- The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830
Post-Restoration British theatre suffered from critical neglect through most of the twentieth century. Formalist critics failed to find much of interest in the texts of the plays of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the turn to cultural criticism and performance studies, all that has changed. Later-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century theatre provides a rich site for critics interested in questions of class, gender, and race; postcolonial critics; performance critics; and social and political historians; and historians of mass and global cultures. Professors Moody and O'Quinn's Companion provides an exemplary introduction to recent scholarship in the theatre of the period.
The collection is divided into five parts. Part 1 addresses 'Performance,' focusing on actors, audiences, and theatres. Peter Thomson charts the transition from an 'aural' to a 'visual' theatre as acting spaces enlarged throughout the period. Actors had to modify their styles, and increasingly they became specialists in either comedy or tragedy. Jane Moody makes a strong case for attending to what was happening in the increasingly important provincial theatres, sites that capture tensions between civic, national, and imperial interests. Christopher Baugh tracks technological developments in the period, and Jim Davies discusses changing attitudes to audiences.
Part 2, 'Genres,' contains the most traditional essays, particularly Lisa Freeman's on comedy and Susan Staves's on tragedy. Each examines the changes to these most conservative of dramatic genres; Freeman notes the influence of the ever-rising middle class and its commercial concerns, while Staves looks more at the impact of the Enlightenment on the most prestigious (though not the most popular) form of drama. These two essays are balanced by John O'Brien's on pantomime and Jacky Bratton's on the rise of melodrama, an accurate reflection of the new importance given to these audience favourites. [End Page 430]
Part 3, 'Identities,' consists of four thematic essays on topics of great current interest. Kristina Straub offers a fascinating account of the history of the footman's gallery in the theatre as an example of the dynamics of class relations in the mid-century theatre. Misty Anderson surveys the careers of women playwrights and the kinds of plays they produced. Laura Rosenthal expands the exploration of gender issues in a discussion of the evolving cultural roles of actresses. Julie Carlson provides an account of the representations of racial others in the plays with an emphasis on why some characters (Othello, Oroonoko) had such staying power.
Attention to performance space until recently has focused on London stages. The essays in part 4, 'Places of Performance,' extend that focus to more neglected areas. Gillian Russell looks at the widespread practice of private theatricals, documenting its extensive press coverage. Michael Burden tracks the complexities of opera production in London. Helen Burke looks at the Irish theatre as a colonial theatre frequently as a outlet for opposition politics. And Daniel O'Quinn surveys the development of colonial theatres and the impact of colonial themes and characters on late-century plays.
This Companion, then, is strong on conveying the current research in the field, and especially on the more recent areas of inquiry. Part 5, Jonathan Mulrooney's awkwardly written but thorough bibliographic essay, 'Reading Theatre, 1730-1830,' completes the program of providing readers with the introductory tools for understanding the state of research in the early twenty-first century. This is a praiseworthy achievement. The price for the focus on current research interests is neglect of areas that do not have a high profile at present. A few examples should suffice. The volume offers no comprehensive sense of the plays of the period (a very small percentage receive much attention); it is understandable, but still odd, to have chapters on a number of 'peripheral' performance venues without similar chapters on the patent houses; it makes good sense to look at the place of actresses and women playwrights, but does it make sense to do so at the expense of actors and male playwrights? In...