Theatres are curious places, magician’s trick-boxes where the golden memories of dramatic triumphs linger like nostalgic ghosts, and where the unexplainable, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic and the absurd are routine occurrences on and off the stage. ― E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly
Like any good theatrical production, the Samuel French Company Theater Collection at Amherst College is complicated, rich with nuance, and intricately detailed. The collection also boasts an elaborately complex combination of plotlines and a cast of thousands. Since materials started to accrue in the mid-1960’s, the archive expanded beyond a straightforward (though glorious and expansive) collection of plays and publications to include documentation of French’s business dealings, author correspondence, and scrapbooks that capture a particularly fertile time in the world of amateur theatrical performance. And there’s more. Blueprints for set design. Sets of orchestra parts for musicals. Bound volumes of plays taken from the libraries of drama societies in the early 20th century. Programs from productions all over the world. I could go on and on.
The very nature and strength of many archives is exactly this kind of diversity: a spectrum of items in a plethora of formats, collections comprised of personal narratives interwoven with records that chart a flash of history. The French archive is particularly exceptional because of its comprehensiveness and depth–not only does it reveal a rich chronology of theatrical publishing output spanning the years from 1794-2012, but it also helps chart the evolution of performance rights and copyright laws. Letters and clippings shed light on the spread of independent theatrical performances (beyond Broadway, beyond Covent Garden) as the 19th century ended. And the unique experience of being able to analyze French’s business structures alongside evidence of blossoming theater cultures gives a richer context to all these specific histories.
Processing for the French archive is almost at the halfway point, with a scheduled completion date in late summer 2016. While scholars can (and do) make use of the collection already, this next year’s work will produce item-level inventories and descriptions that will enable intellectual and physical access to the materials in a greatly enhanced way. Taking on this job in July 2014 presented me with an enormous feeling of stage fright, which thankfully subsided quickly into pure excitement and brainstorming.
Every box opened reveals new historical threads connected to countless other timelines. And though the job of unraveling these threads is not always easy, it is certainly rewarding to know that when the curtain closes on this project, the French Archive will be imminently more accessible to researchers interested in enriching scholarship about publishing, law, and performance. And so, my focus remains on revealing “the unexplainable, the fantastic, the tragic, the comic and the absurd” intricacies of this archive in every way I can.
–Rosemary K.J. Davis
Rosemary K. J. Davis is Samuel French Collection Processing Archivist with the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. In addition to an MSLIS degree from Pratt Institute, she holds a BA in Visual Studies and Fiction from the New School. Prior to her work at Amherst College, Rosemary processed Riot Grrrl collections at the Fales Library at NYU, exhibition records at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jazz Loft oral histories at Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the papers of Christian J. Lambertsen at the Duke University Medical Center Archives.
Photos: The Samuel French Company Theater Collection, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.