In 2014, the rare books curator at the Boston Public Library was preparing for a Shakespeare exhibit, reviewing the collection to see what was suitable, when a few words in an old catalog caught his eye.
“Dutch lady, The. A comedy,” said the entry in a printed library catalog compiled in 1888. “The scene is laid in London, after the accession of James I.” No author was listed.
Jay Moschella was intrigued. He had never heard of the play.
“I saw that entry. I went to the shelf. I took a look at it, and it was very clearly an original dramatic manuscript from the 17th century,” he said. “It was obviously something extremely significant.”
“The Dutch Lady,” it turns out, appears to have been forgotten for more than 300 years, including more than 140 spent lying on the shelf in the Copley Square library.
Thanks to Moschella’s keen eye and a professor from Texas who has been trying to trace the play’s origins, the work came back to life this summer in performances in England.
“It’s a little lewd. It’s a comedy. It’s actually a good read,” Moschella said.
The play tells the story of Fuscara Gabriella, a beautiful, young Dutch widow who is in London searching for a new, wealthy husband. Subplots are woven in, along with various hijinks. Other characters include the kindly gentleman Justinian Aimwell and the young gallant Hotlove.
After he found the document, Moschella said, he couldn’t find a printed version of the manuscript or any reference to the play in the scholarly literature. He estimated that the document dated back to the second half of the 1600s.
The Associates of the Boston Public Library funded an extensive conservation of the manuscript that included rebinding and repairing it, he said.
The library put the play, which was part of the renowned Thomas Pennant Barton Shakespeare collection that the library had acquired in 1873, on its electronic catalog. The 2014 listing read, “The Dutch lady a comedy: the scene, London, ca. 1650-1699.”
The library digitized and posted the entire play in 2015. And Moschella, in a blog item that November, introduced the “curious and fascinating” item, billing it as a “withering social satire” and a “delightful read.”
“Perhaps those with an interest in English Restoration drama might have information that could help identify this fascinating manuscript?” the item concluded.
Enter Joe Stephenson, associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University.
Stephenson’s research specialty happened to be Dutch characters on the English stage. He was immediately interested when he saw the title online.
Upon further review, he realized he was looking at academic gold.
This February, he said, “I clicked through and finally got to the manuscript. After reading a couple of pages, I knew a.) that it was a play that had not been published or written about before and b.) that it was a major find — a very good play, not just some obscure text of historical interest.”
Stephenson dropped his other projects and has been studying the play ever since. He hopes to release a scholarly edition in 2019. He believes the play’s action is set around 1650 and it can be dated to 1668 to 1675 (or about 50 to 60 years after Shakespeare’s death). After studying Barton’s papers, he thinks the collector bought it from a noted London bookseller in 1849 for seven shillings and sixpence.
He speculates Barton just may not have thought much about his purchase. “I don’t think Barton was that interested in it,” he said. “He wanted famous names.”
There are no records of the play ever being performed, but the manuscript shows marks that indicate it was carefully prepared for performance, Stephenson said.
An excerpt from the prologue transcribed by Moschella is in blank verse and has a vaguely Shakespearean sound. (The play also contains references to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and his “Henry IV” plays, Stephenson said.)
Here’s a sample:
Sure, a schismatique spirit rules the age
And, having torn the Church, would rend the Stage!
For, witts, (as Zelots) now are factious grown,
Each one condemns what is not his own.
Stephenson discovered that the play was attributed by one source in the late 17th century to Aphra Behn, who is the first Englishwoman known to have earned her living through writing.
That would have been big news. But Stephenson believes that was an error — “The Dutch Lady” was being confused with Behn’s play “The Dutch Lover” (which was also listed in the 1888 catalog).
At the same time, though, he believes that Behn knew about “The Dutch Lady” and later borrowed from it for two of her plays, in 1681 and 1682.
To get a firsthand look at the manuscript, Stephenson flew to Boston in late April. It was the last day before the rare books collection was to be closed for a major upgrade project. Spending a few hours with the manuscript was special, he said.
“The manuscript is in mint condition. At many places . . . I noticed the fine-grain sand used to dry the ink was still present on the manuscript,” he said.
Stephenson worked with the Fred Theatre Company, based in Birmingham, England, to offer audiences a chance to enjoy a play whose words have apparently been unspoken for centuries.
In July, actors strutted across the boards, embodying the Dutch lady, Aimwell, Hotlove, and assorted other characters, at the Cockpit Theatre in London, as well as at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Stan’s Cafe Theatre in Birmingham.
Audiences found the play, which actors performed with a few cuts, a “delightful romp,” Stephenson said.
Reviewer Howard Loxton said on the British Theatre Guide website that it was “difficult to find a unified style” and the play was perhaps “too long for a modern audience.” But he also said, “The play is an intriguing mixture of light comedy and quite savage caricature” and “there is some stylish writing in its verse and at its funniest it really takes off.”
“There was a great sense of responsibility on all of us to present the best possible production of what, for all we know right now, was the first public performance of a great play,” said Robert Ball, founder of Fred Theatre and the director of the play. “In the end this wasn’t at all onerous, as the script is excellent, very funny, and we just had the best time pulling the show together.”
Stephenson said he continues to try to unravel the mystery of who wrote the play, and he has developed a list of about 15 possible names.
None would be familiar to the layman. But, he said, “I believe it was written by a professional dramatist. I don’t believe it was written by a preacher or a lawyer because it’s just too good.”
The manuscript, he believes, was copied by a professional scribe. It could have been meant, he said, for a prompter, or perhaps for submission to the “Master of the Revels,” the royal official in charge of stage censorship.
“This is crazy,” he said of the play. “Yes, it’s rare. Yes, it’s amazing. The thing is, it’s a damn good play.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.