How a Victorian one-legged dancer can correct bad habits

New Readings in Theatre History
August 27, 2004

The prompters of 18th-century London theatre were "tribal scribes" of a history that was doomed. Often careful keepers of annals reaching back through living memory to Shakespeare's times, they recorded theatrical knowledge that, Jacky Bratton suggests, was "more at home in the pit, or even in the theatre tavern, than in the library".

Enter, in the early 19th century, the drama reformers. By then, the old Theatre Royal "patent houses" of Covent Garden and Drury Lane were competing with the new theatres of swanky Mayfair and the nascent West End, as well as with "fringe" venues in the City, Paddington, Bayswater and Shoreditch. A fabulous babel of theatres had bubbled up to flatter, persuade and amuse masters, masses and all shades in between. The reformers, led by Edward Bulwer Lytton MP, set out to destroy this radical messiness by "modernising" the theatrical estate. Their chief weapon was theatre history viewed through the prism of the library.

Bratton argues that the 1830s initiated a modernist theatre history that traded in binaries, that thrived for 150 years and that struggles on today.

It pitted the dramatic text against the spittle-splattered boards, the blacked-out audience against the pictorial scene, the poetics of Shakespeare against the swoon of spectacle. New hierarchies were spawned, elevating drama above theatre and theatre above performance, crucially undermining the stage as a component of democracy and causing scholars to adopt deeply compromising historiographies: "The theatre was increasingly appropriated to the middle-class voice in Britain, and... theatre history was written to suit that project." All its main historiographic methods stemmed from a disposition that was "hostile to its own subject: the traffic of the stage".

New Readings in Theatre History offers an astringent antidote to this malady. Against the grand narrative of the dramatic canon delivered by great actors, it is astute in probing the capillary stories of playbills, autobiography, anecdote, mimicry, low-life performance and family histories. So while the custom of actors "taking off" their colleagues may be just irritating fun, mimicry may also be a powerful transmitter of embodied theatre histories. Likewise, the 19th-century phenomenon of scabrous Cockney scenes set in boozers and brothels - sometimes featuring "characters" such as Billy Waters, "a one-legged former slave who was an accomplished violinist and dancer" - may demonstrate that "Cockney voices are not the product of Merry England, but the miscegenated consequences of the spread of Empire".

Closer to home, the cross-cutting genealogies of theatre families created a hugely extended "tribe" through which talented women performers and managers circumvented "masculine and cerebral idealisations (the genius of the playwright) in favour of feminine ones".

These readings are delightfully disputatious in their rigour, so the odd slip from scholarly precision is particularly telling. The passing of the 1831 parliamentary Reform Bill invites the clairvoyant claim that "London felt the people had won". The centrist implications of that phrase echo throughout the book in the historically accurate but unqualified use of "provincial" to describe Britain beyond London. But these are like dents in a dodgem-car, disfiguring but hardly significant to the pluckiness of its purpose.

Like Peter Holland's Theorising Practice: Redefining Theatre History , Bratton's book aims to bump a discipline out of bad historiographical habits. It is an impressive and progressive postmodern peroration and the excellence of its provocative energy should propel readers of all stamps towards a revitalised relish of the stage and all its traffic.

Baz Kershaw is professor and chair of drama, Bristol University.

New Readings in Theatre History

Author - Jacky Bratton
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 238
Price - £40.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 521 79121 9 and 79463 3

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