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Fantasies of Empire

The Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Licensing Controversy of 1894

Joseph Donohue

Publication Year: 2005

In the London summer of 1894, members of the National Vigilance Society, led by the well-known social reformer Laura Ormiston Chant, confronted the Empire Theatre of Varieties, Leicester Square, and its brilliant manager George Edwardes as he applied for a routine license renewal. On grounds that the Empire's promenade was the nightly resort of prostitutes, that the costumes in the theatre's ballets were grossly indecent, and that the moral health of the nation was imperiled, Chant demanded that the London County Council either deny the theatre its license or require radical changes in the Empire's entertainment and clientele before granting renewal. The resulting license restriction and the tremendous public controversy that ensued raised important issues--social, cultural, intellectual, and moral--still pertinent today.Fantasies of Empire is the first book to recount in full the story of the Empire licensing controversy in all its captivating detail. Contemporaneous accounts are interwoven with Donohue's identification and analysis of the larger issues raised: What the controversy reveals about contemporary sexual and social relations, what light it sheds on opposing views regarding the place of art and entertainment in modern society, and what it says about the pervasive effect of British imperialism on society's behavior in the later years of Queen Victoria's reign. Donohue connects the controversy to one of the most interesting developments in the history of modern theatre, the simultaneous emergence of a more sophisticated, varied, and moneyed audience and a municipal government insistent on its right to control and regulate that audience's social and cultural character and even its moral behavior.Rich in illustrations and entertainingly written, Fantasies of Empire will appeal to theatre, dance, and social historians and to students of popular entertainment, the Victorian period, urban studies, gender studies, leisure studies, and the social history of architecture.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

This book began life as a footnote for another book. Several years ago, I was preparing an annotated edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and needed to find out what Algy Moncrieff had in mind when, toward the end of Act 1, discussing with his friend Jack Worthing what they might do after dinner—the theatre and the club having been...

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pp. 1-30

One evening in the summer of 1859, a seasoned journalist headed toward Leicester Square to cover the tableaux vivants currently on view at the notorious Cafe du Globe. On assignment from a new weekly journal of town life bearing the ingenuous title Peeping Tom, the reporter was planning a piece that would escort a select group of would-be “swells” on a...

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1: Mrs. Chant at the Empire

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pp. 31-74

Laura Ormiston Chant was moved to visit the Empire Theatre of Varieties because of the unhappy experience there of two American male friends. As she would later explain to the members of the Theatres and Music Halls Committee, earlier in the year her friends had gone to the famous theatre of varieties in Leicester Square with the object, innocent...

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2: The Licensing Committee Meets

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pp. 75-108

On Wednesday morning, 10 October 1894, the Theatres and Music Halls Committee of the London County Council convened in its usual quarters in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. It had a very full agenda, consisting of the many applications for new license or renewal of license from theatres, music halls, and theatres of variety submitted to it in the previous weeks. Aware of the great publicity that had surfaced concerning the challenge to....

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3: Repercussions

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pp. 109-152

On Thursday, 11 October, the day after the Theatres and Music Halls Committee had recommended relicensing the Empire Theatre of Varieties, but with restrictions he must have viewed as completely intolerable, George Edwardes gave notice to the London County Council of his intention to appeal the decision.1 Meanwhile, news of the committee’s recommendation was...

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4: The Council's Decision & Its Aftermath

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pp. 153-190

Preparatory to its scheduled meeting on Friday, 26 October, at Spring Gardens for purposes of licensing, the London County Council met in special session three days earlier, with Sir John Hutton in the chair. Eight petitions were presented urging the council not to adopt the recommendation of its Theatres and Music Halls Committee, acting as the licensing...

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5: Why They Attacked the Empire

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pp. 191-239

After weeks of commingled outcry and exultation over the recommendation of the Theatres and Music Halls Committee and its overwhelming endorsement by the London County Council, together with the wearied capitulation of the Empire management to the stipulations linked to its license (which had not yet been delivered), the air itself might well have...


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pp. 241-261

Works Cited

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pp. 263-278


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pp. 279-290

E-ISBN-13: 9781587296437
E-ISBN-10: 1587296438
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877459606
Print-ISBN-10: 0877459606

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture
Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 181548113
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fantasies of Empire