- The 19Th Century London Stage: An Exploration
The 19th Century London Stage was created in 1992 by a group of doctoral students in the School of Drama at the University of Washington who participated in a seminar designed to exploit computer applications in theatre history research. Under the continuing supervision of Jack Wolcott, the site was enhanced in 1997 by a second team of doctoral students. The website comprises ten hypertextual “projects,” most of which focus on the sociology of nineteenth-century dramatic literature (representations of gender, industrialism, and empire), mise-en-scène (landscapes in theatrical engravings, images of theatre interiors), and biography (dramatists, performers, scenographers, and engravers). Ancillary sections include bibliographies, notes, and citations embedded within the individual projects themselves, a concluding bibliography, and a list of related websites.
Projects which incorporate information technology in graduate student training are to be welcomed and encouraged. Quite understandably, though, this website reveals its creators’ relative inexperience in both web design and theatre history research. No doubt the construction of this website has been an enabling activity for its authors, who are the principal beneficiaries of their own work. Other users may well find that the site does not yet realize its potential in either design or content.
Given that multimedia technology is well-poised to capture the rich density of performance in its kinetic, spatial, and visual dimensions, this website is somewhat insensitive to the advantages of the medium itself. There is little “multi” in this multimedia. Most of the information provided is linear and text-based (mini-essays, quotations, citations, lists, and notes). Images are neither consistently integrated with relevant written material nor generally read as signifying “texts” in themselves. Pawit Mahasarinand’s essay on theatrical representations of India and Mark Farrelly’s project on theatre interiors are exceptions, successfully interweaving texts and images. I was unable to find any part of the website that featured sound, movement, video, or animation. While the authors hope that users will engage in “non-linear” cognition when navigating through the site, the dominance throughout of the typographic text impedes such associative thought processes.
Similarly, the designers have not capitalized on opportunities for interactivity. Visitors to this site will feel more like readers than participants, let alone co-creators. One would like to see the collaborative nature of performance and performance scholarship mirrored on this website. Because the site does not yet allow its visitors to contribute material, there is a regrettably “fixed” quality to the whole project. Indeed, the site has more or less languished for the past two years. In consequence, recent developments in the expanding field of nineteenth-century performance history cannot be disseminated and debated. This website is not yet the place where new ideas emerge.
The chief “content” value of this website is that it brings together a substantial amount of primary (lists of plays, performers, and playwrights) and secondary sources (quotations from, among others, Michael Booth, Allardyce Nicoll, and E.B. Watson) in nineteenth-century London theatre. While a wealth of material is displayed, the presentation and range of the material are open to challenge. The organization of the site, moreover, appears driven by the particular research interests of the authors rather than by a shared goal to explore the diversity and vitality of nineteenth-century performance.
The intellectual content of the website only infrequently rises above the level of compilation, summary, and transcription. Indeed, almost all sections of the website—with the notable exception of C.B. Davis’s essay on London’s minor theatres—have the look and feel of research “notes.” Of even more concern, however, are the unexamined positivist assumptions behind the authors’ use of what they term “raw data.” Because many Internet users presume the correctness of whatever they find on a website, the authors could profitably have devoted attention to the historiographical problem of interpreting evidence. While no one questions the value of archival data, the significance of that data cannot remain unproblematized.
The question arises as to whether (or when) what is basically a classroom assignment ought...