Capturing the Visual History of Theater

Longtime drama professor Laurence Senelick’s extensive collection celebrates the performing arts across the centuries
Laurence Senelick with some of his collection's art work
Laurence Senelick said he started young “collecting examples of how people have tried, over the ages, to capture on paper what happened on stage.” Photo: Anna Miller
February 15, 2019


As a graduate student in the 1960s, Laurence Senelick would often wander through Harvard Square’s used bookshops and antique stores. He was on a mission—looking to add to his growing collection of images and artifacts from the performing arts. He still remembers the day he stumbled upon a group of small actor photographs known as cartes-de-visite—novelty trading cards once so popular in the nineteenth century they sparked a craze known as “cartomania.” 

“It seemed a perfect specimen of its time—in this case the Civil War. What attracted me to the photos was the sharpness of the image, the contemporaneous handwriting on the back, and the compact size,” said Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory in the Department of Drama, Dance, and Performance. “I think the twenty cards cost $50, which was a good deal of money for me then.” 

Senelick has devoted his life to making sure that the vast and eclectic visual history of live entertainment—and its intriguing kinships with culture and society—is not forgotten. Over the decades, he has amassed one of the largest private holdings about the history of performance.  

Jules Cheret, "L'Homme-femme soprano," lithographed poster, 1878, advertising a drag act in Parisian variety of a male soprano. There is a matching poster showing the genders reversed. Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionIn scale and in visual impact, the collection speaks volumes about Senelick’s knowing eye and deep knowledge of where to look for the artifacts. It is valued as an influential resource by scholars worldwide, used to illustrate reference books such as The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre and The Cultural History of Theatre, various monographs, and periodicals, and appear in exhibitions. Academics, museums, repertory theaters, private researchers, dealers, and auctioneers have consulted it.

Senelick, a prolific writer, has mined it as well for his books and essays. Most recently he tapped the collection for his book Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and next year he’ll put it to work to illustrate two articles, one on outdoor advertising in the nineteenth century and another about Russian émigré cabaret. “It’s a collection,” he said, “that is a living tribute to live performance.” 

The Collecting Gene

Senelick’s devotion to preserving the history of live performance stretches back to his boyhood in Chicago, where he grew up in a house full of books; those that were illustrated made a lasting impression. “I was visually oriented from an early age,” said Senelick. “I was used to seeing reproductions of works of art.”

It’s also possible, he added, that he was predisposed to collecting at birth. “I don’t know if you believe in the collecting gene, but it’s in my family,” he said. “My Russian grandmother collected works of art. I suppose I got from her, in part, this idea that I could start collecting examples of how people have tried, over the ages, to capture on paper what happened on stage.”

A photograph of the exterior of a fairground booth exhibiting E. S. Porter’s film “The Great Train Robbery,” 1903.  Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionThe financial austerity of the Depression stymied his parents’ own college educations, but they were keen to instill a love of learning in Senelick and his brother.

“My mother was very concerned that we get a cultural background,” he said, “and so I started taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and not long after that I started taking acting lessons down the road with a professional company, and then became a child actor.”

It was then that he made the connection between graphic art and performance. “By the time I was seven or eight, I was collecting theater programs, comic books, and trade cards, but gradually it became refined to things that involved performance. My father got me an old filing cabinet from work, and I began to fill it up with clippings.”

Every weekend he haunted used bookstores in Chicago. “There was one store that sold old Life magazines from the thirties and forties at ten cents apiece, and I would buy great bundles of them, and then dissect them and put the articles in folders,” he said. “And if I found an old print in a store, I would buy it.”  

A detail of a private, unpublished photograph of Sarah Bernhardt in her studio, laying out her best friends, 1875. Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionNow, all these decades later, the collection is diligently organized into more than two dozen categories—from buttons to posters, scrapbooks to postage stamps. The heart of the collection are thousands of photographs, but the years of assiduous and thoughtful collecting has also brought together prints and drawings, paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, posters, tickets, letters, and manuscripts. Unusual items include playbills in braille and Yiddish—even ones dating to England’s Regency period, handed out on Drury Lane in London’s famed theater district, with handwritten comments by house managers.

No less wide-ranging are his thousands of three-dimensional objects—artifacts such as magic lanterns (an early type of image projector), nutcrackers, and other oft-overlooked miscellany: makeup kits, collages, clocks, snuffboxes, and jigsaw puzzles, among others.

