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Dunstable's theatre poster parody

At first glance this looks very typical of the playbills that advertised Shakespearean – and other - productions at the end of the 18th century.

Like many others, it has a family name at the top of the poster – the Daggerwood family - who are hosting the benefit.

Dunstable Theatre Playbill (Credit: The British Library)

Shakespeare's production is given top billing, followed by 'The Beggar’s Opera' featuring 'The Infant Billington', followed by a duet and other entertainments including the spectacle of 'Don Juan'.

...this play bill is a sophisticated spoof, a pastiche of a playbill of the time and a parody of what audiences had come to expect

However when you read more closely, something is not quite right…

The first indication of this is the date – Feb 31st - and there is no year listed.

Secondly, 'Coriolanus' is listed as 'Cicero’s tragedy' but it was Shakespeare who wrote the play based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcus Coriolanus.

Looking through the cast list, all the parts are played by members of the Daggerwood family, and also mainly by the younger members such as Master Daggerwood.

Even the infant Daggerwood will be appearing on stage. At only four months old, it is said he is much admired for his astonishing abilities in a role.

What on earth is happening here? While it’s difficult to give a conclusive answer, this play bill is a sophisticated spoof, a pastiche of a playbill of the time and a parody of what audiences had come to expect.

Theatre-loving audiences familiar with the conventions of the playbill, will have got the joke very quickly.
Was the 'Dunstable Theatre' a real venue or part of the fiction? Who knows, but the language used on the playbill mocks the conventions and features of playbills of this time.

Theatre-loving audiences familiar with the conventions of the playbill will have got the joke...

Where they could, these would display, in bold type, the name of a grand theatrical family or a big star at the top of the playbill to attract play-goers. This could be a notable Shakespearean actor as David Garrick, Edmund Kean or the Kemble family who included the fine actress, Sarah Siddons.

Watching a child-star deliver Shakespeare’s verse added an irresistible novelty to the evening.
Like playbills of the period, the main drama is paired with another different type of entertainment.

In this case it’s the well-known 'The Beggar’s Opera' a satirical ballad opera written in 1728 by John Gay.

Again theatre-goers would be in on the joke.

There is also a rather bizarre astronomical lecture, followed later with a duet by Miss Catalani Daggerwood who will 'distinctly sing in two voices, although only possessing one organ of speech'.
By now, everyone has got the idea.

But why was someone drawn to create a spoof play bill? Was it simply a printed jest, an in-joke for 'theatre' sophisticates, or did it point a more serious, satirical finger at the frivolous world of the theatre and its sensation-seeking audiences?

Tantalisingly, nobody really knows what is behind this theatrical tease but we can all enjoy the spirit of fun it embodies.

Dunstable Clock Tower (Credit: BBC)

About Shakespeare on Tour

From the moment they were written through to the present day, Shakespeare’s plays have continued to enthral and inspire audiences. They’ve been performed in venues big and small – including inns, private houses and emerging provincial theatres.

BBC English Regions is building a digital picture which tracks some of the many iconic moments across the country as we follow the ‘explosion’ in the performance of The Bard’s plays, from his own lifetime to recent times.

Drawing on fascinating new research from Records of Early English Drama (REED), plus the British Library's extensive collection of playbills, as well as expertise from De Montfort University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Shakespeare on Tour is a unique timeline of iconic moments of those performances, starting with his own troupe of actors, to highlights from more recent times. Listen out for stories on Shakespeare’s legacy on your BBC Local Radio station from Monday 21 March, 2016.

You never know - you might find evidence of Shakespeare’s footsteps close to home…

Craig Henderson, BBC English Regions

Related Links

Dunstable Priory (c) BBC

Shakespeare on Tour: Around the Three Counties

Shakespeare on Tour: Around the country