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The Cambridge History of British Theatre
  • Volume 2: 1660 to 1895
  • Edited by Joseph Donohue, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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    The Cambridge History of British Theatre
    • Online ISBN: 9781139054065
    • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687
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Book description

Volume 2 of The Cambridge History of British Theatre begins in 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II to the throne and the reestablishment of the professional theatre, interdicted since 1642, and follows the far-reaching development of the form over two centuries and more to 1895. Descriptions of the theatres, actors and actresses, acting companies, dramatists and dramatic genres over the period are augmented by accounts of the audiences, politics and morality, scenography, provincial theatre, theatrical legislation, the long-drawn-out competition of major and minor theatres, and the ultimate revocation of the theatrical monopoly of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, initiating a new era. Chapters on two representative years, 1776 and 1895, are complemented by chapters on two phenomenal productions, The Beggar's Opera and The Bells, as well as by studies of popular theatre, including music hall, sexuality on the Victorian stage and other social and cultural contexts.

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'… a set that will stand as the most valuable resource on British theater for some time to come. Essential.'

Source: Choice

'… exceptional … destined to prove one of the most erudite, and yet accessible, resources for theatre scholars and students as well as serious theatre practitioners … must be hailed as perhaps the most carefully compiled and comprehensively covered history ever attempted … I know of no library that has any other theatre history (focusing exclusively on British Theatre) on its shelves to challenge this great new work's pole position in the theatre reference stakes … All in all a great work.'

Source: Amateur Stage

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  • 1 - Introduction: the theatre from 1660 to 1800
    pp 1-52
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.002
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The theatre of the English post-Restoration seems more remote to people than the theatre of Shakespeare, Jonson and Webster. A greater leap of historical imagination is required to understand the post-Restoration theatre for what it is and to measure its considerable aesthetic and cultural distance back from people's own time. The theatres in London devoted to legitimate drama open at the century's end numbered only three in all, and were occupied by only two companies: the United Company, performing at Drury Lane and Dorset Garden, and the breakaway company headed by the long-lived Betterton at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The mid-1770s marks the appearance of a brilliant new writer of stage comedy, the young Irish wit, ambitious political genius and sometime theatrical manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The twenty-six editions published in 1799 of Sheridan's Pizarro indicate how widespread was the attraction, to some minds so dangerous, of foreign ways of thinking.
  • 2 - Theatres and repertory
    pp 53-70
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.003
  • View abstract
    Summary
    An historian of English drama in the period 1660-1776 needs to start by admitting that sequential analysis of new plays by themselves can only yield a very partial picture. This chapter considers the period that is tidily bounded at the outset by the restoration of the theatres by Charles II when he returned from exile in 1660. When the King's Company reopened for business in the autumn of 1660, it did so at the Vere Street Theatre, formerly Gibbons's Tennis Court. A major part of what attracted audiences to the theatre was favourite performers. Few serious plays after 1682 have received much notice, leaving critics to contrast Restoration comedy with the sentimental comedy that allegedly flooded the stage after 1700. Several newplays continued to be romantic tragi-comedies of a fairly sedate sort. The best-known plays of the sixties and seventies are those of Goldsmith and Sheridan. Shakespeare's growing eminence had a deleterious effect on the production of new plays.
  • 3 - Theatre and the female presence
    pp 71-89
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.004
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Women had begun performing in public playhouses, and before long they displaced the young men who had been trained, in the Elizabethan tradition, to play women's roles. Plays by aristocratic women were likely read aloud, perhaps even given amateur performance, in private households. Scanty evidence for the Elizabethan period indicates that women of all social classes attended public performances at the more elite indoor playhouses and the large outdoor theatres. Actresses had ceased being a novelty, but their bodies and their sexuality continued to claim attention. Female characters in male dress, originally performed by boy actors, abounded in the Elizabethan-Jacobean plays that were the mainstays of the early Restoration repertory. The drawing power of popular actresses did not translate into economic parity with actors. Throughout the entire period of 1660 to 1776, female playwrights never gained a solid foothold, nor were their numbers great. After 1660 there would always be a demand for actresses.
  • 4 - Theatre, politics and morality
    pp 90-107
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.005
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Earl of Orrery's play, The History of Henry the Fifth, portrays the restoration of royal authority, and so close was the relationship between theatre and politics that Charles II loaned garments from his coronation. Like tragi-comedy, early Carolean comedy celebrates the re-emergence of a natural social hierarchy that has been unnaturally inverted: parvenus fall, and the gentry return. Tragi-comedies about the Restoration continued until the early 1670s, sometimes with comic and sexually adventurous subplots, but the court frivolity that energized comedywas more soberly treated in completely serious drama. Shadwell expands Shakespeare's portrayal of Athenian politics, staging a restoration of a kind very different from that celebrated in earlier Carolean plays: the reinstatement of democracy after the oligarchy of the Four Hundred Tyrants in 411 BC. Shadwell includes attacks on the pride and corruption of the aristocracy, and he provides a remarkable rejection of patriarchal sexual morality by contrasting a vicious virgin with an exemplary fallen woman.