It is also now an award-winning collection. In November, a Boston-based nonprofit awarded Senelick the Historic New England Prize for Collecting Works on Paper. The tribute came by way of Andrew McClellan, Tufts professor of art history, who, in the course of gathering artwork for a commemorative book and exhibition on Jumbo the elephant, the university’s mascot that was once owned by P.T. Barnum, turned to Senelick and his collection.

Among a wide range of nineteenth century works of paper in Senelick’s collection are examples of Barnum’s promotional materials for the so-called freaks of his famed circus, including a handsomely framed miniature calling card that once belonged to Tom Thumb.

“It’s really astonishing what he’s managed to collect,” said McClellan. “At every possible turn there are startling things that you didn’t know about the world of theater. It’s a testament to his amazing scholarship.”

Finding Hidden Gems

To amass such a collection, Senelick has cast a wide net. He studies auction catalogues, particularly from British dealers, but he also brings a keen sensibility to antique stores and print shops, and regularly attends book and ephemera fairs and paper shows.

“Buy a Bill of the Play. Theatre Drury Lane.” A copper-plate from Richard Phillips, Modern London, 1804. Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionHis strategy has also benefited from the simple fact that he was building his collection in the 1960s and 1970s when London and Paris were full of ephemera shops, he said. And as dealers became aware of his special interest, “they assiduously solicited my attention when they turned up something that interested me.”

He’s had the good fortune, he added, to live in London, Berlin, Tokyo, and other foreign cities for extended periods of time, “and thus become familiar with venues where my kind of imagery is available. I soon became adept at spotting a likely item in the most unlikely places, and there was seldom anywhere I was in the world where I couldn’t find something for my collection.” Most recently, while in Bucharest, a visit to a bookshop turned up an intriguing German book on household magic dating to about 1890.

But, he said, it’s getting harder to find hidden gems because there are simply fewer shops. He first visited France in 1966, “when it was full of bookstores and paper shops and all kinds of places where you could get something rather cheaply,” he recalled. “I came back from France with portfolios full of prints and posters.”

An original ink and watercolor sketch by F. Aitken of the great tragedian Edmund Kean as Othello. Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionThat’s changed. “Paris has dried up, and London, too, to some degree,” he said. “It used to be, if it was raining and you had an hour before the play started, you’d go to a bookstore and just browse around and find something,” he said wistfully. “Now, there are no more stores.”

“If You Own It, the Power of That Thing Is Yours”

Stores may come and go, but Senelick’s passion for collection remains unabated. “I think a psychiatrist would say that there is a sense of proprietorship—it’s like a totem,” he said, speculating on just what keeps him going.

“If you own it, the power of that thing is yours,” he said. “There is something to that. I’ve also found that I like having the material within easy reach. And this is important, too—when you’re doing research, there is no substitute for looking at the original.”

In fact, that visceral connection with the past is perhaps the source of its seduction. To hold a playbill that was once held by a theatergoer in London more than a hundred years ago, “you become more aware of the past as living—how people lived,” he said.

The collection has another lesson, one that Senelick shares with his students. “I tell them, by the time you had breakfast and came to this class you have seen more images than the average person living in the Middle Ages would have seen in a lifetime,” he said.

“They would only see images in church, the same ones week after week. And in Victorian times, you would be expected to stand in front of a painting for an hour, because the painter had included so many details,” Senelick said. “Today, we don’t look at things closely. So I am teaching them to look. Take some time. Look at the colors—what did the artist have in mind? Every element can convey something about that time and event.”

Japanese woodblock print triptych by Kunichika, showing, from right, male kabuki actors in a version of Bulwer-Lytton’s play “Money,” and Western actors in Offenbach’s operetta “The Grand Duchess,” Shintomi-za, Yokohama, 1879. Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Senelick CollectionSenelick will be giving the keynote at a Stanislavsky conference in Malta in April, and the end of this spring semester, he will retire from Tufts. He continues, characteristically, to be inspired by his collection to write. “Usually an idea incubates somewhere in the back of my mind,” he said. “And then sometimes the trigger is a conference theme.”

Next year is the bicentennial of Jacques Offenbach’s birth, “so I have already been invited to Frankfurt and Cologne to speak, and I’ve already lent images from the collection for an exhibition,” he added. “I am probably going to be pretty peripatetic. Retirement is just going to open up my schedule!”

And will he continue, on his travels to far-flung destinations, be looking for the next addition to his collection? “Oh definitely, definitely,” he said. “I always manage to find something.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at