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  • Theatre and Governance in Britain, 1500–1900: Democracy, Discourse and The State by Tony Fisher
  • Jim Davis
THEATRE AND GOVERNANCE IN BRITAIN, 1500–1900: DEMOCRACY, DISCOURSE AND THE STATE. By Tony Fisher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017; pp. 290.

Tony Fisher's monograph provides a new and original way of looking at the relationship between theatre and governance in Britain between 1500 and 1900. Through a series of case studies and an ongoing analysis of the philosophical basis for the perspectives he examines, he untangles the complex relationship between theatre and the state. While he covers familiar territory, he also offers new ways of reading Britain's theatrical past in a study that is well-grounded in both contemporary and historical discourses pertinent to the topics of government and theatre. In particular, he provides a valuable insight into Platonic notions of theatre and their impact on European thought.

In Fisher's view, theatre was seen by government not only as a symptom of social corruption, but also as a potential instrument of reform. Consequently, as public theatres evolved alongside the expansion of the population in early modern Britain, so perceptions of the relationship between theatre and governance also changed. We move from the notion of theatrum mundi, wherein men and women are players on the stage of the world, to the "theatre of the multitude," focused more on the material conditions of everyday life. Within this context, Fisher suggests that anti-theatrical prejudice has less to do with puritan and moral opposition to the stage and is based more on a fear of disorder, sedition, and the instability and potential idleness of the common people. Insofar as theatre calls into question the authority of government by questioning the legitimacy of social and political order and hierarchy, it therefore represents the growing self-assertion of the laboring classes and their right to leisure. Thus two notions of community are at loggerheads: an ordered, unified community on the one hand, and a community of individuals (the multitude) on the other. The discourses around the threat of the [End Page 401] multitude and the threat of theatre coalesce, indicating the necessity of political governance over both common life and theatre.

As new forms of power emerge in the late 1600s, the Restoration stage comes to represent an important moment in the development of theatre's relationship to governance in Britain. While anti-theatricalism, especially as represented by the opinions of Jeremy Collier, continues, freedom and conduct are more central to discourses of governmentality. In Restoration drama, this emphasis on freedom and conduct (and the possible tensions between them) is embodied by the character of the libertine, enabling a satirical emphasis on the public dimension of private conduct (in civil society rather than politics). Dramatists are not necessarily endorsing libertine conduct; rather, they could be seen as advocating appropriate governance (and self-governance) within the family through correct conduct. While Restoration comedy takes place in a predominantly upper-class milieu, it hints at the wider social consequences when liberty is not restrained by governance. Within this context, Collier's anti-theatricalism in this period can be seen as a social rather than moral critique of the theatre.

In the early eighteenth century, as liberal governance absorbs the autonomous freedom of the individual, through various techniques of influence that curtail personal liberty, the question arises around the optimum license the theatre should be allowed within the public sphere. In his analysis of the events leading up to the Licensing Act of 1737, Fisher concludes that the emphasis is on keeping politics off the stage, and that the legislation aims to discipline rather than suppress theatre. Central to this discussion are the political satires of Henry Fielding, but whereas Fielding believed the stage should instruct through example and hold the powerful to account, the government believed that his satires, which often disparaged political figures, were a misuse of the stage. Fisher, however, suggests that another concern of the act was to regulate for appropriate behavior in the public sphere, and to prevent corruption and incivility among the lower orders. Prior to the act, the theatre was beginning to provide moral lessons in relation to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 401-402
Launched on MUSE
2019-10-11
Open Access
No
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