- Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840–1880
The practice of theatre history, which became a serious academic discipline in the early twentieth century, has recently begun to exploit its power to shed light on issues that transcend the immediate facts of playhouse, player, and play. Once the field broke free from its status as a minor adjunct of literary history (and an occasional meeting-place for archaeologists and anthropologists to indulge in bouts of speculation about such matters as myths of origin), there emerged three basic avenues of inquiry. These might be called, in approximate order of their evolution, the physical theatre, the performing theatre, and the social theatre.
Scholars of the physical theatre tend to concern themselves with material facts such as the dimensions and characteristics of playhouses and the technical capabilities of stage design and machinery. The subfield of performing theatre works on problems of reconstructing and interpreting the live act of production, including acting style, design (a point of convergence with the physical theatre) and dramaturgy. Social theatre widens the view to include the audience, along with the economic, political, and philosophical circumstances that shape theatrical production. This branch of theatre history often has recourse to its more traditional counterparts (“physical” and “performing”) in pursuit of evidence relevant to its broader inquiry, but its primary concerns are similar to those of the social historian.
In Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840–1880, Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow offer a persuasive example of the “social theatre” in action. Seeking to interrogate some well-entrenched myths about the nineteenth-century London theatre, their study of seven London theatres in several widely differing demographic circumstances uses a set of tools that effectively pit real data against received opinion about class, behavior, and the function of theatre. In the introduction, the authors refer to their exploration of “topography, social [End Page 251] demography, police reports, economic and social factors, communications, and managerial policies” and promise an “examination of maps, census returns, transport data, playbills, government papers, dramatic texts, local and national newspapers, as well as memoirs, journals, diaries, and letters.” (p. xiv). The book makes good use of all these sources to advance our understanding of the London audience (and, by extension, London itself) during the stated forty-year period.
The theatre in London underwent significant transformation during the nineteenth century. Population growth in the first third of the century led to an expansion of theatrical activity beyond the three “patent houses” (with still-familiar and resonant names: Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket), which had enjoyed a monopoly on legitimate drama. The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 ended that monopoly, allowing the “minor” theatres to increase their artistic ambitions (pp. ix–x). London’s less prosperous districts—such as the East End—began to see more serious drama (including Shakespeare and Italian opera) along with their traditional stock bearing such evocative labels as the nautical melodrama, the domestic drama, or the tradesman’s tragedy.
Sometimes adopting the tone of a foreign correspondent, West End journalists began to report on the offerings—and, significantly, on the audiences—of the newly energized theatres on the fringes of old London. Commentators such as Charles Dickens “saw the theatre as redemptive” and painted a largely positive picture of what transpired both on stage and in the audience (p. 10). Some journalists took an almost xenophobic delight in the portrayal of the “other” side of London, with its higher percentage of immigrants and their supposedly coarse behaviors and tastes, finding them not susceptible of “improvement” by exposure to serious drama. 1 Clearly a process of cultural construction was underway, with partisans of all points of view writing a kind of contemporaneous social history of theatre (with an admixture of mythopoeia) to advance their own beliefs. Davis and Emeljanow’s most important contribution in this book comes in their marshalling of evidence around this question. 2
The nineteenth century in England (certainly in literature and...