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John Larpent Plays
mssLA 1-2503  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Overview of the Collection
  • Access
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Note on John Larpent
  • Historical Note
  • Processing information
  • Digitized materials
  • Related Materials
  • Scope and Content
  • Arrangement
  • Abbreviations and Symbols
  • Index of authors and titles
  • Indexing Terms

  • Overview of the Collection

    Title: John Larpent Plays
    Dates (inclusive): 1737-1824
    Collection Number: mssLA 1-2503
    Creator: Larpent, John, 1741-1824.
    Extent: 2,503 pieces.
    Repository: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Manuscripts Department
    1151 Oxford Road
    San Marino, California 91108
    Phone: (626) 405-2191
    Email: reference@huntington.org
    URL: http://www.huntington.org
    Abstract: This collection consists of official manuscript copies of plays submitted for licensing in Great Britain between 1737 and 1824 that were in the possession of John Larpent (1741-1824), the examiner of plays, at the time of his death in 1824. The collection includes 2,399 identified plays as well as an additional 104 unidentified pieces including addresses, prologues, epilogues, etc.
    Language: English.


    Open to qualified researchers by prior application through the Reader Services Department. For more information, contact Reader Services.

    Administrative Information

    Publication Rights

    The Huntington Library does not require that researchers request permission to quote from or publish images of this material, nor does it charge fees for such activities. The responsibility for identifying the copyright holder, if there is one, and obtaining necessary permissions rests with the researcher.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item]. John Larpent Plays, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


    Purchased with the Ellesmere collection from John Francis Granville Scroop Egerton, 3rd Earl of Ellesmere, through the agency of George D. Smith and Sotheby's of London, 1917.

    Biographical Note on John Larpent

    John Larpent (1741-1824), after posts in the foreign service and a term as secretary to the Duke of Bedford in Paris and to the Marquis of Hertford in Ireland, was appointed to the position of Examiner of Plays in November 1778. Larpent was assisted in his work by his wife, Anna Margaretta Larpent (1758-1832), whom he married in 1782. Larpent continued as Examiner until his death in 1824.

    Historical Note

    The licensing act of 1737 required that copies of all plays and other entertainments designed to be performed on the stage in Great Britain be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for license fourteen days before their presentation. In order to carry out the provisions of the new law, the office of Examiner of Plays was established, and the first Examiner, William Chetwynd, was appointed on March 10, 1738. Chetwynd acted almost entirely through deputies: first Thomas Odell (1738-1749) and second Edward Capell (1749-1781). At the time of Chetwynd's death on April 3, 1770, apparently no successor was designated; and Capell acted as Examiner until the appointment of John Larpent on November 20, 1778. Larpent died in office on January 18, 1824.
    The official copies of plays submitted to the Examiner of Plays between 1737 and January 1824, in Larpent's possession at the time of his death, were bought by John Payne Collier and Thomas Amyot around 1832 and later purchased by Francis Egerton (1800-1857), Viscount Brackley and 1st Earl of Ellesmere, in 1853.
    During the years that he owned the collection, Collier referred to it twice in published articles in the New Monthly Magazine, XXXIV (1832), in "The Poetical and Literary Career of the Late John Philip Kemble" (page 174), and "New Facts Regarding Garrick and his Writings" (page 568). In January 1854, there was an announcement in the Athenaeum that the collection had been purchased by the Earl of Ellesmere. The plays had been offered, the notice continued, "to the Trustees of the British Museum, who declined to purchase them; they will, therefore, form a distinguishing feature in the library of his Lordship's new mansion in the Green Park, and no doubt will be accessible to all who wish to consult the plays for literary and historical purposes."
    After being purchased by the Earl of Ellesmere in 1853, the collection was incorporated into the Bridgewater House Library, where the plays (Numbers 1-2399) were bound in blue paper covers, neatly labeled, and shelved in boxes of four sizes (designated Large, Extra, Middle, and Small). Within the sizes, the arrangement was roughly chronological. Content lists were added to the spines of the boxes, and the boxes were stamped "Larpent Dramatic MSS." In addition, there were three scrapbook volumes (later disbound) containing occasional prologues and epilogues, addresses, and undated or unidentified short pieces (Numbers 2400-2502).
    The plays remained part of the library of Bridgewater House for sixty-three years before being acquired as part of the Bridgewater Library/Egerton Family Papers by Henry E. Huntington in 1917.
    The collection went largely unnoticed in published sources until well into the 20th century. An 1857 query in Notes and Queries (2d Ser., IV, 269) mentioned the supposed existence of the collection and requested information about its location. In his biographical sketch of Larpent in the Dictionary of National Biography, W. A. J. Archbold stated, "Larpent is said ... to have left behind him manuscript copies of all the plays submitted to the inspector from 1737 to 1824." Nor were the Larpent plays mentioned in the account of the Bridgewater Sale to Henry E. Huntington in 1917 by W. N. C. Carlton in Notes on the Bridgewater House Library (New York: privately printed, 1918). Finally in 1927, the collection was referenced in Allardyce Nicoll's A History of Late Eighteenth Century Drama, and it was described as the defining feature of the Bridgewater House Library in its later period by George Sherburn in an account of Huntington Library Collections in the Huntington Library Bulletin, (Number 1, May, 1931, pp. 49-50).

