What is a Prompt Book?


Introduced by Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute

 

Prompt book basics

Prompt books come in all shapes and sizes, designed for slightly different purposes or for use by people in different roles within the theatre. But essentially they all have one function in common: to help the actors, stage managers, prompters and directors piece together a theatrical production.

The prompt book is the production's bible, containing a wealth of instructions and information alongside the basic text of the play. As well as the actors’ lines, you will often see cues for music, movement, light, and many other aspects of stage business. Cuts and annotations are sometimes scribbled beside or on top of the text or in the margins. You will even occasionally see doodles or sketches of how a piece of staging is supposed to look, or which costume a character should wear in a scene. Some prompt books are extremely detailed, while others have hardly any notes at all.

Most prompt books in the resource have a 'Primary Association' - that is, the individual with the closest connection to that particular copy of the prompt book. In many cases this is the owner of the book, or the person who made the annotations.

Prompt books could be used in different ways by different people, so in the resource metadata you will see that we have broken down the term 'Prompt Book' into more specific document types, to more effectively explain how that particular book was used. You will see, for instance: Part Books, Memorial Books, Stage Manager's Books, Preparation Copies, and many more. See the Glossary for explanations of what these terms mean.

 

Shattuck codes

In 1965, Charles H. Shattuck, eminent Shakespearean scholar and professor of English at the University of Illinois, published The Shakespeare Promptbooks; a Descriptive Catalogue. He painstakingly tracked down hundreds of prompt books from libraries, museums and private collections all over the world, and compiled information about them in order to aid other Shakespearean scholars with their research. He gave every prompt book a code, by which they are still commonly known today. Since publication of his catalogue, other prompt books have come to light which, too late to be included in the catalogue, inevitably do not have a Shattuck code. Where they exist, we have included these codes in the document metadata. The Reference field in the metadata represents the identifying number or name by which the prompt books are known within the Folger Shakespeare Library.

 

Annotations and markings in the prompt books

Click on any of the purple circles below to find out more about some of the most common types of annotations you will see in the prompt books.

 

Blocking diagram

A diagram to show the positions of the actors and any key items on the stage.

Edits and amendments

Notes added to the page to amend the printed text, or lines struck through text to indicate cuts.

Description

Some prompt books contain handwritten information about who owned or annotated the book. This one, for example, indicates that it was marked for actor Charles Kean by the prompter George Ellis for a production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in March 1846.

Information lists

Lists appear in many of the prompt books, detailing cast members, characters appearing in a specific scene, props required for a scene, and other useful information.

Notes to individuals

Notes addressed to specific people - in this case, the prompter for the production.

Stage directions

Notes made by the owner of the prompt book (who could be a stage manager, an actor or any other theatrical professional) to give further guidance about how a scene should be performed, how actors should deliver lines, where they should be positioned etc.

For example: "Queen Elinor seated on a stool, on the King's R (right)"

Cues

These could be cues for music to be played, lights to be switched on, or any number of other actions regarding the set or staging. On this page, the prompter has noted that there should be "A loud flourish of trumpets - kept up until K John ready to speak." This instruction is enclosed between # symbols, which appear again on the opposite page to indicate the exact point in the text that the music should start. This use of symbols to connect a detailed note in a margin or on a separate page with a precise point in the dialogue is common throughout the prompt books.

Cue marks in the text

Symbols such as # in this case, refer the reader to a more detailed note elsewhere on the page. It is usually a cue for music, lighting or some other business - for example: a flourish, a clap of thunder or knocking on a door.