Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

An Eighteenth-Century Capital of Culture? Conflict and Controversy in Liverpool's Pursuit of a Theatre Royal, 1749-1771

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

An Eighteenth-Century Capital of Culture? Conflict and Controversy in Liverpool's Pursuit of a Theatre Royal, 1749-1771

Article excerpt

The Theatre Royal Liverpool opened in the newly built Williamson Square on 5th June 1772 to great acclaim. The distinguished playwright and manager, George Colman (the elder) had written a proud and spirited prologue to mark the occasion and Liverpool's economic prosperity was thriving. A Royal Patent appeared to be, so to speak, the cherry on the top of the cake that was a profitable period for the town. Yet the national reaction to the town's endeavours to achieve such an honour and the spirited debate that ensued did not echo the proud, upbeat sentiments of Liverpool's residents. Just over two hundred years later Liverpool found itself again at the centre of a heated national debate following the 2003 announcement of the town's successful bid to be the European Capital of Culture for 2008. For the most part the city and its residents were immensely proud, recognising this international award as the boost they had needed not only to improve its appearance, tourism and employment opportunities, but also to renew a feeling of self-confidence and regional worth that had been lost during the city's decline in the late twentieth century. But the success of Liverpool over five other British hopefuls (namely Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Newcastle-Gateshead and Oxford) also sparked a more negative series of queries and concerns--exactly what culture did this stereotypically rough and dreary northern port have? Liverpool faced a tough battle to gain national approval over this decision and it was, I think, only grudgingly given at the end of an undeniably successful and vibrant year as Capital of Culture. As Andy Burnham noted in an article in The Guardian, the city "has done the country Proud--and silenced those many critics who never normally miss a chance to take a sideswipe at all things scouse" (12 January 2009). But why did Liverpool have to fight so hard to prove its cultural worth in the eyes of the nation? I believe that the disparaging modern attitude towards the city's cultural status finds its roots in the complex and divided eighteenth-century opinions on a small northern town that had suddenly emerged as a prosperous port and taken the nation, and the world, by storm. The national reaction to Liverpool's application to build a Theatre Royal under the honour of a Royal Patent emphasises the strength of feeling about the town and begins a debate over Liverpool's cultural worth that would re-emerge nearly three centuries later.

Seeking a Royal Patent

A Royal Patent was the eighteenth-century theatrical Holy Grail. Following the 1737 Licensing Act, London's Theatre Royal Covent Garden and Theatre Royal Drury Lane technically held the monopoly over legitimate theatre and all proposed drama was put through the rigorous political and social censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's office. By 1760 Members of Parliament had begun to review their opinions on granting Royal Patents, influenced later in the decade by the successful petition of the actor and playwright Samuel Foote for a patent for the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1766 and by the growing numbers of provincial towns eager to stage drama in theatres honoured by royal decree. Edinburgh was the first provincial theatre to gain royal approval in 1767, signalling a gradual acknowledgement that, as Jane Moody notes, "provincial theatres served a purpose in bringing all levels of society together in one cultural, united and controlled space ("Dramatizing the Nation" 1). The main practical advantage to achieving a Royal Patent was that it provided insurance and security for theatrical buildings and materials. However, ideologically, the coup of being awarded a Royal Patent was a symbolic source of pride that marked a community's coming of age. With Edinburgh's successful petition swiftly followed by Bath and Norwich in 1768, Liverpool was keen to demonstrate its new prosperity and leave its unsophisticated and illegitimate theatre behind.

When looking at the cultural aspirations of Liverpool nearly three centuries ago, it is helpful to place it in its mid eighteenth-century context. …

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