Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Matthew Arnold on Victorian Theatre

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Matthew Arnold on Victorian Theatre

Article excerpt

French plays and comedies dominated the British stage throughout the nineteenth century. Reasons for this overwhelming French influence are to be looked for in the economic conditions that framed playwrights as well as in the audience reception. The genre of la piece bien faite as conceived by Scribe and amended by Sardou, though deplored by most of the French and English drama critics, impacted upon British playwrights who not only adapted but also copied and reworked its inner dramatic structure. Furthermore, the success of French actors and companies relied not only on the excellence of declamatory techniques but also on a particular organizational structure encompassing subventions from the state and independent performance. Matthew Arnold was a pioneer in not deploring French influence and in recognizing its profitable assistance to native drama's revival by means of acknowledging the positive influence the Comedie Francaise exerted on the British stage. The aim of this paper is to explore the role the Maison de Moliere played as regards the renaissance of English drama as far as play-performing and theatrical organization are concerned, and to highlight the pioneering opinion of Matthew Arnold in regarding the performances of the Comedie Francaise as a starting point for the regeneration of the English stage and the establishment of a prospective National Theatre.

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According to the reviewers of the period, the influence of France upon English dramatists during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in terms of performances, translations, and adaptations was crucial. Edward Morton defined the systematic representation of French plays in London in a 1 July 1887 article published in The Theatre titled "The French Invasion," declaring that "at half-a-dozen theatres English translations, versions, or perversions of French plays are now being performed, to say nothing of the French comedians in possession of the Adelphi and the Lyric." Despite the fact that Morton's article is dated 1887, such dependence on French plays can be traced back to the turn of the century as Nicoll's, Wearing's, and De Mullin's lists of Victorian plays have stated; (1) and very likely, the rumor spread by Augustin Filon (41) about a supposed translator tamed by the director of the Princess', confined under lock and key, and never released nor fed until his task was complete, gives us an ironic but accurate description of the systematic adaptation of continental plays by either British dramatists or translators.

The overwhelming French influence upon the British stage has been defined by contemporary historians of English drama as one of the main reasons for the decline of the theatre in England throughout the nineteenth century. Despite all the references to the negative influence of French plays and comedians--Edward Fitzball defined British drama as a theatre "nearly all composed of translations" (I,1), Sir Arthur Jones declared that the "enemy of English drama is, the English theatre" (311), and even actors themselves called for a "new drama" in a pamphlet titled A new drama or we faint!-, few contemporary reviewers were capable of foreseeing the advantages of such borrowings, as far as dramatic composition and performance were concerned. In this sense, Matthew Arnold was a pioneer in not deploring French influence and in recognizing its valuable assistance to native drama's revival by means of acknowledging the positive influence that the Comedie Francaise exerted on the British stage. The aim of this article is to explore the role the Maison de Moliere played as regards the Renaissance of English drama as far as play-performing and theatrical organization are concerned, and to highlight the pioneering opinion of Matthew Arnold in regarding the performances of the Comedie Francaise as a starting point for the regeneration of the English stage and the establishment of a prospective National Theatre. The idea of a National Theatre had been suggested by Victorian critics throughout the nineteenth century, as examples from countries like France, Sweden, and Austria had proved to be most valuable for the establishment of a national cultural identity. …

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