by Bill Sweet
In an underground storage facility that is about as far a cry as you can get from the excitement and glamour of live theater, a huge and largely undiscovered treasure trove of history of the American stage has been growing steadily over the past half-century.
Archivist Rosemary Davis spends much of her week in Amherst College's repository Bunker beneath the Holyoke Range, opening and examining boxes containing one of the largest donated archives in the College's possession, the Samuel French Collection.
The name Samuel French may not be immediately recognizable, but if you’ve ever appeared in an English-language play, chances are pretty good that you studied your lines from an unassumingly plain script book published by Samuel French, Inc.
The French Connection
Samuel French began publishing plays in New York City in 1854, and later acquired a London publisher founded by Thomas Hailes Lacey.
At a time when amateur theater productions were on the rise, the company was able to practically corner the market for publication rights of many plays.
Since 1964, the company has been sending Amherst College's Archives and Special Collections boxes full of scripts, manuscripts, scores, posters and corporate records, the bulk now residing in the Bunker.
M. Abbott Van Nostrand, Amherst class of 1934, who had made his way up from working in French's mailroom to becoming the company’s president, started the donations, which arrived in annual shipments until his death in 1995 and which continue sporadically to this day. The most recent donation astonished archivists: nearly 200 cartons of historical material and 22 file cabinets filled with author contracts stretching back to the late 19th century.
Davis was hired last year through a two-year “Hidden Collections” grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.
The Lost Diamonds!
"We found about 10 boxes of plays that were published from about 1814 to the mid-1860s, and so far we've found 195 different authors just within these boxes," Davis said.
In all, there is a trove: publicity photographs of actors, actresses and productions, playbills and theater magazines, amateur production scrapbooks, correspondence, costume design illustrations and scores of musical scores.
Some of the older titles may not be familiar, though they were hits in the day: "Thalaba, the Destroyer: A Melo-Drama," "Animal Magnetism: A Farce, in Three Acts," or "The Lost Diamonds!" They include extensive holdings by Augustin Daly, the playwright and director responsible for the “victime tied to the railroad tracks” trope.
The main collection includes the pre-publication manuscripts from a number of authors including Lynda Barry, Lynn Redgrave, Wendy Wasserstein and Neil Simon.
"Part of my ultimate goal is to draw this stuff out and engage with the [Amherst] faculty," Davis said. In the spring of 2016, English students in the class of Christopher Grobe, assistant professor of English, will be working with the materials; this month, a Yale Law School doctoral candidate studying the development of copyright and American theater will be coming to look at the Samuel French business records.
Davis is writing articles for professional archival newsletters to get the word out, as well as making plans to present at relevant conferences. She will be posting updates on a blog at the company's website and at the Amherst Archives and Special Collections blog, Consecrated Eminence.