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  • "On the [Historical] Sublime"J. R. Planché's King John and the Romantic Ideal of the Past
  • Andrew Gibb (bio)

The 1823 Covent Garden production of King John, which featured costumes designed by James Robinson (J. R.) Planché, is often credited with the first systematic deployment of historically accurate costuming. For many years, theatre historians treated this notable moment in design as one of many steps in a seemingly centuries-long march toward progressively greater stage realism. The extent to which this interpretation held sway is evidenced by the fact that historians customarily linked Planché's antiquarianism to the earlier practices of habit à la romaine, local color, and eastern exoticism, as well as to eighteenth-century spectacles such as David Garrick's Elizabethan-dressed Shakespearean tragedies and Macklin's 1741 Shylock.1

The problem with such an understanding of King John lay in its progressivist stance. It relied upon an assumption that historical accuracy in stage effects was an inevitable standard, one that slowly but surely evolved over time. But while the earlier practices noted heretofore certainly contributed to an artistic trajectory that allowed for a new way of representing history onstage, they neither individually nor collectively provided a satisfactory explanation of why artists and audiences should have chosen 1823 as the moment to enthusiastically embrace historically accurate costuming.

To my mind, the answer to that question cannot be located in the spectacular innovations of Planché's costumes themselves, although they were undoubtedly something new and exciting. Ultimately, there was something far more profound about the experience of King John than that of an audience recognizing the genius of a designer. What was happening in the space of the Convent Garden theatre was that a group of early [End Page 127] nineteenth-century Londoners, through the medium of theatre (or more specifically, theatrical costuming), were talking to each other about history in a new way. Given my interpretation of the event, this essay reveals little that is new about the facts of the 1823 Covent Garden production. Instead, with it I seek to tell the origin story of a particular theatrical convention, that of historically accurate costuming. For this reason, in the pages that follow, I engage far more deeply with the context of period events and philosophies than with the archival details of Planché's costumes.2 One could say that my primary interest with this essay is not the particulars of King John as a historical production, but rather the historical embeddedness of King John's costuming practices.

For some time now, historians have been steadily moving away from presentist and progressivist explanations of past theatrical practice, and with respect to King John, the old characterization of Planché's choices as a kind of budding realism has largely been supplanted by interpretations that privilege social contexts over aesthetic ones. Most compellingly, theatre historians have tied the nineteenth-century desire for historical accuracy in costuming to rising nationalist sentiment among period audiences, an argument convincingly made by Richard Schoch, and echoed by the authors of the next-generation Theatre Histories textbook.3

There is, however, a notable discrepancy between Schoch's study and the treatment of King John by McConachie et al. The latter authors see nationalism at work in the success of the 1823 production, while Schoch, though prominently mentioning Planché, nevertheless takes as his primary exemplars the productions staged by Charles Kean in the 1850s, a generation after Planché's innovation. Why should Kean's stagings prove to be a more fitting example of theatrical nationalism than Kemble's? Interestingly, the lag between Kemble and those who followed was noted by Oscar Brockett as early as 1968, when he wrote: "In spite of the success of these productions, Kemble did not repeat the experiment until 1827, and it was not until Macready accepted it in 1837 that authenticity was consistently exploited. Thus, while Planché's work in 1823 must be considered a landmark, it did not bring an immediate revolution in theatrical practice."4 What can account for the delay between Planché's 1823 innovation and its full adoption at mid-century?

While I would judge as sound the connection between the popularity of...


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