We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more

Contradicting Prospero: the prompt book collection in the V&A Department of Theatre & Performance

Beverley Hart
Librarian, V&A Department of Theatre & Performance


Prompt books are some of the most important records of theatrical performance on the British stage. These documents, with their annotations, coded markings and doodles, offer vital clues to the staging of plays, often in an era before technology enabled productions to be photographed or recorded. They help us to reconstruct how a performance might have looked or sounded, providing unique insights into performers’ gestures and movements, and how props and scenery were used, from Handel to the 21st century.

Towards the end of The Tempest Prospero’s elegy on theatrical ephemerality claims that performances leave ‘not a rack behind.’1 At the risk of usurping him a second time, this is not quite true. Even on a bare-ish Jacobean stage, props, lendings, and other artefacts would have survived performance, if only to be used for further performances. We no longer have Prospero’s book or Miranda’s chess set to display, but this reflects the flammability of the contemporary theatres as much as lack of foresight for what posterity has its eye on.

The collections of the Department of Theatre & Performance at the V&A are rich in surviving ephemera, including prompt books.2 These documents act as road maps for stage productions: ‘final’ copies of the script were marked up with cues for actors, lighting, sound and moves, for use by the stage manager (historically, the prompter) and often contain details or diagrams of settings, and lists of stage properties. These master copies record changes to the script during rehearsal and provide a wealth of information about the evolution of a production.

The prompt book known as Mikado Z (as it is described on its cover label) gives a clear sense of what these documents did and what they can tell us about historical performances. It is believed to be the copy used at rehearsals for the first production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera in 1885; whether the prompt was revised for the opening night remains a matter for scholarly conjecture. A pre-production printed copy of the libretto, disbound and mounted in a workbook, has copious and detailed attention to performers’ moves and stage props, as well as textual cuts and additions, probably in the hand of D’Oyly Carte’s stage manager at the Savoy Theatre, W.H. Seymour. Mikado Z reveals last-minute decisions such as the transfer of Yum-Yum’s song ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ from Act I to Act II.

From the moment ‘the ladies make their 1st entrance in the following order’, with a diagram of how they fan out, to the final curtain call, there is extensive annotation recording each gesture, movement, amendment and second thought. While the chorus is singing, ‘If you think we are worked by strings / Like a Japanese marionette’, the singers are indeed being manipulated like puppets. Such is the attention to detail that at the end of the volume the manuscript notes on Japanese dances run to several pages.

Early prompt books

The earliest prompts in the V&A’s Collection date from the 18th century, with the department continuing to collect from modern company archives, such as the Royal Court Theatre, the Young Vic and the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn.3 Prompts differ in the amount of detail they include. Some contain nourishing scraps in addition to the marked-up script, for example, rehearsal schedules, tour dates, props lists, even fabric swatches or show reports (the nightly, and frequently mordant, post-mortem on how the performance has gone).  Prompt books are working documents and often look as if they have lived a little (The Mousetrap), some resemble birds’ nests (the touring Prospect Theatre Company), while some are almost freakishly neat, carefully sectioned by file dividers  (Cheek by Jowl).

Prompt books are an important primary source to be mined for clues to performance practice and production history, but should perhaps be treated with caution. Charles H. Shattuck, Shakespearean scholar and descriptive bibliographer, calls the Shakespearean prompts ‘tricky, secretive, stubborn informants.’4 Like the ‘Bible’, to which they are sometimes compared, prompts are open to multiple interpretations and lively critical debate, as well as downright scepticism.  Nonetheless, in conjunction with the theatrical jetsam of performance history, they are a useful addition to the yield of evidence, whether consulted by theatre professionals re-staging a work (their own or other directors’), or for academic historians reconstructing performances in the mind’s eye.

Figure 1. Radamisto, prompt book, George Frideric Handel and Nicola Haym, 1720. Museum no. S.501-1985 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 1. Radamisto, prompt book, George Frideric Handel and Nicola Haym, 1720. Museum no. S.501-1985 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The format of prompt books, before the invention of the typewriter, takes one of two forms: manuscripts are usually bound and markings made on the verso of the leaf facing the text. The relevant move, cue or effect is noted parallel to the line it accompanies. An alternative is the printed edition, frequently disbound and interleaved with plain leaves of paper, enabling notes opposite the text. 

