Research Paper on Georgian Theatre History

Paper Type:  Research paper
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1768 Words
Date:  2022-07-08

Abstract and Keywords

This introduction provides an overview of recent critical developments in the field. It notes in particular the extent to which recent scholarship has successfully overturned the long entrenched 'decline of drama' historiographic narrative, which held that little drama of any worth, with the exception of a select few works by male comic playwrights, was written or staged in Britain between the end of the Restoration period and the era of Wilde and Shaw. In place of this narrative, there is now widespread recognition of the vital activities of women writers and practitioners, of the extent to which 'high' and 'low' theatrical cultures were enmeshed at discursive and embodied levels, and of the texts and records of performance as a rich and often disturbing archive of hegemonic attitudes about class, race, and gender-attitudes which dramatic representations were actively shaping, revising, and contesting.

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Keywords: theatre history, illegitimate theatre, race, empire, decline of drama, politics, censorship, historiography, gender, classThe presences and absences embodied in sources (artefacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created...Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis.


At the opening of his contribution to the present collection, Marvin Carlson notes that the very title of his chapter-'Theorizing the Performative Event'-ascribes an importance to its three key terms 'that would have been scarcely imaginable a generation or two ago'. The same is true of this Handbook of the Georgian Theatre. Oxford University Press promote these collections as 'disciplinary maps', and more than anything else it is the simple physical fact of this weighty book that reveals just how far our field has come in recent years; comprising forty chapters and some 330,000 words, this Handbook's very existence testifies to a level of scholarly engagement with Georgian theatre and theatrical culture that would have been inconceivable just twenty-five years ago.

For far too long the period of theatre encompassed by this book was victim to the prevailing historical narrative of the 'decline of drama', a story which would have us believe that between the great comic playwrights of the Restoration and the works of Wilde and Shaw at the close of the nineteenth century British drama suffered a chronic period of malaise that was only occasionally punctuated by flashes of (male) genius which were themselves no more than exceptions that proved the rule. We do not need to look back too far to find this narrative in ascendance. As recently as 1996-notably the same year that Joseph Roach's path-breaking Cities of the Dead brought a new critical vocabulary to bear upon eighteenth-century performance-J. L. Styan's The English Stage: A History (p. 2) of Drama and Performance told the story of British theatre between the 1720s and 1830s using just three texts: John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1775).2 In Styan's survey, as in the authorized version of Georgian theatre history that it rehearses, only a few comic plays are worth remembering in a period otherwise forgettable for its gratuitous sentimentalism; there is barely a mention of tragedy or pantomime, and not a word about the many successful plays by women writers.

So entrenched was this history that it retains to this day at least a residual purchase on scholarship and university curricula, and remains in many ways the historical narrative offered by the major classical repertory theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the work published in the past twenty years has fairly thoroughly dismantled the blatant white patriarchalism and cultural snobbery of this history, freighted as it is with fraying assumptions about aesthetic autonomy and 'literariness'. As Jacky Bratton tells us, the ideological binaries (and they certainly are ideological) that undergird this historiography-high versus low culture, the artistic versus the 'popular', drama versus entertainment, text versus performance-began to crystallize in the early 1830s.3 It is an unfortunate irony that the Georgian theatre ultimately laid the foundations for the occlusion of its own complex vitality.

It is this complex vitality that we are now in the process of recuperating. I began with the words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot because they eloquently capture what scholars of long-eighteenth-century drama-indeed scholars of literature and culture in general since the emergence of cultural studies and then cultural materialism-have learned to do: to look and listen for the gaps and silences in the canons and narratives we inherit. In the case of the Georgian theatre this focus has directed attention towards the occasion of performance, the afterpieces and entr'acte entertainments, the singing and dancing, and the prologues and epilogues that occupied the same space and time as five-act tragedies or comedies; towards the materiality of performance-scenography, costume, architecture, music, and of course the body of the performer; towards the communities of practitioners-actors, playwrights, prompters, managers; and towards the economics of the stage, with a greater recognition that theatre was imbricated in the period's emergent cultures of consumption and of professionalization in powerful and complex ways.

