Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Keeping Place": Servants, Theater and Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Keeping Place": Servants, Theater and Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

The impact on eighteenth-century British studies of Jurgen Habermas's account of the public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has been considerable and shows no immediate signs of abating.(1) As it has now been rehearsed many times, Habermas's thesis is that in the eighteenth century, as a result of the religious and civil wars of the early modern period, private individuals began to act together in the interests of what was defined as public opinion, forming a new sphere of interaction with absolutist state power. This change was apparent in new kinds of cultural formations and institutions--in the British case the coffee house and the periodical press--which served as "forums of discussion" in which private individuals constructed themselves as an alternative source of public authority to that of the crown or court, an authority based on a rhetoric of openness, reasoned debate and an ideal of egalitarianism. According to Habermas, the public sphere as represented by the "republic of letters" was a crucially important category in the formation of the bourgeoisie, a necessary development in the rise of liberal democracies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While an important component of Habermas's idea of the public sphere was sociability--in order for public opinion to be defined and articulated it had to construct new kinds of social interaction and remodel existing ones--the sociability of discursive criticism took precedence in his argument over other kinds of sociable communities or practices. This bias has been reinforced in subsequent accounts of Habermas by among others, Terry Eagleton, and by contributions to the public sphere debate in journals such as Studies in Romanticism, the focus of which is almost exclusively literary.(2) In an article on Tennyson, for example, James Chandler acknowledges the existence of extra-literary publics in late Georgian Britain but only to exclude them from his argument: "I am not concerned with the relation between public spheres constituted in literary and those constituted in other Domains--not concerned, that is, with the publics for what Richard Altick ... calls 'the shows of London."' (3) It is precisely the rel ationship between the various kinds of public, in particular the expanding public sphere of print and the older public represented by theater, one of the shows of London, with which this article will be concerned. I want to discuss the controversy in the 1750s and 1760s surrounding a now neglected play, James Townley's High Life Below Stairs, as a case study in the formation of public opinion in the eighteenth century. My aims are twofold--to explore the interactions between the idea of the public represented by and in the British theater of this period and the republic of letters; and to explore the figure of the servant as both historical actor and a focus for anxieties about social difference.

I

First performed at Drury Lane on October 31, 1759, High Life Below Stairs remained a part of the repertory of the British theater for nearly a hundred years. (4) With another farce, Samuel Foote's The Mayor of Garratt, it was among the most popular plays for amateur performance, being staged in contexts as diverse as the country houses of the aristocracy and gentry and the battlefields of the empire. (5) As late as 1842 Charles Dickens played the part of the servant Philip in a public performance of the play in Montreal. (6) A measure of its success is that, unusually for a farce, it was published soon after its initial performance and went through numerous editions and pirated versions in the second half of the century. (7) While it was at the time occasionally attributed to David Garrick, High Life Below Stairs was the work of James Townley (1714-1778), a clergyman and schoolmaster who was the protege of the actor manager. (8) However, Garrick's dominance of Drury Lane was such that he is likely to have cl osely supervised the writing and production of the play and, as I will discuss later, he may also have had his reasons for concealing his involvement. …

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