Anticipation, Transformation, Accommodation: The Great Exhibition on the London Stage
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Anticipation, Transformation, Accommodation: The Great Exhibition on the London Stage1 Marty Gould Historians and literary scholars have picked the iron bones of the Great Exhibition of 1851 nearly clean. The story of Prince Albert's involvement with the Exhibition project, the public reception of the Exhibition as recorded in the popular press, the detailed engravings of the building, the objects and visitors that filled its crystal halls, and even contemporary literary allusions to the Exhibition and its associated themes are all more or less familiar to us. Although one might legitimately ask if there is anything left to add to this already impressive collection of critical work on an equally impressive collection of material goods, the vast, unplumbed depths of Victorian drama remain a significant void in the critical literature on popular representations of the Great Exhibition. In the most exhaustive of bibliographies of literary invocations of the Exhibition, the contemporary drama is not to be found. This is not to find fault with any particular critic or research method. After all, the theatre rarely finds its way into discussions of Victorian literature and culture. And there are a number of reasons why. Victorian plays tend to be cheesy in their excesses; few of the plays have ever been considered canonical; much of the material is available only in manuscript form and, in the United States at least, only on microfilm. Despite the scholarly disrepute into which Victorian drama has fallen, the current paper Victorian Review (2003)19 M. Gould seeks to reintroduce the theatre into ongoing discussions of the Great Exhibition in its cultural context. The Great Exhibition was staged not only in Hyde Park but in London's theatres as well, in plays that both reflected and created public perception of the Exhibition. Between May 1850 andJune 1851, London's main event found its way onto the stage in more than a dozen plays. These textual relics played an essential role in the cultural construction of a spectacle whose true significance extended well beyond its material inclusiveness. For an exhibition is a participatory event in which the public assists in the construction of the experience and determines in part its larger effects on culture and society. Historian Peter Hoffenberg described exhibitions as "venues of socially-constructed, mediated, and consumed knowledge ." "Unlike the private act of reading," he argues, "participation at the exhibitions was a public and mass-oriented textual experience" (Hoffenberg xviii). The encounter between the British public and the Great Exhibition of 1851 was mediated by a wide variety of textual and visual media that helped the public understand the event's cultural and social implications (Auerbach 189). That other "public and mass-oriented experience," the theatre, deployed spectacle, character, and dialogue to translate the Exhibition "text," turning theatrical audiences into informed viewers of the Exhibition. If the ideological scope of the Exhibition was disseminated through theatrical performance , the plays discussed below functioned as spectacular lenses that brought the cultural and political implications of the Crystal Palace into focus. We might pause here for a moment to consider the two distinct meanings the word "spectacles" carried in the nineteenth century. As Asa Briggs explains, "spectacles" could refer to either grand, dramatic entertainments or eyeglasses (104). Within a theatrical context, a spectacle was an impressive display, an innovation, a marvel. In contrast, vision-assisting spectacles were a mechanical aid, useful yet not really "marvelous," being found equally '"in the palace of the monarch and in the cottage of the peasant'" (qtd. in Briggs 104). The 20volume 29 number 2 Anticipation, Transformation, Accommodation impresario's spectacles were fantastic, larger-than-life shows, meant to excite, educate, and entertain. Though they might represent, in an amplified or altered form, an actual situation, place, or person, they bore no necessary connection to the real world. The optician's spectacles , on the other hand, were meant to clarify and to compensate. Designed to assist the eye's ability to focus light, spectacles of this type showed the world as it was supposed to be. Thus "spectacles" could refer either to the visual or to the visionary. The Great Exhibition was, from its inception, a spectacle of both types. By showcasing "The Works...


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