Theatrical Riots and Cultural Politics in Eighteenth-Century London

By McPherson, Heather | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Theatrical Riots and Cultural Politics in Eighteenth-Century London


McPherson, Heather, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


The theater--a phenomenally popular form of entertainment in eighteenth-century London--catered to a large, heterogeneous public ranging from aristocrats to merchants to artisans and servants. Therefore it is hardly surprising that theatrical audiences came to be perceived as a microcosm of British society, emblematic of its mixed constitution. (1) The fact that theater audiences represented a broad social and economic cross-section of the London populace, however, also meant that they did not necessarily respond uniformly or speak with a unified voice. Moreover, London audiences were active, frequently unruly consumers of culture, who did not hesitate to vocalize their opinions. Indeed, foreign visitors were often shocked by the vociferous, dialogic participation of London spectators. The intensely partisan, volatile nature of eighteenth-century audiences is attested to by their boisterous approval or disapproval of performances or individual players and by frequent outbreaks of violence. (2) More than merely episodic events, theatrical riots are emblematic of underlying social and political tensions and the ways in which cultural politics and nationalism were reenacted as counterspectacle.

This essay considers the phenomenon of theatrical riots against the shifting political and sociocultural parameters of the emerging public sphere, (3) contested notions of British identity, and the evolving ideology of nationalism, focusing on the ways in which theatrical disturbances reflected broader class tensions, the changing economics of the theater, and the increasingly contentious politics of culture that developed after mid-century. In eighteenth-century Britain, politics and the stage were intricately intermeshed legislatively, metaphorically, and figuratively. Indeed, the 1737 Licensing Act implicitly recognized the political significance of the theater and its power to shape public opinion. Under the Licensing Act the two royal patent theaters--Drury Lane and Covent Garden--were licensed to perform spoken drama and subject to legal regulation and prior censorship. However, unlike their continental counterparts, the London patent theaters were not directly subsidized by the crown. Rather, they were commercial enterprises owned by shareholders, who expected to make a decent profit. Although David Garrick, in particular, was instrumental in raising the status of the actor and legitimizing the stage, playhouses throughout the eighteenth century retained their stigma as protean, morally suspect locales, associated with prostitution, sexual license, and public disorder.

As the century advanced, the stage became an increasingly charged political arena endowed with a particular patriotic significance in which British identity and mores were contested and defined. (4) Both old and new plays were influenced by contemporary politics and frequently enlivened with topical references and political interpretations. (5) London newspapers multiplied and diversified, coming to function as a highly partisan public tribunal whose political influence was widely acknowledged. (6) Not coincidentally, caricature emerged during the second half of the eighteenth century as a potent form of public discourse in which the theater and theatricalized imagery figured prominently, especially from the 1780s on. (7) Theatrical performances were widely reviewed and vociferously debated in the rapidly expanding press, and leading actors--such as Garrick, Sarah Siddons, and John Philip Kemble--became prominent public personalities who were alternately praised and vilified and sometimes viciously caricatured.

In this essay I shall focus on three major theatrical disturbances--the 1755 Chinese Festival Riots at Drury Lane, the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and the Old Price (O. P.) Riots of 1809, which brought the management of Covent Garden literally to its knees. (8) Although different sets of circumstances precipitated the riots, in each instance the press played a central role in provoking the riots and the audience turned the tables on the performers and staged its own violent counterspectacle.

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