1x13 | Victorian Theatre

Theatre found new audiences throughout the nineteenth century, with scores of people moving from rural areas to the cities to find jobs. The new urban working class wanted entertainment, as did the new bourgeois middle class. At the same time, the upper classes wanted to enjoy theatre without having to mix with those of lower status. In this episode I’ll be detailing the changes that took place in the theatre industry throughout the Victorian era and how they once even led to a riot.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

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As more people moved to the cities, there was more demand for theatre, and the new and improved transportation and lighting systems in those cities meant people could stay out later at night to see those performances. New theaters were constructed throughout the century, and in less than five decades, London went from having just 19 theaters to 61. Many of them had grand, impressive architecture that still stands today, along with opulent interiors. The actor H. A. Saintsbury said, upon entering London’s Lyceum Theatre, that "the spirit gripped you: it had enveloped you before you took your seat, gas-lit candles in their wine-coloured shades glowed softly on the myrtle-green and cream and purple with its gilt mouldings and frescoes and medallions… You were in the picture, beholding, yet part of it."

Originally, these theaters were lit with an abundance of candles, but gas lighting was introduced early in the century. This meant the actors could be seen more clearly, which altered their performances, letting them make more subtle movements. This was especially so when the limelight was invented in the 1820s, and the first spotlights were introduced. Theatrical lighting grew more complex throughout the century, as designers and engineers figured out creative ways to control the gas lighting, often using a gas table which can be compared to the electric light board in modern theaters. After electric lighting was invented, lightbulbs gradually replaced gas lighting, with London’s Savoy Theater being the first to adopt electric lights in 1881. This caught on a couple of years later in the United States, when Thomas Edison teamed up with the Kiralfy brothers, two well-known spectacle producers. They incorporated electric lighting into a musical ballet called "Excelsior", using over five hundred light bulbs in the finale, attached to scenery and to dancers’ costumes. The show was a hit.

We’re used to there being plenty of light on a stage, but the audience used to be illuminated too. Going to the theater was a social occasion, where people were free to chat and mingle throughout performances. This was first changed by the German composer Richard Wagner. He wanted the audience to actually pay attention to the performance, not to each other, so he lowered the lights over the audience. In 1876, he opened a new opera house in Bayreuth and insisted that his audience sit silently in darkness. This is what we’re used to today, having to sit quietly and politely at a formal concert or at the theater, but it was new to the Victorians. Wagner was one of the first sticklers for audience etiquette.

During that era, as highbrow and lowbrow entertainment began to separate, new rules of etiquette were developed to make the lower classes feel they did not belong in higher class spaces, like opera houses and theaters. Today, people criticize certain strict theater etiquette rules as being elitist and exclusionary, and it’s true that most of those rules were originally created for the purpose of excluding people. It’s largely because of growing elitism in the nineteenth century that Shakespeare came to be known as highbrow entertainment, something the lower classes couldn’t fully appreciate, along with opera and classical music. During the Elizabethan era and up through much of the Victorian era, Shakespeare had mass appeal, and was for people of all social backgrounds.

In England, beginning in the eighteenth century, theatre was mainly controlled by the upper classes through censorship and licensing laws. The 1737 Licensing Act made it so the theaters at Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the only theaters in London licensed to produce spoken drama, or "legitimate" plays. The Haymarket theater was also licensed to produce those shows, but only in the summer. The Lord Chamberlain and his Examiners of Plays had control over theatrical productions, and had to vet all scripts before performances were allowed. To get around these laws, new forms of theatre began to pop up. If a performance had musical accompaniment instead of just straight dialogue it wasn’t categorized as the type of play the Lord Chamberlain had authority over. In the early nineteenth century, music halls, operas, musicals, and burlesque shows proliferated. In 1843, the English government did away with those licensing laws because they wanted more theaters to produce legitimate plays, which would supposedly "civilize" the audiences. Instead, more comedies and sensationalist melodramas were created.

Melodrama was really the dominant theatrical genre in the nineteenth century. It was useful when it came to showing off new technological innovations, because dramatic special effects could be used to impress the audience, like mechanical stage sets, fires, and explosions. The stage management profession emerged during this time because there were so many technical elements to control and keep track of, that they needed one person to be in charge of it all. Melodrama was accompanied by music and contained lots of actions and exaggerated emotions. The plays typically had stock characters who were clearly sorted into the good versus evil categories. Working class audiences liked melodrama partly because the evil, villainous characters were often meant to represent the upper class, while the sensitive heroes were working class characters. And they liked the excitement of it. They could enjoy more serious productions, but they preferred to spend what little extra money they had on something really entertaining. As playwrights tried to compete and outdo each other, melodramas continued to get bigger and bigger. One of the iconic images of melodrama is the heroine tied to train tracks, who is rescued by the hero just in time, but this isn’t how the trope was originally staged. The first time this was done, it was in Augustin Daly’s 1867 play "Under the Gaslight" in which a male character named Snorky is tied to the tracks and is actually saved by the heroine, Laura. After the dramatic rescue, Snorky exclaims "And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!"

Apart from melodrama, another common genre of Victorian theater was romanticism. At the beginning of the century, many of the plays being staged were in the neoclassical style, which followed strict rules called unities. There was unity of time, action, and place. Romanticism rejected these old rules and focused more on creating a specific mood or atmosphere. They emphasized emotion over intellect or reason. Romanticism began in Germany but one of its most notable victories was in France in 1830. Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables, wrote a play called Hernani which went against the neoclassical rules. More traditional, upper class theatre critics were against the play before it had even been staged, but Hugo’s romantic, bohemian fans showed up to support him. These romanticists snuck into the theater and made an enormous, loud mess throughout the performance, angering the classical critics, and a riot broke out. This won’t actually be the only theatre-induced riot mentioned in this episode.

