Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited

This article, by Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, refutes a claim made by Peter W. M. Blayney in "The Publication of Playbooks" that playbooks, as a commodity, were not profitable for publishers nor enticing for readers. Blayney had been reacting against a long-held view that versions of popular plays sold well in early modern England and that the reason we don't see more records of sales and readership is that they were mostly "pirated." Blayney, says the authors, made an important claim when it comes to the piracy of the plays; however, his statement that the playbooks themselves didn't sell well and weren't largely produced is what is at stake in the Farmer and Lesser article. They claim that Blayney only looked at the numbers of playbooks sold from year to year, rather than comparing these numbers with numbers of other kinds of popular reading material, such as ballads and sermons. For their article, they look at the numbers of original plays and the numbers of reprints of older plays published per year, looking at expansions and contractions in the market from the year 1576-1660, the market share of professional plays among all speculative (non-monopolistic) books, and specifically how playbooks performed against sermons in first-time and repeat publication. In all ways, playbooks performed much better than Blayney has said; in fact, they seem to have been very popular.

An interesting paradox crops up, though--the Caroline paradox, in which reprinted versions of plays first published from 1629-1640 drop sharply, although first editions still perform well and reprints of plays from before 1629 perform well. Farmer and Lesser posit that a canon of "classic" plays was being established during this period, and these plays continued to reprint well. In addition, people still wanted versions of the new plays as they came out. However, the new plays did not become "classics" the way the earlier Elizabethan and Jacobean plays had. While the Caroline canon looks different from our own, it has helped shape our own, which favors Elizabethan and Jacobean drama over Caroline.

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