New Readings in Theatre History

By Bennett, Susan | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

New Readings in Theatre History


Bennett, Susan, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Jacky Bratton, New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xi + 238 pp. $55.00 hardback, $24 paperback.

It is now some fifteen years since the appearance of Tom Postlewait and Bruce McConachie's landmark volume Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, a book that took as its purpose, as the editors described it, 'to open up topics, to raise issues, to define practices, and to challenge assumptions in theatre history'.' Much important work has followed, but, perhaps, not the book that we might have anticipated - one that provides not only a model for reinvigorated historiographie practices but insists on a radical reinterpretation of what constitutes the business of theatre history. Jacky Bratton's New Readings in Theatre History arrives as the book theatre historians have been waiting for; in her words, 'developments in historiography and performance theory are at last beginning to filter into examinations of long-past theatre events, and from that a new hybrid, which might become an historiographically challenging and exciting new mode, begins to emerge. But no new direction or set of procedures has so far been agreed; the performance falters; and the audience is becoming impatient' (4-5).

Appearing as part of the Cambridge University Press series in theatre and performance theory, her project takes a bifurcated approach. In the first half of her book, Bratton works through what she blandly calls 'background.' Here, then, the author first provides an account of 'theatre history today' (as the title for chapter one would have it). This demands consideration of how theatre history emerged as a disciplinary practice - in other words, the creation and development of ideas in the nineteenth century, 'part of the hegemonic battle for possession of the stage itself (5). Bratton offers her readership a laudably clear account of how she understands the assumptions that have long organised the field, especially the notion that theatre history is always and necessarily contextual, informing the 'proper' work - which is to say, the study of drama as literature: 'this is a debilitating assumption; and, moreover, it has unintentionally given rise to much tedious and inferior work by lesser hands, which cannot claim any function beyond the gratification of an impulse to unearth, hoard and dispute over the detritus of the past'(6).

From this honest, if tough minded, starting point, Bratton proceeds with a detailed analysis of how this situation has been produced and how, indeed, it has endured despite all our claims for new historiographies and more inclusive histories. The remaining chapters of Bratton's background section cover 'British theatre history: 1708-1832' (a review of key figures and the accounts they constructed), 'Theatre in London in 1832: a new overview' (new readings of London performance culture), and 'Theatre history and Reform' (understanding the period of reform as one that firmly claimed theatre for a middle-class enterprise). The premise of The Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the Laws Affecting Dramatic Literature, Bratton suggests, was 'a history explicitly committed to criteria of authenticity and textual purity, that valued the multiplication of intimate small stages as serving the needs of new groups of educated people and therefore provoking the genius of new writers, based upon their pseudo-Shakespearean ideal of a writer's theatre in which women neither wrote nor performed, and where popular entertainment was the enemy of the verbal perfection of the text and could be blamed for the lamentable gaps between literary perfection and the adulterated scripts of performance'(88). It is a rewriting of this history that still engages us all.

The second half of New Writings in Theatre History is devoted to three case studies that enact other possibilities 'for accessing and retelling the history of the period from 1790 to 1832 in the British theatre'(95). …

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