Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. Earnings of playwrights

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 9. Earnings of playwrights

In Dryden’s time, the writer of plays could look to two sources of revenue. First, from the performance at the theatre, usually the proceeds of third-night representations; and, second, from the sale of the manuscript to a publisher. A judicious dedication might, also, be a potential third source; but it must have been an unusually good stroke when Theobald received, for his dedication of Richard II (1720) to Lord Orrery, a present of a banknote for one hundred pounds, enclosed in an Egyptian-pebble snuff-box of the value of twenty pounds. The sum which a successful author would get from the publisher of his play might be twenty or twenty-five pounds, and, for this, he would probably be expected to furnish a preface in order to attract readers and to swell out the size of the piece. These prefaces were often mere padding, but those of Dryden form some of the earliest essays in modern literary criticism in England. Dryden, too, was called upon to supply prologues to plays by other writers, and, finding his name was of value, he, in due course, demanded and received double the customary fee of five pounds. Later, in common with writers in other departments of literature, the more successful playwrights were able to command much larger sums for their copyrights, as in the case of The Spartan Dame (1712), for which Chetwood, the bookseller, paid Southerne the sum of one hundred and twenty pounds.