Nineteenth Century British Drama Analysis


Shortly after King Charles II was restored to the British throne in 1660, he reopened the theaters, which had been closed at the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. Charles II granted patents (licenses that could be sold or willed to heirs like other kinds of property) to two of his courtiers, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant . The theaters that they established and those of their successors enjoyed a veritable monopoly that was not abolished until the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 .

During the eighteenth century, this monopoly had been strengthened by the Licensing Act of 1737 —a measure aimed at controlling the unlicensed playhouses that had been built during a period when the government’s enforcement of the theatrical patents had been lax. Because these unlicensed playhouses had also been hotbeds of antigovernment satire, the Licensing Act further required that all dramatic manuscripts be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship. The practical effect of this legislation was that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were two classes of theaters: the two patent houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden , and the more numerous minor (that is, nonpatent) theaters, such as the Olympic and the Adelphi. The acting of “legitimate” drama (five-act tragedies and comedies) was restricted to the patent houses, while “illegitimate” drama (melodramas, extravaganzas, burlettas, hippodramas, pantomimes, and spectacles) was the province of the “minors.” This division of theatrical labor persisted until it was abolished by the aforementioned Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. The Lord Chamberlain’s censorship powers, however, remained in force until 1968.

Theater Architecture

The rather intimate eighteenth century theater auditorium had been divided into pit, box, and gallery. The pit, at ground level, consisted of rows of backless benches; the rowdier elements of the audience tended to congregate there. One level up, around the sides of the theater, were the boxes—the location preferred by the fashionable. At the upper level were one or more galleries: The first gallery attracted the middle classes, while the second was often frequented by servants and apprentices.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of London had grown substantially, increasing the number of potential theatergoers, especially among the working classes. In 1792 and 1793, Covent Garden’s seating capacity was increased to three thousand, while in 1794 Drury Lane’s was increased to thirty-six hundred. In 1828, the King’s Theatre converted some of the pit benches into seats with backs. The Haymarket followed suit in 1843, replacing these primitive “stalls” with upholstered seats in 1863. At first, only a few rows of pit benches were removed, but by the 1880’s the pit had vanished entirely in favor of the stalls. With the stalls came the practice of reserved seating.

The boxes were retained except for those at the pit level, which were removed to allow expansion of the pit and subsequently of the stalls. The number of galleries was increased from one or two to as many as four or five. New methods of theater design eventually removed the pillars dividing various sections of the galleries, thus turning them into modern balconies.

After 1860, there was a tendency to reduce theater size. The Criterion Theatre, for example, built in 1874, seated 660, and few theaters remained with a seating capacity above fifteen hundred. Smaller theaters meant fewer galleries, or balconies, so the boxes were also converted to balconies and renamed the Dress Circle. What had been the first gallery was renamed the Upper Circle, while the second gallery simply remained the Gallery. The customary horseshoe-shaped auditorium was gradually replaced by a fan-shaped one that afforded better sightlines for the new staging techniques that were being developed.

The Stage and Stagecraft

The nineteenth century theater had inherited from its eighteenth century predecessor a shallow stage framed by a large proscenium arch. Jutting out from this arch was a large apron, on which most of the acting was done, the shallow backstage being reserved for scenery, which was changed by the pushing and pulling of painted flats and wings along wooden grooves. On either side of the proscenium arch were the proscenium doors, used for entrances and exits. (Performers normally did not enter or exit through the wings or through any other part of the scenery.)

Throughout most of the eighteenth century, scenery, though sometimes spectacular, was used primarily to suggest a general atmosphere. Under the influence of the Romantics, the nineteenth century theater began to use scenery to suggest particular places—often in minute detail. For example, when Drury Lane was enlarged in 1794, the dimensions of its stage measured eighty-five feet wide by ninety-two feet deep—sufficient to allow use of a remarkably detailed Gothic-cathedral set. Indeed, the theater’s concern with architectural accuracy even went so far as the consulting of an archaeologist, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whom Sir Henry Irving hired to design scenery for his productions of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610) in 1896 and Coriolanus (pr. c. 1607-1608) in 1901.

The larger auditoriums and stages also allowed theater managers to satisfy a growing...

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The illusion of reality was further enhanced by the development of new stage-lighting techniques. The eighteenth century theater had used candles and oil lamps. Varying the lighting levels, either onstage or in the auditorium, was nearly impossible. Limelight , invented by Thomas Drummond in 1816, used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, which heated a column of lime until it glowed. Covered with a lens, this light acted much like a spotlight and was also used for special effects. Gaslights became popular in the 1840’s, making it possible to control lighting intensity better than ever before. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre was totally illuminated by a new power source, electricity, and by 1900 almost all the London theaters had followed suit. With both gas and electricity, the lighting levels in the auditorium could also be controlled, so that the lights could be dimmed during performances, if the manager desired.

