Reading for economic history.
Except when scrutinizing TIAA-CREF reports or ciphering the discrepancy between annual merit increases and the rate of inflation, most theatre scholars probably avoid evidence of the economic and ignore its relevance to their careers. Perhaps in protest at the surfeit of economic data present in our everyday lives, we align with humanists who distrust the collection and employment of such data; yet, when we know we must refute an administrator's budget allocations, we condescend to read past the economists' mathematical apparati to the prose summaries that inevitably (though not necessarily more lucidly) follow. We are perfectly correct to distrust the media's obsession with moment-by-moment prognostications of the economy. We are thoroughly justified in believing that "statistics lie," particularly when they do not lie in our favor. And it is understandable that, given most of our backgrounds in performing arts and comparative literatures, we are better equipped to read musical scores and phonetic symbology than the numerical, tabular, and graphical languages of mathematics.
From the other side of campuses, however, some economists are offering a rapprochement. While we avoid learning to decode the elegant iconographies of their communication, some of them are debating the efficacy of economics with the tools of deconstruction and discourse theory. It is a tantalizing irony.
One denotation of economics--the sense used by Milton and Dryden--involves the structure, arrangement, or proportion of parts of any product of human design, including poetry or drama. Identifying such human designs suggests the approaches of structuralists, allowing a scholar with literary training to see economic analysis in a new light, as something long accessible instead of remote and forbidding. On another tack, accessing the economy of a play (in this sense) is in harmony with the verstehen doctrine in the social sciences, which rejects the primacy of "scientific" knowledge derived from laboratory experiments in favor of first person knowledge confirmed by human experience. Economists' objection to the verstehen doctrine is reminiscent of the traditional schism between the historical and literary disciplines: the first strives to describe something that supposedly happened; the other studies what is immutably an assertion or product of the imagination. In the literary denotation of economics as an aspect of human organization, the verstehen doctrine can be extended to a personal-as-political/political-as-personal approach to ground abstract economics in human activity, including its dramatic renderings. Economists like to think they are projecting the future based on facts, but their data is more hypothetical than absolute; drama's rendering of human behavior is no less "quality data" subject to validity tests based on comparative quantitative verification or postmodernists' cherished pastime of influence spotting. In both fields, the study of performances of the historical past and the consideration of the historical text transposed by performance in the present can elide particular sets of circumstances temporally to suggest meanings of text and life in a manner acceptably valid to the historically minded. Through the mixing of these presumed opposites (literary and economic analysis, or history telling and fiction) the overtly ideological content and methodology of each discourse surfaces, and they are no longer so distinct from each other.
Most economic writing--including economic history--is punctuated with mathematical formulas in an effort to convince readers of its scientific validity in divining the future from the past. The economic historian who spearheads the advocacy for breaking this down is Donald McCloskey.(1) His arguments are exhaustive and sophisticated but boil down to this: economics and economic history are a rhetoric of stories (stylized facts) and models (metaphors) every bit as subjective as any poetics. This is a shocking turnaround from the man who authored The Economic History of Britain Since 1700 (1980) and Econometric History (1987), acclaimed examples of mathematically inflected economic history.(2) Among many economists, McCloskey now has the status of a reviled insider. Among literary scholars, he is an exemplary border crosser, foregrounding the empirical impurities of economic writing, its fictionality, the genre historicity of its texts, and the untheorized theory silently operating. He argues: "Economics uses mathematical models and statistical tests and market arguments, all of which look alien to the literary eye. But looked at closely they are not so alien. They may be seen as figures of speech--metaphors, analogies, and appeals to authority."(3) Under such scrutiny, economics' predictive functions are suspect and its prescriptive practices are about as valid and binding as the belief that dramatic dialogue must be in alexandrines.
The common ground between literary scholars and economists is demonstrated in McCloskey's summary of the argument in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." It is the conflicting halves of the poem's syllogism, not the conclusion, that captures him:
The argument is, of course, economic: Had we but world enough and time I could court you, Lady, as your value warrants, to satisfaction, but time is scarce, and life especially so; the rate of time discount is therefore positive, and the optimal consumption plan is therefore carpe diem .... The economist plays no less within a convention when drawing on inference (N= ten thousand days and nights) or time discount (t= Deserts of vast Eternity), or when making little jokes about islands in the labor market or how the data have been massaged.(4)
This is not the only commentary to notice the arithmetical component in love poetry, but it may be the first to render it as a data matrix for determining the calculus of linear trends. It has analogies in the "heterosexual economy of desire" worked out by Kristina Straub for eighteenth-century spectacle, or other attempts to chart feminist film theory onto historical circumstances.(5)
In the wake of McCloskey's apostasy, his kind of inquiry -- particularly his rhetoric's own appeals to authority--is further deconstructed by feminist critiques of disciplinary politics. In the following passage, two feminists, Nancy Folbre and Heidi Hartmann, not only gave me my first intimation that economists can have a sense of humor but they also cross borders to deploy their critique in dialogue recognizable as a morality play. Imagine my relief.