One of the earliest prompt books in the collection is the marked text, in English and Italian, used for the opening night of Handel’s (1685 - 1759) opera Radamisto, 27 April 1720, a three-act opera written to an anonymous libretto attributed to Nicola Haym (1678 - 1729), and the composer’s first opera for the newly-forged Royal Academy of Music. (fig. 1) 5 This company attracted support from George I (1660 – 1727), who earns a printed dedication from Handel. The libretto is not only an important example of its kind, but a record of a glittering social occasion, the Academy’s second production, publicly marking the recent reconciliation of the king and the Prince of Wales after a period of estrangement. 

The manuscript markings, in two hands, indicate the singers’ calls, moves made by the performers on stage, and cues for sound effects. Judith Milhous and Robert Hume consider that the prompt book provides important hints about the semiotic function of supernumeraries in opera production of the 1720s and speculate that this incompletely-annotated copy was an early draft for performance ‘whose contents were then for some reason transferred to another book’. The assumption here is that printed copies were available far enough in advance to enable preparation of this kind.6  

Figure 2. Omai, set model, Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1785. Museum no. E.158:1 to 5-1937 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 2. Omai, set model, Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1785. Museum no. E.158:1 to 5-1937 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The arrival in Britain in 1774 of the Polynesian Omai (actually Mai, c.1753 - c.1780), courtesy of Captain Cook’s expedition, neatly coincided with contemporary intellectual debate about the ‘noble savage’. Omai’s brief stint as the darling of English society, renowned for its low boredom threshold, was still memorable enough nearly a decade later to sustain the remarkable pantomime Harlequin Omai. Written by John O’Keeffe (1747-1833) and designed by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740 - 1812) it opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in December 1785, and is an imaginative account - to say the least - of life on a South Sea Island. The farcical plot takes in Kensington Gardens and a (literal) Cook’s tour of exotic locations. In addition to Harlequin and Columbine it features a learned pig, who communicates by gesture and squeak, and a flock of menacing penguins. Though not a full prompt copy, rather a narrative description of the action, this manuscript account belonged to the composer William Shield (1748 - 1829) and is marked with cues, probably in his hand, placing the songs and recitatives that punctuate its improbable plot.7 In this case the prompt book plays a part in fitting together the puzzle of how a long-defunct production might have looked, since the V&A also holds some of de Loutherbourg’s set models and an engraving of Mrs Martyr (d. 1807) in role in this piece. (fig. 2)

The Discovery by Frances Sheridan (1724 - 1766), mother of the more famous Richard (1751 - 1816), was produced at Drury Lane in 1763. It was revived in 1776 when David Garrick (1717 - 1779) offered Sheridan mère’s play as a counter-attraction to Sheridan fils’s The Duenna. A printed second edition was prepared as a prompt copy, probably for this revival, and is one of the most fully marked 18th-century prompts in the collection. Rather poignantly bound with an unmarked copy of her play The Dupe, whose failure adversely affected her reputation, The Discovery furnished Garrick with a favourite role, Sir Anthony Branville, and provided another for her husband Thomas Sheridan (1719 – 1788). The prompt contains a new epilogue in manuscript, beginning ‘Ladies before you go will you allow’, probably composed and almost certainly spoken by Garrick in character as Sir Anthony.

Marginal numbers refer to the actors’ entrances along with abbreviations denoting from which side they appeared: PS (Prompt side) and OP (Opposite prompt). The ‘prompt side’ reflects the British practice of siting the ‘prompt corner’, housing the prompter who fed forgetful actors lines, downstage left, or on the right from the audience viewpoint. The stage is a looking-glass world in which perspectives are reversed and terminology derives from the business end of the operation. Even more confusingly, the location of the prompt side may have been reversed at Drury Lane.

The library holds a substantial cache of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane prompts from the late 18th century and early 19th century. The Times by Elizabeth Griffith (1727 - 1793) was first performed at Drury Lane in December 1779, though it would appear that the library’s prompt dates from c.1780, with a largely different cast, whose variant members are faintly pencilled in, just discernible opposite the names of the original actors in the printed cast list of the edition published by Fielding, Walker, Dodsley et al in 1779. It has the name of Mr Waldron boldly scrawled across the head of the title page. According to a note in the hand of Gabrielle Enthoven (1868 – 1950), founder of the Theatre collections, at this time Waldron was still acting, though he later became prompter at the Haymarket Theatre.