    Processing information

    This finding aid is based primarily on the Catalogue of the Larpent plays in the Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif., 1939) compiled by Dougald MacMillan, Professor of English at the The University of North Carolina. MacMillan was assisted by Marion Tinling and Dorothy Bowen, and other members of the staff of the Huntington Library. The principal task of the compilers of the Catalogue was to identify the plays, and secondly to compare the manuscript and printed texts, chiefly through the comparison of the Larpent manuscripts and the Kemble-Devonshire collection of English plays.

    Digitized materials

    This collection is digitized in the subscription database: "Eighteenth Century Drama: Censorship, Society and the Stage" (Adam Matthew Digital).

    Related Materials

    In the Huntington Library

    In the New York Public Library

    Scope and Content

    This collection consists of official manuscript copies of plays submitted for licensing between 1737 and 1824 that were in the possession of John Larpent, the examiner of plays, at the time of his death in 1824. These copies were later owned by John Payne Collier before being purchased by the Bridgewater House Library. The collection includes 2,399 identified plays as well as an additional 104 unidentified pieces including addresses, prologues, epilogues, etc.
    These copies of plays, generally, were clearly written by professional copyists attached to the theaters, though some are partly, or entirely, in the authors' handwriting. Most copies are accompanied by a formal application for license to perform, signed by the manager of the theater. The name of the author only rarely appears upon the play, except on title-pages of printed copies, submitted instead of manuscripts.
    Presumably, all new plays performed between June 24, 1737, and January 18, 1824, were licensed as the law required, but Larpent's collection is not entirely complete. The most conspicuous of the plays not now in the Huntington's collection (e.g., The Clandestine Marriage and The School for Scandal) are also not listed in the manuscript Alphabetical Catalogue with Notes of Theatrical representations &ca Submitted for Licensing From The Year 1737, to the Year 1787 inclusive in the handwriting of Larpent and of his second wife (now held by the New York Public Library). Their omission in Larpent's list suggest that these plays were removed from the Examiners' papers before Larpent took office. Others appear to have been either returned to the managers or given away by Larpent or by Collier. Note though that the Alphabetical Catalogue is incomplete and lacks a large number of titles held in this collection.
    A manuscript catalogue, Larpent dramatic manuscripts catalogue, 1737-1824 (call number: EL 26/B/11), was presumably made under Collier's direction, and it sometimes conveys information not found upon the copy itself, though the catalogue is incomplete and at times inaccurate.
    Originally, the manuscripts were bound in a rough whity-brown paper covers, upon which the Examiner often made notes. Before Larpent took office, the mark of an "X" on the paper cover seems to have indicated that the play had been examined; but Larpent usually entered the name of the theater submitting the play and a date, presumably when Larpent licensed the play and generally a day or two after the date of the application. Sometimes, though, the date is considerably after the first performance. On some copies, the marks of the Examiners indicate objectionable passages, and most suppressed plays bear endorsements stating that the license was not granted.
    While Collier had access to the collection, he inscribed many of the copies with notes, most of them partly in shorthand, recording his opinions on matters such as authorship, handwriting, or date. Though many of these notes are correct, others are mistaken or unintelligible.
    The fact that these plays are official copies sent to the office of the Examiner by the managers of the theaters, not the authors, places them in a different category from that of most literary texts. Their relation on the one hand to the acted version and on the other to the published work raises complicated problems that can be solved only individually. What liberties actors took with the text after it had been approved, one cannot say, but it seems likely that in general the licensed text was presented on the stage. The printed play, however, was generally set from copy provided by the author; and in it he had the opportunity to restore what the manager had eliminated, or to revise the piece in the light of its reception. The Larpent text, thus, may represent a state of composition either later or earlier than the first acted version. An examination of the manuscripts will show that the Examiner's copy seldom conforms entirely to the published text.


