Tell it to the Book-keeper: Background information when reading Saving Hamlet

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Saving Hamlet

by Molly Booth

Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth X
Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2016, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag

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Beyond the Book:
Tell it to the Book-keeper

Print Review

"Want to know what a book-keeper's job is, boy?" he muttered. "We keep the actors from ruinin' the play."

Drawing of the Globe TheatreEmma thinks her sudden promotion to stage manager of her high school's drama department is a stretch in Molly Booth's debut novel Saving Hamlet but it is nothing like the crash course she receives when she finds herself in the 1600s, serving as the accidental assistant to Master Wick, the book-keeper of the Globe Theatre.

The book-keeper was a member of the company of players who was responsible for the promptbooks – what would be known by modern stage hands as the playbook – and shared many of the responsibilities of a modern stage manager. While there is little scholarly evidence to provide a complete and certain list of duties of a book-keeper, it is known that his first job for each play was to take the author's manuscript, known as a 'foul copy,' and commission a 'fair copy' which would become the official copy of the company, and would need to be kept safe from competing theatre companies and publishers. Because actors on the Elizabethan stage only received their lines and stage directions instead of the complete play, the book-keeper also prepared the individual parts, and kept them safe from prying eyes.

In addition to knowing all the blocking for each scene and keeping actors in line and on time as a modern stage manager would, book-keepers had far more expanded responsibilities. These included casting plays and distributing each part to players, and even being responsible for editing the plays as production and rehearsals gave reason for changes to be made to either the dialogue or the actions originally outlined by the playwright. The book-keeper also had to make sure that the production bore the approval of the Master of Revels, so that the play could be performed legally.

Original ManuscriptAt Wick's side, Emma sees into the origins of modern theatre, from costume management to stage effects, to how male actors cross-dressed to bring female characters to life. The book-keeper was responsible for every detail of how a play would be executed when it was performed, and as a result, kept meticulous notes. Scholars posit that many of the stage directions and versions of plays that have survived from the Elizabethan period through today probably contain an evolution of the notes of book-keepers, and therefore it is very difficult to point to a completely "original" manuscript. Use of stage effects, which would not have been written in the manuscript in terms of how they were executed, would have also been managed by the book-keeper.

Emma learns that good organization and management can make or break a play and, through observing Wick, that a good book-keeper can be the difference between a successful production or a flop. She is able to take this knowledge back to her own time and help her high-school production pull through against the odds, with the flexible thinking and confidence learned four centuries earlier.

The Globe Theatre in the 17th century, courtesy of library.calvin.edu
An original Shakespeare manuscript, courtesy of www.bc.co.uk

This article was originally published in January 2017, and has been updated for the November 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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