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but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V Scene 5.

Theatre is a complex medium to capture, being transitory by nature. Before the advent of film, in the late 19th century, it was not possible to record a play as a performance. Yet theatre encompasses a wide range of mediums beyond the live presentation: material (costumes, staging), textual (scripts) and decorative (illustrations, photographs). Through these physical remnants of theatrical history we are able to trace the practicalities of rehearsal and performance, as well as audience interaction on and off the stage.

In addition to early printed books, Queens’ College Old Library is custodian to noteworthy special collections, including two key deposits of theatre memorabilia. These comprise an archive of books, pamphlets, directorial and financial material bequeathed to the Library by Henry Burke, founder of the Norwich Playhouse; and an extensive collection of theatrical books and programmes donated by former Queens’ College member, Bruce Cleave. In conjunction with this blog post, the latest exhibition in the college’s student library focuses the spotlight on some of the items from these collections – and from the college’s own Archive – to consider what they tell us about the history of theatre, both at Queens’ and further afield.

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From an advertisement in a playbill for a production of Dick Whittington [Burke Theatre Collection]

Queens’ College has a long-established history of theatre and performance. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was renowned as one of the most theatrically-active colleges in Cambridge. Indeed, so much so that a college statute from 1559 dictated that the Professor of Greek must stage two comedies or tragedies between 20th December and Ash Wednesday, and that any Scholars who did not take part were to be punished by the President! During this period, plays were performed in Queens’ Old Hall on a makeshift stage which could be assembled and disassembled as needed.

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The manuscript instructions [Queens’ College MS 75] – Each part of the stage is given a small symbol to make the instructions easier to follow

A surviving document dating from 1639/40 outlines instructions for constructing the stage, and also for a ‘stage-house’ (erected nearby to store the stage when not in use). The document’s late date, only a few years before Puritan legislation banned theatre in 1642, may suggest that the Queens’ stage dated from the 17th century. However, Wright (1986) argues that it had been in use for many years previously, and that the instructions were only formally recorded at this point in reaction to dwindling theatrical productions under Puritan influences.


QC Book 76, fol. 11r. The list includes costumes made of expensive materials like ‘satten’, ‘sylk’ and damask

Other college records support a long theatrical history: most obviously the statute from 1559, which proves the perceived importance of theatre to life at Queens’. A list of elaborate ‘players’ garments’ signed by former Fellow ‘Rychard Thorpe’, who staged a tragedy at Queens’ in the winter of 1552-3, confirms not only that college members performed in these plays but also that substantial sums of money were allocated for them. Such expensive costumes would have been securely stored in the muniments room with other college valuables.

Play scripts preserved in the college collections add a textual record of the performances themselves, and in some cases even the audience. The Old Library holds a 1910 edition of a script entitled Laelia, performed at Queens’ College for the Earl of Essex in 1594/5. The edition acknowledges the play’s performance history on its title-page but is principally a print reproduction of the original script rather than a working document for a production.


The title page of Laelia, with the library stamp [A.37.53]

In contrast, this ‘acting edition’ of the comedy Ladies’ Battle [Burke Theatre Collection], published by Samuel French in the 19th century, was intended for practical use in rehearsals. In the 1840s, French and his business partner, Thomas Hailes Lacy, developed an affordable and functional printed format which allowed each actor to have their own copy of an entire script rather than just their individual lines (as had previously been common practice). These basic and compact paperback editions, which are still in production today, included practical staging and costume descriptions alongside the performers’ lines.

Another script from the Queens’ collection demonstrates an early crossover with modern printed theatre programmes. This promotional booklet for the pantomime Dick Whittington [Burke Theatre Collection], performed at Birmingham’s Theatre Royal in the late 19th century, comprises of the play script interspersed with advertisements for local retailers. The production starred several key music hall figures of the day whose presence is advertised on the first page: Marie Loftus, George Robey, and Syria Lamonte (one of the first women to make a commercial recording outside of America). As with modern programmes, this publication sought to both promote the production and to establish a material link between performance and audience.

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A selection of postcards from Richard Bonynge’s book, A collector’s guide to theatrical postcards (1988) [Cleave Theatre Collection]

Encouraged by the invention of photography in 1839, the Victorian and Edwardian era experienced a shift towards a more visual culture, and popular demand for associated theatre ephemera accelerated. This development is reflected in the college’s theatre collections. For the first time, plays could be captured in still, live pictures and recorded in a more theatrical sense. The on-stage trend of ‘tableaux vivants’ (static poses held by the actors at key moments) translated off-stage into postcard images depicting costumed actors in character as mementos of productions.

The publication of The Play Pictorial magazine [Cleave Theatre Collection], from 1902, demonstrates a deliberate and comprehensive approach to capturing theatre in photographs, in conjunction with the oral and aural elements. Each magazine was devoted to a specific West End play; recording plot, score and costumes alongside photographs of the live performance.

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The theatre collections housed at Queens’ College represent far more than mere examples of theatrical performance and associated ephemera. Within them lie clues to the history and practicalities of staging productions: statutes and funding, stage-direction and rehearsal, performers and performances, words and music, audiences and audience interaction. Evidently, whilst a performance itself may be transitory, it need be far from “heard no more”.

By Isobel Goodman, Library Graduate Trainee

The exhibition, ‘A spotlight on theatre: uncovering the history of the stage in Queens’ Library special collections’, is available to view in the War Memorial Library display case (on the ground floor) from April 2019-October 2019.


For a detailed overview of the theatrical history of the college, see the dedicated page on the college website, compiled by Dr Robin Walker.

Primary sources

Bonynge, Richard, A collector’s guide to theatrical postcards (London, 1988) [Cleave Theatre Collection]

Dick Whittington, playbill (Birmingham, 18–) [Burke Theatre Collection]

Moore Smith, G.C., Laelia: a comedy acted at Queens’ College, Cambridge probably on March 1st, 1595 (Cambridge, 1910) [A.37.53]

Robertson, William Thomas, The ladies’ battle: a comedy in three acts (London, 18–) [Burke Theatre Collection]

The Play Pictorial, Volume 40 (London, 1922) [Cleave Theatre Collection]

Bursar’s book [QC Book 76]

‘The Colledge stage Feb 18 1639′ [Queens’ College MS 75]

Secondary sources

Boas, Frederick S., University drama in the Tudor age (Oxford, 1914)

Cooper, Charles Henry and Cooper, Thompson, Athenae Cantabrigienses, Vol 1. (Cambridge, 1858), p. 552

Diamond, M., ‘Theatre posters and how they bring the past to life’, in Nineteenth century theatre and film, Summer, 2012, Vol. 39(1), pp. 60-77

Moore Smith, G. C., College plays performed in the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1923)

Schoch, Richard W., ‘Pictorial Shakespeare’, in The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare on stage (Cambridge, 2002)

Walker, Robin (ed.) ‘The Bats drama society’, Queens’ College Cambridge website, https://www.queens.cam.ac.uk/life-at-queens/about-the-college/college-facts/the-bats-drama-society#overlay-context=

Walker, Robin, ‘Theatre’, Queens’ College Cambridge website, https://www.queens.cam.ac.uk/life-at-queens/about-the-college/college-facts/theatre

Wright, I. R., ‘An early stage at Queens’’, in Cambridge: Magazine of the Cambridge Society, 1986, Vol. 18, pp. 74-83

Wright, I.R., ‘What was the Queens’ Stage-house?’, in Queens’ College Record, 1991, pp. 13-14