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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 116-118
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Re-examining the Margins of Eighteenth-Century English Drama
Northern Kentucky University
William J. Burling. Summer Theatre in London, 1661-1820, and the Rise of the Haymarket Theatre (London: Associated University Presses, 2000). Pp. 326. $45.00 cloth.
Charlotte Charke. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke. Ed. Robert Rehder (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999). Pp. 171. $50.00 cloth.
William J. Burling's meticulously researched book, Summer Theatre in London, 1661-1820, and the Rise of the Haymarket Theatre, fills a significant gap in eighteenth-century theatre history with its compelling argument that summer theatre in London from 1661-1820 was a thriving and often lucrative enterprise. Burling especially emphasizes the importance of the Haymarket Theatre, long considered a marginal venue occupied only sporadically by itinerant companies and, occasionally, by actors (e.g., Theophilus Cibber and Charlotte Charke) and playwrights (e.g., Henry Fielding and George Lillo) either unable to find work with the patent theatres or engaged in disputes with their managers. Burling, however, argues that the Haymarket's influence on eighteenth-century theatre history in general has been underestimated, that nearly every important theatrical figure of the period had some connection with the Haymarket, and that some of the most important theatrical innovations and long lasting additions to theatre repertories were first attempted in summer theatre.
Burling sets out to correct two earlier misconceptions about the Haymarket: first, the impression given by earlier scholars that the Haymarket's management, repertory, and theatrical practices were consistent, and, second, that the Haymarket was on the margins of the theatrical world. Instead, Burling argues that practices varied so much over time that only a season-by-season analysis can elucidate them. Such an analysis demonstrates that the Haymarket "served as the home for the most important developments in summer theatre" (10), the effects of which were compelling despite schedule disruptions caused by the Licensing Act of 1737, patent theatre activities, and restrictions on theatrical variety.
This book covers a dynamic topic of enormous complexity. The summer seasons from 1660-1760 differed from the regular seasons in that summer activities were primarily temporary enterprises operating under special licenses or with the permission of the patent houses. Tracing summer theatre's development from the fledgling "young companies" of inexperienced actors to the officially patented Haymarket managed by Foote and later the Colemans, Burling has done an excellent job of reconfiguring from widely disparate and frequently sketchy documentary evidence the structure of the vastly idiosyncratic summer seasons, with their fluctuating companies, management, repertories, legitimacy, and popularity.
Almost as interesting as this little known theatrical venue is Burling's nondeclaratory style: one learns as much about the process of how a theatre historian forms conclusions as one learns about the conclusions themselves. Although this compilation of details and statistics does not make for a quick read, the reader who takes the time will find pleasurable the process by which Burling confirms or overturns points in earlier scholarship, describing the problem and the entire range of earlier conclusions about it, analyzing and detailing the evidence, and [End Page 116] presenting a detailed argument supporting a new conclusion. Despite the complexity of the story, the structure of the book is highly accessible, and though one sometimes wishes for more signposts, Burling provides occasional summaries that bring the reader back to the main thread of the central argument.
An example of Burling's care in re-evaluating earlier assumptions is revealed by comparing one factual discrepancy between Burling's analysis of Charlotte Charke's theatre activities and that of Robert Rehder in his introduction to a new edition of Charlotte Charke's Narrative (reviewed below). Rehder's introduction repeats a commonplace in Charke scholarship: that her last known performance was at the Haymarket, where she obtained a license in 1759 to perform with a company for ten nights, but that she only performed one night, possibly because she was too ill to finish (lxv). Burling's careful analysis of contemporary performance records, however...