The Victorian Theatre: A Survey

The Victorian Theatre: A Survey

The Victorian Theatre: A Survey

The Victorian Theatre: A Survey

Excerpt

Every spectacle demands its audience -- the nursery performance, with its conscripted parents and friends, no less than the circuses which the Romans were given with their bread. Actors can continue to act and playwrights to be heard only at an audience's pleasure. The history of any theatrical epoch is therefore the history of its audience's wishes, as interpreted by the playwrights, actors, and managers of the day. This back-stage collaboration may give an audience something that it does not expect, and so contribute to theatrical evolution; but it can never force on an audience something that it does not want.

In nineteenth-century England the audience shaped both the theatre and the drama played within it; for patronage, the only card with which a manager may sometimes outbid public taste, was at its lowest ebb at Victoria's accession. Polite society, when it patronized the theatre at all, favoured the opera; a large section of that society, however, shunned the theatre altogether and sought entertainment from the circulating library. Into the gap left by the withdrawal of the upper classes there rushed the masses of a capital whose population almost trebled between 1811 and 1861. To accommodate them the theatres multiplied their numbers and trebled their size. To penetrate these vast spaces the actors broadened their style. To satisfy the audience the bill was lengthened from three to four, five, and even six hours. To fix their attention the artist and machinist contrived ever greater wonders.

The playwright's place in the Victorian theatre was, at the outset, that of handyman to the company. He existed to make their performance possible, rather than they to interpret his work to an audience. The evolution of the Victorian theatre . . .

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