Samuel French — a unique partnership — serving theatre since 1830
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In 1830 George IV died and his younger brother William became King; Stephenson's Rocket had just been completed and the first passenger-carrying train was being "dragged by a locomotive"; the young Charles Dickens became a shorthand writer in Doctors' Commons; and in the theatre history had just been made with Black Eye'd Susan which had run for 150 performances at the Surrey Theatre. In this year too the forerunner to the firm which was to become Samuel French Ltd was founded in London.
Thomas Hailes Lacy
Thomas Hailes Lacy, a respected actor manager who had dabbled in publishing, gave up the stage to devote himself full-time to play publishing and established his business in Covent Garden, London in the mid 1840s. His extensive knowledge of theatrical literature proved to be of great service in the early days of the business, which expanded rapidly as Lacy acquired more and more titles. He did this by buying up the plates of earlier publishers; Dunscombe, Webster, Oxberry and Cumberland all came into his grasp. The works of John Cumberland were the most extensive, and Lacy became proprietor of Cumberland's British Theatre (printed from acting copies as performed at the Theatres Royal, London) and Cumberland's Minor Theatre. Lacy also published his own editions and by 1873 Lacy's Acting Editions of Plays ran to 99 volumes and contained 1,485 pieces.
In 1854, in New York, Samuel French was starting a similar enterprise to Lacy's. Five years later he came to London on a visit and about this time the two of them were doing business together, each acting as the other's agent across the Atlantic.
In 1872 French decided to settle in London, leaving his son Thomas Henry French in charge of the New York business. Lacy was now elderly and having no-one in his immediate family interested in carrying on the business, he sold out to French for five thousand pounds. Two years later Lacy died.
The business continued to prosper under Samuel French and a young manager French had appointed, Wentworth Hogg. When French died in 1898, it is doubtful if there was then a single famous English playwright of the past sixty or seventy years that had not been represented by his firm, as a glance at his catalogue for that year will show.
In the nineteenth century, two important Acts of Parliament were passed which helped to regenerate drama in Britain. The first, known as Bulwer Lytton's Act 1833, gave the author the exclusive right to control performances of his own plays — provided they had been published; the second was the Theatres Act of 1843. Prior to these, the two Patent Theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, had the monopoly of the spoken word, and both were too big for the more intimate and intelligent drama so they were forced to aim at popular appeal with spectacles and large-scale effects of melodrama. The Minor Theatres were limited to plays that consisted of mime and music. The Theatres Act 1843 broke this monopoly and allowed drama to develop freely. The effect began to show in the 1850s and 1860s with such plays as London Assurance and Masks and Faces, and in consequence the quality of the plays published improved so that French and Hogg became increasingly selective in the material they sought and accepted.
It was the London end of the business that developed the idea of controlling the performing rights and the collection of royalties on them. Samuel French acquired not only the publishing rights but also the rights of performance of plays throughout the British Isles, later adding the same rights for America.
The Hogg family ran the London business until 1975 when the two firms merged again under the direction of Abbott Van Nostrand, a grandson of Thomas Edwards.
Lacy laid a sound foundation, French brought from America his useful commercialism, the Hoggs added the confidence that springs from a very high degree of integrity. But no Company can thrive only on its leading actors, and French's has been fortunate in having a supporting cast whose commitment and involvement has been second to none.
Today our services are available from offices in New York, London and Hollywood; and from agencies world wide. Our theatre bookshop in central London, stocking plays, musicals and books on the theatre, is backed with unique knowledge and experience on both side of the Atlantic and offers a well-informed specialist service. Currently, we handle over three thousand titles for amateur performance and have a list of nearly 1600 Acting Editions in print.