- Players, Playwrights, Playhouses: Investigating Performance, 1660–1800
This volume concludes Palgrave’s five-book series that seeks “a substantial reassessment” of British theatre history as it is currently practiced (xi). Peter Holland’s introduction issues a call to action and the contributors deftly respond, turning a critical eye on both the theatre practices of the long eighteenth century and historical accounts of them to date. Extolling under-utilized resources like Richard Leacroft’s The Development of the English Playhouse and exposing misused riches provided by sources like The London Stage, 1660–1800 and Biographical Dictionary, the contributing authors do not merely describe what a new practice of theatre history would look like, but they also model the practices they champion.
As in previous volumes in this series, the editors group the contributions into sections addressing similar areas of inquiry. Part 1, including contributions from Robert Hume, Michael Cordner, Paula Backscheider, and Judith Milhous, deals specifically with overlooked source materials that challenge commonly held beliefs about theatre in the long eighteenth century. Hume’s contribution calls for a “more imaginative use” of available materials, suggesting that databases like ECCO and EBBO provide access to a wealth of translations, adaptations, and afterpieces that deserve further critical study (9). Backscheider’s chapter looks to the novel as a source for investigating theatre audiences, reception, and the move to educate audiences on theatre etiquette. Cordner argues for a reconsideration of Aphra Behn’s The Roundheads based on connections between the political qualities in her play and those in the works that might have served as sources for it. Milhous undertakes the daunting task of examining account books and similar financial records as an untapped source of information about historical theatre practice.
In part 2, “Controlling the Theatre,” Lisa Freeman and Matthew Kinservik reexamine government regulation of the theatres by questioning an inflexible pro-theatrical/anti-theatrical binary. Freeman makes an argument for a deeper understanding of the language used in the preface to Jeremy Collier’s A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Her chapter considers the theatre as an instrument of moral education, but also delves into the political circumstances that gave rise to Collier’s concerns. Like Freeman, Kinservik reexamines the presumed purposes of theatre regulation, but he looks back to political pamphlets debating theatrical censorship published prior to Collier’s A Short View and the Licensing Act of 1737, arguing that the writers of these pamphlets saw regulation as a means to ensure quality theatrical production. Together, these chapters seek to expand our view of governmental regulation in British theatre.
Part 3 moves outside of London, where Michael Dobson, Susan Cannon Harris, and Helen Burke find evidence of the important, often subversive cultural work performed by amateur provincial thespians and Irish theatre professionals. Dobson focuses on the domestic productions of Elvira and [End Page 309] Florizel and Perdita: or, The Sheep-Shearing staged in 1774 by all-female casts in Salisbury. He argues that productions seeking no profit are nonetheless culturally important and worthy of study by theatre historians. Both Harris and Burke see in Irish theatre practices a mediation of the British Empire’s cultural power over its Irish subjects. Harris looks to Thomas Sheridan’s The Brave Irishman and Charles Macklin’s Love à la Mode as plays that opened up a space for the stage Irishman to be reformed. Burke reads English critiques of Dublin audiences against the grain, extracting a repertoire of native performance practices that used the theatre as a space of cultural resistance.
Finally, part 4, “Representations,” examines how theatre appeals to our senses, and how such an appeal affects our experiences and understanding of plays. Mita Choudhury addresses the appeal to universality as a means of repressing the representation of Otherness and racial difference onstage. She looks to changes in acting technique, meant to be more realistic, as normalizing the stage Other, and incorporating that Other into the “European self” (232). Holland calls for further work into...