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Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London$

Marc Baer

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198112501

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198112501.001.0001

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(p.250) Appendix I Literature as Palimpsest

(p.250) Appendix I Literature as Palimpsest

Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London
Oxford University Press

LITERATURE provides vital clues concerning theatricality, and the works of Dickens the most important of these. While it may not seem possible now that theatricality could ever have been such a prominent feature of English life, the evidence from Dickens serves to confirm what has been presented in this book. It may be useful, therefore, to challenge J. Hillis Miller, who concluded his analysis of Sketches by Boz thus: ‘From the near-slum areas where the private theaters flourish to the well-to-do suburbs like Clapham, from the edges of poverty to the upper middle class, all Boz's London seems to have caught the disease of theatrical representation.’ That theatricality could be a ‘disease’ signifies our discomfort with such phenomena (as is the connotation of the term theatrical when used today to describe the behaviour of a non-actor, or histrionic as the label of a psychological disorder), and Miller is forced to ask, rhetorically, whether Dickens was surely exaggerating:

The theater returns so often in the Sketches that London in this book comes to seem a place where everyone is in one way or another engaged not in productive work but in performing or witnessing scenic presentations. They watch others pretend to be what they are not or play roles themselves. Certainly the attendance paid to the theater and to musical performance is disproportionate. It constitutes a deformation in Boz's mirroring of the Veal' London. In spite of the importance drama undoubtedly had in the culture of early Victorian London, it seems unlikely that quite so large a proportion of its people were obsessed with it, involved in it in one way or another, or allowed their life styles, attitudes, dress, speech, and gesture to be determined by it.1

That Dickens had not misread the real London might be seen from the astonishment of Henry James a generation later. ‘The number of stage-struck persons who are to be met with in the London world is remarkable,’ wrote James in 1871. Having observed the suddenness with which both young men and women (p.251) would engage in recitation or histrionics, he concluded, confident of having discovered a new phenomenon:

Plays and actors are perpetually talked about, private theatricals are incessant, and members of the dramatic profession are ‘received’ without restriction. They appear in society, and the people of society appear on the stage; it is as if the great gate which formerly divided the theatre from the world has been lifted off its hinges. There is, at any rate, such a passing to and fro as has never been known.2

Of all the inhabitants of early nineteenth-century Britain, Charles Dickens perhaps understood this phenomenon the best. Theatricality is present in many of his novels—in the partly auto-biographical David Copperfield (1849–50) to be sure, but most significantly in his earliest works, e.g. Sketches by Boz (1836) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9), the latter dedicated to the actor William Macready. Between the last two works Dickens and the caricaturist George Cruikshank collaborated in editing The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (1838). Grimaldi had witnessed and writtenabout the OP riots, and Cruikshank had assisted his father Isaac in creating most of the illustrations produced during the Covent Garden disturbances;3 thus the great Victorian novelist came to learn at first hand about an event which engaged his devotion to drama—as well as the theatrical metaphor.4 Fondness for the stage was reflected in the work of both Dickens and Cruikshank. A fellow clerk who worked with Dickens in the late 1820s recalled ‘he could give us Shakespeare by the ten minutes, and imitate all the leading actors of that time. … He told me he had often taken part in amateur theatricals before he came to us.’5

The boundary between fiction and non-fiction is therefore less a wall and more a sponge,6 and thus it is possible to read back from Dickens through Cruikshank and Sketches, Grimaldi, and the other (p.252) works to understand some of the dynamics of the OP riots;7 the theatricality of Dickens' writings is that of the Covent Garden disorder, and the theatre the source for each. Theatre is by its nature hyperbolic, as anyone knows who has seen a play performed. The play-acting of OPs in the Covent Garden pit appears again in Dickens's work; to take one example, something quite close to the description of apprentices adorned as aristocrats in Sketches by Boz can be seen on page 163 above.8 Dickens spoke for himself as well as his generation when he stated in his edition of Grimaldi that the OP riots still remained well known in the 1830s.9

Dickens thus provides part of the evidence for how theatricality manifested itself in a nineteenth-century working-class audience, where commenting on performers, anticipating lines, or acting while viewing were all normative. It may well be that Dickens was so popular during his lifetime because he was so theatrical, operating within a much older tradition and thus reweaving theatricality into English memory and culture.10

Charles Dickens was by no means the only writer fascinated by the theatrical. Jane Austen has received considerable attention from literary critics who have not taken notice of the theatrical context of the amateur dramatics scene in Mansfield Park. As a child Austen participated in the private theatricals which were frequently performed by her family.11 Thus the sense of perturbance in the novel is all the more perplexing.

