'Speaking to the Eye Rather Than the Ear'1: The Triumvirate's Autumn Dramas at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

By Bradley, Hayley Jayne | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

'Speaking to the Eye Rather Than the Ear'1: The Triumvirate's Autumn Dramas at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane


Bradley, Hayley Jayne, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


On Thursday 9 September 1909, The Whip opened as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane autumn drama. The eighth collaborative effort of Henry Hamilton and Cecil Raleigh, The Whip was hailed as 'the beau ideal of all that a Drury Lane melodrama should be' with thrilling situations, sensation scenes, innumerable incidents, human interest, romantic passion, endless panoramas and a dramatic dénouement.2 For the Drury Lane audience it was unlike anything they had previously seen at that theatre, but for Hamilton and Raleigh it marked the latest in a line of collaborative works dating back to 1894, and possibly the pinnacle of their affiliation with Drury Lane. Together they created eleven autumn dramas for Drury Lane, as well as their own individual works, first in collaboration with Augustus Harris (1894-97) and later with Arthur Collins (1897-1916), in both cases forming a formidable creative trio within the late Victorian/early Edwardian theatrical industry. These collaborations, while typical of the period, were responsible for pushing the boundaries of stage spectacle, working at the forefront of stage mechanisation in order to advance theatre technology and what could be visually accomplished onstage. Collectively the trio cultivated a reputation among fellow professionals and theatre-goers alike for annually surpassing their previous efforts, continually raising the standard at Drury Lane and broadening the scale and scope of what could be realised in a production. Where previously rope and wood apparatuses had flown back-cloths and gauzes in and out, steam and electricity driven mechanisms now powered backstage, cutting down on the manpower required to operate scene changes (and the time taken to implement them). The trio played a vital role in the development of new technology in the theatre but, equally, the increasingly advanced machinery at Drury Lane impacted on their methods of creating and executing plays. As the sophistication of the machinery developed so too did the sensation scenes, progressing from stage realisations of famous paintings to recreations of real life events. The triumvirate also featured new technology as subject matter, addressing the mechanisation of everyday life and the collisions between people and machines that were an aspect of the industrialised environment.3 This article explores the working methods of the triumvirate and the sensation scenes they created for the autumn dramas in the context of wider cultural and technological developments, examining their effect on late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century theatre, theatre audiences and members of the theatrical profession. Consideration of the triumvirate's works also raises questions as to the nature of collaboration and the practice of joint authorship, a relatively unexamined area of late Victorian/early Edwardian theatre which has, so far, been largely overlooked in theatre historiography.4 Further, this article will also consider the widening riftwithin the industry between those who believed in theatre as entertainment and those who regarded it as art - a debate which would put the autumn drama at its centre.

The Whip, then, was arguably the triumvirate's most successful and enduring drama for Drury Lane. However, the form pre-dated the trio's involvement at the theatre and originated in Augustus Harris's first season there in July 1880. Nine months after taking over the lease of a financially failing Drury Lane, he staged his first autumn drama, The World (Plate 11). A collaborative piece with Paul Merritt and Henry Pettitt, this play, unlike Harris's subsequent autumn dramas, opened a full two months before the West End season commenced, signalling Drury Lane as a venue catering not only for fashionable society but also for the public at large. With The World Harris initiated the first autumn drama season at Drury Lane, an annual fixture for which the theatre would become known. Running from September to December as part of the Drury Lane season, the autumn dramas were grand scale spectacular melodramas with lavish sets, large budgets, extravagant locations and exciting finales. …

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