Thomas Hailes Lacy’s edition of Augustin Daly’s drama Under the Gaslight (1867) offers a key insight into the relationship between sensationalism and the transatlantic marketplace created by the specific conditions in copyright law. Given Lacy’s reputation as the leading British theatrical publisher of accessible, practical performance texts, his reprint of Daly’s pivotal drama was partly a response to a market demand for the first sensation drama to stage what Michael Booth describes as one of the definitive sensation scenes in which the hero is rescued from the path of an oncoming train (Booth 170). However, Lacy’s preface also reveals a complex set of political and personal impulses behind this reprint, indicating the creative and legal tensions that underpinned the transatlantic trade in texts. Entering into the contemporary debate on how copyright protection could defend what Claudia Stokes terms “literary nationalism,” Lacy’s defense of the American right to gain income from dramatic adaptations and original works is an interesting counterpoint to Charles Dickens’s public declaration of American
piracy in his reading tour of 1867.1 Lacy’s opening apology for effectively stealing the royalties from Daly and the performance rights from his publisher Wemyss is a calculated attempt to reconstruct himself as an agitator in the copyright debate of the 1860s. Problematically positioning America outside the protection afforded by English colonization, Lacy’s emotive rhetoric shifts from a paternalistic tone to personal outrage unwittingly revealing publishing practices that manipulated or even circumvented existing copyright law altogether. Lacy’s self-styled role as a champion for copyright legislation was partly upheld by his inclusion of Under the Gaslight in later editions of The Amateur’s Guide as a play not subject to performance fees. Having waived the rights to potential performance revenue, his public refusal to appropriate the play into his vast portfolio of over a thousand plays by the late 1860s suggests another motive for publication. What really appears to be at stake in this preface’s attack on transatlantic trade in dramatic piracy is the breach of trust by Lacy’s New York agent, Samuel French in targeting a developing market for amateur and private theater products.