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  • Playing to the Crowd: London Popular Theatre, 1780–1830
  • Jo Taylor
Playing to the Crowd: London Popular Theatre, 1780–1830. By Frederick Burwick. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 330. ISBN 978 0 230 11686 3. £52.00.

Frederick Burwick’s groundbreaking study of the London theatre scene in the Romantic era aims to chart the development of the City’s popular local theatres and, in particular, these establishments’ relationships with their patrons. Burwick considers the effects of the dramatic rise in London’s population throughout this period, and examines how these largely immigrant audiences affected the types of plays and actors on their local stages, including the ways in which local jobs and interests were depicted. This focus on the patrons is what separates this study from earlier works. He self-consciously builds on the ideas of earlier theatre historians, including Raymond Mander, Joe Mitchenson and, most significantly, Jane Moody, and draws parallels with Jon Klancher’s analysis of the Romantic reader. [End Page 186]

The first chapter explores the role of children on the Romantic stage. Burwick interrogates the notion of the Romantic child prodigy and asks how these ‘Rosciae’ both fulfilled and subverted that role through a focus on William Henry West Betty (or ‘Master Betty’, as he was known) and Miss Mudie. Burwick questions the place of eroticised and demonised children in the Romantic world by contextualising it in terms of Elizabethan and Jacobean stage practices and contemporary film; Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1978) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) are cited as modern examples of this phenomenon. By portraying these adult passions, the child ‘enters into, but remains at odds with, an adult world’. The child-actor was not always successful; the eight year-old Miss Mudie, who was remarkably small for her age anyway, was jeered at by the audience for her portrayal of the flirtatious Peggy in David Garrick’s The Country Girl (1766), an adaptation of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675). Miss Mudie’s childishness did not render her flirtations with Belville believable. Master Betty, on the other hand, mimicked these adult feelings apparently faultlessly; at just thirteen, he successfully played the lecherous, incestuous Osmond in The Castle Spectre opposite forty-one-year-old Elizabeth Satchell Kemble. Despite this age difference (as Burwick notes, however jaded the cliché, she was ‘old enough to be his mother’), the audience were nevertheless willing to believe that they were watching a forty-year-old Osmond assaulting his eighteen-year-old niece. Burwick concludes the chapter with tantalising suggestions for future studies into the child performer and children’s theatre.

The following five chapters explore individual plays or playwrights, beginning with Thomas Moore. Burwick explores how The Gipsy Prince and The M.P.; or, The Bluestocking may be read as comments upon the Irish Problem. In both of these plays, Moore successfully evaded the censors and addressed the contemporary situation in Ireland while maintaining all the tenets of the melodrama; as the chapters on Mary Mitford’s Foscari and on Wilhelm Tell confirm, Moore was not alone in using his plays to explore the contemporary issues that concerned his specific audience. A reading of the implications of specific dialects in The Gipsy Prince is particularly enlightening; the inclusion of Pidjin, for example, allowed Moore to comment subversively upon the African slave trade. The examination of some of the plays’ songs allows Burwick to interrogate the relationship between playwright and musician, and to explore the dramatic effect of these frequent musical interludes. By using a libretto in the finale to The Gipsy Prince, for example, Moore is able to pass comment upon the underlying implications of the plot. The libretto ‘adheres to the conventional formula of the popular musical entertainment’, but its role in this play is two-fold: firstly, it allows Moore to address the loaded theme of interracial marriage; secondly, in the comic subplot, it ‘more boldly ridicules and denounces the exploitation of the subjugated and marginalized lower classes’. The play is thus able to fulfil the expected conventions of the romantic melodrama while simultaneously allying itself with the audience it is written for.

Burwick’s impressive archival research is...


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pp. 186-189
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