Censoring his past

09 Jan 2015

Posted by naomi

What better way to start off the New Year than with a trip to Harvard Theatre Collection to uncover disappointed love, drunken antics, and disputed records?

Through some heavy etching out and repeating letter forms over the initial text, lengthy sections of the diary have been redacted by Harry. What do these passages concern? Chiefly his love life, bouts of excessive drinking, and disputes surrounding authorship of his plays, and these alterations show Harry's awareness of future readers.

In April 1849, the first series of heavily deleted passages appear. Spread over the ensuing four months, these sections tell the story of Harry Watkins's first recorded love: Maria. In a number of entries, he records how they kiss, how he proposes and waits patiently for her reply, how she writes declining his proposal saying she has heard he has spoken poorly of her, and then how he learns she has married someone else. Through all this, Harry's passionate love and bitter disappointment are captured in striking language. Or at least they were, before Harry sought to obscure them.

Two heavily redacted portions concern Harry's relationship with alcohol. As Harry became known for his portrayal of Edward Middleton in The Drunkard, he also advocated for temperance and frequently criticized actors for their behavior on and off stage after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Yet on 20th September 1852, Harry records how he drank so much his speech was slurred and his stomach was "unable to carry its load," forcing him to leave. At a later date, he returned to passages like this and redacted them.

In 1850 and 1851, there are a series of deletions accompanied by inserted pages that clarify (or correct?) who was the true author of both Harry Burnham, and a play called variously Heart of the World, Nature's Nobleman, and Ship's Carpenter. The deleted passages either neglect to mention the author or have him as co-author, while the additions record him as the sole author.

These redacted portions illustrate Harry's awareness of future readers of his diary. While he might not have imagined it being read in this way, his careful removal of sensitive portions related to love, drinking, and authorship show a concern for how he might be perceived and what the record would show. What Harry was thinking when writing his diary will never be known to us (did he hope to see it published one day?), but snippets like this reveal he was at least aware of possible readers and desired to preserve a more positive version of himself for posterity.