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REVIEW ARTICLE THE VICTORIAN THEATRE: MONEY, GUANO AND IMPURE LEISURE John Russell Stephens, The Profession of the Playwright: British Theatre 1800-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. xiv + 254. $54.95 CDN (cloth). Richard Foulkes (ed). British Theatre in the 1890s: Essays on Drama and the Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. xiii + 214. $54.95 CDN (cloth). What makes a person take up playwriting? The desire for selfexpression , after all, is more readily satisfied by writing a novel, a short story or a poem. These can be re-worked, polished or set aside in a bottom drawer like unfinished canvases in a painter's studio. They may never be exhibited and when they are, it is a question of finding a willing gallery owner or a publisher whose sole concern will be whether the artwork will sell, based on a knowledge of the marketplace and personal taste. Initial acceptance or rejection is founded on personal judgment as is the purchase of the painting or novel. Playwriting involves a completely different motivation and process. In making the decision to write a play, the writer is prepared to entrust the work initially to a collective judgment — the immediate response of a theatre audience gathered together at one time and in one place. This judgment will be colored moreover by how actors, director and designer have shaped the material. It's as though the novelist or graphic artist were prepared to allow gallery owners or publishers to alter the canvas or change the order of incidents because they felt this would enhance the original. This may indeed happen: the artist, particularly a novice, may take the advice of those whose job it is to "sell" the artist or the work, and modify it accordingly. But it is rare in a world where the integrity of the artist and the artwork are jealously proclaimed. On the other hand, this process is the norm for the playwright. Review Article68 To what extent does money and status play a role in deciding to be a playwright? There are very few dramatists today who can sustain a reputation based purely on playwriting. There are equally few lucrative international prizes to be won. If plays are published they rest on the laurels of significant productions. Few read contemporary plays as literature while collective creation and post-modernism have undermined the authority of the playwrights let alone their status as independent artists. The difficulties facing the playwright today are not dissimilar to those which Frederick Reynolds, a very successful dramatist of the first quarter of the nineteenth century wryly articulated in 1831: . . . his./irrt difficulty consists in pleasing Himself— his second difficulty in pleasing the Manager — his third, in pleasing the Actors — Msfourth, in pleasing the Licenser — Msfifth, in pleasing the Audience — his sixth, in pleasing the Newspapers . . . even if we should now read artistic director or production house for manager, television channel executives for licenser and viewer rating polls for audience and newspapers. The Reynolds quotation appears as a frontispiece to Stephens's new book on the profession of the playwright in nineteenth century Britain, a book which complements his excellent account of the censorship of English drama 1824-1901. Disappointingly this one isn't as interesting, perhaps because it doesn't take into account some of the fundamental aspects and conditions of dramatic production to which I have alluded. To have done so might perhaps have illuminated why playwrights were so determined to assert themselves professionally in the period, why, in the face of the constant intervention to which Reynolds refers, playwrights continued to be so determinedly prolific, and where playwriting was positioned culturally in the nineteenth century. (There were, after all, more plays written in the period 1800 to 1900 than cumulatively between 534 B.C. and 1799 A.D.) I am not necessarily suggesting mat Stephens should have written another book but rather that the energy of nineteenth century playwriting demands some kind of explanation which transcends a yearning for status and adequate financial reward which appears to be the thrust of this volume. The book is somewhat narrowly focused on the development of a recognized professional status for playwrights and is perhaps constrained by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 67-73
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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