Earlier interpretations have included religious motivation, though the emphasis on Austen influenced by evangelicals seems insufficient.12 Accenting social and moral codes stops just short of (p.253) understanding the power of theatre in the period.13 Nor do other approaches quite suffice, which have stressed hostility to aristocrats, the problem of prosperity, or the contagion of radicalism in the play —The Lover's Vows—the entourage is to perform.14

As David Lodge points out, this was Austen's most didactic novel. And Jane Austen gave a clue as to her motivation: ‘Happily for him’, Austen writes of her theatre-smitten character, the Hon. John Yates, ‘a love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting so strong among young people that he could hardly out-talk the interest of his hearers.’ Then there is Henry Crawford: ‘“I really believe”’, said he, “I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be any thing or every thing, as if I could rant and storm, or sigh, or cut capers in any tragedy or comedy in the English language” \15 There have been too many real versions of Yates or Crawford in the pages of the present book to misread what Austen's two characters are saying.

Thus we should take at face value Sir Thomas Bertram's/Jane Austen's concerns about the family performing Lover's Vows; whether private theatricals or the playhouse at Covent Garden, the transforming power of the stage defined the social memory in the early nineteenth century in ways that elude students in the twentieth, for whom ‘putting on an act’ is only a term of derision.


(1) Miller, ‘Fiction of Realism’, 21, 23.

(2) Henry James, The Scenic Art: Notes on Acting and the Drama: 1872–1901, ed. Allen Wade (New Brunswick, 1948), 119–21, 135.

(3) Cf. George, English Political Caricature, i. 173.

(4) On the collaboration, see Jane R. Cohen, ‘“All-of-a-Twist”: The Relationship of George Cruikshank and Charles Dickens’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 17 (Apr. 1969), 189; cf. Miller, ‘Fiction of Realism’, esp. 27, 45, 51–2, 67–8; and James, ‘Cruikshank and Early Victorian Caricature’.

(5) Philip Collins (ed.), Dickens: Interviews and Recollections (2 vols.; Totowa, NJ, 1981), i. 12. Dickens began work at this firm when he was fifteen.

(6) Cf. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), 48.

(7) Nicholas Nicklehy was written just after Dickens edited Grimaldi; is it coincidental that the character of Madame Mantalini in the former sounds and acts so like Madame Catalani of the OP riots?

(8) See also p. 171 above; the similarities between David Copperfi eld's description of Covent Garden and that of Williams, Kemble, 48 are remarkable.

(9) Garibaldi, Memoirs, 172.

(10) Paul Schlicke, Dickens and Popular Entertainment (1985), esp. chs. 1, 3; Lettis, ‘Dickens, Drama and the Two Realities’, esp. 151, 165, 180; Paulson, Popular and Polite Art, 117; Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey (1965), 119–20; Carol Hanbury Mackay, ‘The Melodramatic Impulse in Nicholas Nickleby y, Dickens Quarterly, 5 (1988), 153.

(11) See Deirdre LeFaye, 〉rce Austen: A Family Record (1989), 43, 46–7, 50, 59–60, 64.

(12) Mansfield Park, intro. Q. D. Leavis (1957), xii; but for contextual nuances, see Newman, Rise of English Nationalism, ch. 8.

(13) David Lodge, ‘A Question of Judgement: The Theatricals at Mansfield Park’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 17 (Dec. 1962), 275–82; Barish, Antitheatrical Preju dice, 299–307.

(14) R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (Oxford, 1963), 197–9; R. S. Neale, Writing Marxist History: British Society, Economy & Culture since 1700 (Oxford, 1985), ch. 5, esp. 100–1; Avron Fleishman, “Mansfield Park in Its Time’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 22 (June 1967), 6–10.

(15) Austen, Mansfield Park, 121–3; cf. p. 218 above.