- British Drama of the Industrial Revolution by Frederick Burwick
It is perhaps no coincidence that the term "melodrama" began its groundbreaking journey toward cultural and theatrical significance during the throes of the Vietnam War, which contributed to making the boundaries between high and low art irrelevant just as much as the emergence of the postmodern condition. As long ago as 1964, Michael Booth, Brooks McNamara, and Eric Bentley were some of the critics and theatre historians responsible for bringing to our attention the rich [End Page 130] values of popular entertainments among which melodrama proved to be an enduring dramatic genre. Since then critical works have proliferated exponentially, starting with examinations of the content of melodrama and its various manifestations to a status in which theatre historiography has recognized the conditions which gave rise to melodrama and, more importantly, the social and cultural seedbed out of which it sprang and which the genre never forgot. It is in this context that Frederick Burwick's recent book should be placed: it both reinforces the contemporary scholarly interest in melodrama as social documentation, and positions the form as a demonstration whereby the conditions of living could be made immediately accessible to both metropolitan and provincial spectators. Those conditions were of course inextricably tied to the consequences of the Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1840 in particular.
Jane Moody's volume, Illegitimate Theatre in London 1770-1840 (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Burwick's Playing to the Crowd: London Popular Theatre 1780-1830 (Palgrave, 2011) both focus on theatres in London, the magnet city that drew those who had been deracinated by the turmoil of industrial change in the British provinces during the period under discussion. Burwick's new book, however, charts a journey that starts in London as players joined provincial theatre companies to perform plays with which they had become identified in the metropolis. As well, that journey enabled theatre practitioners to select their vehicles, which they regarded as appropriate for the particular venues and towns where they toured. In so doing, they were able to support the need for solidarity by performing plays that might reflect the immediate concerns of their audiences, whether they comprised out-of-work handloom weavers (who were part of the cotton, wool, or carpet industries), steel workers, miners, or even the tradesmen and members of the Friendly Societies who sponsored individual performances. Burwick's contention is that "the meaning of a play changes with every change in the performance location" (10), which reflects the protean nature of melodrama and its progeny and is one of this book's most valuable contributions to the discourses around genre, theatre venues, and the composition of audiences during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
Burwick compellingly develops the theme that London's illegitimate theatre became the "dramatic newsreel of the modern metropolis" by re-emphasizing the significance of "the theatre as an agency of reform directly involved with the labour movement" (7, 16). Such comments affirm the immediacy of a changing theatre culture that mirrored the struggle for political reform and social stability, both of which would elude most of the population throughout the period. Nevertheless, Burwick clearly illustrates the role of the theatre in the period as providing a dynamic and influential forum that gained its strength and relevance in tandem with the growing demand for social reform.
This demonstration of the theatre's close engagement with the concerns of its audiences is very welcome. Burwick's book does this with great skill. He identifies some of the key documents that recur as their lifespan was being extended by the numerous revivals in the provinces. For example, Samuel Foote's The Mayor of Garratt, or, The Election was first performed at the Haymarket theatre in 1763, [End Page 131] but the elements of political satire kept it very much alive in provincial centers such as Huddersfield (1826) and Belfast (1837), among others. James Sheridan Knowles's The Hunchback, depicting the faults of the aristocracy, was originally produced at Covent Garden in 1832, just as the 1832 Reform Bill...