On 5 June 1783 the Montgolfier brothers launched a balloon that rose on a pillar of hot air above a bonfire in Annonay central France. On 15 October their assistant, Pilatre de Rozier, became the first man to fly. His balloon ascended above Paris, and, although the flight lasted only four and half minutes and rose only eighty-four feet, it provided its fearful occupant with an overview of a city which in the next ten years was to experience violent changes that have reverberated to the present day. 1 The development of aviation might be considered to have been more momentous, but the ideas and strategies hammered out in the forge of the French Revolution have just as decisively shaped the values and consciousness of the last two centuries. Like the Montgolfiers' balloon, the theatre of late eighteenth-century London may also appear to have been a gorgeous and flimsy package floating free above the city. But, like the balloon, it was more than just a fabulous spectacle to delight ignorant spectators; its flight provides us with a vantage point from which to view and analyse changes happening below, for, just as hot air kept the Montgolfiers' fragile craft afloat, so the shape and speed of theatrical change were invisibly determined by the heat of political and cultural conflict. This study will examine both the spectacle and the forces that shaped it. Examples of performance, drama and theatrical innovation will illustrate how public entertainment responded to the turbulence in the intellectual climate that sociopolitical changes induced, for, even though London did not suffer the traumas of Paris, it underwent a major cultural crisis.
By 'crisis' I mean that not only were there unprecedented material changes but that the ideologies available could no longer explain their development. The philosophies of the Enlightenment, which had originally inspired the revolution in France, were confounded by the excesses of the Terror and Napoleonic expansionism, while the