Views of authorship have ranged in the past century from antipathy to adulation, from the author as irresponsible Bohemian to the writer as hero, a larger-than-life rebel against the hypocrisies and false values of the age. Lately, under the influence of deconstruction and other poststructuralist theories, the author has been effaced, rendered irrelevant in deference to the almighty “text.” Although the general public may treat the author of the past as a demigod and the author of the present as a celebrity, radical criticism tends to regard him or her as incidental at best.
Attempting to steer a more moderate and sensible course between these extremes are a growing number of literary historians and critics who regard the author as a professional, a craftsperson working with words and imagination to fashion a saleable artifact—a novel, story, poem, or play that will earn money in the marketplace. This branch of literary history, pioneered by William Charvat almost fifty years ago, has slowly become a recognized area of inquiry in which market forces are considered to be as relevant to an author’s productions as his or her aesthetic theory, religious views, political ideology, or personal experiences. Most of this scholarship has been focused on the American novel, but in the past few years, British scholars have produced a number of economic studies of writers ranging from William Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence.
Considering that the theater is the most obviously commercial of all the literary media forms and that theater histories generally include at least some mention of the relationship between art and commerce, it is perhaps surprising that there has been no detailed history of the rise of the professional playwright until now. Nevertheless, this is the first book to examine the working conditions of playwrights in the nineteenth century, and as such it makes a significant contribution to the growing literature on literary economics. What makes this an important study is not simply that readers learn for the first time what playwrights were paid for their labors and how, or that during the nineteenth century, they raised themselves from a low estate to professional status. Interesting as such information is in itself, it is of less importance than the correlation Stephens draws between the conditions of play writing and the literary importance of the drama. As long as financial rewards were low and uncertain, the protection of literary property impossible, and the author’s social status below that of the actor and manager, drama as literature could hardly be expected to flourish. Money and status will not, of course, produce genius; but the lack of money and status may well discourage genius from working in a particular genre. The fact that the nineteenth century was the great era of the British novel is not an accident: The novelist enjoyed financial rewards, copyright protection, and social status wholly denied playwrights until nearly the end of the century. When the right working conditions were in place, the theater revived from the century-long doldrums it had suffered since the time of Richard Sheridan and Henry Fielding.
Nineteenth century playwrights came from a wide variety of backgrounds and walks of life, from law and journalism to commerce and the civil service. Not surprisingly, however, a large plurality came from the theater itself. At the beginning of the century, most dramatic authors could not hope to earn their living solely by writing, as the payments system was too uncertain and payments themselves were too low. By the late eighteenth century, the benefit system, whereby authors received a share of box office receipts on the third, sixth, and ninth nights of production, had largely disappeared, replaced by a scheme whereby authors received a fixed amount for each performance of the expected run of the play. Bonuses sometimes were paid if the play ran longer than expected. Under such a system, an author such as Frederick Reynolds could earn £300 to £500 per play and average an income of £800 per year.
This new payment schedule improved the financial lot of the dramatist, but in other respects he or she (there were a few female playwrights early in the century, Elizabeth Inchbald being the most successful) was not well off. Copyright protection was weak, and there was no protection against unauthorized staging. Moreover, the playwright was expected to produce a script tailored to the needs of the company, not to the dictates of imagination. Thus, plays were written to accommodate the acting strengths and weaknesses of star performers, the size and makeup of the acting company, the equipment and size of a particular stage, or even the properties and costumes owned by the company. Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the literary...
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