Rhetoric and Feminism met on a morning run around the lake at Wellesley College. They were both there to work on Economics, trying to get him into better shape to deal with changing realities.
Rhetoric (breathing heavily): This is rough going. I can't seem to make these economists see the underlying assumptions that structure their models. They'r
talking about me instead. Feminism (treading lightly): I know what you mean. They really cling to thi
notion that perfect self-interest rules in the market and perfect altruism rules in the
home. They're certainly not maximizing our joint utility. Rhetoric: Let's get together. You concentrate on the ideological substance of their argument, showing how it benefits men. I'll use logic to
show them that their
assumptions are inconsistent. Feminism: You mean you'll divert them with Latin terms while I take away som
of their privileges?(6)
This critique draws on a staple theme of women's history, the gendered repercussions of public and private spheres, an extended critique of Marx accelerated by Hartmann's classic essay "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism." The pith of the argument is that the ideology of economics reinforces concepts such as the idealized family, disregarding women as economic agents. The founders of classical economics (Adam Smith and David Ricardo) explicitly excluded and denied the possibility of wives or mothers being self-interested in their economic relations: for women, family membership was presumed sufficient and inherently fulfilling. In the tradition following John Stuart Mill, women supposedly recognize the joint utility in letting male kin run businesses, so they do not make conflicts. Meanwhile, Marxists assume that class interests are primary and that individuals will not make conflicts with others in the same class, which ignores and defies evidence that husbands and wives, sons and daughters, or nephews and nieces have unequal power both financially and within the dynamics of a family unit. None of this is acceptable to feminists. Significantly, Folbre and Hartmann use rhetorical analysis and a good measure of parody rather than nitpicking over the validity of contingency coefficients in a chi-square when they deliver this inside joke on the ideological shortcomings of the economics profession. Folbre and Hartmann are perfectly equipped to nitpick the chi-square, but choose not to: they focus their critique of economics on its power as heavily gender-inflected rhetoric, rather than on its power as positivist fact assertions. Moreover, they frame it in dialogue.
If McCloskey, Folbre, Hartmann, and their ilk represent what econmists--and particulately economic historians--are making of our critical practices and narrative genres, what will we offer them in return? The following suggestions are rooted in my own principal area of interest, the nineteenth-century British theatre.(7) The foundational theories of economics--Smith, Ricardo, Mill, and Marx--all come from the British milieu of this period, so it is appropriate to begin theatre history's enquiries there. Nowhere was the theatre more industrialized than in the first nation to experience the mechanical revolution and its social, political, and intellectual aftermath. Nowhere was economic theory debated more openly in the populist media, for Britain lacked an academicized economics profession until the twentieth century. Nowhere is there more unplundered evidence to read for economic history.
Once economics is subject to rhetorical analysis, the question of its vexed status as science or art seems almost settled. In recent years, all branches of the humanities have followed the lead of literary theorists to scrutinize the narrative habits and disciplinary assumptions behind scholarship, with many of the same debates ensuing as McCloskey has spurred in economics. In what follows, serving as a position paper rather than a research design per se, I combine some straightforward rhetorical analysis of nineteenth-century British theatre histories--including their blindspot to gender-- with the questions and concerns of the subject field of historical economics, in order to suggest some new directions in theatre research. This argument has beating on what is asked of history, how it is asked, and where new insight is sought.
What Economic History?
