Handlists made handier

I have been down a deep deep rabbit hole for the last week or two trying to get my XML-tagged versions of Allardyce Nicol’s two Handlists into shape. Here is an interim report.

What is an entry?

One problem has to do with the actual content of Nicoll’s Handlists. What exactly do they list? Although this is essentially a record of performances, it is organized very much by author. There are, for example, about 30 entries which don’t refer to any specific play, but are merely there to indicate the preferred form of an author’s name: like this one

<entry>“LAWRENCE, SLINGSBY.” See G. H. LEWES</entry>

Multiple authorship is also a problem. An entry like this one is straightforward enough:

<entry type="D."><author>ANDERSON, JAMES R. </author><title>The Robbers </title><note type="perf" >D.L. 21/4/51</note>. L.C. D.L. 26/12/45.</entry>

Inter alia, this tells us that there was a performance of a drama called “The Robbers” at Drury Lane theatre on 21 April 1851, and that the author of the piece is recorded to be James R. Anderson.

But there are also entries like this one:

<entry type="F."><author>ATWELL, E. </author><title>A Stuffed Dog </title><note type="perf">Park. H. Camden Town, 2/11/89</note>. See J. A. KNOX.</entry>

This one tells us that “A Stuffed Dog”, written by E. Atwell, was making them roar at the Park Theatre in Camden Town in November 1889. If we look for Mr J. A. Knox, we find another entry, apparently for the same performance:

<entry type="F."><author>KNOX, J. ARMORY </author><title>A Stuffed Dog </title><note type="perf" >Park H. Camden Town, 2/11/89, copy.</note>. L.C. [Written in collaboration with E. ATWELL .]</entry>

On the face of it, if I want to determine how many Farces are listed in the Handlists, for example to determine the waxing or waning of this particular type of performance over time, I need to be wary of cases like this one, where a single farce has multiple authors, and therefore gives rise to multiple entries: both these entries refer to a single performance, so should only be counted once.

How serious a problem is this? Out of 25 thousand- plus entries, (25,632 to be exact) I find that there are 1346 entries containing the word “collaboration” and 1738 containing the word “See ”. Most, but not all, of them point to a collaboration entry which references the same performance of the same play. There are only two entries in which the word “See ” really appears as part of a title, but there are maybe a dozen or more other types of cross references, for example to plays renamed or whose authorship Nicoll has resolved. The number of cross references which go nowhere or to an entry which documents a different title or performance is unknown, but not zero. I spent some time trying to check automatically but did not finish: other bits of the rabbit hole (like checking and fixing OCR errors in the dates) seemed more useful.

Although ostensibly organized by author, about half the entries in the Handlists record performances for which there is no author. (10,374 out of 25,662 entries to be precise). Usually, but not always, distinct entries are given for the same title performed on different occasions or at different venues – but occasionally an entry will provide a list of performances: like this

<entry type="C.O."><author>MANCHESTER, G. </author><title> The School Girl </title><note type="perf">Grand, Cardiff, 2/9/95; Stand. 14/10/95</note>. L.C. [Music by A. Maurice.]</entry>

I have not checked, but I suspect that this happens when a play has its first performance in the provinces: in this example, we may conjecture that “The School Girl” went down well enough in Cardiff for the management to risk bringing it to the Standard in Shoreditch a month later.

What sort of play is this?

Nicoll thoughtfully provides lists of the abbreviated codes he uses to indicate “the nature of the play itself” for both the Handlist 1800-1850 and the Handlist 1850-1900. There are a few codes present in only one or other of the two lists (B.O. for Ballad Opera is in the earlier list only, for example). An investigation of his usage of these codes over the two hand lists indicates the justice of the warning he also provides that “these designations are in no way final, and are often indefinite”. The two lists propose a total of 87 different codes including some very general categories (D for drama, F for Farce, P for Pantomime etc.) as well as many more nuanced classifications such as “Military Drama”, “Operatic Drama”, “Poetic Drama” “Romantic Comedy”, “Romantic Comedy Drama”, and “Romantic Drama”. Nicoll further remarks “Where possible, the designation employed in the original bills has here been followed” – so we should take these characterisations as indicative of the language in which Victorian Theatre chose to describe itself, not as a formally organized taxonomy.

