Harry Watkins and His Diary

If the career of any one man covered the range of American drama during the two decades before the Civil War, it was that of cocky Harry Watkins.
--Carl Bode

Harry Watkins (1825-1894) was a US American stage actor, manager, and playwright. Despite his constant employment and collaborations with the most celebrated performers and producers of the day, including P. T. Barnum, Junius Brutus Booth, and Edwin Forrest, he never became famous. From 1845 to 1860, Watkins wrote religiously in his diary, detailing his daily activities, the roles he performed, the plays he saw, the people he met, the books he read, and his impressions of current events. This is the only known diary of its size and scope by an American actor during the decade prior to the Civil War.

A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century US American Actor seeks to make this fascinating diary available to researchers, students, and general readers in print and electronic format.  At the conclusion of this project, we will have created a one-volume critical edition of Watkins's diary featuring the most widely relevant selections as well as a critical introduction providing historical context and biographical information; the volume was published by University of Michigan Press in October 2018. It will be accompanied by a digital edition (freely accessible to the public) of the full text of the manuscript, accessible through U-M Library Digital Collections.

This project has been made possible through awards and grants from CUNY (Collaborative Incentive Research Grant and PSC-CUNY Research Award programs), The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Society for Theatre Research (STR), Association for Documentary Editing (ADE), New England Regional Fellowship Consortium (NERFC), Leonard and Claire Tow Faculty Travel Fund (Brooklyn College), LaGuardia Community College's Department of English, and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.

Editorial Staff

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Shane Breaux (Editorial Associate) holds an MA in theatre history and criticism from Brooklyn College and is currently working on a doctorate in theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he researches popular entertainments focusing on nineteenth and early-twentieth century blackface performance, musical comedy, and the formation of national identities through live performance. Shane is the former Managing Editor of Journal of American Drama and Theatre and is the co-founder and co-editor of Emerging Theatre Research, an online peer-reviewed journal for emerging scholars. Shane is also an active theatre maker working as a playwright, actor, dramaturg, and director. Shane grew up in Lake Charles, LA and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Dr. Scott D. Dexter (Director of Technology), Professor of Computer and Information Science at Brooklyn College, has long been intrigued by the many intersections between computing and the humanities. He is co-author of Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open-Source Software; he has received funding from the National Science Foundation to investigate programming, creativity and aesthetics, as well as computing and ethics; and he has implemented a Random Sonnet Generator for Robert Viscusi's epic sonnet cycle, Ellis Island. With support from Brooklyn College's Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, he is completing a book project tentatively entitled American Android: Race, Gender, and Artificial Humans in the US, 1835-2719. For the Harry Watkins Diary project, he develops and maintains the Drupal infrastructure and advises on XML and electronic publishing.

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Dr. Amy E. Hughes (Co-Editor) is Associate Professor of Theater History and Criticism at Brooklyn College (CUNY). She brings to this project technical skills developed at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents (coordinated by the Association for Documentary Editing) as well as expertise in antebellum US theater and culture. Her first book, Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Michigan Press, 2012), received the 2013 Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History from the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). The book investigates the relationship between the theater and visual, print, and material media in order to illuminate how spectacle was central to the “dramaturgy of reform” in the antebellum United States. Her essays and reviews have appeared in J19: Journal of the Society of Nineteenth-Century AmericanistsJournal of American Drama and Theatre, Journal of American CultureTheatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and Theatre Topics as well as four edited collections. In addition to serving as co-editor of A Player and a Gentleman, she is writing a monograph inspired by Watkins’s diary, An Actor's Tale: Theater, Culture, and Everyday Life in Nineteenth-Century US America, which explores how Watkins’s account constitutes an “alternative theater history” centered on workaday labor. For more information, visit her web page.

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Dr. Naomi J. Stubbs (Co-Editor) is Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY). Her research interests include critical editing and nineteenth-century American theatre and popular entertainments, and her first book Cultivating National Identity Through Performance: American Pleasure Gardens and Entertainment was published with Palgrave in 2013. Her articles and chapters have appeared in Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America; The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall Gardens to Coney Island; Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology: Historical Interfaces and Intermedialities, and Popular Entertainment Studies. She is the Co-editor of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Stubbs completed her BA in English and Drama and MRes in Editing Lives and Letters and Queen Mary, University of London, and her PhD in Theatre at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Stubbs’s background in both critical editing and nineteenth-century American theatre and popular entertainments allows her to bring a variety of expertise crucial to the completion of this project.


We have relied greatly on the work of student interns, who received course credit for learning about transcription then transcribing a portion of the diary. See the For Educators page for more information on our approach.

