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Though this be madness, yet there is method in't: Undergraduate Manuscript Research at Penn

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Though this be madness, yet there is method in't: Undergraduate Manuscript Research at Penn

By Nicole Flibbert.

My interest in manuscript research grew from my love of books as objects. Specifically, I love old books with marginalia — those notes, doodles and scribbles written in books by their original owners. The marginalia has an aura of mystery that appeals to me, and that can also be an essential tool for scholars. Handwritten notes contemporary to the book’s publication contain invaluable insight into the interpretation of the literature at that time. At one point, universities preferred “clean” copies of books, but increasingly, marginalia is recognized as a vast intellectual resource.

I first got involved in manuscript research through the Penn Manuscript Collective, a student group that meets once a month. I wanted to gain some firsthand experience and was amazed to learn that Penn lets undergrads access nearly all of the resources in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. All I needed to do was pick a project. I met with my Shakespeare professor Zachary Lesser, and he generously helped me find something to work with — a promptbook of Hamlet printed in 1879 with notes by J. R. Pitman.

I didn’t know much about the promptbook to start out. The identity of J. R. Pitman remained a mystery, one of the reasons I chose this project. My initial work with the promptbook yielded few clues. I went through Mr. Pitman’s notes line by line, but learning how to read his handwriting was a struggle. Was that an R or a K? What did “green foots” mean? Who would write “p’s” like that? In my first few visits, I only got through about two pages of text, but reading Mr. Pitman’s writing was a bit like learning a language — once I got the basics down, my rate of learning accelerated. When I was stumped, I could use the rest of the notes for clues — finding an unintelligible word or letter in another context helped me decode the text. But names and dates, the clues I had most hoped to find, remained absent.


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    • The front of Edwin Booths promptbook of Hamlet, with J. R. Pitman's signature.

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    • The first page of Mr. Pitman's annotations of Hamlet.

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    • The Queen's bedchamber scene in Hamlet; calcium effects for the ghost (see left).

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I next turned to outside research to determine the identity of J. R. Pitman. Without this information, there was little more I could do with the project. I began looking through old newspaper archives in the Library of Congress online database. After a lot of browsing, I found a J. R. Pitman working as a prompter at the Boston Museum, a famous theater in the late nineteenth century. I had found our Pitman!

Once I had identified J. R. Pitman, I was able to find out much more about him. He was born in New Zealand but moved to the United States at a young age, working for several decades as a prompter for the Boston Museum before moving on to other theaters where he directed performances and became a well-known figure.

I first guessed that the Hamlet promptbook depicted a performance at the Boston Museum because it was an edition printed by Edwin Booth, one of the great American portrayers of Hamlet. Edwin Booth happens to have performed at the Boston Museum in 1884 and 1886, when Mr. Pitman was a prompter. However, additional evidence suggests otherwise. Penn owns the same Edwin Booth edition of Othello with annotations by J. R. Pitman — and this promptbook includes a playbill for a 1903 performance at the Castle Square Theater, another famous theater in Boston. Other similarities between the two promptbooks lead me to hypothesize that Mr. Pitman was directing at the Castle Square Theater when he wrote his notes in the Hamlet promptbook. This does not give me any definitive proof, and it also does not isolate a specific performance of Hamlet; there were at least four of them at the Castle Square Theater with Mr. Pitman directing. Without any direct evidence in the text of the annotations, it may be impossible to be sure.


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    • An Othello playbill attached to Mr. Pitman's edition of Othello.

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    • Othello.

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    • Othello.

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Manuscript research integrates history and literature. Along with historical research, textual analysis was an integral part of my project. Mr. Pitman’s censorship of Hamlet was particularly illuminating. In several cases he cuts out mild curse words and places where the characters take the Lord’s name in vain. This may indicate the religious and conservative nature of Mr. Pitman’s Boston audience, Mr. Pitman’s own personal beliefs, or both. It was fascinating to me that Mr. Pitman made so many further edits from the Booth text, which was already winnowed down and censored. This edition was printed in New York, presumably for a New York audience, and its censorship was apparently not strong enough for Mr. Pitman in Boston.

My research on J. R. Pitman has now expanded from the single promptbook I focused on this semester to all of Penn’s Pitman promptbooks. I believe that further analysis and comparing the different promptbooks will reveal much about Mr. Pitman’s career and the nature of Boston theater at the turn of the century. I hope to answer some of the questions my research has brought up, or, at the very least, to narrow the possible answers down. My research will likely lead me to Penn this summer and, if I am able, I hope to travel to Boston.


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    • Richelieu cover.

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    • Mr. Pitman's notes in a play called Richelieu.

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    • Mr. Pitman's annotations in Macbeth.

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    •  An illustration in Macbeth.

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    • A playbill for the Boston Museum of the play Richard III.

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I feel deeply that this research is worthwhile. J. R. Pitman was an influential figure on the American acting scene who has been almost lost to history. There is so much that his annotations can offer us.

Before coming to Penn, I hadn’t been remotely aware of the field of manuscript research. I have received nothing but encouragement from my professor and those at the Kislak Center. This project has allowed me to discover my love for material texts, and I feel that many doors have been opened for me. Next year I will be working at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts so that I might spend even more time around old books. By a happy accident, I have discovered a passion I hope to continue to pursue during my time at Penn.


Nicole Flibbert is a rising sophomore at Penn's College of the Arts and Sciences. She hails from Washington, D.C., and plans to major in English with a minor in French. 


Edited by Naomi Shavin.