The history of the theatre from the late sixteenth to late in the nineteenth century is usually framed around dominant periods of national dramatic literatures: theatre of the Spanish golden age; Shakespeare and his contemporaries; the classic theatre of France; the comedy of manners of the English Restoration; Weimar and the golden age of German theatre. Given the longevity, authenticity and the archaeological value of the printed play text, this framing is understandable and inevitable. Nevertheless, these histories with their focus upon ‘great works’ have the effect of identifying the written and spoken word as both the prime instigator and the most important archival souvenir of theatre. Inevitably such theatre histories have shaped our contemporary perception: what we consider to be ‘good’ dramatic literature. For example, beyond the small output of R. B. Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, the British eighteenth-century theatre produced few plays that are today considered to be ‘good’ dramatic literature, and yet in terms of audience popularity, famous actors and scenic developments, the period clearly produced great theatre. Likewise, during the period c. 1830–c. 1880, theatre throughout Europe was a hugely popular form that responded fully and widely to social and political events, and yet, in marked contrast to opera, few plays from the period have entered the canon of dramatic literature. There appear, therefore, to be distinctive periods of European theatre history when the co-existence of ‘great’ dramatic literature with ‘great’ theatre did not occur. It would therefore seem to be important to treat with caution modern judgements about what is great dramatic literature and to inflect the assumption that ‘great plays’ are a necessary ingredient of great theatre. Whilst dramatic literature is of considerable importance, it should serve as only one approach to the making of histories of theatre. This essay aims to use the framing of the baroque and the romantic in order to make a narrative of theatre as a spatial and visual phenomenon from the late sixteenth century to the modernist revolt against romantic and material realism, which began in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
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