The printed stage directions are expanded upon with manuscript marginalia. The published description of the scene stipulates ‘a dressing-room, books, music, clothes scattered about’ (Act I Scene 1), to which is added the information that this is a ‘chamber with folding doors’ [underlined several times] with ‘table, music, 2 chairs, pr of laced ruffles, snuff box, papers &c’. We learn from which side actors entered, at what point in the action, what they carried with them and which of their lines were cut or changed.

The prompter also refers to the contemporary stage technology that ran in grooves parallel to the front of the stage, enabling scenery to be moved on and off stage, sometimes creating a perspective effect. Grooves would be numbered from the front of the stage (downstage) to the back (upstage), so scenery could be precisely designated as, for example, ‘2nd groove.’

A rare surviving example of an 18th-century manuscript prompt copy of an unpublished comic opera is Summer Amusement, also known as A Trip to Margate, where the action is set. Written by William Augustus Miles (1753? - 1817) and Miles Peter Andrews (1742 - 1814), it was first performed at the Haymarket in c.1779 for the benefit of Mr Palmer. The quarto volume, in its original marbled boards, is marked with stage directions and cuts for a production at Margate; the bookseller’s description records that it is ‘written in a fine 18th century clerkly hand, in red and black ink.’ The music, by Dr Arnold (1740 - 1802), is not reproduced in this copy.

As with modern prompt books, colour-coding is used to differentiate instructions about acting and stagecraft from spoken text. Names of characters and stage directions are in red. Cuts to the text are neatly scratched through in black. The scribe also observes the convention of including a ‘catchword’ at the bottom of each page, namely the first word on the following page is written (with a flourish, sometimes in contrasting red) at the foot of the preceding page. This was a helpful reminder to the binders about the order of the leaves, though in this volume the pages are also numbered in red. In places, extra, pencilled notes are added in the generous gutter margins. Interpreting the ‘coding’ of prompt markings is problematic as it cannot be assumed that the shorthand used by a prompter in one theatre equates to that used by others. A circle symbol can mean many things, depending on whether it is unadorned, dotted, or decorated with a variety of other squiggles, or has a letter written within it. As Edward A. Langhans translates: ‘A for act, B for bell or border, D for drop or draw, R for ring, or W for whistle.’ He adds,

Some prompters may have used circled numbers for silent cues -- holding up the appropriate number of fingers. It could be that a circled R meant a partial change [of scenery] … and a circled W a complete change. The plain circle sometimes meant no change of scenery -- the scene “continued” -- but the plain circle is also found marking a definite scene shift.

Further ‘local’ customising of this symbol adds to the variables, but ‘all meant essentially the same thing: scenery, usually a change of scenery’.8 

Sub-collections of prompt books

Figure 3. Edmund Kean as Richard III and Mr Cooper as Richmond, tinsel print, about 1821. Museum no. E.114-1969 © V&A Images

Figure 3. Edmund Kean as Richard III and Mr Cooper as Richmond, tinsel print, about 1821. Museum no. E.114-1969 © V&A Images

Substantial holdings related to particular actors, directors, or managements reveal much about the ‘house style’ of a performer or company. One such sub-collection belonged to the American actor James Henry Hackett (1800 - 1871), a noted Shakespearean and a talented mimic, whose enthusiasm for the work of Edmund Kean (1787 - 1833) extended to playing Richard III entirely in character as Kean, much as Peter Sellers would later guy Laurence Olivier’s Richard in the lyrics of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but with more serious purpose. (fig. 3) In seeking to reproduce what is virtually choreographic notation for Kean’s Richard, Hackett tries to capture the precise emphasis the older actor gave on individual words. Nor is this prompt book solely the record of a star hogging the limelight: Alan Downer, the editor of the facsimile edition prepared from this one by the Society for Theatre Research, claims that this attention to detail gives us valuable clues to ‘the movement of blank verse as delivered in the theatre of the 1820s.’9

Mr Hackett-as-Kean-as-Richard, first acted in 1826 in New York, was something of a party turn. Even a contemporary reviewer’s back-handed comment, that elements of his impression ‘only reminded us of the pre-eminent talents of the original’, could not flatten it.10 Academic arguments about the ‘authenticity’ of reconstructed ‘original performance’ pale by comparison with the diligence of Hackett’s tribute-act, though perhaps telling us more about the imitator than the imitated. In addition to faithfully transcribing the company prompt book, Hackett augmented his delivery with multiple viewings of Kean’s performances.

