Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

London's Stepchild Finds a Home

PHYLLIS T. DIRCKS

Even the most casual observer of eighteenth-century musical theatre quickly notes abundant duplications of musical plays on the boards of English and American theatres of the period, and striking resemblances in their overall musical repertories. One has only to consult performance lists for the major American cities during the eighteenth century to note the overwhelming popularity of such works as The Beggar's Opera, Midas, The Duenna, The Haunted Tower, Richard Coeur de Lion, and Inkle and Yarico, all plays of English origin, to conclude that the eighteenth-century English musical theatre exerted a significant and pervasive influence on the early American musical theatre.

But what the casual observer and even the specialist often fail to realize is that although the English musical theatre was reaching the height of its popular success in the eighteenth century, it was not truly accepted as making a proper and substantive contribution to genuine theatre by the serious English theatregoer, who condemned the farcical and sensational elements that were becoming increasingly prominent in musical plays. Moreover, serious English playwrights were reluctant to have their work subordinated to what George Hogarth describes as "unmeaning sing-song." Musical productions came, therefore, to be "looked upon by people of sense and reflection as a slight and frivolous amusement, unworthy of serious notice." 1 The bald fact is that the eighteenth-century lyric theatre was considered the stepchild of English spoken drama.

The rich tradition of a spoken dramatic literature which existed from the time of Elizabeth I helped to make the cultivated eighteenth-century Englishman skeptical of a musical theatre that seemed to compete with the spoken drama. He refused to accept the expression of ideas or feelings in music as natural and was convinced that musical drama was necessarily noncerebral. Lord Chesterfield confided to his son that, at a musical play, "I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and ears." 2 Even David Garrick, the pacesetting theatre entrepreneur,

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