And now I suppose I have to think of an example, and the old brain is decidedly slow this morning. But, er... pause for thought...
How about Lesbia Brandon. Not a stage play, of course, but the unfinished novel by the nineteenth-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a novel which so terrified his lawyer (with its incestuous theme, cross-dressing and so forth) that he pretended to lose several chapters, to discourage Algernon from ever finishing it and from trying to get it published.
Other examples, roughly speaking, would include Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty and William Gibson's Two for the See-Saw. Also my own stage play Artists and Models.
When we come to novels I know of no specific theory of titles as such. But now, thanks to Vince Vawter, who gave me the link, I can point you to some research into the titles of bestsellers which may, conceivably, lead you to fame and fortune. Or then again, perhaps not.
The research was evidently commissioned by Lulu.com, an outfit which will print your book for you in any one of a variety of formats. And, since they are in the business of encouraging writers to publish their books through the Lulu facilities, Lulu decided that it would be appropriate to offer some advice on titles which would maximise sales. Here's what Lulu says:
Now, no wish to be unnecessarily rude about something which is little better than a bit of fun, but the last sentence is clearly nonsense; it will seriously embarrass Dr Winkler if he ever sees it. The Lulu web site itself says that using the Titlescorer software will deliver a result somewhere between 9% and 83%, which would suggest that almost one book in ten gets to the top of the NYT bestseller lists; at a minimum.
The Lulu Titlescorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years' worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.
We commissioned a research team to analyse the title of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List during the half-century from 1955 to 2004 and then compare them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors.
The team, lead [sic] by British statistician Dr. Atai Winkler, then used the data gathered from a total of some 700 titles to create this "Lulu Titlescorer" a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.
The fruit of this work is presented here, in the form of the Lulu Titlescorer: a program that you can use to gauge the chances that your own title will deliver you a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.
Furthermore, Lulu seems to have leapt to the absurd conclusion that it is titles alone which determine bestseller status. So, it's all nonsense, as I say. However, the Titlescorer might conceivably give you a few leads as to whether you're on the right track or not.
Just for fun, I ran a few of my own titles through the machine. This year's novel, which you will hear much more about soon, is entitled How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous. This, Lulu reckons, has a 10.2% chance of success. My earlier novel, Passionate Affairs, written under the name Anne Moore, had a 41.4% chance in theory, but in practice didn't make it.
And, of course, you can amuse yourself by passing some famous books through the machine and seeing what it produces. The Historian shares my 10.2%, and Fleshmarket Close ditto at 41.4%.
From which you learn that these apparently precise figures of 10.2% and 41.4% are not precise at all.
Oh well. It's quite amusing for ten minutes.
Before I forget: There was a time, some thirty years or so ago, when Robert Ludlum was having a run of successes such as The Matlock Paper, The Prometheus Deception, and so forth. This led to a whole rash of books with similar titles. But it got to the point where my then agent said to me, 'For God's sake don't give me a book with a title that goes The Adjective Noun. The market's sick of them.' Even though the Lulu Titlescorer rates them at 35.9%.