A traveling salesman’s early career on the road proved to be an interesting path to the creation of a prodigious body of work documenting nearly three centuries of British and Irish theatrical productions. Born in Belfast in 1862, William J. Lawrence was educated at Methodist College, and at the end of his formal schooling became a commercial agent for a wine and liquor wholesaler. Seeking to enliven an existence for which he quickly found himself ill-suited, Lawrence began to delve into old periodicals in Dublin libraries, jotting down the anecdotes and accounts he found of the city’s stage heritage. By 1892, he had published his first book, The Life of Gustavas Vaughn Brooke, Tragedian, and shortly thereafter, resigned his position to conduct research and contribute reviews to a variety of publications.
The Lawrence collection consists of 99 handwritten notebooks containing his research on the Irish stage from 1630 to 1911. For his sources, Lawrence sought out copies of the Dublin daily newspapers, parish registers, the collections of Trinity College, and the Public Records Office—any slight bit of information that he could gather to illuminate the world of the theater. The notebooks are like those of a schoolboy’s small, lined essay books, with Lawrence’s careful handwriting supplemented by tipped-in news clippings, images of actors taken from programs and pamphlets, and the occasional typed transcription of a play. His attention to detail was remarkable; there are not only day-by-day notes on the theaters and their productions, but lists of actors, ticket prices, and management concerns as well. In many cases, he also provided insights on the personal lives of the players. For an 1865 performance by G. V. Brooke in Othello, for example, Lawrence noted that the actor “appeared as Iago . . . I say ‘appeared’ advisedly, since he was much too intoxicated to play the part.” What Lawrence compiled offers a vibrant, cogent look at the cultural life of Dublin.
Lawrence’s critical writings and historical research received occasional recognition during his lifetime, and he was awarded honorary degrees from Queen’s University Belfast and the National University of Ireland. However, when he died in 1940, Lawrence was blind and impoverished. After his death, his collections of notebooks found their way to the used-book trade where most of them were obtained by William S. Clark II, a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, to add to his own research in Restoration literature and theater. Another 20 of Lawrence’s notebooks, the focus of which are on scenery, production records, and prompt books, were purchased by theater historian Richard Southern and are now part of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. When Clark died in 1969, the University of Cincinnati’s Charles Phelps Taft Library Fund bought the notebooks from his estate. The collection has been microfilmed and listed by volume in the university’s online catalog. Over the decades it has been supplemented with hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century Irish plays, and is actively used for both scholarly work on Lawrence and on British drama, as well as by students interested in Irish urban history.