‘Without a play-bill’, stated The Tatler in September 1830, ‘no true play-goer can be comfortable. If the performers are new to him, he cannot dispense with knowing who they are: if old, there are the names of the characters to learn, and the relationships of the dramatis personæ: and if he is acquainted with all this, he is not sure that there may not be something else, some new play to be announced, or some new appearance. The advertisements in the papers will not supply him with the information, for they are only abridgments: and he cannot try to be content with a look at the play-bills at the door, for then he would grudge his pence; and he that grudges his pence, cannot be a genuine play-goer …
‘As to the bills that are sold at the doors, we have a respect for the common “house-bill,” as it is called, that is to say, the old unaffected piece of paper, that contains nothing but the usual announcements … This old play-bill is a reverend and sensible bit of paper, pretends to no more than it possesses, and adds to this solid merit an agreeable flimsiness in its tissue …’
Here is one of those sensible bits of paper, from 1832, on which one can see evidence perhaps that someone took it with them to the theatre (‘I saw this on Friday May 4th’):
The playbill advertises Charles Mayne Young (1777–1856) in his final performances, as Macbeth (opposite Fanny Kemble as Lady Macbeth) and Hamlet. He had first appeared at Covent Garden in 1808, ‘then, when the theatre was burnt down, acted at the Haymarket Opera House. With the company he migrated to the other Haymarket house, where he played Othello, Macbeth, and Frederick in Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lover’s Vows. His engagement was to support John Philip Kemble, and on occasion to replace him. After the opening of the new theatre in Covent Garden and the suppression of the O. P. (Old Prices) riots (caused by an increase in the price of seats), when eventually Julius Caesar was produced, Young’s Cassius was as good as Kemble’s Brutus, and gradually, as Kemble’s performances lessened in number, Young became accepted as the leading English tragedian—until his supremacy was challenged, first by Edmund Kean and then by W. C. Macready’ (Oxford DNB).
For more information on this, and other playbills currently in stock, please see my recent e-list Shakespeare and the Stage.