  • 5 - Theatre companies and regulation
    pp 108-125
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.006
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The production of plays during post-1660 was fundamentally affected by the duopoly established by royal command in 1660 and by the regulatory apparatus that controlled theatre companies and imposed censorship. The establishment of patent companies tended to remove power from the hands of the actors. Sir William Davenant had been knighted by Charles I for services on the field of battle and held an existing theatre patent, granted to him in 1639. Relegitimized in 1660, his performers were recognized as the Duke's Company, patronized by the Duke of York. The principal gain to the Duke's Company was not the additional actors or even lack of competition, but rather the right to perform the vast stock of pre-1642 King's Company plays, plus a few good new ones, such as those of Wycherley and Dryden. The fundamental mediocrity of English drama after 1737 may be attributed directly to the suppression of competition and multiple venues imposed by the Licensing Act.
  • 6 - The Beggar’s Opera A case study
    pp 126-144
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.007
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In May 1728 the first imitation of The Beggar's Opera appeared at the Little Haymarket Theatre, Thomas Cooke and John Mottley's ballad opera Penelope, but ran only three nights. The Opera may serve as a case study, because its success was not confined to the eighteenth century: in the twentieth century performances on stage and in film have appeared and are appearing all over the world. Its success was a mixed product of John Gay's own experience in writing for the theatre, his association with Swift, Pope and the other satirists of the Scriblerus Club, the acting companies' increasing professionalization, an ever-growing interest in the musical theatre on the part of London audiences, and the growth and developing sophistication of metropolitan London. Beggar's Holiday joins the twentieth-century versions of The Beggar's Opera as testimony to the continuing intellectual and dramatic vitality of the work which in 1728 made 'Gay rich and Rich gay'.
  • 7 - Garrick at Drury Lane, 1747–1776
    pp 145-164
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.008
  • View abstract
    Summary
    David Garrick had not just introduced a new version of a favourite role by so doing. He had begun the process of creating a new way of acting. According to the acting theory of Garrick's day, a performer seeks to transmit passions, such as joy, grief and anger, fear, pity and scorn, jealousy, hatred, wonder and love, to an auditor. Garrick certainly knew the conventional rhetorical style of acting. As manager of Drury Lane, one of only two theatres, in London licensed to present plays from September through May or to produce newplays at any time, Garrick had important responsibilities for people and for entertainment. Garrick's performing choices reflect the flavour and variety of the mainpiece repertory as a whole. The rise of sentimentalism fairly characterizes the Garrick era, but so too does the recovery of Shakespeare, whose plays had been not so much lost as variously neglected, mined or adapted to transient tastes.
  • 8 - Theatre outside London, 1660–1775
    pp 165-182
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.009
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In Ireland the post-Restoration theatre operated under conditions similar to those of the London patent houses, which is under the protection and control of a royal patent granted in 1661. In Scotland the political and social conditions after the Restoration were considerably less favourable for the theatre than in either Ireland or England. From 1660 to 1775 the provincial theatre in England developed from a somewhat haphazard enterprise by ad hoc groups of itinerant players, performing mainly at inns and local fairs, to a more firmly based operation run by London summer companies and local circuit companies playing in purpose-built theatres. This expansion of the English provincial theatre was gradual but steady, and it withstood both local Puritan objections and the restrictions imposed by the Licensing Act of 1737. Although the London summer companies were clearly an important factor in promoting the drama outside the capital, the locally based circuit companies were the main providers of theatre.
  • 9 - 1776 A critical year in perspective
    pp 183-198
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.010
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The year 1776 was one of crises, doldrums, successes, failures, endings, and beginnings in British theatres. A stranger visiting London in June 1776 might have thought that the serious threat to the even tenor of English ways was not some national confrontation, but rather the retirement of the century's greatest theatre personality David Garrick. Garrick's earliest biographer said that Garrick's 'easy and familiar yet forcible style' baffled critics who had been accustomed to 'an elevation of the voice, with a sudden mechanical depression of its tones'. His farewell speech was an opportunity for him to review his considerable accomplishments in the thirty-four years he had been in the business. This chapter examines what Garrick was leaving, how it worked and what the prospects were. Garrick had done his job well that there have been no cause for alarm, through Shrewd management and his own charisma he had made Drury Lane the premier theatre in England and the envy of Europe.
