This page offers a detailed account of the history, institutional framework, theoretical commitments, and limitations of the London Stage Database project. For a quick guide to interacting with the database, refer instead to the User Guide.
About the Project
The London Stage Database is the latest in a long line of projects that aim to capture and present the rich array of information available on the theatrical culture of London, from the reopening of the public playhouses following the English civil wars in 1660 to the end of the eighteenth century. On a given night, in each of the city’s playhouses, hundreds or even thousands of spectators gathered to experience richly varied performance events that included not only plays, but prologues and epilogues, short afterpieces and farces, pantomimes, instrumental music, singing, and dancing. These events, taken together, provide a wealth of information about the rhythms of public life and the texture of popular culture in long-eighteenth-century London.
In the middle of the twentieth century, a team of theater historians created a calendar of performances based on playbills and newspaper notices used to advertise performances, as well as theater reviews, published gossip, playhouse records, and the diaries of people who lived at the time. The result was The London Stage, 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces, Together with Casts, Box-Receipts and Contemporary Comment. Compiled from the Playbills, Newspapers and Theatrical Diaries of the Period (Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-1968). This 8,000-page, eleven-book reference work was understood immediately as essential to scholarly research and teaching about the period. It was also frustratingly difficult to use for any kind of systematic inquiry. In the 1970s, the editors of The London Stage commissioned a computerized database of the information in their reference book. The London Stage Information Bank, as it was then known, was created over the course of a decade with the support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Billy Rose Foundation, and others. Regrettably, it fell into technological obsolescence after only a few years, and it was long thought irretrievably lost. The only surviving artifact of the project that remained in circulation was the Index to the London Stage, which was shelved alongside the original reference books in many research libraries.
In 2013, Mattie Burkert began investigating the history of the Information Bank, drawing on the archives at Lawrence University, where the original project was housed. She also got in touch with the people involved in the Information Bank project, including developers and research assistants who had helped to build it. The story she uncovered, and the origins of her efforts to recover the lost database, are detailed in the essay "Recovering the London Stage Information Bank: Lessons from an Early Humanities Computing Project" (Digital Humanities Quarterly 11.3 ).
From 2018 to 2019, with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and other funders, Burkert and a team of researchers, developers, and advisors worked to salvage the damaged data and code from the Information Bank and to transform it into a modern relational database. The result of our effort is this website, which is designed to be accessible to users who wish to search for specific actors, theaters, play titles, playwrights, etc. In addition, those who wish to download part or all of the data and conduct exploratory analyses can do so using the freely available assets (programs, data files, and documentation) in the team’s GitHub repository.
These open access and open source values distinguish the London Stage Database from related resources, such as the subscription-based Eighteenth-Century Drama portal developed by publisher Adam Matthew. Furthermore, the media archaeological nature of our project informs our team's commitment to transparency about our sources, our decisions, and the limitations of our work. Like any resource of its kind, the London Stage Database offers a useful starting point for research and teaching, but the data should not be taken as a full, complete, or accurate picture of performance in London over a 140-year period. Instead, we insist that it be understood as a representation of a particular set of archival documents, transformed many times over by collectors of theater ephemera, archivists, curators, editors, scholars, and developers.
Our collective knowledge of theater in the period is hampered by gaps in the documentary record; for example, Judith Milhous and Robert Hume have calculated that the information available for the years 1660-1700—before newspapers began printing daily advertisements for the major theaters—represents perhaps 7% of the performances that actually took place in London. The London Stage Database inherits not only the limitations of the archives on which the London Stage reference books were based, but all of the choices made (sometimes silently) by the editors of those books. For instance, the editors chose to represent the 1695 premiere of William Congreve’s Love for Love as twelve separate events, because they were able to date those performances. Yet the first season in which George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple was performed (1699-1700) includes only four records of performance for that play; although archival evidence suggests it may have been performed as many as fifty times that season, only these four can be even loosely dated. This kind of discrepancy poses obvious challenges to anyone hoping to gain quantitative insights into London theatrical culture before 1700. Even after 1700, the editors of The London Stage record manuscript notations on playbills, probably made by audience members, that contradict the cast lists printed in the daily papers, and many scholars have uncovered additional gaps and inconsistencies in the data.
The London Stage Database also inherits the quirks of the damaged and incomplete data that Burkert was able to recover from the Lawrence University archives. The files associated with the Information Bank experienced significant bit rot and are characterized by numerous gaps and errors that cannot be fully explained. Large sections of the data are missing from the recovered files, including most or all of the performances thought to have taken place between September 1733 and September 1736; between June and September 1770; between September 1781 and September 1786; and between October 1793 and September 1794. To approximate the missing data, Burkert and Advisory Board member Lauren Liebe hand-cleaned textual data (created using Optical Character Recognition, or OCR) from the HathiTrust ebooks of The London Stage and added tags that paralleled those in the Information Bank files, allowing both types of data to be parsed together. Furthermore, in the damaged files recovered from the Information Bank project, all the performance dates are misrepresented as a series of special characters, like unprintable words in a comic book (e.g. "?!*&%"). Advisory Board member Derek Miller discovered that this problem resulted from a systematic shift in the underlying hexadecimal code. When Burkert was unable to recover the original values forensically, Miller wrote a program to correct the problem algorithmically.
