The Playbooks



JK Green’s “books of words” or “playbooks” to give them their more common name, contained the script and all the stage directions for each play. As Green so ably put it “The only Juvenile Edition Published correctly marked with the Stage Directions”. Each scene change was described, stating exactly which scene sheets were to be used along with the correct wings. Even the opening positions for each character were given for those characters to be “discovered” when the curtain rose. However, the words themselves were as concise as could be without totally losing the plot.


The Playbook Cover


Each of JK Green’s playbooks had an outer cover, mostly printed on very thin yellow paper, although I have seen examples of other colours being used, such as grey, brown, blue and white. Obviously these are the colours we see today, most have darkened through exposure to the light. Occasionally, the original colour can be seen on the inside.


There were two front cover designs.


Standard Playbook Cover Design (No.1 1834-1854)

(If you look very carefully, you can see Green’s “Forty Thieves” from 1836 upside-down on the reverse)


The first design covered the period from 1835 to the mid 1850’s. These playbooks had a simple design, but with an elaborate repeated pattern for a border.


Up to the late 1840’s, Green often printed two play titles on the cover, one on the outer side and one on the inside, just reversing the cover sheet depending on which title was required. However, I don’t think this was an intentional device on the part of Green, rather I suspect that Green used excess stock printed on one side, for the latest playbook to be printed on the clean side, as the inside play title was always older than the outer title. This design progressed into the 1840’s with a similar design but with a standard border of ovals (as seen above).


Standard Playbook Cover Design (No.2 1855-1860)



The second design appeared late in the 1850’s. One of Green’s original plates for this design still exists in a private collection, however there must have been another plate, as this plate did not produce the finished article seen above. The images below show the plate and the image it produced. The bottom section, encircled by a snake, comes out as black text on a white background, whereas the finished article above is in opposite, hence a different plate must have been used.


Original Plate for the Standard Playbook Cover Design (No.2 – Not Used)


The eight-sided hole in the middle of this new design was deliberately left blank, so that the play title could be inserted. This may well have been added via a wood-cut stamp rather than a little copper or zinc plate. I have only seen the place for the play number inserted once, then as No.1 on the Douglas playbook, on all others it has been left blank.


The first design included the year of printing, however this new design did not. It has been suggested to me that these were actually the earliest design for the playbook covers, but when we look on the back of the same cover sheet we see a list of all Green’s plays often including Goody Goose, which wasn’t published until 1859. Therefore these were the last variety of playbook cover to be used by Green.


There are two distinct batches of this second design. The first batch had a “Just Published” list of plays on the back and only included J Redington of 208 Hoxton Old Town as his agent. The second batch had a more comprehensive list of items for sale and also included G Harriss of Marylebone as agent. Interestingly, on this second batch Redington’s address was given as 108 Hoxton Old Town. This was around the time that Green and Redington quarrelled, so I wonder if this was a deliberate mistake or purely accidental.  


It should be noted that the date given on the earlier design often differed from that of the book of words contained within. It would suggest that Green printed up many playbooks without covers. When adding the cover he would do so using the latest cover, with the latest sales list included. It showed foresight on the behalf of Green, to have printed up enough books of words for future sales and to attached the latest sales list. For Green these must have been the best marketing tool he had available.


The back cover always carried a list of Green’s items for sale.


Standard Playbook Cover Design (No.1 – Showing items “Just Published”)



Amusingly, Green often headed the back cover as “Just Published” and then proceeded with a complete list of all his plays. On the later playbooks, some of the titles would have been over 20 years old, so a bit of an exaggeration on Green’s part, to say “Just Published”.

Some of the earlier playbooks carried lists of Green’s theatrical portraits and the series they belonged to, but by 1840, only the plays were listed.


Standard Playbook Back Cover Design (Early 1836 – On back of Robert Macaire playbook)



Listed on the back of an 1836 playbook for Robert Macaire was a “Large Twopenny Stage Front”, unfortunately no known copy of which is believed to have survived. A penny theatre and a halfpenny theatre and corresponding orchestras were also listed. The halfpenny theatre plate was acquired by W Webb after Green’s death in 1860 and still survives in a private collection. The penny version appears also to have been lost forever and no surviving print exists to my knowledge. The orchestra for the halfpenny theatre has likewise been lost. However the 1834 1d orchestra still survives. Alan Keen and Benjamin Pollock Ltd used this for the Regency and Victoria theatre kits. Even though Keen used a curved orchestra strip for the Regency, there was still not enough room for the whole orchestra and a couple of inches had to be lost at both ends. Later versions of the Regency used a photographically reduced 1834 orchestra strip, which included the whole orchestra, but to me it became too small.


The Frontispiece


Frontispiece for “Wapping Old Stairs”


On opening the front cover of a playbook you will find a blank page. Turn the page again and on the reverse of the blank page you will find the “frontispiece”. This always took the form of a scene within the play (usually the last scene) and showed how the scene should look once set up correctly. The plates for most of the frontispieces still survive today at Pollock’s Toy Museum. These frontispieces were used by John Redington, after Green’s death in1860, to form the centrepiece of the “Juvenile Drama” yellow labels. I recently saw how Redington, and Benjamin Pollock originally used these sheets. The labels were stuck on to the centre of a large piece of thin brown card. The card was then carefully folded so that a complete set of sheets for one play could be included within. A very simple design, beautifully executed, by Victorian ingenuity.


