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Centuries-old play unearthed by professor takes the stage in London


Dr. Joe Stephenson with a program from the performance of “The Dutch Lady.”

Photo by Lauren Franco

It’s not every day you find something significant when searching the internet. But Dr. Joe Stephenson recently did just that. He unearthed a manuscript of a play called The Dutch Lady, hidden for centuries in the archives of the Boston Public Library.
The play is more than 300 years old and has been chilling in the recesses of the library since 1873. Stephenson happens to specialize in British literature before 1800 and specifically, Shakespeare and drama of that time. In fact, he wrote his dissertation on Dutch characters in those plays. So the discovery of this particular play was exciting.
“As soon as I got to the manuscript and read the first 10 lines of the play, I knew it was something that had never been published,” he said.“I knew it was a major find.”
Stephenson, an associate professor in ACU’s Department of Language and Literature, set to quickly transcribe the play so a theater could begin rehearsing it. He enlisted the help of ACU master of arts graduates Daniel Archer and Parker Gordon and undergraduate McKinley Terry. “Their help was absolutely invaluable for helping me transcribe, proofread and format the text,” Stephenson said.
Although Stephenson believes the play had been performed in its time, he can find no record of it. So The Dutch Lady’s first recorded performance was on July 6, 2017, by The Fred Theatre Company in Stratford upon Avon in England with Stephenson as dramaturg, a term for theatre professionals who deal with research and development of plays or operas.
It’s one thing to find an uncharted literary artifact, but that is only part of the excitement for Stephenson. “The play is of historical importance. It is of literary importance. It is of scholarly interest,” he explained. “It’s not just a new play that hasn’t been available before, but it’s a truly great play that people are going to be interested in reading and performing.”
The timing for Stephenson was fortuitous. He had been awarded the Culp Professorship in the Department of Language and Literature for 2017, meaning his teaching load was less so he could devote time to research. He is currently writing the play’s scholarly edition.
Given his expertise, Stephenson is often enlisted as dramaturg for plays performed in Texas and in England, and he has on occasion performed minor roles on stage.
Teaching English on the college level is “the work that I was born to do,” Stephenson said. Luckily for him, his work and passions mesh.
“Teaching is huge, and I hope that my knowledge of my field and my passion are benefiting students, but another part of the job is also important,” he said. “Among my colleagues here, so many of us are passionate scholars. We are publishing scholarly articles. We are practicing our craft. We aren’t just teaching because there isn’t anything else to do. We are sharing our craft with future scholars.”
Learn more about the Department of Language and Literature.