Playing "Theayter": Dramatic Performance in the Late-Victorian Fictional Slum
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Playing "Theavter": Dramatic Performance in the LateVictorian Fictional Slum Mary FJ/en Kappler An odd performance is taking place in an Hast rind graveyard. It is 1899, and although the nearby streets and courts are far too cramped and narrow for recreation, a group of ragged slum children gather together in the "buryin' ground," where there is room enough for both boisterous romping and the somewhat more ceremonious, though still lively, "old English games" the children have recently learned from the ladies at the Settlement house. But the favourite pastime here is not Ring-o'-Roses or "rude rough horse-play" - it is "theavter," a game that allows full scope for the energy and imagination of the youthful assembly. The broad church steps provide an excellent acting area with room for a large cast and a varied programme ranging from "step dances, and well-worn music hall sketches," to improvised dramas concocted from a wide range of available material: "[t]he latest play-bill, the Salvation Army meetings, the School Board, the election folk, the penny dreadfuls, and, above all, the police news reports, all made excellent material to 'work up' into original performances" (Kimmins 17-18). This game of "theavter" takes place in Polly of Parker's Rents, a now all but forgotten novel by G. T Kimmins ("Sister Grace"), a Settlement worker in Bermondsev. Kimmins' story of Polly Ryan, an imaginative and audaciously energetic slum girl is just one of a surprisingly large number of late-Victorian fictions that deal with the life of the slums. While the enormous quantity of contemporary documentary writing about the urban poor is well known, the almost equally large body of fiction about the slums, written during the same period, is somewhat Victorian Review (2003) M. Kappler less familiar. George Gissing's and Arthur Morrison's works are still well-known, but few of the other "slum novelists" of the 1880's and 90's are now read. Walter Besant, L.T. Meade, Margaret Harkness ("John Law"), and Israel Zangwill are likely the most still-recognisable writers to have produced novels set in the slums, while Arthur St. John Adcock, David Christie Murray, M. E. Winchester, and many others, including G. T. Kimmins, are probably no longer remembered. For late-Victorian readers, however, "slum novels" formed a distinct and recognisable sub-genre of fiction: Jane Findlater, for example, writing in 1900, offers a taxonomy of five distinct "divisions" within the body of recent and contemporary slum fiction. The prevalence of these narratives suggests something of the powerful influence that the slum exerted on the Victorian imagination. In these novels the slum frequently represents a telling inversion of the more normative tropes of nineteenth-century fiction: the familiar domestic locus takes on a number of diverse and sometimes surprising alternate identities. The fictional slum is variously depicted as labyrinth, sanctuary, tourist destination, arena, prison, playground and erogenous zone. Such representations offer deconstructive readings of nineteenth-century domestic ideology while at die same time suggesting the existence of a new sort of fictional space: the fictional slum provided late-Victorian writers and readers with the possibility of re-configuring or re-imagining some of the most seminal tropes of their social narrative. One of the most striking features of many of these "slum novels" is the extent to which slum life is viewed in essentially performative terms. Kimmins' image of a group of slum children playing "theayter " in a "buryin' ground" is particularly apt: if real Victorian slums were frequently depicted in terms that emphasised fatality and hopelessness , fictional slum-dwellers counter the image — in novel after novel — by transforming their blighted and pestilential neighbourhood into a theatre, the site of exuberant dramatic performance. In a number of novels the slum becomes a place where high spirits abound and where vigorous hi-jinks of all sorts can be enacted. The slum locus serves to dissolve normative notions of decorum and volume 29 number 2 Playing "Theatyer" propriety, allowing a theatrical and rather carnival-like atmosphere to prevail. Somerset Maugham's U%a of Lambeth (1897), for example, opens with an impromptu street dance, which begins sedately enough but which the gorgeously attired Liza Kemp...


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