I did some counting up of the actual usage of these codes, and found a further 23 codes not specified in either list. However, most of these are used very infrequently : less than 10 times for all except two of them. The exceptions are the emdash which is used for 15 entries that describe non performance items such as published collections of plays and the code “Bsq. O.” which is used for 22 entries, all of them presumably “burlesque operas”.

For what it’s worth, here’s a colourful camembert to show the distributional statistics of these categorisations. Of the 110 different codes used, more than half (64) are used fewer than 10 times. Or, to put it another way, the top six codes between them account for 17,242 out of the total nunber of 25,632 entries – over 67%.; the top eight codes (labelled in the picture) account for more than three-quarters of the whole population.

My next project will be to see if these proportions change significantly over time.

Categorising Lacy

 Collecting the data

Allardyce Nicoll’s monumental “History of English Drama 1660-1900” (Cambridge University Press, 1955) has two volumes containing “hand lists” of theatrical titles produced in the first and second halves of the 19th century respectively. The list in Volume 4, covering 1800-1850, can be downloaded from CUP’s site in PDF format if you have an appropriate institutional login; it even has a DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511897764.010.

I downloaded and worked on the PDF version (handlist18001850.pdf) with the following workflow:

  • Generate DOCX version using Abby (thanks, HumaNum) (handlist18001850_hnOCR.docx)
  • Process this with `docxtoTEI` (thanks TEI) (handlist18001850_hnOCR.xml); some hand edits too to get rid of unnecessary clutter such as forme work and simplify the subsequent processing
  • Process this with `addMilestones.xsl` to delimit entries and author sections
  • Process output with `writeList.xsl` to produce structured list of all titles (entries1800-1850.xml)
  • Process with `addKey.xsl` to select entries mentioning Lacy and add a magic key derived from the title (LacyEntries1.xml)
  • Process this with `checkEntryList.xsl` to determine whether there is a match for this magic key in the current Lacy Catalog file, and add an attribute @matched indicating the result (LacyEntriesChecked1.xml)

The text of Volume 5 covering titles from 1850 to 1900, is not available in digital form from CUP for some unknown reason. I did however discover in the Internet Archive a less than perfect scan of it, provided by the Digital Library of India (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.40678). I used a grubby perl script (`tagPlayList.pl`) to process the fairly unreliable OCR plain text version of this to produce output compatible with that produced by `addMilestones.xsl`, and fed this into the toolchain listed above to produce LacyEntries2.xml and LacyEntriesChecked2.xml


– entries1800-1850.xml has 8495 titles of which 456 (53.6%) mention Lacy; of these, 307 could be matched, and 149 not.

– entries1850-1900.xml has 17202 titles of which 754 (43.8%) mention Lacy, of these, 454 could be matched and 300 not.

Failing a bit better

I next tried a different way of checking for matches, viz. the ever reliable unix utility `comm` applied to a pair of text files, one containing all the values for title/@n in the LacyCatalog and the other containing all the values for entry/@n in the tweaked Nicoll entry lists. First time round, unsurprisingly this gave different results: 537 matches in all, with 652 values unique to the Nicoll-derived list, and 961 unique to the Lacy catalogue.

I noticed however that both files had some duplicate entries, which were causing confusion in the matching process, though unsurprisingly, the most frequent cause of disagreement seemed to be OCR error or inconsistent formatting.

I manually added suffixes to handle the discrepancies I noticed in @n values. The author’s surname was used to distinguish identically titled but different works; the suffix “-bis” for actual repetitions.