Kean’s star blazed brightly, but burnt out. Contemporary critics lit upon his dash and passion in interpreting an iconic villain (‘like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’ remarked Coleridge of his uneven delivery) but Hackett doggedly – indeed, obsessively – delivers not only a sense of the reputation the role garnered for Kean but the mechanics and pulse of the performance.11 The text is less reliable, tinkered with by Colley Cibber (1671 – 1757) and others. The limitations of 1950s technology prevented the Society for Theatre Research’s facsimile from reproducing the prompt exactly as prepared, since it does not distinguish between ink and pencil markings, somewhat distorting the appearance of the original leather-bound and interleaved copy of the Boston edition of 1822. As with the additional details listed in the prompt book for Griffith’s The Times, Hackett’s conscientious record fills out the sparse printed details and enables us to picture scenes and characters more clearly. At the first appearance of ‘Gloster’ (Richard), the scant description listed as ‘Costume’ was elaborated considerably: ‘hose, hat, cloak’ becomes ‘hat with black feathers, white hose … order of St. George - Garter - white pocket hkf - gauntlets - sword & chain, also black belt for 2nd dress.’12 The white handkerchief makes a timely appearance in Act II Scene 2, when Richard needs a prop to mop and authenticate his crocodile tears.

Other notable Shakespeareans feature: the actor and director William Poel (1852 - 1934), founder of the Elizabethan Stage Society, and his disciple Walter Nugent Monck (1877 - 1958), who founded the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich. Poel’s striving after simplicity of setting and fidelity to Renaissance staging convention contrasted with prevailing fashion. The prompt books in his hand are not all complete, but Measure for Measure, performed at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, and the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1908, opens with a flourish in red and black ink worthy of the trumpet fanfare it cues. The library also holds the copy of Poel’s prompt made by Annie Horniman (1860 - 1937), manager of the Gaiety. Although effectively a ‘fair copy’ with some minor variants, Horniman’s more pristine version underlines the contrast between it and the original prompt, which has clearly worked for its living, with all the theatrical DNA of thumb-prints and dog-earedness that is part of the history of the object.

Conservation measures

Conservative measures are taken for preservation purposes in order to stabilise items for display or handling by researchers in the Blythe House Reading Room. Attempting to return a prompt book to its original condition (were this possible) is to deny its previous existence as a working document. 20th-century prompts tend to be housed in plastic ring binders, which are unsuitable for long-term housing, while over time metal rings rust and eat into paper. As prompts are catalogued and processed they are assessed for potential re-housing, based on condition, format, and the nature of their existing housing. The advent of adhesive tape and post-it notes may have been a boon to stressed stage managers needing a quick fix to insert extra text or instructions, but it is a headache for conservators, as they degrade over time, losing stickiness and, in the case of tape, discolouring and leaving an unsightly residue.

Figure 4. The Mousetrap, prompt book, Agatha Christie, 1952. Museum no. S.1017-1995 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Mathew Pritchard

Figure 4. The Mousetrap, prompt book, Agatha Christie, 1952. Museum no. S.1017-1995 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Mathew Pritchard

Unstable housing (such as a synthetic ring-binder) is replaced by acid-free conservation boxes with brass (i.e. non-rusting) clamshell-shaped rings. This arguably detracts from the original appearance of the prompt-as-working-document but ensures that the content is preserved for future generations. Not everything is necessarily discarded however. Jottings or diagrams on binders with paper linings are photocopied on to acid-free paper and can be encapsulated in Secol (transparent archival-standard polyester), along with any other awkward enclosures that have broken free of their moorings from sticky tape-fatigue. Occasionally the theatrical graffiti scrawled on a binder is considered sufficiently important to preserve the whole entity, but stored separately from the paper contents to arrest further deterioration.