In a variety of ways, then, the recovered data is riddled with errors and inconsistencies that the London Stage Database team has addressed to the best of our abilities, but at the necessary cost of fidelity to the 1970s project. The team has also added new features and functionality not present in the Information Bank, such as tables linking abbreviated theater codes from the recovered data to the actual names of the theaters, as well as information about the known or assumed authors of particular plays and entertainments (data collected painstakingly by Research Assistant Emma Hallock). In doing so, our work has no doubt introduced new forms of error and ambiguity.
The user interface is designed to make the rich history of this data, as well as its many limitations, intuitively clear to those who interact with the site. The "Toggle Query" button at the top of the search results page allows users to see exactly how their search results were translated into SQL queries and relayed via PHP to our server (for, as Safiya Noble reminds us, search algorithms are never intellectually or ideologically neutral). The image carousel on each event page makes it possible to view the reference book pages from which the data is taken, alongside the roughest form of the data (recovered from the archives at Lawrence or copied from the OCR’d pages of The London Stage) and the data as it looks after being run through our cleaning and parsing programs. The “Related Works” display that appears next to information about a particular performance challenges the desire to know exactly which play or entertainment was staged—our way of acknowledging the eighteenth century’s rich culture of revival and adaptation. Many different performance pieces went by the same name throughout the century, and it is not always clear which one was performed on a given evening; see, for example, Vareschi and Burkert’s discussion of the many different versions of Oroonoko that coexisted in the 1760s, -70s, and -80s.
We hope that visitors to the site will find this frank acknowledgment and foregrounding of the dataset’s history and limitations refreshing rather than frustrating. As Johanna Drucker argues, a better word than "data" (which means "given") might be "capta," a term reflecting the way that all structured information about the world is captured by particular people at particular places and times. The London Stage Database participates in a long history of capturing partial histories of performance. This does not mean it should not be as accurate and useful as possible, and we encourage you to be in touch about errors or bugs you discover. At the same time, we are committed to making visible the ways in which perceived "errors" may in fact be the necessary and unavoidable consequence of this information’s long history of transmission and transformation, something to recognize and investigate rather than to paper over. More broadly, we hope that interacting with the London Stage Database will inspire users to approach more critically all of the data with which they interact on a daily basis.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed through this database or on this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The London Stage Database, like any project of this scope, is the work of numerous individuals across multiple disciplines who have contributed a range of skills and expertise.
Principal Investigator and Project Director:
- Mattie Burkert, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Utah State University
- Todd Hugie, Director of Library Information Technology, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University
- Dustin Olson, Systems Administrator, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University
- Emma Hallock, Honors Program, Department of English, Utah State University
- Scott Enderle, Digital Humanities Specialist, Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania
- Michael Gamer, Professor, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania
- Lauren Liebe, Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, Texas A&M University
- Derek Miller, John J. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities, Department of English, Harvard University
- Jeffrey S. Ravel, Professor and Head, Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Doug Reside, Curator, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library
- Mark Vareschi, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- James Ascher, Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, University of Virginia and Designer, JunicodeRX font
- Annette Cottle, Business Manager, Department of Sociology, Social Work & Anthropology, Utah State University
- Katie Dana, Grant and Contract Officer, Office of Research, Utah State University
- Clint Gillespie, Graduate, Management Information Systems, Utah State University
- Garth Mikesell, Head of Information Systems, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University
- Angela Moore-Swafford, Rights and Permissions Manager, Southern Illinois University Press
- Sam Phelps, Technical Support Specialist, Information Technology, Utah State University
- Betty Rozum, Data Services Coordinator, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University
- Annie Strickland-Neilson, Business Manager, Department of English, Utah State University
This project would not be possible without the help of those who supported its earliest stages, including Susan Barribeau, Will Daland, Steven Dast, Erin Dix, Jack Keel, Cal Lee, Bronwen Maseman, Nick Schneider, Cindy Serikaku, Carl Stahmer, Dorothea Salo, Brianna Uzuner, Steel Wagstaff, Kam Woods, Angela Zaytsev, and Irene Zimmerman.
The image collage that is displayed on the landing page and in the background of the search, results, and events pages was created by Dustin Olson, and is covered by a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Clockwise from top left:
- “Scene from School for Scandal being performed in Drury Lane Theatre, London,” 1778, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- William Blake, “Beggar’s Opera, Act III,” c.1790, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Public Domain
- Thomas Rowlandson, “An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre,” c.1785, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Public Domain
- Playbill from Burney Collection, “‘Theatrical Register.’ A collection of playbills of London theatres, chiefly of Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Haymarket,” 1774-1777, British Library, Public Domain
- John Lodge, “Mr. Garrick delivering his Ode at Drury Lane Theatre on dedicating a building & erecting a statue to Shakespeare,” Folger Shakespeare Library, CC-BY-SA 4.0 license
- “Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, in 1763, in consequence of the Managers refusing to admit half-price in the Opera of Artaxerxes,” 1763, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 License
- Peter Lely, “Aphra Behn,” 1670, © Yale Center for British Art, Public Domain
- John Gay, The beggar's opera. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincolns-Inn Fields, 1729, British Library, Public Domain
- Edward Fisher, “Miss Farren in the Character of Hermione,” 1781, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Public Domain
- “Scene One of The Necromancer or Harlequin Dr Faustus which opened at Lincoln's Inn Fields 20 December 1723,” 1724, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- Thomas Bewick, “Border for theatre-ticket; concert for the benefit of Mr Evans, at the Theatre Royal in Haymarket, London, on 11 April 1777,” 1777, © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
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