  • 10 - The theatrical revolution, 1776–1843
    pp 199-216
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.011
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The late eighteenth century witnessed a revolution both in dramatic genres and in theatrical institutions. The Licensing Act of 1737 had confirmed in law the patent theatres' monopoly over the production of drama in London, as well as establishing a system for censoring the texts of all new plays to be performed at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The minor theatres transformed London's dramatic culture in a number of ways. The minor theatres were only licensed to perform singing, dancing and dumbshow entertainments. The French Revolution and Britain's war against Napoleon helped to establish minor theatres such as Sadler's Wells, the Royal Circus and Astley's Amphitheatre as the dramatic newsreels of the metropolis. During the early nineteenth century, tragedy and comedy, the legitimate dramatic genres of eighteenth-century culture, began to be displaced by illegitimate forms such as burletta, extravaganza, pantomime and melodrama.
  • 11 - Introduction: the theatre from 1800 to 1895
    pp 217-271
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.012
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Over the long period beginning with the restoration of King Charles II, the iron grip of the patent theatres on spoken-word performance had seriously impeded but not defeated the growth of theatres down through the late eighteenth century. The English stage has always been a showplace for brilliant actors and a magnet for their audiences. The period between 1843 and 1865 was a time when pre-eminent virtuosity, along with more broadly based genuine competence, distinguished the acting. The bearer of comparable talents for pleasing the eye and ear, it was for his innovations as a Shakespearean producer and tragic actor that Phelps was most well known during his long lifetime. The three most significant changes observable in the last three decades (1865 to 1895) are the demise of the old repertory company in the face of the long-running play, the return to the theatre of a more polite and affluent audience and another remarkable spate of theatre building.
  • 12 - Presence, personality and physicality: actors and their repertoires, 1776–1895
    pp 272-291
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.013
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In the early nineteenth century many actors specialized in the genre, demonstrating extraordinary physical and acrobatic agility. Whilst pantomime and melodrama gave scope to physical acting, legitimate acting also flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. Henry Irving dominated the British stage during the late nineteenth century, especially through his management of the Lyceum Theatre from 1878. Up until the 1830s the most successful low comedians had been associated with Covent Garden or Drury Lane in the winter and with the Haymarket in the summer. The presence of the performer proved a significant factor in nineteenth-century theatrical experience. In any discussion of comic performance, the light comedian raises issues connected not so much with personality and physical performance as with the distinctions between the natural and the artificial. By the 1870s there was a feeling that the influence of French acting and drama had resulted in a more natural, and for some critics, less exciting, style of acting.
  • 13 - Theatres, their architecture and their audiences
    pp 292-308
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.014
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter examines whether the dramatist lead the audience into new realms of experience, or are the dramatist and all who contribute to the fictional realization on stage responding to felt preferences and exigencies generated by those who fill the auditorium. In the long period down to 1881, when Richard D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theatre, the first to be lighted entirely by electricity, was built in the Strand and the rheostat began to be used to dim the house lights, auditoriums had remained illuminated throughout the performance. Webb's revolutionary approach to mounting a theatre piece effects the advent of Italianate perspective scenery on the professional English stage. Well over a century later, in 1790, on the eve of the most formative changes in theatre architecture since the Restoration, the architect George Saunders codified his unorthodox views in a plan for an ideal theatre.
  • 14 - Stage design from Loutherbourg to Poel
    pp 309-330
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.015
  • View abstract
    Summary
    On 21 February 1896, in the Great Hall of the Polytechnic Institution at 309 Regent Street, London, the first cinema audience in Britain saw a moving picture show, the Cinématographe, of the films ofAugust and Louis Lumiere. In some ways, this event might be seen as the achievement of a project begun some 125 years beforehand by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg at Drury Lane. Loutherbourg's project was to present 'realistic' and pictorial images of places and events that his audience would recognize as authentic and topographically accurate. The work of William Capon, illustrative of several of these themes, not only expanded on the work of Loutherbourg but also developed the foundation on which nineteenth-century managers were to build their image of a carefully studied, educational and respectable theatre. Dismay over contemporary scenography is reflected in William Poel's study of early English staging and in Craig's desire for a theatre created by means of the skills of the theatre artist.
