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  • Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807–1815 by Susan Valladares
  • Dana Van Kooy (bio)
Susan Valladares. Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807–1815. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015. Pp. xii + 459. $148.00.

In 1994, Julie Carlson was among a handful of academics to invite fellow romanticists In [to] the Theatre of Romanticism. While the theatre these scholars portrayed was expansive, it was by no means measureless. Perhaps the 1813 London theatrical sensation, Remorse was not familiar to many readers at the time, but Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and Byron certainly were, and Carlson's ambitious engagement with period performances depicting women and nationalism brought to light the false binaries that structure oppressive domestic—familial and national—relationships. Coleridge also features prominently in Susan Valladares's Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807–1815, where, distinctly, the English national theatre is no longer viewed as a singular entity, but rather as multiple venues and a plurality of inter-theatrical performances. Tightening her historical timeframe, Valladares considers the cultural impact of Britain's popular, albeit unexpected, Anglo-Spanish alliance during this period and specifically how it shaped early modern celebrity culture, wartime theatre, and the performance repertoires in London and Bristol. She also explains how the alliance transformed and valorized the stage Irishman due to the active [End Page 122] role of Irish soldiers, and especially Arthur Wellesley (Lord Wellington), in the Peninsular War. More specifically, she offers readers four erudite chapters, considering Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro (1799), the shifting political role of Shakespeare in the repertoire, the topical repertoire of London's minor, non-patent-holding theatres, and the important and distinctly different cultural role played by provincial theatres like those in Bristol, which hosted a military garrison of soldiers deployed to fight Napoleon's French forces in Portugal and Spain. The second half of Valladares's book is quite unusual. It represents the work of a detail-minded researcher who realized the gaps in information available about the nineteenth-century theatre and created a calendar of plays for Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and the British Theatre Royal from 1807 to 1815. As she notes in her introduction, the purpose of these appendices is to encourage new research and the "many other compelling narratives" (214) that remain to be told about Britain's wartime theatres.

Valladares begins her study of English theatres with a chapter about Sheridan's five-act tragedy, a spectacular success by all accounts that initially featured a star-studded cast, including John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, William Barrymore, and Dorothy Jordan. The 1799 play extended the season, holding the stage for thirty-one nights, an initial run that culminated in a command performance for George III in early June. As Valladares indicates, the first chapter, "Pizarro, 'Political Proteus'" investigates why and how Sheridan's drama "about the Spanish conquest of Peru became one of the defining narratives of early nineteenth-century Britain" (15). Pizarro entered the repertoire immediately and remained a favorite at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and across the provincial patent theatres throughout the mid-nineteenth century. As Valladares's chapter title—a phrase taken from William Cobbett—suggests, Pizarro's plot proved protean in its adaptability to the complex of "performative, social and political relations" (19) that English audiences negotiated as England changed its political stance toward Spain and Portugal throughout the Peninsular War. Grounding her argument in a range of source material, including periodicals, newspaper and journal reviews, playbills, and literary anecdotes, Valladares traces how Sheridan's drama reflected England's changing ideological stance. She argues that the initial reception of Pizarro focused on patriotism, which led to King George III stealing the show, but not without some attempts on the part of well-recognized radicals—notably, John Horne Tooke and William Wilberforce—to redirect its cultural significance. With the declaration of the Peace of Amiens and its collapse in May of 1803, and growing public fear about an imminent French invasion amidst concerns about Sheridan's association with Irish radicalism, the question of patriotism took a darker turn, revealing the performance's sometimes alarming ability, noted by Cobbett in his 1804 review, to conflate and deconstruct oppositional [End Page 123...


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