The prompt book used for the first twelve years of The Mousetrap (1952) is a case in point. Its conservation was funded by Mathew Prichard – who was given the rights of the play as a ninth birthday present by his grandmother Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976) – in time for its display in the former Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, to mark the 50th anniversary of the world’s longest-running production. The battered leaves (battered, that is, in the prompt corner in the service of the play) have been stabilised and painstakingly restored to a displayable standard by the V&A’s book conservators, without depriving it of its essential character as a retired theatrical artefact. The much-thumbed typescript, whose cover reveals that it was originally entitled Three Blind Mice, a recurring motif in the play and in the doodles which regularly punctuate the pages facing the text, illustrates the longeurs of the backstage functions in a long run. (fig. 4) In between the conventional lighting and sound cues, calls and moves are interspersed page after page of caricatures and visual jokes, telling us not only what is happening on stage, but a little of life backstage.

Picturing the stage

Figure 5. Diplomacy, prompt book, Victorien Sardou / William Harford, 1893, pencil and watercolour designs and plans bound with manuscript. [No Museum no.] © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 5. Diplomacy, prompt book, Victorien Sardou / William Harford, 1893, pencil and watercolour designs and plans bound with manuscript. [No Museum no.] © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The artwork occasionally included in prompts is usually of a higher order. Bound with the prompt book for Diplomacy, an English adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s Dora (1877) by Clement Scott (1841 – 1904) & B.C. Stephenson (1839 – 1908), are several watercolours of the ornate sets: sumptuous interiors befitting a drama of international political intrigue. (fig. 5) Attributed to William Harford, who designed the production for Squire (1841 – 1926) and Marie Bancroft (1839 – 1921), they illustrate the way in which the Bancroft management popularised the realistic set: a box furnished like an actual room. Although the designs depict the sets as largely unfurnished, the accompanying stage plans indicate the precise placing of the furniture. The French panelled Chamber (Act I) is comfortably appointed with sofas, easy chairs, a gilt table, an inlaid chair, a palm on a stand, with a triptych of orange trees visible in front of the stone balustrade with sea view of Monte Carlo. A bamboo table and iron chair are specified beneath the red-striped awning. The Grey French Chamber (Act II) has a trio of tall windows overlooking an iron balustrade beyond which is a back-cloth ‘view’ of the Champs-Elysées sweeping up to the Arc de Triomphe. The Oak Chamber (Act IV) includes a ‘marquetry table’, ‘bust of the Queen’ and ‘turkey carpet over parquet floor’, detail that feels more like interior than stage design, no doubt imperceptible from the cheap seats but indicative of the opulent standards lavished on such a production. Diplomacy was first produced by the Bancrofts in 1878 - 9 at the Prince of Wales Theatre and revived in 1884 - 5 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in their farewell season (as managers), and again in 1893 at the Garrick Theatre.

In the case of the costume and scenery plot for the 1918 production of The Lilac Domino at the Empire Theatre, London, not only are there watercolour set designs for each act, facing black and white photographs of the sets as realised onstage, but row upon row of cigarette-card-sized costume designs. These are exquisite miniatures of the principals, chorus girls, pierrots, pierrettes and male dancers in the fashions of the period between the First World War and the flapper era. Lacking a text, this is not strictly-speaking a prompt book, but the detail it yields up about a lavish and spectacular production set in a transitional historical period earn it a place in this collection.

The production was an adaptation of Der Lila Domino, a three-act German operetta, with music by Charles Cuvillier (1877 – 1955), rendered into English by librettist Harry B. Smith (1860 – 1936), with lyrics by Robert B. Smith (1875 – 1951), and additional songs by Howard Carr (1880 – 1960), premièred in the United States in 1914. For its arrival in London, it was revised with additional dialogue by S.J. Adair Fitzgerald (b. 1859) and the inclusion of Carr’s songs. The setting is a masquerade ball, with the domino a hooded cloak worn with an eye mask, hence the rainbow of domino-clad figures on its first pages, and the need for multiple intricate costumes, which reveal much about contemporary fashion as they do about the production.

