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John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre by Katherine Newey, Jeffrey Richards (review)
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The authors of this collaborative volume helpfully acknowledge that “the name of John Ruskin . . . is not one that has customarily been associated with the theatre” (1). “To Evangelical Protestants,” they remind us, “the theatre was anathema” (3). Beyond the information that Margaret Ruskin’s adherence to this doctrine influenced her son, we learn little more about its effects. Instead, the book’s attention shifts to John Ruskin’s less troubled credentials as a theatre-goer and commentator. The theatre, it transpires, was an early love for him, encouraged by his father’s enjoyment of Romantic stagecraft and his fond memories of boyhood acting. Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards use the space vacated by the familiar Puritanical Ruskin to reveal a theatrical Ruskin whose motivations, tastes, and advice on theatrical matters were linked to his core aesthetic and ethical principles.

We learn that Ruskin was most drawn to pantomime, and that his theatrical preferences were conditioned by his intolerances. He would “sedulously avoid drama and tragedy” because “he found drama too emotionally harrowing” (10, 11). This aversion to tragedy depended on an affected squeamishness, though one wonders whether Ruskin’s quarrel was not also with its seriousness. Newey and Richards quote Ruskin’s allusion, in Praeterita (1885–89), to greatly enjoying the theatre as “one of the pleasures that have least worn out” (18). While this remark is used to clinch the basis for a Ruskinian view of the stage, the emphasis on theatre as pleasure is conspicuous. Without a connection to work, it converts Puritanical suspicion into a resolution that the stage can be safely enjoyed, but only if not taken too seriously. Elsewhere, the authors identify forms of traffic between theatrical pleasure and Ruskin’s work as an educator. Especially intriguing is the information that Ruskin drew on his contacts in the theatre, notably Wilson Barrett, to develop the innovative visual technology used in his lectures. Another point of convergence is suggested by an 1872 production of the French play, Frou-Frou (1869), in which Ruskin noted “the best views of Venice I ever saw on the stage” (qtd. in Newey and Richards 13). Examples of this kind help the authors to demonstrate the fluid bounds of the theatre, the way it crossed into areas of central concern for Ruskin, notwithstanding his primary conception of it as therapy or escape.

The succeeding chapters address the question encapsulated by Ruskin’s appraisal of Venice on the stage: namely, the extent to which the ideal of truth to nature in Modern Painters (1843–60) and the archaeology of The Stones of Venice (1851–53) might apply in the context of stage pretence. Newey and Richards explore the historically informed staging practised by Edward William Godwin, and show the way in which the fashion for so-called toga plays became a testing ground for that aspiration. A chapter on melodrama broaches the question of stage morals, and the penultimate chapter on “Ruskinian Shakespeare” combines these strands in exploring the educational function of the stage, and the efforts of scene painters to claim professional respectability (the Scenic Artists Association was eventually founded in 1904). Productions of Shakespeare, with their distinctive combination of romance and determined location, emerge as the arena in which the “archaeological” and the “purist” attitudes do battle (173, 176). The final chapter on “Stage Beauty” is more densely argued and more analytical than the largely factual and documentary chapters that precede it. The theatre, it is claimed, was “not isolated” from the debates fostered by Ruskin’s “linking of truth and beauty” (214, 213). We are hurriedly informed that this was a case of ut pictura poesis revived, before the focus shifts to the roles played by women on the stage. Just at that point when a strong authorial voice is most needed, the chapter, and the book, reach a disappointing conclusion in an unnecessarily deferential survey of previous critical contributions, and a surfeit of quotation.

The most serious problems arise when Newey and Richards attempt to track Ruskin’s influence on the late-Victorian theatre. “Truth and beauty” and “archaeological accuracy” are conveniently identified as the mark of a Ruskinian turn in contemporary production values (173); but the chapters...

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