The use of the curtain also changed during the nineteenth century. It had been customary to raise the curtain at the beginning of a play and not to lower it until the end. Scene changes were accomplished in full view of the audience. Thus, the curtain usually was not used to mask scene changes or indicate the end of an act. As the penchant for the illusion of reality grew stronger, theater managers believed that such scene changes detracted from the effect they desired and so began to use the curtain to hide the process and to preserve the illusion.

This illusion was further enhanced by the use of three-rather than two-dimensional scenery. The old grooves eventually disappeared as newer methods of setting up and removing scenery were developed. Actors thus could make the most integrated use of scenery possible.

Actors, Managers, and Playwrights

Although nineteenth century actors used a wide variety of techniques, three important styles can be readily identified. The first is the classic style, popularized by John Philip Kemble and Sarah Kemble Siddons . This style demanded that an actor catch the essence of a character and express it with dignity, grace, declamation, and stately poses. Naturalness resided in the catching, rather than in the expressing, of this essence. The art of the actor was not to be concealed but rather to be revealed and admired.

The second style, the Romantic, sought naturalness through emphasizing a character’s passions—a stark contrast to the reasonableness of the classic style’s interpretation. Actors achieved their effects chiefly through exaggeration of, and sometimes through rapid changes among, the various emotions they sought to portray. Edmund Kean helped to establish this style, though his critics judged both his acting and his personality to be somewhat erratic.

The realistic style was encouraged by Charles Fechter. Fechter, an actor, managed successively the Princess’s Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre, both in London. His emphasis on the box set and his interest in creating an illusion of reality led him to demand that his actors move and speak more like persons in everyday life. Fechter’s enthusiasm for this style was not limited to contemporary drama but was extended to the classics as well.

Actor-managers such as Fechter were not uncommon. For example, in 1788, Kemble succeeded Richard Brinsley Sheridan as manager of Drury Lane before moving to Covent Garden in 1803. One of the best-known managers was William Charles Macready . An actor who combined the best of the classic and Romantic styles (with a touch of realism thrown in), Macready was dissatisfied with current theatrical practices and saw managing as a way to effect reforms. He managed Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839 and Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843. Macready emphasized the importance of rehearsals, which had previously been perfunctory—the star often not bothering about them in order to conserve strength for the actual performance. Furthermore, he insisted on dictating where his actors were to stand instead of allowing them to choose the positions that were personally most advantageous. All in all, Macready strove for a unified effect that also extended to his sets and costumes, which were designed with great concern for their historical accuracy.

Among Macready’s acting company was Samuel Phelps, who, as eventual manager of the run-down Sadler’s Wells Theatre, attracted large audiences by offering a bill consisting almost exclusively of poetic drama. Phelps acted in his own productions and, like Macready, took great pains to achieve historical accuracy. In 1862, he left Sadler’s Wells to tour, but later in the decade his productions of Shakespeare’s plays revived the sagging fortunes of Drury Lane.

Madame Vestris ’s work at the Olympic has already been mentioned, especially her use of the box set and her insistence on more realistic costuming for the “minor” drama. She herself was famous for her roles in light comedy. Her second husband, Charles Mathews, was well known for the same types of roles. (Her first husband, Armand Vestris, had been a dancer.) Vestris and Mathews combined their managerial talents, first at Covent Garden, from 1839 to 1842, and then at the Lyceum, from 1847 to 1856.

One of the most influential actor-managers was Charles Kean, son of the more famous Edmund Kean. Never the actor his father was, Charles gave up acting in favor of managing the Princess’s Theatre in 1850. He was assisted by his wife and leading lady, Ellen Tree. He was also Master of the Revels—an appointment granted him by Queen Victoria. Kean managed to attract a fashionable audience by setting his curtain time and arranging his theatrical bill to cater to upper-class tastes. He presented chiefly Shakespeare and melodramas, using long runs to offset the cost of his productions, which had escalated in response to Kean’s demands for historical accuracy.

John Baldwin Buckstone was a comedian-turned-manager of the Haymarket from 1853 to 1876. He was...

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The Business of Playwriting

The playwrights who wrote for the nineteenth century theater faced substantial challenges. They had to gain the attention of audiences sometimes more intent on being seen than on seeing the entertainment: While plays were being performed, theater patrons chatted socially, arranged an assignation or two, commented on the performance, often with hisses and catcalls, and purchased refreshments from vendors. Occasionally there were riots. Furthermore, the managerial practice of allowing people to enter the theater after the performance was half over for half price created further disturbances. The gradual removal of the pit and the attracting of a better-educated, more restrained audience produced a group of theatergoers who by the end...

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, theaters presented varied bills that usually lasted five or six hours and might include two full-length plays and several other entertainments. These productions began between six and six-thirty in the evening and ended between one and two in the morning. Madame Vestris at the Olympic Theatre reduced the number of pieces offered, so that her theater let out by eleven o’clock. Charles Kean provided only a short curtain raiser and main play. By the end of the century, most managers had eliminated even the curtain raiser, presenting only the main play.