These key lines of critical enquiry, which are of course very much braided together, have generated a very different theatre-historical narrative, one this Handbook tells at length and from a panoply of disciplinary perspectives. The contents page alone offers a clear sense of how we have sought to distil new insights and developments, and to give space to the cultural practices, objects, and voices that were once the silences within the historiography. You will not find chapters dedicated to such topics as provincial theatre, prologues and epilogues, or afterpieces. These should not be seen as omissions-far (p. 3) from it. In manifestly not positing these areas as discrete chapters it was the editors' hope that discussion of them would become a recursive feature of the Handbook and that contributors would necessarily bring methodologies to bear upon their topics that look beyond the London stage or the mainpiece drama. For instance, alongside Odai Johnson's consideration of theatrical culture in colonial America (Ch. 37), you will find a number of chapters that give attention to thriving provincial stages across the British Isles. Ultimately, both discretely and collectively, the chapters in this book paint a picture of the culture of Georgian theatre as one of significant generic fluidity and experimentation; of continual transactions between legitimate and illegitimate modes and arenas of performance (in which the very notion of 'legitimacy' was endlessly recalibrated); of networks of performance that spread far beyond London; and of professional women who played a pivotal role in every aspect of production, as playwrights, performers, and managers.

At its best, this new history of Georgian drama has not simply inverted the emphases of the narrative it has displaced. Julia Swindells is typically incisive when she warns us, in a note in her chapter here (Ch. 6), that if we recuperate the 'popular' as a discrete category of class or culture we will only 'ghettoize certain forms of cultural productivity, confirming class prejudice rather than illuminating cultural formation' (n. 3). In this light we are now moving towards an understanding of eighteenth-century culture in which 'high' and 'low' or popular cultures were deeply enmeshed at discursive and embodied levels. One need only look to the average playbill at Drury Lane or Covent Garden-where tragedies, pantomimes, ballad operas, burlettas, and dances constituted a nightly continuum of performance-to recognize that these patent playhouses were never the bastions of 'official' culture that they so anxiously claimed to be, and to understand that their institutional heralding of legitimate drama was itself a highly commercial strategy, a reflex of precisely the profit imperative for which alternative sites and modes of entertainment were routinely chastised. In much the same way, we have come to appreciate the doublethink of Romantic theatricality, as poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron-writers who fine-tuned the antitheatricalism that the critical establishment was to adopt as a default discourse-desperately sought the revenue and validation of the very public stage they decried (for more on which see the section 'Theatre and the Romantic Canon').

What is no longer in question is the cultural centrality of theatre in Georgian Britain. As Gillian Russell puts it: 'The metropolitan theatres formed a kind of Grand Central Station of eighteenth-century cultural and social networks, a place of meeting for individuals but also of ranks, circles and genders'.4 And with this acknowledgement has come a concomitant awareness of theatre beyond the confines of the playhouse. The politics of the period is now often broached precisely in terms of its theatricality, with recognition that the structures of parliamentary debate, of elections (especially in the constituency of (p. 4) Westminster), of patriotism, and of political protest, were all self-consciously performative. In eighteenth-century London, in particular, the playhouse was part of a dynamic web of performative sites that spanned the city-from the coffeehouses and taverns to the public squares and pleasure gardens, not to mention the House of Commons-and we are only just beginning to grasp the cogency of the relays and interfaces between these spaces. The theatre of politics sadly lies beyond the scope of this Handbook, but a concern with the politics of professional theatre sits at its very centre. This emphasis should be unsurprising. In the last two decades or so, critical studies and cultural histories of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century theatre have spanned a wide array of approaches, but-again against the theoretical backdrop of new historicism and cultural materialism-almost all share a commitment in some form to reading the ideologies at work in the texts, modes, occasions, and spaces of dramatic representation.

And it is in light of this political focus that the present volume takes as its historical bracket not the Georgian era proper (1714-1830) but rather the period 1737 to 1832. These dates are intended as helpful nodes of discussion rather than fixed parameters, and many of the chapters here range beyond these years. Kristina Straub (Ch. 13) and Bridget Orr (Ch. 35), for instance, necessarily look back to the close of the seventeenth century in offering genealogies of the theatrical discourses of sexuality and sentimentalism respectively, while Jim Davis (Ch. 9) contends that in theatre-historical terms the Georgian era more accurately ends in 1843, the year of the Theatre Regulation Act. Nonetheless, 1737 and 1832 are significant dates in the political history of British theatre. In 1737 the Licensing Act instituted the formal pre-performance censorship of spoken-word drama that was to remain in place until 1968, and so silenced openly oppositional and politically satirical plays of the kind written by the likes of John Gay and Henry Fielding. And 1832 is the year in which theatre became a serious enou...

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