  • 15 - Theatre and mid-Victorian society, 1851–1870
    pp 331-351
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.016
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter explores how the theatre made a bid for respectability, that most cherished of nineteenth-century virtues. It focuses the mid-Victorian theatre both embraced and resisted the dominant middle-class goal of respectability, for the theatre as a cultural institution, for the acting profession and even for the social standing of theatre audiences. The chapter discusses theatre and society, what happened off stage, whether in the pit, the press or Parliament, is just as significant as what happened on stage. It reviews various 'internal' constraints on theatrical respectability. The great comic genres of the Victorian theatre, burlesque, pantomime, extravaganza and farce, never respected the decorum and etiquette of tragedy. The chapter also examines how domestic comedies of the 1860s did not reject, but rather modified contemporary dramatic and theatrical conventions, amounting to what George Bernard Shaw, in 1897, referredtoasthe 'tiny' theatrical revolution brought about by Tom Robertson.
  • 16 - Gendering Victorian theatre
    pp 352-368
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.017
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Gendering Victorian theatre was uniquely alluring to women of the Victorian period. In Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the title character emphasizes the 'glamour' and 'mystery' of the actress Sybil Vane, her erotic and aesthetic appeal to him, a man. Because an actress deformed real femininity as understood by most Victorians, they found it difficult to reconcile her with the traditional roles of a woman as wife and mother. Therefore the success of a woman in theatrical work could plausibly be attributed to her being single nature. Adelaide Ristori, in her autobiography, reflects on the connections between her work as an actress, her volatile temperament and mental illness. A few women became managers of theatres in spite of the odds against them, and a few wrote plays, especially in the last two decades of the nineteenth century when the number of theatres increased significantly.
  • 17 - Popular entertainment, 1776–1895
    pp 369-387
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.018
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The chapter concerns with the growth, increasing specialization and impact of commercial amusements in general and the music hall, the most dynamic and influential element of the nineteenth-century popular stage, in particular. In the late eighteenth century commercial popular entertainment was most accessible to the 30 per cent of the population that lived in towns, London, housing 8 per cent of Britain's population in 1801, offering the greatest riches. The music hall was both the most significant of the new specialized entertainment forms of the nineteenth century, a fertile source of new performance genres and styles that penetrated deep into the wider Victorian popular culture, and the junction point of virtually all previous genres of popular amusement. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the theatre, from London patent house to modest travelling booth, was obviously the central performance-based form of popular entertainment.
  • 18 - The Bells: a case study A ‘bare-ribbed skeleton’ in a chest
    pp 388-404
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.019
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The Bells invites consideration as a 'case study' because it is one of the few nineteenth-century plays where so many elements of its production and reception by the public in Britain and abroad survive. Between 1871 and 1905 The Bells was seen by audiences in Britain and North America, receiving critical reviews by a range of British, American and Canadian journalists. This chapter attempts to account for the success of The Bells, querying its intimate association with Henry Irving, asking whether any Victorian actor but Irving might have enjoyed comparable success in the role of Mathias and examining the cultural and social ethos of the nineteenth century for the long success of the play and Irving's parallel triumph in different but significantly related roles. Although The Bells requires both a vision and a dream episode, there is little remarkable in the stage technology required for The Bell's illusions.
  • 19 - The new drama and the old theatre
    pp 405-421
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.020
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The conventional wisdom of hindsight, especially when orchestrated by George Bernard Shaw, tends to blame the leaders of the late Victorian stage for blocking the access of socially and artistically alert 'new' plays. As the century drew to its close by no means all of London's theatres were managed by actors. When Edgar Degas's grim portrait of addiction, L'Absinthe, was exhibited in London in 1892, it was greeted with much the same stream of abusive adjectives as greeted Ibsen's Ghosts: vulgar, boozy, sottish, loathsome, revolting, ugly, besotted, degraded, and repulsive. Each of the three plays that Shaw later published under the collective title of Plays Unpleasant was intended to advance the Ibsenite cause. The prosperity of British theatres in the late nineteenth century made them resistant to any change that was more than cosmetic. The theatre and the drama are to some extent opposed is common knowledge to all playwrights.
  • 20 - 1895 A critical year in perspective
    pp 422-439
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521650687.021
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The theatrical year 1895 would have been characterized by Lady Bracknell, its most enduring contribution, as crowded with both incident and premature experience. The most important and influential theatre occurrence of 1895, it would have to be the appointment of Bernard Shaw as drama critic of the Saturday Review. Shaw, as critic, was determined that wearing both playwright's and reviewer's caps would not compromise his integrity. He was prepared to push a social and aesthetic agenda in which he passionately believed, regardless of whether he was fair to individual plays, playwrights or performers. Central to Shaw's critique of the theatre in 1895 was the accusation that London's commercial stage was unwilling or unable to deal with issues of enduring importance. In part this was the legacy of a curious but effective system of censorship that placed in the hands of an Examiner of Plays absolute power over what English audiences could or could not see.
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