Detailing development

The Department of Theatre & Performance at the V&A holds the archive of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, including prompts from key productions such as John Osborne’s (1929 – 1994) Look Back In Anger (1956), when the social realism of ‘kitchen sink’ drama threatened the well-made play, to more recent offerings. Arnold Wesker’s (b. 1932) The Kitchen belongs to this grittier strain, based on the playwright’s experience of working in hotel kitchens in Norwich and Paris.

The Kitchen first appeared on stage in a production by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in a Sunday-night performance without décor in 1959. In 1961 it was produced again at the Court in an expanded version. It is instructive to compare the two prompt books held for these differing versions and to compare them with the text published by Jonathan Cape in 1961. The later prompt is fuller in respect of its notes to the producer, which find their way into the published version, including detailed character sketches of the cooks who must mime their cooking, because to cook live is ‘just not practical’ (p.2). This reflects the more conventional ‘proper’ staging of the 1961 production. Between these three scripts, stage business is lost or reinvented, words pruned, embellished or moved in order to adapt to a full staging in which dialogue must accommodate the movement of actors across the performance space. Between 1959 and 1961, the ‘Hefty Woman’ of the opening scene has acquired the name Bertha from the start, moves are truncated or substituted, and the timings of characters’ entrances are altered.

Which is the most ‘canonical’? A published text has the authority of widely-disseminated copy, an imprimatur with the widest possible distribution, to be read, studied, anthologised, perhaps put on the curriculum, staged, revived and quoted from, but this is all it has. Alert readers of Royal Court programme/playtexts will spot their customary disclaimer that the published version may well differ from what an audience has just seen and heard, given the time lag between going to press and the opening night. During this period, a play may still be fluid in the rehearsal room. None of this can be corrected until another edition appears – if it appears at all. Relatively few people have access to the manuscript, but those that do will find the tiny but telling detail that fixes at what approximate point in the evolution of a script edits were made, reflecting what was effective and what (presumably) was not. There are far fewer variants between the 1961 prompt and the 1961 Cape edition than there are between the Sunday-night version and the second prompt. The pencilled notes in the 1961 version are mostly incorporated into the published playtext. All three versions show the evolution of ideas and practical solutions to staging problems that occur before a production opens to the public. They also illustrate how naïve it is to assume that a script is a finished article or a published text, providing a wholly reliable account of the theatrical experience. Plays are the only literary genre requiring a reception other than a reader to complete them. While it is perfectly possible to read a play, the act of reading it does not fulfil the intention for which the text was written.

Figure 6. Hamlet, William Shakespeare / English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, England, 1980. [No Museum no.] © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Figure 6. Hamlet, William Shakespeare / English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, England, 1980. [No Museum no.] © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another Royal Court prompt, for the English Stage Company’s production of Hamlet (1980), is lacking its first few leaves. This loss of text merely reflects the director Richard Eyre’s (b. 1943) desire to make Jonathan Pryce’s (b. 1947) Hamlet, possessed by his father’s spirit, ventriloquise the speeches of Old Hamlet, thus dispensing with the need for Act I Scene 1, which would invalidate this interpretation. (fig. 6)

An earlier, some would say definitive, Hamlet, in the person of David Warner (b. 1941), returned to the stage after a long break from the theatre in an Icelandic play The Feast of Snails by Olaf Olafsson (b. 1962), which ran at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in 2002. Naturally this event captured the imagination of the press – more so than the production itself, which garnered tepid reviews. The prompt book, prepared by Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hill, is an impeccably neat and full document of the production. In addition to the familiar marked-up typescript, filed in crisply divided sections are performance reports – mainly recording appreciative audiences – rehearsal notes, props and settings lists, the sound plot, cue sheet, photocopies of set model photographs, ground plan, rehearsal call sheets, rehearsal and technical schedules and cast biographies.

What works and what does not is scrupulously recorded, from the prosaic placing of props, ‘the poker has now been re-instated (it may now be pre-set sticking out of the coalscuttle)’, to the practical popping of corks (or not), ‘we need to find out whether the cognac bottle has a screw top or a cork … it will need to be pre-set so that Mr Warner can open it quickly and easily during the action.’

