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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 151-155
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Theatre in Belfast, 1736-1800, by John C. Greene, pp. 400. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press; London: Associated University Press, 2000. $47.50.
The last two decades have seen a welcom reneweal of scholarly attention to eighteenth-century Irish history and culture. Much valuable work has resulted from reexamining and rethinking the constraints on historical understanding imposed by simplistic or crudely polarizing categories. Scholars of the period are increasingly focused on the complex exchanges and hybridizing transformation occurring between the two cultures of eighteenth-century Ireland. new scholarship is especially welcome on the topic of the theaer, an important site of culture exchange and cultural conflict in eighteenth-century Ireland. John C. Greene's previous work on theater in Dublin in the eigteenth century—most notably his detailed calendar of The Dublin Stage, 1720-1745, written with Gladys Clark—has established him as the preeminent modern authority on the day-to-day activity of eighteenth-century Irish theatre. Theatre in Belfast is a welcome addition to scholarship in the field, greatly increasing the information on the subject provided by William S. Clark's very readable, groundbreaking study of The Irish Stage in the County Towns, published in 1965. Despite some obvious flaws, Greene's work constitutes a valuable contribution to knowledge of Irish theater in the eighteenth century, providing a wealth of detailed information about the theaters, performers, and repertory available to playgoers in Belfast.
Theatre in Belfast opens with a useful general account of the theater buildings, the price of admission to, and usual time of, performances; the theatrical companies that played in Belfast; conditions of employment in the theater; and the repertory. This introductory overview is followed by a daily calendar of performances that constitutes the bulk of the work, organized by theatrical season. The organization of the calendar is slightly misleading, as the customary designation of a theatrical season as running from autumn to spring does not [End Page 151] really fit Belfast conditions for much of the period. There were years at a time when Belfast was without a theater; at other times, the season could best be described as a summer venue for strolling companies. At the head of each season Greene provides an overview of the acting companies, with biographical sketches of the actors as well as an overview of the season's repertory. The calendar includes virtually every bit of factual information about contemporary performances that could be derived from contemporary accounts, especially from the Belfast News-Letter, the dominant newspaper in Belfast during the period covered by the book. Because theater managers do not seem to have advertised consistently, the amount of information that can be recovered from the papers is limited, with the result that during some theatrical seasons the extant record of performances is clearly inadequate. However, the calendar presents as full a picture as is likely to emerge of theater in Belfast in the eighteenth century, and Greene's judicious comments provide very useful contexts for the facts he presents. Finally, Greene provides a pair of useful indexes to the material he has amassed: the first, an index of plays, listed by author, with their performance dates; the second, an index of actors and the roles they played with the dates of their performances.
Theatre in Belfast offers a number of attractive features. It presents a colorful picture of the various kinds of entertainment available to Belfast, not only "legitimate" dramatic fare but scenic spectacles, singers and musicians, rope-dancers and other acrobats, and various kinds of comical "lectures" and other routines as well. The biographical sketches of the Belfast performers are not only useful, often augmenting and correcting the information provided in the landmark Biographical Dictionary of Highfill, Burnim, and Langhans; they are also frequently entertaining—sometimes grotesque, pathetic, or amusing as well as informative. Readers are unlikely to forget such figures as "Bold Larry" Kennedy or the scandalous Mrs. Achmet, nor the heartless treatment by audiences of poor James Beatty "Mad" Stewart, nor the description of Joseph Waker's bizarre Lecture on...