Studying the 1860s, working in the 1970s, living in the 21st century

Studying the 1860s, working in the 1970s, living in the 21st century

In a special forum on “Victorian Theatricalities” in the journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Richard Schoch laments that nineteenth-century theater scholars don’t reflect more fully on their interactions with their archives. He says, “It is a great vexation to me that historians of nineteenth-century theatre do not reflect sufficiently upon the status of the archives in which they work. There is not enough attention to what counts as evidence or documentation, who was (is) responsible for its survival and preservation, how archives shape our understanding of theatre history by making certain questions possible and other ones impossible. Our very idea of the theatrical past is determined by the more or less invisible structures of archives, in which H. Irving is much more visible than J. Grimaldi.”

I have not gotten far enough in my research to reflect sufficiently about most of these questions, but I’m definitely fascinated by the question of who is responsible for the survival and preservation of the microcopy archive of nineteenth-century drama at UC Davis. The first thing I find fascinating is that I probably have access to more nineteenth-century plays in this library than I do to nineteenth-century novels… I don’t know for sure that that’s true, but I do know that there are thousands of nineteenth-century plays preserved on microcopy in the library, and that the section of nineteenth-century literature is relatively compact, and diluted with a mass of critical works that don’t count as “nineteenth-century literature.” If my hypothesis is right, and there are more plays preserved here than novels, you’d be tempted to think that plays were/are more important and/or popular than novels. Except that the plays are housed in the confines of an outdated technology–microcopy–that no one has bothered to (or had the funds to) digitize and update. In the few months so far that I have been working on this project, I have not seen anyone even go near the microcopy machines. Of the three machines available, one works, and the other two have focus knobs that don’t seem to work anymore. Does anyone still read things from microcopy? Does anyone ever read these plays? How many of them are even available in another format? My favorite one so far, an adaptation of Lady Audley’s Secret by George Roberts, is not available anywhere in any format other than microcopy (and of course, in its original manuscript form in whichever archive out there has the original).

The different formats of play vs. novel in this library makes an interesting statement about archives and canon-formation, since I imagine the entire set of nineteenth-century plays on microcopy was probably one set price back in the 1970s, or whenever the library purchased these plays. And I imagine that this one microcopy archive has lasted them at least 30 years, if not longer, whereas they’ve probably had to replace countless copies of individual novels over the years. So a D-list archive finds a place on the library shelves, probably because it’s cheap, compact, and won’t need to be replaced anytime soon. This is all speculation on my part, but it’s 2012, and I’m reading plays off microcopy. I think I’m right about this. Essentially, the archive gets preserved because nobody needs to be around to preserve it. Then, the few (or maybe just one?) people who come in to read these plays turn into time travelers, reading ancient plays on ancient technology (not unlike reading a conventional book, I suppose, which is a much more ancient technology than microcopy!).

How I get the plays from the microcopy into my dissertation involves even more technological mediation, since I either have to transcribe them into a Word document, or record myself reading them in a podcast, or take pictures of the screen and upload them into my photo-editing program. If Marshall McLuhan is right, and the medium is the message, then my struggles to get these plays from one screen to another is an important process to reflect upon. For example, on the microcopy reader, sequence always causes me a huge headache, since the way I have to move the machine to get from one page to another is not intuitive for me. My transcription of the play into a Word document is so comfortingly linear–I can read from top to bottom in one direction. For now, the takeaway message for me is that machines tell us how to read things, and that was just as true for Victorians as it is for me. Charles Reade and M.E. Braddon played with this concept in their novels, and George Roberts is picking up on that in his theatrical adaptation. Or at least I think he is. I need to go finish transcribing his play. Back to the microcopy reader!

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July 24, 2012 · 10:12 pm

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