LaGuardia Community College, Naomi Stubbs
Irma Aguirre
Jonathan Caba
Raymond Camacho
Gabriella Lira-Pizano
Oliver Reyes
Guilherme de A. Pedroso
Luciana Pinto
Carlos Ramos
Asha Robinson
Aleksander Ruziyev
Trenton Voegeli
Kelly Williams
Cathelyne Yacinthe

Former Project Staff

Elijah Akinbamidele, Research Assistant, 2015
Sara Diaz, Research Assistant, 2015-2016
Danielle Pace, Editorial Assistant, 2013-2014
Christine Snyder, Editorial Assistant, 2013-15
Medeli Tavarez, Editorial Assistant, 2013-2015
Esteban Toyos, Research Assistant, 2014-2015

Advisory Board

Sarah Bay-Cheng, Professor, Bowdoin College
Christopher Brick, Director, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
John W. Frick, Professor Emeritus, University of Virginia
Barbara Wallace Grossman, Professor, Tufts University
Beth Luey, Association for Documentary Editing (ADE)
David Mayer, Professor Emeritus, Manchester University

Publications & Presentations

Book. A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century US American Actor. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018. (Hughes and Stubbs)

Digital Edition. The Diary of Harry Watkins: Digital Edition. U-M Library Digital Collections, 2018. A complete, fully searchable, free-to-the-public digital transcription of the pre-Civil War diary written by nineteenth-century US theater-maker Harry Watkins (1825–94), transcribed and encoded in XML following best practices established by the Text-Encoding Initiative (TEI). (Hughes, Stubbs, and Dexter)

Article. "Harry Watkins's Sword: An Object Lesson in Nineteenth-Century US Theatre Culture." Theatre Survey 59, no. 3 (September 2018): 340-62. (Hughes)

Conference presentation. “Constructing the Digital Archive Through Student-Faculty Collaboration.” Teaching Undergraduates with Archives, University of Michigan, November 2018 (Stubbs)

Conference presentation. “Cultivating Self to Self-Curation: The Diary of Harry Watkins and His Audience.” Ninteenth-Century Studies Association (NCSA), Charleston, SC. February 2017 (Stubbs)

Conference presentation. “Digitally Enabled Collaboration: The Harry Watkins Diary Project.” American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), Portland, OR. November 2015 (Stubbs)

Invited Talk: “The Intermediality of Nineteenth-Century Melodrama,” a Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Workshop sponsored by the Mahindra Center for the Humanities, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Department of English, Harvard University. October 2015. (Hughes)

Conference presentation. “Celebrity and its Afterlife: Performance, Memory, and Textual Remains.” Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), Montreal, Canada, August 2015 (Stubbs)

Roundtable Participation: "Digital Scholarship." Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), Montreal, CA. August 2015. (Dexter and Stubbs)

Roundtable Participation: “Reconstructing Access: Shaping Creation and Scholarship in the Dramatic Digital Archives.” Tufts University, Department of Drama and Dance, April 2015. (Stubbs and Hughes)

Book Chapter: "White Rebels, 'Ape Negroes,' and Savage Indians: The Racial Poetics of National Unity in Harry Watkins's The Pioneer Patriot (1858)." in Enacting Nationhood through Dramatic Literature and Live Performance, 1849-99, Ed. Scott R. Irelan. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2014. (Hughes)

Conference Presentation: "'The Only Real American Play': Dreams of National Unity in Harry Watkins's The Pioneer Patriot (1858)." Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Conference, Scottsdale, AZ.  July 2014. (Hughes)

Roundtable Participation: “Digital Scholarship Panel.” Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), Scottsdale, AZ. July 2014. (Stubbs and Breaux)

Conference Presentation: “Great Expectations: Harry Watkins and his 1860-1863 Tour.” Celebrity Encounters: Transatlantic Fame in Nineteenth-century Britain and America. University of Portsmouth, UK. July 2014. (Stubbs)

Conference Presentation: “Student-Faculty Collaboration in Liberal Arts Scholarship: The Challenges and Surprises of the Harry Watkins Diary Project.” 10th 

Annual CUNY CUE Conference: Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom. New York. May 2014. (Stubbs with LaGuardia Community College student Medeli Tavarez)

Guest Lecture: Digital Humanities and Theatre. New York University. April 2014. (Stubbs with LaGuardia Community College students Medeli Tavarez and Alex Ruziyev)

Invited Talk: “Heeding Harry Watkins: Integrating the Workaday into Theater History.” Julie Stough Memorial Lecture, Department of English, University of Kansas. April 2014. (Hughes)

Conference Presentation: "Privileging the Common and Quotidian; or, How to Write a Biography of an Actor Who Never Became Famous." The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists (C19) Conference, Durham, NC. March 2014. (Hughes)

Invited Talk: "Heeding Harry Watkins: Integrating the Workaday into Theater History." Department of Theatre Arts, University of Pittsburgh. February 2014. (Hughes)

Invited talk: "The Curious Case of Harry Watkins: History, Microhistory, or Theater History?", Brooklyn College Historical Society. February 2014. (Hughes)

Conference Presentation: “Form Follows Function: Drupal’s Role in Editing the Diary of Harry Watkins (1825-1894).” American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), Dallas, TX. November 2013. (Stubbs, Hughes, and Dexter)

Conference Presentation: "The Lost (and Found) Diary of Harry Watkins: A New Perspective on Antebellum American Theater Culture." Modern Language Association (MLA) Conference. Boston, MA. January 2013. (Hughes)

Conference Presentation: "White Rebels, 'Ape Negroes,' and Ignoble Savages: Race and Revolutionary Resistance in The Pioneer Patriot." American Studies Association (ASA) Conference. San Juan, PR. November 2012. (Hughes)