University of Virginia Library

Relatively little is known about the terms on which plays were published in the later eighteenth century.[1] So far as we are aware, no source exists that is comparable to British Library Add. MS. 38,728, which contains a large number of publication agreements (including many for plays) dating from the first half of the century. Figures have come to light for scattered plays, but the specifics of publication agreements and the profits made by the playwrights remain a relatively dark subject. Consequently we are pleased to be able to present a substantial amount of information about the early plays of Arthur Murphy from a heretofore unknown Exchequer lawsuit. Our source is Public Record Office E 112/1649, no. 2392, filed by Arthur Murphy against Paul Vaillant in Hillary Term 15 George III (1775).[2]

Arthur Murphy (1727-1805) had his first piece staged in 1756 and ultimately produced more than fifteen plays for the patent theatres in London. He was an industrious professional writer who also published some political and dramatic journalism but eventually devoted himself to a career in the law. He commenced his legal studies in 1757; was called to the bar in 1762; and by 1765 had largely turned his attention away from the theatre, though he had several new plays staged in the 1770s and one as late as 1793. He is probably best known for his "Essay on the Life and Genius of Henry Fielding" (prefaced to the 1762 Works), but his two-volume Life of David Garrick (1801) has also been extensively cited by later writers.[3]


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Murphy's principal publisher during his first decade was Paul Vaillant, and the lawsuit gives us financial and other information about nine of his plays, two revisions of them, and one political novella translated from French. The period covered is 1756 to 1767. Murphy brought the suit as a cross action to block execution of a judgment against him in the Court of Common Pleas. Vaillant claimed that he had paid (and loaned) Murphy £186 3s 1d more than he owed him, and he sued to collect. Our concern here, however, is less with the particulars of this case than with what the testimony on both sides tells us about play publication and its profits. How typical Murphy's publication arrangements and remuneration were we cannot be sure. He started by selling his copy outright; quarrelled with Vaillant over whether he should receive additional pay for a revised text; and finally tried having Vaillant print plays at Murphy's own expense and sell them on commission. The financial and legal ramifications are complex.