There were some playwrights and theatre-goers who disliked the emotions seen in both romanticism and melodrama, and they preferred the genre known as the "well-made play". It included logical, cause-and-effect plotlines with reasonable endings rather than sensational or dramatic surprise endings.

Related to the well-made play was realism, inspired by the theories of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, who argued that heredity and environment combine to create character. Realism was focused on creating plays which felt… real, true to life. One of the best-known realist playwrights was Anton Chekhov. In 1896 his play The Seagull premiered and it was such a disaster that Chekhov said he’d never write another play. Luckily, The Seagull did impress the playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who produced another staging of The Seagull in 1898 after founding the Moscow Art Theatre with Konstantin Stanislavski. That production was a success and the theater made a seagull their emblem. Stanislavski would go on to create a new system of acting now known as "method acting", which he believed lent an actor’s performance greater realism.

The more extreme version of realism was naturalism. The writer Émile Zola believed scientific formulas should be used to create theater, with experiments based on characters’ inner conflicts. One of the most notable naturalist thespians was André Antoine. He originally worked as the clerk for a gas company, but he worked evenings with the Comédie-Française, a French state theater, where he was part of the "claque", a group of audience members hired to either applaud or boo and hiss at the right times. Antoine went on to found the Théâtre Libre, a theatre company which got around the censors by only performing for subscription-based audience members. They were able to try out all kinds of new works which other theaters couldn’t produce, including the plays of Émile Zola and one play by Leo Tolstoy which had been banned by the Russian Tsar. Antoine insisted on the acting and sets being natural and realistic. It’s said he had designers create stage sets that included all four walls of a room, then after rehearsing the show, Antoine would decide which of the walls he would remove.

André Antoine was greatly influenced by George II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, who is considered to be the first theatre director in the modern sense. He was even referred to as the "theater duke". Many European noble courts had resident theatre troupes and George worked closely with his troupe, known as the Meiningen Company. George insisted on historical accuracy in props, furniture, and scenic design, and his troupe’s success actually led to theatrical supply houses opening so that other theatre companies could more easily create historical accuracy. The Meiningen Company were some of the first to use props and costumes throughout the rehearsal process and to write blocking in prompt books. At the time, many theatre companies used the "star system", wherein they had a few key actors who always took on starring roles, and everyone else was always in the ensemble. The Meiningen Company, however, rejected this system, and every actor in the troupe played both lead roles and subordinate roles in different plays.

In the star system, certain actors would gain large and loyal followings. Some of these star actors were rivals, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. One rivalry even inspired a riot in New York in 1849. It was between the English actor William Charles Macready and the first American star actor, Edwin Forrest, both of whom would come to represent their home countries in their rivalry.

At the time, upper class Americans were often Anglophiles, and British dramas and actors were seen as superior to their American counterparts. In 1847, the Astor Opera House opened in New York to cater to upper class, Anglophile patrons who wanted to avoid mingling with the lower classes in other theaters. Working class theatre fans were insulted by this because they saw the theater as a place where social classes were supposed to mix, and now they were purposefully being kept out. Those theatre patrons took a lot of pride in Edwin Forrest, America’s homegrown star of the theatre, who was said to wear prosthetic calf muscles onstage to add to his strong, manly image. Forrest’s British counterpart, William Charles Macready was known for a more genteel style of acting, and theatre fans argued over which man was better at performing Shakespeare’s work, plays which had become symbolic of British culture. On Macready’s second tour of America, Forrest followed him around the country and appeared in the same roles to challenge him. Then, on Macready’s third tour, he was harassed by Forrest’s fans, who threw food and once half a sheep carcass at him.

Two years after the Astor Opera House opened, Macready was scheduled to appear there as Macbeth. So, Forrest decided to also play Macbeth at a theater nearby. His fans bought hundreds of tickets for one of Macready’s performances and disrupted it by throwing rotten food, shoes, and bottles of smelly liquid at Macready. They also ripped up their seats, hissed at the performers, and yelled "Shame!" and "Down with the codfish aristocracy!". Macready and the other actors had to switch to performing their roles in pantomime because no one could hear them speak over the shouts of Forrest’s loyal fans. That same night, at Forrest’s performance, the audience cheered when he said the line "What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?"

After the disastrous performance, Macready said he was going back home to England, but a petition was signed by 47 upper class New Yorkers - including the writers Herman Melville and Washington Irving - begging him to stay. He agreed, and three nights later, on May 10th, 1849, Macready gave it another go. But this performance would turn out even worse.

Ahead of that night, a Forrest supporter handed out flyers across the city which asked "Shall Americans or English rule this city?" Forrest fans who were American nativists joined forces with Irish immigrants who they usually discriminated against, to fight their common enemy: the British. The New York police chief knew a riot was coming, and informed the mayor that they didn’t have the manpower to handle such an event. The mayor called in a militia, both to fight the working class rioters and to protect the homes of the wealthy who lived near the Astor Opera House.

As they’d done a few nights earlier, Forrest’s fans bought up tickets to Macready’s performance, but this time they were barred from entering and had to congregate outside. A riot broke out and Macready had to sneak out of the theater in disguise. The exact number of people who died in the riot is not known, but it’s estimated to be between 22 and 31, with over 120 injured. In the end, this only furthered the divide between social classes and their spheres of entertainment. It also goes to show how intimately the arts are intertwined with politics and history.

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