>
 </arr>
 <arr name=”placeOfPublication”>
  <str>London</str>
 </arr>
 <str name=”catLink”>http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/f/89vilt/oxfaleph016930688</str>
 <str name=”language”>English</str>
</doc>

are easily converted (e.g. by my stylesheet opentexts-conv.xsl) to produce

<bibl>
 <title>King of the Merrows, or, The prince and the piper : a fairy extravaganza / written by F.C.
   Burnand, from an original plot constructed by J. Palgrave Simpson.</title>
 <pubDate>1862</pubDate>
 <author>Burnand, F. C.</author>
 <note>First performed at the Royal Olympic Theatre, 26th December, 1861.</note>
 <ref target=”http://purl.ox.ac.uk/uuid/42d1488e99284fef9421268c33e4730d”/>
</bibl>

which is easily merged into the main Lacy catalogue.

Moreover, in this case (hoorah for the Bodleian), a visit to the publically available URL actually downloads the whole of the PDF file without further ado.

Sadly, PURLs are available for only three of the items in the Open Texts list of 106; the vast majority (90) being handles from HathiTrust, and the rest (13) links to archive.org. Moreover, the data has not apparently been updated since October 2020, which is presumably why it does not have anything like the 316 handles I found in the Hathi Trust catalogue for myself. In fact, every one of the handles it supplies exists also in the htListFull.xml list.

Google Books

A cauchemar. Google has digitized (almost certainly) all of the Lacy Acting Edition volumes, but it seems to be entirely arbitrary which ones you can access via Google Books. I have tried various approaches to searching (there is something called a `bibliogroup` for Lacy), and then reprocessing the resulting (very obscure) HTML, but cannot say I have succeeded in cracking this code. The file gbSearch.xml contains the screen- scraped-and-converted-to-XML output from a query for this; the stylesheet gbSearch.xsl filters out from this the 37 useful links it provides to files you can actually download from Google Books (but you still have to go through a captcha check, of course).

Searching specifically for “Lacy Acting Edition” on Google Books will provide an exciting list of entries for each of the first 93 volumes in the LAE — but only two of them (volumes 77 and 93) actually have anything you can download. (I belatedly discovered that this annoying behaviour can be modified by selecting “Full View” from the drop down menu at top left of the query screen, which hides the titles you cannot have). On the other hand, there are also a few occasions where the text actually digitized for a specific title is the whole of the volume in which that title appears. Thus, searching Google Books for The Half Caste will provide you with a link for the whole of volume 97, in which that title appears. Likewise a search for In Three Volumes actually gives you a link to the whole of Volume 91. Anyway, once you have a reliable link to Google’s equivalent of the Internet Archive’s “details” page (at the moment, it looks like https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Oberon_An_opera_in_four_acts_in_prose_an/IoFaWP1TQgkC) you can pass that to Google, and get back a nice “New” Google Books page in the middle of which is a nice “Download PDF” button. Which works — once you have completed the annoying captcha test of course.

All very well if you have the time to spend cutting and pasting links: but why couldn’t Google have provided a simple download in a form I can script? I assume it’s for the same reason they want to control access to these resources — to stop unscrupulous entrepreneurs in the “Print On Demand” industry from making a swift buck. And we all know how effective that policy is, don’t we?

Bodley

Real librarians do it with Z39.50. But my results (bodleyTexts.xml) show only 9 titles available in digital form.

The Hall Collection

Every now and then, serendipitous searching pays off. The Hall Collection contains approximately 600 English plays mostly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, originally used as prompt books by a professional actress called Clara St. Casse. The Collection was donated to the University of Warwick Library by a Mrs G. F. Hall of Leamington Spa, together with a collection of other printed plays. Naturally it includes quite a few (102 to be exact) Lacy titles. Although the Warwick site (https://wdc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/hall) seems to provide only downloads and browsing of individual pages, someone, presumably from the Library, has also had the good sense and generosity to deposit the whole collection at archive.org, from which I was able to obtain an XML file (hallColl.xml) which can be readily processed to produce links to the 102 Lacy published titles: see hallCollTitles.xml

Internet Archive

This archive has an excellent search interface and will also deliver results in any tractable form you like, including json or xml. It cannot however perform magic to overcome variant cataloguing practices amongst the collections it has incorporated. So, for example, a search for “Lacy Acting Edition” throws up precisely one hit (“a copy graciously made available by Fordham University”). A more general search for “Thomas Hailes Lacy” gets me 125 hits, 102 of which come from the Hall Collection. A search (thomas hailes lacy) AND -collection:(hallcollection) finds me the 23 titles not included in the Hall Collection. On the other hand, a search for “T.H. Lacy AND -collection:(hallcollection)” finds 66 titles, not included in the Hall Collection, but not included in the foregoing either.

On the bright side, the hits can be downloaded in a format which is more or less identical to that generated by the XML option quoted for the Open Texts server above, so mungeing the results lists together is a Simple Matter Of Programming, resulting in iaList.xml.

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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