Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Manufacturing Spectacle: The Georgian Playhouse and Urban Trade and Manufacturing

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Manufacturing Spectacle: The Georgian Playhouse and Urban Trade and Manufacturing

Article excerpt

The surviving account books of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres from the mid- to late-eighteenth century provide "A Peep Behind the Curtain," to quote the title of David Garrick's 1767 play, shedding light not only on production costs, but the men and women and skills required to mount increasingly lavish dramatic spectacles. Here one finds wages to regular theatre employees and house servants recorded alongside payment for wardrobe, property and scenery materials. Managers and heads of production departments relied upon local suppliers and tradespeople for everything from feathers to plumbing. Production costs integrated the theatres within metropolitan networks of commerce and manufacturing, as well as a broader non-theatrical artisanal labour force. (1)

A research focus on the financial records of London's theatres allows for a more fully realized history of cultural production, one which moves beyond internal institutional chronicles. Theatre historians have begun to investigate the economic conditions of eighteenth-century performance, particularly in the realms of opera and dance. (2) The alternating pages of receipts and expenses in theatrical account books disclose revenues, production expenditures, performer salaries, profitability, and financial (mis)management, each contributing to our understanding of the risks of cultural entrepreneurship and the business of making a living in the theatre. If we step outside the doors of the Georgian playhouse, however, and into the bustling streets of the metropolis, we come to see the surviving account books and ledgers in a new light, one which allows us to begin to identify the points of intersection between the London theatre and a broader urban economy.

London was a far greater manufacturing centre than has been previously assumed (A.L. Beier). The modes of production encompassed large scale shipyards and breweries to small masters' workshops, and, increasingly, armies of anonymous domestic outworkers--a phenomenon that would later be damned in the nineteenth century as "sweated labour." A significant portion of London's population was engaged in wholesale and retail trade, from substantial mercers to the lowly chandler's shop. Historians such as Peter Earle and Leonard Schwarz have mapped out the contours of London's industrial and commercial sectors, and their work draws upon taxation returns, fire insurance policies, apprenticeship records and inventories. These studies are particularly valuable in their use of (often elusive) sources which name individual artisans and shopkeepers, and which can provide a basis for linkage to other records. One of the more exciting aspects of working with theatrical business records is the possibilities they present as a source for the social and economic history of London's cultural neighbourhoods.

For the purposes of this essay, I will be drawing upon a selection of account books from the two patent theatres covering the 1740s through to the 1770s, as well as a smaller internal account book from Drury Lane's wardrobe department from 1803. (3) The surviving account books vary in the details they disclose. Some treasurers carefully recorded the names and occupations of the tradespeople with whom they did business, including descriptions of the items or services purchased. A change in staff, or a more harried treasurer, resulted in hastily noted totals of expenditures according to broad categories, such as wardrobe, leaving the names of individual suppliers and labourers much more difficult to trace. Despite their limitations, a sampling of these account books allows for a fuller understanding of the economic role of the Georgian playhouse within the broader context of urban trade and manufacturing.

A brief overview of the finances of London's two patent theatres at mid-century provides a background for evaluating their economic contributions as both employers and customers. In a season that ran from September to May, with an average of 180 performance nights, managers could hope to realize an income between 15,000 [pounds sterling] and 20,000 [pounds sterling] in the 1740s and '50s. …

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