Webb & Redington (for his own plays) used frontispieces in their early playbooks, but soon dropped the idea, whilst Green continued with it throughout his career.


For a list of Frontispieces, click here.


The Title Page



“Douglas” Title Page in the standard design, together with “Jack Sheppard’s” one off design.



The Title Page of most playbooks took the same appearance as the front cover and in many cases was made in the same print run, just with the border removed. The only Title Page to differ from this design was that used in “Jack Sheepard”, shown above. This play must have been one of Green’s favourite plays. Not only did produce the longest toy theatre version of any play, with 64 sheets in total, it also had one of the longest playbooks with 36 pages, nearly double the length of any of his other plays. Such a lavish production deserved something special for the Title Page, Green didn’t disappoint, as we can see above.


Dramatis Personae


Dramatis Personae for “Belphegor the Conjuror” 1851


Turn the page once more and on the back of the Title Page we find the “Dramatis Personae” or the cast of the play. Obviously there were no actors to name, just the characters within the play and their various relationships to each other. However there is one exception to this rule. “Belphegor the Conjuror” (1851) does in fact include the names of the actors from the performance at Queen’s Theatre. Why did Green include them on this one occasion? There were two actors by the name of Green listed for the play, perhaps one or both were relations. It could be possible the Miss E Green performing as Jeannette was actual Green’s daughter Ellen Green, although she would have only been about 3 or 4 years of age.


The Play.


Once the Dramatis Personae are finished with, then we arrive at the beginning of the play. The script here would follow the original as closely as possible, but Green did have the habit of condensing the original substantially. Of Green’s 53 half penny plays only 4 or 5 were longer than 16 pages. They were kept to this standard length for two reasons. Firstly the printing process was easiest for a 16 page booklet to be produced and secondly the target audience for the playbooks was the juvenile male, most of whom would not want to learn a full and complete script verbatim but would rather a script that was short and sweet. In this, Green capably obliged.


I have often heard it said that Green would copy the work of others and bring out his own version accordingly, both condensed and subtlety changed so that copyright could not be claimed and that he did so purely from his own premises without having seen the play performed. However I strongly believe that Green was a frequent visitor to the theatre, both in front of and behind the stage. As a regular he would have had access to scripts and had the time copy scenes and costumes. Maybe certain theatres were not so obliging; maybe that was when Green had to use other sources to get the results he wanted. Green had his favourite theatres and that most of his plays come from just a handful of these establishments, also gives credence to him frequenting these venues. If he did not frequent the theatre in general, why would he do this, as in theory he would have the pick of all the plays performed at all the theatres?


The instructions given to the reader and performer were simple to follow, with details of the set up for each scene stated clearly and the stage directions continued throughout the text.


At some point during the performance of a full sized play there would be a safety curtain drop, usually at the interval, (in toy theatres this is replaced with an Act Drop). This had to be done to show the paying public that the safety curtain actually worked. It should be remembered that at this period of early Victorian melodrama and the like, that all lighting came mostly from naked flames. Theatres were not safe places to visit, especially when special effects were required. The same may go for the smaller stage.


The Curtain to Fall.


Every play ends with the words “The Curtain to Fall”. In certain cases, such as the “Miller & His Men” the performer would also be requested to use “Red Fire to Burn”. This was to represent the explosion and subsequent fire at the Miller’s Mill. However I doubt whether the juvenile performer knew the correct quantities for such volatile substances and I suspect many a toy theatre perished in the process of “Red Fire to Burn” and the Curtain fell rather more rapidly than would have been desired by the young performer.


Green’s playbooks after Green.


After JK Green died in 1860 the bulk of his remaining stock of plates, sheets and playbooks went to John Redington, his former agent. Redington wasted no time, however, in recreating Green’s playbooks in his own style and with his own imprint. Many were a complete, word for word, re-type of Green’s version but several; especially the Harlequinades appear to have been substantial re-written. However, as with all rules, there is an exception; Harlequin Riddle-me-ree. Here we have a playbook that is retyped word for word, however no known sheets of Harlequin Riddle-me-ree appears with Redington’s imprint. Why did Redington do this? The only conclusion I can come to, is that Redington had many complete sets with Green’s imprint, but no corresponding playbooks, so that it was worth his while creating a playbook to be sold with this remaining stock.


Upon Redington’s death in 1876, Benjamin Pollock took over the mantle of leading toy theatre publisher, with only William Webb and his son, HJ Webb, less than a mile away providing any competition.  Both these two publishers brought out little new work after the toy theatre crash of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Both relied upon republishing the same plays year in year out. Hence we find a good many playbooks with Pollock’s imprint thereon, compared with Redington and JK Green. Also they were printed on better quality paper so surviving the test time much better, which may explain why they have survived in such greater quantities.