Removing the duplicate entries and some of the more egregious OCR errors gave more plausible values : 760 matches in all, with 429 values unique to the Nicoll-derived list, and 738 unique to the Lacy catalogue. This was further improved by checking the 23 titles in Nicoll’s list which indicated that the Lacy publication used a different title. The output from comm after this modification gave me 772 matched titles, with 410 unique to Nicoll, and 726 unique to Lucy.
saxon ~/Public/Lacy/newcatalog.xml listKeys.xsl > lacyKeys.txt
saxon lacyEntries.xml listEntryKeys.xsl > nicollKeys.txt
comm --total lacyKeys.txt nicollKeys.txt

This exercise also revealed that there are a couple of genuine double entries in the Lacy Catalogue. Henry Byron’s “Bluebeard” extravaganza appears both in volume 19.3 (L0273) and in volume 49.9 (L0729); likewise Selby’s “Witch of Windermere” appears both in volume 84.4 (L1248) and in volume 3.6 (L0036).

After more tweaking, I decided to declare victory with 753 matched entries, and 436 not matching. Nicoll’s catalog includes entries for Lacy titles from volumes after 100, which I do not include in this project, so I expected some matches to fail.

Categorizing the titles

One of the reasons for being interested in Nicoll’s Handlists is that they assign each title a code such as ‘D’ for drama. How useful are these codes as a way of categorizing the contents of LAE?

Nicoll’s category codes are at once very delicate and very vague. Clearly, they are derived from the way the piece describes itself on its title page (if it says it’s an “extravaganza” then that’s what it is), but at the same time these often ornate descriptions have clearly been rationalised to make up a smaller number of unique category labels than simply using the words of the title would. But only to a degree: “burletta” and “burlesque” are distinguished, with roughly equal numbers of each, but there are plenty of titles which describe themselves as “a burlesque burletta”. In an attempt to further simplify these descriptions, I decided to map Nicoll’s codes to just four main classes: Comedy, Drama, Musical, and Spectacle — even though items frequently cross these very broad categories: should “comic drama” go under “comedy” or “drama”, for example? “Musical” is particularly problematic since many comedies include songs, as does almost anything classed as a “Spectacle”: my intention was to limit it to pieces clearly operatic or at least operetta-ic .

Undeterred, I tried my own experiment in classification, based on the words appearing on the titlepages. I used the following regexp to collect categorizing strings :


and concatenated all the matching strings for each title. Prefixed with the number of acts in the play, this became the value for a @type attribute on each catalogue entry. For example, a one act play whose subtitle contained the phrase “A Burlesque Burletta” would be given the category label “1_BurleBurle”. A script `listTypes.xsl` counted up unique category labels (disregarding the number of acts) producing a list that begins:
Burle (40)
BurleBurle (3)
BurleBurleOpera (1)
BurleDrama (7)
BurleExtravagan (21)
BurleExtravaganComicPantomime (1)

(Note that the counts are for the whole string of categorizers: the count for “Burle” does not include the count for “BurleBurle”)

In many cases, it’s easy to map these category labels to the four basic categories identified above: all of the above would count as “Spectacle” — except perhaps “BurleDrama” and “BurleBurleOpera” (the latter however proves to be a mistake in segmentation: the “opera” part of the characterization concerns the source, not the play itself.)

There are 57 titles which lack any of these categorizing substrings, many of them preferring humorous variants on traditional title page discourse, such as “An Original Irish Stew” or “A new and original, aerial, floreal and conchological fairy tale (Of which the most striking feature is borrowed from the Countess D’Aulnois)“. These I (regretfully) left to one side for the moment.

My first (rough) simplification produced the following figures for all 1500 titles in Lacy’s Acting Edition:

Categorizations by subtitle, for all 1500 titles

These relative proportions for these gross categories seem to be much the same as those derived from the more finely-grained Nicoll analysis of half the number of titles:

Categorizations by Nicoll, for Lacy titles only

The story looks rather different however when we count up the categories for all 15,021 categorized entries in the two Nicoll handlists, not just those for Lacy titles:

Categorizations by Nicoll, all titles

It has to be said that these counts are all fairly unreliable — aside from encoding problems caused by flakey OCR and my post-processing, Nicoll’s records count performances of the same title as different items where a title is of unknown authorship: this has the effect (probably) of inflating the counts for some categories such as Pantomimes. And of course my crude four part classification really needs much more thought. But putting all that to one side, it does seem that in selecting titles for his Acting Edition, Lacy preferred comedy over drama.

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