Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Theatrical Periodicals and the Ethics of Theatre in the Romantic Age

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Theatrical Periodicals and the Ethics of Theatre in the Romantic Age

Article excerpt

In the Romantic Age, the number of the periodicals devoted exclusively to theatrical matters was huge,1 and for the richness and variety of their contents, and even for their prejudice and sectarianism, they prove extremely useful for understanding the complexity of the theatrical event in those years. In this essay, I will look at the strategies that such magazines adopted to arouse interest in the theatrical event and its protagonists, to influence public opinion, and to create an ideal audience and an "ideal theatre".

The materials that theatrical periodicals published were heterogeneous: reviews of performances, actors' biographies - published in instalments - lines, letters, notes and circulars, anecdotes, gossip, and also courtroom records. The title-pages usually give a clear idea of the copiousness and variety of the contents of these magazines. See, for example: "The Roscius; consisting of original memoirs of the principal actors and actresses; strictures on the drama, and its interests; original essays, green-room gossips, Anecdotes, &c &c &c." Or The Drama; or, Theatrical Pocket Magazine:

Theatrical magazines provided endless opportunities for discussion and debate in which everybody could join: the editor and the critics; the readers, who usually wrote under pseudonyms and contributed with letters and lines inspired by theatrical events and characters; and the protagonists of the theatrical event itself - actors, authors and managers. Journals would quote from each other and attack each other.2 Readers could not only use the magazines to state their opinions, but also to express their disagreement with the editors3 and to quarrel with other readers.4 Theatres used the press to communicate with the audience (often to justify their decisions and courses of action) and with one another. The debates taking place in these periodicals were extremely heated and ingeniously constructed.

From February to April 1817, for example, The Theatrical Inquisitor followed very closely the storm originating from Junius Brutus Booth's fluctuating conduct. These are, briefly, the facts. On 12 February 1817, Booth, who had already been applauded as a second Edmund Kean in Brighton, made his debut as Richard III at Covent Garden. His reception was enthusiastic, and all the critics commented on his astonishing resemblance to Kean. Booth, however, quarrelled with the theatre over money, and on his scheduled third performance as Richard he failed to turn up. On 20 February he appeared at Drury Lane, instead, as Iago to Kean's Othello, in what was to be the greatest histrionic battle of the century. As was obvious, Kean rose to the occasion and completely eclipsed his rival. On that night, Booth realized that he had fallen into a trap. Indeed, his Drury Lane contract provided for him to play only secondary roles to Kean in the future. Thus, he did not show up on 22 February, when Othello was announced for repetition, and he crawled back to Covent Garden with his tail between his legs. The dispute between the two Patent Houses, both claiming the right to Booth's services, was set down for hearing in the court of Chancery, but was eventually settled privately in Covent Garden's favour.

The Theatrical Inquisitor investigated the controversy from a variety of points of view. The February issue contains a letter from a reader, a certain "Ignoto", who gives information about Booth's first theatrical experiences, and reveals confidential details about the player's negotiations with Covent Garden and Drury Lane. After this letter, the magazine presents a Drury Lane circular, following the actor's absence on the night in which he was announced to repeat the character of Iago. In the circular, two documents are enclosed: a note from Booth to the manager of Drury Lane, and an explanatory letter sent by the actor to the theatre Committee, with his reasons for returning to Covent Garden. The magazine also published a Covent Garden circular, written in reply to that of Drury Lane, in which the Covent Garden proprietors justify the actor's return to their theatre, stating that it was in accordance with a pre-existing agreement. …

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