Variety was certainly not lacking among the types of nineteenth century plays. There were the Romantic verse drama, the...

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The Romantics

The Romantic dramatists emphasized the primacy of passion over reason. Joanna Baillie, for example, was noted for writing plays in which a single passion predominated. Her Plays of the Passions, published between 1798 and 1812, filled three volumes. Percy Bysshe Shelley , in his preface to The Cenci (pb. 1819), even went so far as to assert that “the highest moral purpose . . . of the drama, is the teaching of the human heart.” Shelley’s play, however, had a little too much passion. Count Cenci’s thoroughgoing dedication to evil and his incest with his daughter Beatrice kept the play off the boards until it was finally produced by the Shelley Society in 1886.

Both heroes and villains fascinated...

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The melodrama shared many elements with the Romantic verse drama, chiefly its emphasis on emotion, its archvillains, its heroes, and its sensationalism. The mélodrame originated in France. Originally, the term simply meant a three-act play accompanied by music. Such an arrangement was perfectly suited to nineteenth century British theatrical conditions. Because the minor theaters were not allowed to produce five-act plays and because their productions had to contain a specified number of songs, the melodramatic form was ideal. In fact, desirable five-act plays were often simply redivided and the requisite music added. Even Othello was not immune from this treatment. As the century progressed, however, the amount...

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Problem Plays

Refinements of the melodrama eventually resulted in the social problem play . As the term suggests, a social problem was presented, with varying degrees of realism. The playwright might suggest a resolution or leave the question open. Thomas William Robertson wrote a series of such plays, produced by the Bancrofts and each sporting one-word titles and dealing with a particular social problem: Society (pr. 1865), Play (pr. 1868), Home (pr. 1869), School (pr. 1869), War (pr. 1871), and Caste (pr. 1867). The latter is perhaps his best-known work; it deals with the complications of marrying above or beneath one’s station. Limited movement between classes is finally condoned, while...

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Well-made Plays

Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones further developed the social problem play, taking advantage of the conventions of the well-made play in the process. The well-made play was originally a French product—the pièce bien faite. It gained prominence through the numerous plays of Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, Eugène Labiche, and Georges Feydeau. Its basic formula is a well-told story, full of complications and coincidences and designed to hold the audience’s attention from moment to moment. All in all, this type of play was blatantly theatrical, its artifices often barely concealed or sometimes not concealed at all.

In their use of the conventions of the well-made play, Pinero and Jones attempted to achieve...

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Comedies of Manners

The eighteenth century comedy of manners continued into the nineteenth century, which elevated the comedy’s moral tone by banishing much of the witty sexual innuendo that had long characterized the genre. The setting is usually the drawing room, in which the social games being played are exposed for the audience’s amusement as well as for its admiration, the latter being reserved for characters who can best play the game. Boucicault’s London Assurance (pr. 1841) illustrates the type. Sir Harcourt Courtly is the ridiculous superannuated beau; his son Charles, the rakish but reformable man-about-town; and Grace Harkaway, the witty, sprightly young woman whom Charles contrives to win. The drawing room of Squire...

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Burlettas and Burlesques

The Savoy operas were among the most popular entertainments of their era. The burletta was equally popular. It, too, was a form of comic opera, only it consisted of a play of no more than three acts with at least five songs interspersed with the dialogue. This form was especially suited to the needs of the minor theaters and offered them a chance to adapt regular plays to fit the requirements of the Licensing Act. The burlesque , on the other hand, was a play that treated a serious subject humorously. (It did not feature strippers and off-color humor, as the terms’ later usage, particularly in the United States, came to suggest.) The extravaganza relied on spectacle and whimsy to tell a story—often an adaptation of a fairy...

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Nineteenth century audiences were not so very different from either their predecessors or their successors. They sought to escape from their everyday lives by going to the theater, while at the same time they enjoyed seeing themselves portrayed onstage. Despite the growing pressure toward realism, these audiences were keenly aware of theatrical artifice—so much so, in fact, that writers who considered the text of their plays to be more important than their staging had a difficult time succeeding in the theater. Although these audiences were often sentimental and sententious, they were surprisingly responsive to experimentation, even at the expense of the shocking of their sensibilities.

To see nineteenth century...

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Bratton, J. S., Breandan Gregory, Michael Pickering, et al. Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Analyzes the way in which British drama reflected and reinforced British imperialism.

Burroughs, Catherine. Women in British Romantic Theater: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Eleven essays by leading scholars examine the contribution of women playwrights, actors, translators, critics, and managers who worked in British theater during the Romantic period.

Hoagwood, Terence Allan, and Daniel P....

(The entire section is 352 words.)