The waspish review by Mark Shenton remarks, ‘quite what the poor actors are eating when they do is another question that need not detain us here, but contemplating the answer is about as exciting as the evening gets.’13 The answer to this is also provided by the prompt. Indeed, the food running list comprises a considerable shopping basket of consumables in the service of mocking up a banquet of international molluscs, from lime cordial – ‘should last ages’ – to six packets of Rowntree’s blackcurrant jelly per week (why the brand is important isn’t specified). The snails are impersonated by a troupe of empty shells, filled with black olives and a full supporting cast of dried apricots, mushrooms, apricot jam, figs, Parma ham, black squid ink pasta, sliced sweet potato and chunky chicken in white sauce. Full colour snaps attest to how surprisingly effective this looked on stage.

This level of preserved detail is unusually inclusive, containing everything from the marketing aimed at the 16 Icelandic consuls based in the UK, to the application for planning consent to use a real flame on stage. In spite of this heroic degree of preparation the show reports reveal that the taper occasionally blew out between the wings and the candelabra.

Actors’ copies and part scripts

A more elastic definition of a ‘prompt’ includes actors’ copies, part scripts and manuscripts, or printed editions, in some way marked by creatives or crew, offering clues or conundrums about the productions for which they were made. The V&A’s collection of prompt books has been expanded to encompass this analogous material. Actors’ copies belong to individual performers, who may annotate their parts with information about how they played them. There is seldom much technical annotation.

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865 - 1940) created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, which received its London première in 1914. She passed herself off as a Covent Garden flower girl at the age of 49, in a part written for her by George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), who is ineffectually disguised as ‘A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature’ on the title page of the typescript.

The opening scene reveals how ‘Mrs Pat’ produced an accent similar to that uncharitably described as RADA Cockney. Shaw’s lines for Eliza are spelt as intended to be spoken, as they are in the published text, ‘There’s menners f’yere! Te-oo banches o’ voylets trod into the mad’, until the frustrated dramatist throws in the towel, ‘here, with apologies the attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London’. Her part from this point is adjusted for sound in the actress’s hand, ‘Thank you kindly, lady’ is rendered as ‘Thenk you koindly, laidy’, as diligently as ever Henry Higgins recorded dipthong and glottal stop. This clearly diminishes in quantity and importance as Eliza gets closer to Higgins’s aim to pass her off as a duchess within months.

Mrs Patrick Campbell’s annotated script for Hedda Gabler, in which she played the title role for the Vedrenne/Barker management at the Royal Court in 1907, boasts a provenance which is in itself fascinating: Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1907 – 1991) has inscribed it ‘Given to me by John G[ielgud]’ (1904 – 2000) when she played Hedda in 1954. Dame Peggy gave it to Janet Suzman (b. 1939) when she was preparing to play the role herself. It was donated by Dame Janet to the former Theatre Museum. The transmission of iconic marked texts from star performer to star performer may provide valuable clues to how a new pretender to the role chooses to approach it, and also act as a talisman, reassuring the challenger that portraying a famous role is survivable.

The typescript is peppered with pencilled notes. ‘More vitality’ is scribbled across the title page of Act I, perhaps suggesting the dynamism Campbell proposes to inject into Hedda’s desiccated world of aristocratic ancestry coupled with an obtuse academic husband. Thanks to the actress’s notes we know when she portrayed Hedda as ‘nervous’, when she sat or stood, how she used and negotiated the stage furnishings (with a useful small sketch facing the text in Act III of a table, chairs and sofa – perhaps the couch to whose further end she has shifted in a note to Act II?). In the final scene we know how her dialogue is increasingly punctuated by laughter in ways that contemporary accounts and reviews cannot reproduce in such detail.

Mrs Patrick Campbell is at the starry end of the spectrum, but texts annotated by lesser or medium-rung performers can be useful and are comparatively rarer, for the same reason that fine editions often survive more completely than ephemera: the work of a well-known person is likely to be revered and preserved more readily for posterity. William Cuthbert, ‘character actor and low comedian’ according to the personal stamp with which each of his play-texts is marked, left nearly 150 largely printed scripts. While not all these are copiously marked, the aggregation of plays and his roles (which he marked with at least an underlining) can shed light on the repertoire and range of a lower-ranking character actor in the 19th century. This is information that can be surprisingly scarce, especially if a performer worked on the regional circuits.