    The collection is divided into two series:
    • 1. Plays and identified prologues, etc. (LA 1-2399)
    • 2. Unidentified addresses, prologues, epilogues, etc. (LA 2400-2502)
    In the first series, entries are arranged chronologically in accordance with the date of the application for license (when known), or, the date of the first performance. Prologues, epilogues, and other related documents are included in the same entry as the plays to which they belong, if the latter are found in the collection, even though they may be bound and shelved separately. The unidentified items are arranged alphabetically.
    Format of entries:

    In each entry the title of the play is given first as it appears upon the manuscript, even though it may be better known under another title. After the title is a descriptive phrase indicating the type of play, taken either from the copy itself or from contemporary descriptions. The name of the author, which seldom appears on the copy, is given, when known.
    The second part of the entry gives the date of application for license, the name of the manager and the theater, and the date of first production, from such authorities as may be regarded as generally reliable. (Theater and year are not repeated unless they differ from those appearing in the application.) It is then stated whether the copy is a manuscript or printed; and noteworthy peculiarities of the copy are mentioned. Collier's notes written on the plays are given only rarely, as they usually repeat those in his copy of Biographia Dramatica (Call number: 13729).
    Following the description of a manuscript is a statement of the result of a comparison of manuscript and printed text, made whenever there was a printed copy of the play in the Huntington Library, or in a few cases (which are indicated), from copies lent by other libraries. The edition compared is indicated, and in parentheses is given the Huntington Library accession number of the copy used; and a phrase points out the nature or extent of the differences between the two texts. As these notes represent only a hasty comparison and are not to be taken as the results of careful collation, they are intentionally expressed in the most general terms. The absence of comparison with a printed text does not necessarily indicate that the play was unpublished, but merely that no copy was available for comparison.
    Finally, relevant parts of Collier's notes in his copy of the Biographia Dramatica are printed, and care has been taken to quote all of the new or suggestive material from them. No attempt has been made to indicate calligraphic peculiarities.
    Italian operas and plays from provincial theaters often have only minimal descriptions in this finding aid due to limited available information about the productions.
    In order to clarify this explanation of entries, the following expansion of entry 2 is given as an example:
    Original entry:

    • 2. Art and Nature. Comedy, 5 acts. James Miller.

      Application Jan. 12, 1737/8, Charles Fletewood, D.L. Prod. Feb. 16.

      MS: a few passages deleted by Examiner; epilogue; cast. Comp. 1738 (K-D 240): a number of passages in MS, including those marked for deletion, not printed. J.P.C. in B.D. calls attention to The Pigeon Pie (1738), a satire upon Miller.
    • Art and Nature, a comedy in five acts, by James Miller.

      The play is accompanied by a note of application for license to perform, addressed to the Examiner of Plays (or to the Lord Chamberlain), dated January 12, 1737/8, and signed by Charles Fletewood, manager of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The play was produced at that theater on February 16 of the same year. The copy in question is a manuscript, in which the Examiner has marked certain passages for omission from the performance. The epilogue is included with the text of the play, and the cast is given with the dramatis personae. A rapid comparison of the text of this manuscript with the 1738 edition (copy in the Huntington Library, Kemble-Devonshire Collection of Plays, Vol. 240) shows that the manuscript contains a number of passages, including those marked for deletion by the Examiner, that have not been printed. A manuscript note by John Payne Collier in his copy of the Biographia Dramatica (1812) calls attention to The Pigeon Pie (1738), which Collier states is a satire upon Miller.

    Abbreviations and Symbols

    In addition to conventional abbreviations, the following abbreviations are used in this finding aid:
    • Application: Formal letter of application for license to perform addressed to the Examiner of Plays (or to the Lord Chamberlain). In some cases an endorsement upon the title-page is interpreted as equivalent to a letter of application.
    • B.C.: Bridgewater House Library Catalogue of Larpent Dramatic MSS.
    • B.D:. Biographia Dramatica.
    • C.G.: Covent Garden Theatre
    • Comp.: Compared
    • Dev: Devonshire Collection of plays in the Huntington Library
    • D.L.: Theatre Royal Drury Lane
    • H1: The King's Theatre (opera house), Haymarket
    • H2: The Little Theatre (or Theatre Royal), Haymarket
    • J.P.C.: John Payne Collier
    • J.P.K.: John Philip Kemble
    • K-D: Kemble-Devonshire collection of plays in the Huntington Library
    • L.L.: Used by J.P.C. in his annotated copy of Biographia Dramatica to indicate the Larpent dramatic manuscripts catalogue (call number: mssEL 26 B 11)
    • Prod.: Produced

    Index of authors and titles

    An alphabetical list of the authors represented in John Larpent Plays:
    An alphabetical title list for items 1-2399 (Note: the unidentified items, 2400-2502, are arranged alphabetically in the finding aid itself):

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the Huntington Library's Online Catalog.  


    Larpent, John, 1741-1824 -- Archives.
    Great Britain. Licensing Act (1737)
    Great Britain. Lord Chamberlain. Examiner of Plays (1778-1824 : Larpent)
    Drama -- Censorship -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century -- Sources.
    Drama -- Censorship -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
    Theaters -- England -- History -- 18th century -- Sources.
    Theaters -- England -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
    Great Britain -- Intellectual life -- 18th century -- Sources.
    Great Britain -- Intellectual life -- 19th century -- Sources.


    Plays -- Great Britain -- 18th century.
    Plays -- Great Britain -- 19th century.

    Alternate Authors

    Great Britain. Lord Chamberlain. Examiner of Plays (1778-1824 : Larpent)