The Broadway melodramalist Bronson Howard is credited with observing that when it came to drama, "each country had its own master theme: in England it was caste, in France marital infidelity, and in America business."(8) Perhaps because of this inclination, secondary theatre histories of Britain invariably ignore economic and business perspectives.(9) There is a tendency, for example, to try to depict theatre managers as part of the gentrifying masculine middle-class(10) -- persuading (on Garrick's and Kemble's examples) both the public and the state that they had a profession-when plainer language could convey they were simply part of the capitalist business class. This is the sublime view versus the mercantile. Likewise, the knighthoods bestowed on Henry Irving, Squire Bancroft, Charles Wyndham, Edward Moss, Beerbohm Tree, and George Alexander between 1895 and 1911 are associated with their endeavors on behalf of art. I have argued elsewhere that these knighthoods are indicative of gender bias against the socially compromised figure of the actress in favor of the figure of male actor-managers with whose publicness everyone was more comfortable.(11) But looked at in another light, the theatrical knighthoods are just another subcategory of honors given for accomplishments in business, industry, and finance which ballooned between 1886 and the outbreak of World War I.(12)
This prevailing way of describing entrepreneurship complements the narrative of "Artist Demonstrates His Genius Amidst the Vicissitudes of Theatrical Business" ubiquitous in theatrical biographies from or about this period. The biographers of Charles James Mathews, Charles Kean, William Macready, Wyndham, Irving, et al. were probably exposed to this model of classical economics (popularized once and for all in Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics published in 1890, though Mill's Principles of Political Economy was a widely used school text in the second half of the century) and it is arguable that classical economic rhetoric permeates the biographical narratives, underpins the discursive turns, and maps the interpretive framework of both subjects and biographers.(13) The idea justifies more research, but I am prepared to hypothesize (and provide a little proof) that among the few women lessees who have attracted full biographies a different metanarrative prevails.
In classical economic theory, women are not included among the universalized male economic agent; theatrical biographers adhere to this concept by depicting women's genius operating in other spheres. Eliza Vestris, for example, is credited with entrepreneurial skill and good business instincts while a widow, but after describing the marriage to Mathews her biography is incapable of perceiving any more independent action on Vestris's part.(14) It is as if her genius was extinguished at the altar. Sam and Sallie, the joint biography of Sam and Sara Lane written by their nephew, depicts Sara's succession to lesseeship after Sam's death in the following terms: "During Sam's life she had meekly submitted to his rule and guidance, now she found herself in absolute control, not only of a considerable fortune, but also over the destinies of the business."(15) Shortly after, her father (the business manager) died and she was
compelled to find a replacement. This incident is described as a crisis, yet the narrative passes fleetingly over it in preference to Sara Lane's love of family, charitable benevolence, and acting appearances. The biography states that as a lessee she was revered, but never justifies this in the slightest way vis-a-vis her business decisions. Emma Cons has not been granted a full scale biography, though a pattern is evident in several studies of the Old Vic: the metanarrative is self-sacrifice and indomitable energy devoted to charity for women outside the theatre. This overshadows the fact that she was a remarkable wheeler-dealer who could raise $17,500 for the Old Vic from the public and peers of the realm in the space of only four months.(16) The financial facts and
everyday business decisions mask another history imbedded in gendered economic ideology.
The theatre's commerce seems central to "official culture", for it made and sold images and ideology on a massive scale everywhere in the nation. Nevertheless, evidence for its economic rationale and practices in the Victorian period is quintessentially non-canonical: there are no Great Texts, only hundreds of thousands of clues. It is necessary to identify the clues but inadequate to be satisfied by a systematic arrangement of them. It is extremely important to tease out the economic theory masked by modeling and rhetoric which is implicit in nineteenth-century sources, then try to understand how the theory affected practices and question its role in historiography.
There are few signs as overt as Oswald Stoll's veneration of Herbert Spencer to make concrete the idea that the industry had a philosophical foundation, let alone that it had wholeheartedly adopted classical economic theory. John Hollingshead admitted upon the opening of a new theatre in 1900 that "this interest has been created by commercial instinct for the supply of wholesome amusement for the people. Its work without any false veneer is entirely commercial."(17) This is as much a statement of sentiment as philosophical conviction. Nevertheless, there is pervasive evidence of adherence to microeconomics a la Smith and Mill (Ricardo's agricultural modeling is of less relevance).
