- British Drama of the Industrial Revolution by Frederick Burwick
This book examines provincial theatres' role in the formation of working-class identity and consciousness in the industrial age. Burwick begins his study with the proliferation of provincial theatres after the Theatrical Representations Act of 1788, which gave the power of licensing theatres to localized authorities throughout the provinces. This act eroded the state's stranglehold on theatrical representation after the Licensing Act of 1737 and opened opportunities for productions of old and new plays reflecting the world of working men and women. Burwick's research into more than sixty provincial theatres shows us how the oppression of workers and, sometimes, their radical resistances to that oppression became part of performances between 1790 and 1840. Burwick is not making a blanket claim for these theatres as venues for radicalism; however conservative or progressive the politics of the plays, theatre was a space in which industrial, working-class experience was represented and shared.
For example, the old themes of anti-theatricality could be invoked against pro-labor messages when they played on the stage. Ironically, however, anti-theatrical attacks foregrounded subversive messages even as they decried them. The most compelling argument in the first chapter of this book shows us the contingency of plays' themes on the politics of local playhouses, players, and their audiences. Plays like Fielding's Tom Thumb; or, Tragedy of Tragedies, and Samuel Foote's The Mayor of Garratt adapted their performance to current politics. For example, a comic character could, through the mimicry of the actor, reference a local MP. Burwick makes the point that while the Licensing Act of 1737 assumed that plays were stable products, the realities of performance suggest their contingency on local contexts, a contingency that is all the more apparent after the Theatrical Representations Act of 1788. [End Page 119]
A chapter on early nineteenth-century theatres and their diverse audience begins with nostalgia for David Garrick's "easier time" (48) in managing status divisions in his theatre. While Burwick might be downplaying the violence that Garrick often met with, his point is well taken that these differences became increasingly infused with local political conflicts between workers and the landowning gentry. A theatre located in an area dominated by the military reflected different social concerns than one in which textile workers were dominant. What unites these local differences is the struggle to create what Arthur Murphy referred to as the "Fourth Estate" of the theatre, an audience in which opinion could form across social differences. Plays could reflect the conflicts in a local community; for example, a play called The Hunchback drew on the Shakespearean precedent of Richard III as well as Victor Hugo's recent reversal in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to pose a critique of aristocratic privilege over the merchant and tradesmen class. Adaptations of plays such as The Merry Wives of Windsor incorporated advertising for local merchants, eliciting support from them and strengthening ties to the community.
"Combination Acts and Friendly Societies" maps the formation of these social organizations and their influence on the theatre. Burwick looks at a wide political range of organizations, from the Masons and the Odd Fellows to the Manchester Female Reform Group. Their overall importance is that, conservative or radical, they created permeability between theatre and politics, both through a shared constituency (Burwick documents the participation of many theatrical professionals in these societies) and through performances in the theatre that were directed by and to various audiences of members. The more radical groups, of course, encouraged the performance of politically subversive plays such as The Mutiny at the Nore (1837), The Press-Gang; or, Archibald of the Wreck (1830), and Rent Day (1832), which often drew on recognizable conditions of class-based oppression. Burwick gives us a fascinating peek at the role of women in organizing their own groups for radical reform and the unsettling presence of angry women workers in the theatre and on the street, especially in areas dominated by the textile industry. This chapter gives us a...