The reputation of Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928) as grande dame of the British stage preceded Mrs Campbell’s. In July 1921 at the age of 74, a few years before she was created a Dame of the British Empire, Terry performed excerpts from her repertoire at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, assisted by Marguerite Steen (1894 – 1975), friend and later biographer of the Terrys. Steen’s notebook recording these performances, while not a conventional prompt book as such, is kept with this collection. Only four extracts feature: some dialogue from The Merry Wives of Windsor, a speech from Henry IV, Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘The Round Tower at Jhansi’ – a dramatic poem of the Indian Mutiny – and Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech from The Merchant of Venice.

Half-way through it descends into a to-do list concerned with the preoccupations of being factotum to a great actress: letters to write, money to pay in, expenses to deal with, a list of make-up required and paraphernalia to take to the theatre:

Lace scarf
Safety pins
Something to read to her
Gum [underlined 4 times]
Powder puff
Big gloves

We also know the clothes that Terry wore for each excerpt: an interesting corollary to an illustrious but fading career.

Part scripts are essentially cut-down versions of the prompt, tailored to a specific role, containing only the lines which that actor will need to speak, topped and tailed by their cues. A set of ten part scripts for The Lady’s Not For Burning (produced 1949) was donated by Denis Colvil to the Theatre Museum, both complementing and anticipating the later acquisition of the playwright Christopher Fry’s archive following his death in 2005. The production starred John Gielgud as Thomas Mendip, as well as a youthful Richard Burton (1925 – 1984) and Claire Bloom (b. 1931); the Globe Theatre, where it ran, was later renamed the Gielgud.

Managements putting on shows with meta-theatrical content sometimes contact the Theatre & Performance Department with enquiries about the appearance of historical prompts. For the modern show-within-the-show it is easy enough to mock up a prompt-script, but what did they look like in the time of Garrick, Sheridan or Shaw? By referring to contemporary examples from the collection we can ensure that the prop prompt is as authentic as it can be; whether the audience appreciates such fidelity to theatre history is debatable.

The prompt book collection, as it continues to be fully catalogued electronically and made more readily accessible, adds to the forensic investigation of theatre history. Although Prospero puts it so much more eloquently, we do not need to accept the judgement of a 17th-century Duke of Milan as the last word on intangible heritage.


1. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, 1, 156.

2. The prompt collection is only one element of re-imagining performance, alongside such
2-D materials as photographs, prints, paintings, designs, playbills, programmes, press-cuttings and cloths. In addition, the collection holds 3-D materials such as costume, set-models, stage props, and machinery, plus extensive bibliographical ‘evidence’ in the form of books, memoirs, manuscripts, diaries and other first-hand accounts of performance. The Theatre & Performance Department at the V&A has also pioneered the recording of live performance as documentation, in the shape of the National Video Archive of Performance, started in 1992.

3. The National Art Library at the V&A holds two manuscripts in the Dyce Collection: Nathan Field, John Fletcher, and Philip Massinger’s The Honest Man’s Fortune (Dyce MS 9), licensed 8 February 1624/5, and Philip Massinger’s The Parliament of Love (Dyce MS 39), licensed 3 November 1624. Both are considered to have some theatrical provenance, but are outside the scope of this article.

4. Charles H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks: A Descriptive Catalogue (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 3.

5. Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of ‘prompter’ to 1585, the term ‘prompt book’ is not recorded until 1768.

6. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, ‘A Prompt Copy of Handel's 'Radamisto', The Musical Times, Vol. 127, No. 1719 (Jun., 1986): 316–19, 321.

7. ‘Recitative(s)’ has been incorrectly transcribed as ‘recitations’ in the original catalogue description of this item.

8. Edward A. Langhans, Eighteenth Century British and Irish Promptbooks: a Descriptive Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), xxxiii-xxxiv.

9. William Shakespeare, King Richard III: Edmund Kean’s Performance as Recorded by James H. Hackett (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1958), xii.

10. Ibid., xiii.

11. Henry N. Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2 vols (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835), vol.1, 44.

12. Shakespeare, King Richard III: Edmund Kean’s Performance, [6].

13.  Mark Shenton, ‘Feast of Snails’, WhatsOnStage, (http://www.whatsonstage.com/reviews/theatre/london/E8821014205714/Feast+of+Snails.html)