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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 503-504

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Book Review

The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914

The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914. By Tracy C. Davis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; pp. vii + 506. $74.95.

Tracy Davis's new book, The Economics of the British Stage,1800-1914, concentrates on the material conditions of producing and consuming theatre in the long nineteenth century, but it is arguably the materials consulted and the material circumstances of her research that end up almost stealing the show, a point to which I will return. First, though, it is refreshing to find that when Davis includes the term "economics" in her title she means economics. To Davis a Marxian analysis of the "performance of capital itself" is as important as aesthetic and ideological interpretations of performativity. Indeed, assuming that theatre exists "within a commercial landscape" and "hinges on the finite commodity of money," she concentrates on asking, "where the money was and why, who controlled the means of production and for what reasons," andhow the public "behaved as consumers in the midst of what marketplaces" (italics hers 18, 13). Thus, Davis chooses not to focus on "the oppressed," but rather to investigate "the locus of power," because agency and resistance cannot be understood "until the mechanisms of capitalism are understood" (12).

By following the money, as it were, Davis asserts that she must pursue the knowledges of many fields of study ("the history of economics, theatre history, industrial sociology, labour history, and cultural theory"), though these fields generally are averse to such interdisciplinarity (12). The resulting breadth of research almost guarantees her book's importance to future theatre studies. Tracking the conflicts between nineteenth-century forms of laissez-faire and interventionist policy, Davis traces how centralization and corporatization—which were occurring unevenly in other Victorian institutions—transformed the business of theatre economically and aesthetically. But, as Davis shows, the generic "rational economic man" that was becoming so central to the rhetoric of nineteenth-century economics was much more complicated and unpredictable than the rubric implies (196).

A sampling of the issues Davis encounters in her interrogation of theatre as/and commerce exemplifies that complexity. For one thing, Davis illustrates the often byzantine relationship between the staging of political and economic questions of the day and the staging of theatre. When she follows the money to membership in Victorian men's clubs, for instance, it is intriguing to consider what difference it made that Henry Irving belonged to the same club as the bankers Rothschild and Goldschmidt. Likewise, we learn that on the opening night of Lillie Langtry's 1890 production of Antony and Cleopatra the company faced financial crisis. Seeking help, Langtry contacted a friend, one of the Rothschilds, and discovered that her "crisis" was a welcome comic relief for the financiers who were intently engaged in forestalling the profound effects of the London banking panic known as the Baring Crisis. Davis's interrogation of the commercial also reveals that, oddly, the percentage of women working in the theatrical trades (costuming, lighting, set-making and moving, etc.) shot up to 31 percent in 1891 but then plummeted to 22 percent in 1911 when the suffrage movement was at its peak. In addition, Davis concludes that the 1843 parliamentary decision to continue the Lord Chamberlain's powers over theatre had as much to do with the Corn Law debates (the act reducing duties on corn swiftly followed the Theatre Registration Act of 1843) as it did the Chartist movement. As Davis argues, both acts fit into the Tory agenda of "quelling" the increasingly forceful lower-class efforts to gain political power.

Davis's contextualization of the measures regulating the safety and sanitation of theatres also illustrates the irrationality of the Victorian economic man as well as the intricate commercial links [End Page 503] between theatre and the state. As she illustrates, class politics and misconceptions about the causes of disease directly influenced the Victorian design of theatrical venues. Apparently, the upper classes could withstand the stench of sewage wafting into their...


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