- The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and The Stage
The postmodernist approach to theatre and culture studies nowadays has settled into a kind of respectable, comfortable middle-age, shorn of most of its youthful excesses and more tolerant of the subjects it often savaged in the name of ideology. Historiographical methodologies once considered daring are now commonplace; observations that once appeared radical now seem almost tame.
The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and the Stage could serve as a model of this new maturity. Skillfully edited by Michael R. Booth and Joel H. Kaplan, the work offers up eleven essays (eight of which were presented at a 1992 Canadian conference on Edwardian theatre) that attempt to reconstruct an era immensely rich in cultural, material, and theatrical evidence. Like all such enterprises, it probably tries to do too much. At 235 pages of text, it struggles to be inclusive. But it must be said in its favor that, even though The Edwardian Theatre casts perhaps too wide a net, it lands some fine catches. It breezes through all the “correct” topics—patriarchy, cross-dressing, class struggle, subversiveness, marginalization, capitalism, empowerment, misogyny—in an engaging format aided by sometimes grainy, but always appropriate, photographs and illustrations. The essays concern both serious drama and popular entertainments, with a clear emphasis on the latter; they examine music halls, management and economics, the New Drama, critics, audiences, suffragettes, and film. The authors, prominent scholars all, generally write in a style that is refreshingly free of the jargon that often baffles even the most serious reader. Accessibility, evenness of quality, and clear-headed critical approaches are this book’s greatest strengths, separating it from other similar projects.
In the opening chapter, “What is Edwardian theatre?,” Joseph Donohue gamely sets out to define the era’s “perimeters” through five criteria: a new realism, visions of a new theatre and a new audience, a new Puritanism, a continuing love of fantasy, and a paradoxical passion both for leisure and for industriousness. Because Edward VII—the globe-trotting, clothes-conscious, cigar-chomping monarch who stamped his personality on the period—reigned only from 1901 until his death in 1910, Donohue conscientiously weighs the work of writers who could stretch the Edwardian Era all the way from 1887 to the First World War and concludes that “the decade of the Edwardian period must be taken fully on its own” (14). But he cheerfully admits and convincingly demonstrates the difficulty of pinning down any theatrical period and allows the reader a good deal of leeway. (George Rowell’s history of the Victorian theatre, which begins in 1792, forty-five years before Victoria ascended the throne, immediately comes to mind.) Some of the essays in this very volume bear out this view. Peter Bailey’s carefully argued and enlightening essay on the social impact of musical comedy and its misogynist portrayal of women emphasizes the years from 1892 to 1896 and centers on the production of The Shop Girl (1894). Rebecca West, the subject of John Stoke’s piece, wasn’t born until 1892 and didn’t produce any serious work until the First World War. Stokes delineates her youthful, acute observations of the late Edwardian stage (trained as an actress, she took her name from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm) and how that experience influenced her long and productive intellectual life. Sheila Stowell’s perceptive reexamination of theatre and the suffragette movement uses crucial evidence that takes place almost wholly before and after Edward’s reign. Although their sense of period may diverge, each of these essayists clearly shows enthusiasm and respect for their source material, following leads wherever they go.
This book may not convincingly present Edwardian entertainment in the manner Kaplan suggests—as a “troubled era whose preoccupation and paranoias anticipate those of our own age” (9). Yet it does present interesting historical material unavailable elsewhere. For example, Dave Russell removes the evolution of the British music hall from anecdotal and autobiographical ephemera to solid, research-based observations...