Charles Morton Agency Collection of American Popular Drama

Institution: University of Chicago Library - Special Collections Research Center
1100 E. 57th Street
Chicago, IL 60637-1504
Phone: 773-702-8705
Fax: 773-702-3728
Date: 1842-1950
Extent: 48 Linear Feet
Finding Aid

Biographical/Historical Note:
By the end of the 19th century in America there had developed a market for playbills and scripts of plays. Theater attendance had increased dramatically through the 19th century and had become progressively more accessible to a wider range of social classes and groups. Not surprisingly, a sort of “play piracy” developed as a consistent problem, particularly since the development of copyright law did not develop extensively until the 20th century. A common form of “play piracy” involved a private company paying an individual, often a stenographer, to go see a popular play at the time and copy down as close to verbatim as possible the dialogue and scenes being presented on stage. The company would then reproduce multiple copies of the script and sell it at a lower price than the playwright’s publishing house. There are some implications that either or both the Charles Morton Agency and the Chicago Manuscript Company (though it is unclear what the exact connection was between the two companies, the latter one appears to be the means by which the former obtained many or its works) were such pirating companies.

Scope and Content Note:
The majority of the collection is composed of over 1,600 typescripts of popular plays that were produced, but not necessarily published, during the approximate period of 1865-1920. In addition, there are close to 2,500 printed plays of the late 19th century and they are mainly publications by other large dramatic publishing house, such as Baker or French. Many of the play-scripts have hand-written notes in the margins containing stage instructions. Many of the melodramas in this collection were some of the most popular plays during the Reconstruction Era in the United States.

Related Material: None