restricted access The Making of Victorian Drama by Anthony Jenkins (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Book Reviews ANTHONY JENKINS. The Making of Victorian Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991. Pp. 301, illustrated. $49.50. The publisher's blurb attached to this volume suggests, amongst other things, that the book will describe "the social transformation of theatre during the century" and "will be of interest to students and scholars of theatre history." If social transformation is taken to mean the rise in the social status of performers during the Victorian period, then the book certainly takes this into account. However, this is merely referred to in passing and the changing perceptions of the role of the theatre within Victorian society are ignored. In fact, what makes this book so anachronistic is precisely that it takes little cognisance of the theatrical scholarship of the last thirty years which has elucidated the relationship between text and performance, between Victorian society and its theatre . The book is divided into eight chapters. After an opening chapter, significantly headed "Breaking through the Darkness," the remaining seven are devoted to an examination of the work of Bulwer-Lytton, Robertson, Gilbert (with a sideling glance at H. J. Byron), Henry Arthur Jones, Pinero, Wilde and Shaw. The playwrights who come off best are Pinero and Shaw with a grudging respect for Wilde especially in his poetic phase and for Gilbert when his comedy is "gentle." The yardstick used to measure these playwrights seems to be the extent to which they were able to emancipate themselves from the onerous burden of the theatre and its practices, and to identify themselves as respectable artists independent of the box-office. To evaluate dramatic authors selected on the basis of purely literary values places them, in my opinion, in inevitable conflict with the theatrical processes which gave rise to them. It is a position which today seems untenable. Theatre in the nineteenth century, moreover, is regarded in this book as a silly adolescent incapable of taking itself seriously and requiring adulthood for it to be, in turn, taken seriously. As well, its performers are castigated for their lack of respectability: Book Reviews Edmund Kean "a drunkard and a womanizer" was the prisoner of his itinerant background ; the author forgives Dorothy Jordan's racy reputation on the grounds of her devotion to her paramour, the Duke of Clarence, and her good humour; despite the Kemble background of provincial itinerancy, Mrs. Siddons "became a paradigm of domestic virtue" which thereby exonerates her. Theatre's adulthood arrives at last when its actors by the end of the century "now came from the upper middle class." The real thrust of this book is to argue for the primacy of the playwright and in so doing to deplore the Victorian circumstances which conspired against this. These include the presence of actors, scenic designers and audiences. Playwrights until the I 890S were forced to reject ideas because "one of the reasons ... the majority of nineteenth -century plays contain so few ... is that actors and audiences regarded drama as narrative ... ". Thus Robertson "was not a deep thinker, and his plays typify the sixties because of that," Gilbert's Engaged seems "to lack human warmth simply because the theatrical excesses Gilbert parodies are ... blessedly dead," the style of Jones's The Silver King "is more subdued than the ravings at Drury Lane or the Adelphi ... ". This determination to denigrate the conditions of performance makes the book singularly myopic and intolerant. Furthermore, it tells us little about the selected playwrights we don't already know and for a discussion of Victorian drama in its context, it is a disappointment . VICTOR EMEUANOW UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA KERRY POWELL. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre ofthe 1890s. Cambridge etc: Cambridge University Press 1990. Pp. ix, 204ยท $39.50. Wilde is well known to have been a magpie, picking up ideas for plots from diverse sources. Kerry Powell has had the idea of looking closely at the borrowings to see how far he succeeded in creating from such material a drama quintessentially his own. The verdict is somewhat negative. Except for The Importance of Being Earnest he finds that the sources (as he says of An Ideal Husband) "seem at times to exercise almost as much control over the playas...


pdf