The Stage


New (at least to me) among the digitised historical journals now available online by subscription is The Stage. This is well worth taking note of. The Stage Directory (A London and Provincial Theatrical Advertiser) was founded in February 1880 as a monthly newspaper, and continues (as a weekly) to this day. Its entire archive 1880-2007 has been digitised and put online, covering over 6,500 issues or above 170,000 individual pages reporting on the goings on of the British stage and beyond.

The importance for us is that The Stage has always kept an eye on the motion picture business, and for the silent era it was assiduous in recording the activities of this new strand of showbusiness. A series of articles from 1907 entitled “Cinematograph Notes” records new businesses, film releases, licensing issues and so forth, “Latest Films” is very handy in giving titles of new releases, and another series “Film Facts & Fancies” starting in 1919, written by ‘Figaro’, reports on the cinema world with a knowing eye.

The Stage documented the engagements of actors, and one can trace their travels across the British provincial theatres, seeing also where the variety shows were starting to introduce the cinematograph. Here one can spot names that were later to be famous: in a notice from 30 July 1903 of a performance of Sherlock Holmes at the London Pavilion, the writer notes:

A faithful portrait of Billy is given by Master Charles Chaplin, who shows considerable ability, and bids fair to develop into a clever and capable actor.

Once can follow Chaplin many performances as Billy, and then later with the Karno troupe, up and down the country, before he found his fortune on the screen.

The Stage Archive is available by subscription. There is a timed pass system, with twenty-four hours’ access costing £5, one week £15, one month £30, three months £60, six months £100 and one year £150. Once you have subscribed, you have options to browse by date, so you can scroll through an entire issue (I recommend this to start with, as it gives you an idea of layout and the contents of the regular sections), or you can search by word (or phrase in quotation marks) across all types of ‘clippings’ (i.e. sections), or by article, picture or advertisement. You can search by the time periods 1880-1900, 1901-1950 or 1914-1918 (and later periods, of course), and can order search results chronologically or by relevance.

Those familiar with digitised newspaper collections will soon recognise that The Stage Archive has been produced by Olive Software‘s ActivePaper system. Search results give you the date and page number of the issue and a snippet of the article itself (usually a headline), which you click on to open up the full article. This can be a little frustrating when you have many search results, as there is little way of telling one article from another (many of the Chaplin notices are simply titled ‘Provinces’, for instance), so it may be a little laborious investigating the more popular subjects. You get the full article in facsimile form, with your search term highlighted, and you can print these or file them away in a ‘My Collection’ facility, but there is no way to get at the underlying OCR text, unfortunately.

If you don’t subscribe, you can still use The Stage Archive to search material, you just won’t have access to the articles themselves. But there is more from The Stage that you can access without paying any subscription. The Stage produced an annual yearbook which for the silent era is another rich source of information, particularly for its directory listing of film associations, its advertisements, and especially its reports on legal cases, always fascinating for the realism they provide behind the tinsel of so much cinema reportage. The Internet Archive has the volumes for 1908-1919. The PDFs are a large size (30-50MB), but don’t forget that they are word-searchable. Look out in particular for Arthur Coles Armstrong’s long article in the 1914 volume, “My Lady Kinema – The Eleventh Muse”. And from the 1916 volume, this report on a court case caught my eye:


In the Chancery Division, before Mr. Justice Younger, Mrs. Elinor Glyn, the author of and owner of the copyright in “Three Weeks,” brought an action against the defendants for an injunction restraining the defendants from making or authorising the public exhibition of kinematograph films under the title of Pimple’s Three Weeks (without the option).

The defendants pleaded that their film Pimple’s Three Weeks (without the option) was an original dramatic work within the meaning of the Copyright Act, 1911, and that they were entitled to use their film.

The action against the defendant George Black was settled before the case came into Court.

And the reason it was settled is that the judge decided that Three Weeks was an immoral work, and so did not merit any copyright protection, irrespective of whether a parody could be seen as infringing in the first case.

Plenty to discover, whether paid for or free (and acknowledgments to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing The Stage Archive to my attention).