- Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain: 'All Work, No Play'
The history of child performers in Britain can be traced back to medieval mystery plays and the boy companies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and children continue to appear, under strict regulation, on the stages of the present day. Victorian theatre, however, is remarkable for its obsession with child performers; during the nineteenth century, children appeared onstage in unprecedented and still unmatched numbers. They became the focus both of audience adulation and social reform, as debate raged over whether the oyster ghosts in Alice in Wonderland or the ballet girls of the Christmas pantomimes were engaged in work, and therefore in need of the legal protection afforded to other working children, or whether their public performances were merely an extension of natural, childish play and therefore harmless.
Anne Varty's Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain: 'All Work, No Play' charts the progress of this debate while providing a wide-ranging exploration of the nature and variety of children's performances and addressing "some of the paradoxes and questions" inherent in Victorian attitudes to children on the stage (5). Varty exposes the enormous range of work undertaken by children in the Victorian theatre, and while she includes accounts of prominent and familiar performers such as Ellen Terry and well-known child roles such as Lewis Carroll's Alice, she also uncovers the invisible work of anonymous children—largely neglected by theatre historians—on which Victorian theatre relied. Her example of a little boy, whose performance must surely have gone undetected and unapplauded by audiences, is particularly revealing: "I'se got engaged at the theatre, and I'm one on 'em what does the waves." Varty explains that "he was one of a number of children engaged to go on all fours under a sea-painted canvas, and by the moving up and down of their backs produce the swell of the billows" (1).
Varty's study is original in both its scope and attention to the details of young performers' lives on- and offstage. While many studies are interested in fictional representations of children in literature and drama, hers is equally concerned with the performing children themselves and has drawn together an impressive body of material—newspaper reviews, diaries, letters, playtexts, and records of parliamentary debate—to create a comprehensive picture of nineteenth-century child stage roles and their presenters.
In her first chapter, "Training Juvenile Actors," Varty sets out the practical training that children underwent before taking to the stage and details the physical risks and dangers encountered in rehearsal and performance. This focus is contrasted by the two following chapters, "Looking-Glass Children: The Performing Child as Erotic Subject" and "Pastorals and Primitives: Child Actors in Arcadia," which center on the variety of responses elicited by children's performances. These chapters situate child actors within the discourses of pastoral nostalgia and prelapsarian innocence that have long dominated discussions of childhood in art and literature. Varty demonstrates that, while the children were trained and drilled rigorously to produce specific effects onstage, their performances were often received as spontaneous, transcendent, and indicative of the child's proximity to nature or heaven, which the adults in the audience could only glimpse fleetingly and longingly through the proscenium arch; for elements of the Victorian audience, "[h]eaven was displaced by theatre" (137). It was in part this gap between the potential risks, hardships, and cruelties experienced by stage children and the public perception of the quasi-magical end product of their performance that caused stage children to be the last group of children protected by legislation: the singing, dancing, and make-believe of the theatre did not seem to be comparable to more obviously brutal forms of child labor such as factory work or chimney sweeping. [End Page 339]
Varty's study is of special interest and value because it combines social history with critical discussions of specific dramatic works. A particularly illuminating example is her discussion of The Climbing Boy (c...