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History of English Theater, 1641-1843

History of English Theater, 1641-1843

Michael Gamer

ISBN: 978-1-119-08202-6

Jun 2019, Wiley-Blackwell

352 pages

Select type: E-Book


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The proposed book is intended both for general readers interested in history and popular culture and for academics and students. Rather than performing a general survey of theatrical history, it focuses on key moments of conflict that, in turn, provide panoramic views of English dramatic culture. The focus of the chapters, therefore, will be specific episodes when theater's social and political function within English culture shifts, when theater acts as a flashpoint within more general debates, or when theater becomes a focus of controversy itself. From each of these case histories, the chapters move outward to provide a broader picture of the history of English theater.

The book's method and intended audience, therefore, will most closely resemble those of Marilyn Butler's Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Backgrounds 1780-1820 (Oxford, 1981). Just as Butler's chapters each focus on a specific event (such as the opening of the Thomas Boydell Shakespeare Gallery) as a means of making more general arguments about how Romantic writers viewed their own literary inheritance, so this book will focus on particularly charged episodes as a means of providing a view of the changing place of the theater within English culture.

My belief that such a book will succeed with both academic and general readers arises from the extraordinary richness of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatrical culture and our own genuine ignorance of it. On the one hand, this is the age of theatrical innovation that gave us pantomime, ballad opera, farce, the circus, melodrama, the music hall, and the modern drama of ideas, not to mention the licensing of plays, the deregulation of playhouses, and the cults of celebrity that surrounded David Garrick, Mary Robinson and Dorothea Jordan, John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, Master Betty and Carlo the Wonder Dog, the Dibdin Brothers and Joseph Grimaldi, Charles and Fanny Kemble, Charles Macready, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving. On the other, its two centuries of drama remain almost entirely neglected by modern theaters and critics; and specialists in the literature and culture of these years confess to little or no knowledge of their chosen period's drama unless their work specifically concerns the stage. Even with the recent and pronounced surge of excellent academic work in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theater, the drama produced between Congreve and Shaw is still seen by most scholars and critics as a dismembered corpse, its literary head lying in one place and its theatrical body residing in corrupted state elsewhere.

Yet, this same stage stood at the center of English culture. It drew major authors to it from Gay and Thomson to More and Inchbald, Scott and Coleridge, Byron and Hemans, and Dickens and Collins. It comprised a force irresistible enough to affect the orbits of other cultural forms -- not only by offering to authors the most lucrative and prestigious means of remuneration, but also by providing a primary arena through which actors and dancers made their mark, composers and musicians flourished, military victories could be seen and understood, public acts of patriotism could be performed, and the newest songs, fashions, and technological marvels debuted. In short, the theater of this period provides readers with an especially fertile, uncharted, and resonant territory.

Most fundamentally, then, this book aims to familiarize readers with the central role played by the stage in these two centuries by foregrounding its connections both to major authors and political events, and to other literary and cultural forms. While each chapter will make its own discrete intervention in literary history, it also will close with a concluding section summarizing where the chapter subject fits within the larger mosaic of theater history, and how it affected the larger world of English theater. In addition, the chapters collectively will constitute an overarching argument about the relation between stage and page, about the centrality of theater to the development of a national literary culture, and about changing notions of high and low culture.