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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 1. The drama a popular amusement in the nineteenth century

THE DRAMA in the nineteenth century was much affected, as drama always must be, by social conditions, and by theatrical conditions which social development brought about. When the earlier years of the century had passed, and the fall of Napoleon had relieved England of much danger and anxiety, the less educated and the uneducated parts of the population began to improve in manners and in mind; and one of the means of refinement of which they showed a desire to avail themselves was the drama. Hitherto, to a very great extent, the theatre had been the amusement of educated classes only. The pit was still occupied by the acutest critics, members of the professional or the higher commercial classes. The people had not yet begun to take any wide or keen interest in the drama. The nineteenth century saw the influx of the populace into the theatre. And the populace, though ready to have its taste improved, brought with it its love of sensational incident and of broad humour. Not for it the elegant, if rather bloodless, tragedy, and the fine comedy, of high life, which had been the educated theatre-goers’ staple fare. Caring nothing for poetry or for the subtler shades of feeling, it needed a hearty kind of play, full of excitement and written in expressive, high-flown language; it needed stories of passion, or terror, or lively fun. And, little by little, the demand created the supply. The nineteenth century saw the drama become, for the first time since the days of queen Elizabeth, a popular amusement. For the most part, educated classes and the higher ranks of society ceased to attend the theatre. It needed the attraction of some famous actor—Kemble, the two Keans, or Macready—to draw them back to what had been their special province; and, until some years later than the middle of the century, the creation of any drama of high quality was dependent upon the fame of some great actor who could draw refined and educated people to witness it.

Even so, it was presented under theatrical conditions that gave it small chance of a fair hearing. The theatre was still under the control of the court; and the only theatres which the court, as represented by the lord chamberlain, recognised were the two “patent” houses, Drury lane and Covent garden, and the theatre in the Haymarket. But the increasing number of theatre-goers rendered these three insufficient for the public need. The patent houses, and especially Drury lane, were enlarged until they reached a size in which no drama of any delicacy or subtlety, none, indeed, which was not spectacular and, in some manner, violent, could be thoroughly effective. A quarter of the audience could neither see nor hear; many of the rest could neither see nor hear well.

A theatre of enormous size had been no bar in Athens to the existence of a noble drama; but, in nineteenth-century London, the conditions were different. Plays were not, as will be seen, a vehicle for religion: religion chose to regard the theatre as an enemy, and the theatre took what was, on the whole, a very mild revenge. Moreover, since James I had turned the Globe and Blackfriars company into an appanage of his court, the whole tendency had been to divorce the drama from the national life. The great size, therefore, of Drury lane and of Covent garden meant that these were no fit places for the representation of the plays enjoyed by educated classes; and, considering the growth in importance, volume and interest of the novel, it is not surprising that educated classes stayed away from the theatre, except when it was occupied by the fashionable Italian and French opera and ballet, and left the drama almost entirely to the new class of theatre-goers, drawn from the people. Meanwhile, the demand for theatrical entertainment on the part of the populace, and of the man of average refinement and intelligence, could not be satisfied by three theatres only. In defiance of the law, other theatres sprang into existence. By many undignified shifts, these theatres succeeded in avoiding sudden extinction at the hand of the lord chamberlain, and in increasing their number and importance. But dramatists who wrote for them were, necessarily, ill-paid, and the drama which they produced was, necessarily, ephemeral. For not only was every such theatre liable to be closed at a moment’s notice; each work of dramatic art had to masquerade as something other than a play—to be interspersed with music or dancing or exhibitions of performing animals—in order that its producers might persuade themselves, or the lord chamberlain, that they were not breaking the law. Not till the year 1843 did the Theatre Regulation act legalise the position of “illegitimate” houses. To these disabilities must be added the deterrent effect of the lord chamberlain’s power to forbid the performance of plays on the grounds of seditious, blasphemous or immoral matter in them. The effect of this power was to prevent the drama from concerning itself with any of the subjects about which intelligent people think and feel; and this restriction militated against the production of good plays long after the act of 1843 had given the public the right to have practically as many theatres as it liked in which to develop the kinds of dramatic production which it required.

Under these conditions, the plays of the first half of the century were not likely to be endowed with much merit; and, in this period, we reach the low-water mark of the English drama in quality, together with a great increase in quantity. The death of tragedy; the swift decline of the romantic or poetical drama and the coarsening of comedy into farce are scarcely outweighed by the rapid growth of an honest and fairly spontaneous, but crude, domestic play suitable to the taste of the new theatrical public. Theatrical conditions, rather than social, prevented the amalgamation of the popular drama with the existing drama into a national drama that should, like that of Shakespeare, satisfy the tastes of refined and homely alike. On the one hand, the “legitimate” play declined into “lugubrious comedy and impossible tragedy,” and the poetic play found itself wholly dependent upon the popularity of some great actor to restore it to brief semblance of life; on the other hand, there came into existence a vigorous school of little artistic merit, lacking the finer qualities which the great Elizabethans had contrived to combine with the homelier.

  • “Sophocles and Shakespeare,” wrote G. H. Lewes, “are as ‘sensational’ as Fitzball or Dumas; but the situations, which in the latter are the aim and object of the piece, to which all the rest is subordinated, in the former are the mere starting-points, the nodes of dramatic action.”
  • In The London Magazine for April, 1820, Hazlitt “proved, very satisfactorily, and without fear of contradiction—neither Mr. Maturin, Mr. Sheil, nor Mr. Milman being present—that no modern author could write a tragedy.” The age was “critical, didactic, paradoxical, romantic,” but not dramatic. The French revolution had made of the English a nation of politicians and newsmongers; and tragedy, being “essentially individual and concrete, both in form and power,” was irreconcilable with this “bias to abstraction” in the general. There had hardly been a good tragedy written, he declared, since Home’s Douglas. Nevertheless, tragedy was written in considerable quantities. It was a favourite exercise with men of letters, whether or no they possessed any power of dramatic invention. Wordsworth tried his hand at tragedy; Coleridge, Godwin, lord Byron, Mary Russell Mitford, Disraeli and many others, whose writings are dealt with elsewhere in this work, composed tragedies, some of which were produced upon the stage, while others remained polite exercises in a literary form. The present chapter will touch upon the minor tragedians, of whom the three mentioned in the quotation from Hazlitt given above are the first to call for notice.