Under the free market system, the audience arbitrated what was to be profitable, like any consuming public. Giving the public what they knew was good for them, yet did not want, was not a profitable formula; giving them what they did not know of, but could elect to want, had more potential. Thus, Eliza Vestris's speculation on her capital during 1831-38 (her years at the Olympic) and Marie Wilton's speculation on her loan to revivify the Prince of Wales's in 1865 involved tremendous risk in setting out unproved products: in the one case Plancho's mythologized burlesque and in the other domestic comedy in a pruned bill of fare. Their calculations were immediately rewarded because the public liked their choices, whereas Charles Kean's lifetime artistic idealism was not in conjunction with market demands and he accrued acclaim but never high profits. In a competing sector, Thomas Harwood speculated that he could create a concert room where the entertainment was the primary draw rather than the liquor, and his success paved the way for music halls, a fundamental reorientation in the supply of purchased leisure. Harwood's justification that "it always struck me that the working classes could have a better description of recreation, supposing a person could speculate sufficiently largely and give the recreation at a low price"(18) sounds remarkably like Mill's Principles of Political Economy:
Since custom stands its ground against competition to so considerable an extent, even where, from the multitude of competitors and the general energy in the pursuit of gain, the spirit of competition is strongest, we may be sure that this is much more the case where people are content with smaller gains, and estimate their pecuniary interest at a lower rate when balanced against their ease or their pleasure.(19)
Neither Vestris nor Wilton proclaimed their intentions as overtly as Harwood, yet it is clear through their practices that they sought to differentiate their theatres through repertoire and ambiance, distinguishing themselves in highly competitive marketplaces. In all three instances, the entrepreneurs reaped enormous pecuniary gains through their defiance of customs, just as Dion Boucicault overturned the contractual practices between playwright and manager after eight years' observation of the U.S.A.:
On his return to London, in the process of proving his ability to squeeze as much money out of managers as they could be persuaded to part with, he reversed the terms of the traditional relationship between manager and author and exerted a profound and lasting, though not immediate, influence on the general economic status of the late Victorian playwright .... He operated on the principle that the buoyancy of theatrical profits in the 1860s was such that no dramatist capable of writing successful plays could lose.(20) Thus, Ben Webster agreed to share profits for The Colleen Bawn, introducing the concept of royalties to the English theatre in 1860.
The search for profit motivated all commerce, and according to Mill's paraphrase of Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith, wages were set both by custom and the extent of demand for the labor.
That a thing may have any value in exchange, two conditions are necessary. It must be of some use; that is . . . it must conduce to some purpose, satisfy some desire. No one will pay a price, or part with anything which serves some of his purposes, to obtain a thing which serves none of them. But, secondly, the thing must not only have some utility, there must also be some difficulty in its attainment.(21)
Boucicault remarked in 1866 that there could be twice as many theatres and they would still succeed, for there would be no shortage of actors. In other words, actors had utility but they were oversupplied and so could not dictate high wages, making the theatre even more profitable for the investors. Boucicault's comments closely echo Mill's theory that price is determined by demand and supply:
I believe that the question of demand would always rule the supply; the present supply not being sufficient, it is very likely that to give us good companies all round, good actors would demand better salaries.
With more theatres understaffed or inadequately staffed, he predicted, actors would abandon the music halls where they have been paid "four or five times as much" as in theatres, return from the U.S.A. and Australia where they circulated on lucrative tours, and demand and collect higher salaries in London's expanding industry.(22)
Valuable scarce skills were richly rewarded but according to the wage-fund theory a worker in need could always be bargained down. The theatre's labor market was no different from specialized forms of manufacturing, except in its more apparent internationality. Vesta Tilley explicitly describes the process of bargaining down. She recounts an exchange between music hall performers and a manager on the street at "Poverty Junction", the intersection of Waterloo Bridge Road and York Road where Lambeth agents' offices were concentrated late in the century:
Having marked his man he [the manager] would sympathise with him, and then suggest that he might be able to squeeze him into his programme, but, of course, the terms must be very low. The artiste would agree and mention in strict confidence a low salary, but the wily proprietor would sigh and shake his head, and then turn his back on his companion. To an outsider this action might appear as though all chance of business had vanished, but no, his hands were behind his back, and the artiste would look for the action of his fingers. If the artiste had asked for, say, $4 a week, two middle fingers and the little finger signified that the very best offer was $2 10s. Frequently the words "All right, Governor" intimated that the offer was accepted without another word being spoken--the artiste being satisfied that his confreres knew nothing of the salary he had accepted, and the proprietor congratulating himself that he had secured what he wanted at less than the market value.(23)
Here, on the street, the labor market operates in its own coded sequences closely aligned with the mainstream Victorian economic thought which schoolboys, traders, and entrepreneurs were indoctrinated to accept. Marx was a curiosity of the 1880s and 1890s but had negligible influence on the marketplace; William Norris was a magnate for progressive artists but not actors. In its day to day operations the theatrical industry accepted the classical doctrine without question.
Profits were distributed according to the productive contributions of individuals (those who took risks and guessed fortuitously) if they were successful in the marketplace, rather than on visionaries' subjective effort or objective sacrifice (the biographical credos of "Artist Demonstrates His Genius Amidst the Vicissitudes of Theatrical Business" or "Great Men do Great Things").24 Throughout most of the century, benefit performances, which were justified in theatres as a remedy for depressed wages, served to put the speculative risk of laissez-faire economics temporarily onto performers. Under the benefit system, performers (and some other chosen employees) temporarily shared the entrepreneur's risk. For one night, they had the chance to make their own fortunes in proportion to their command on the box office (after overhead was deducted), instead of at the contractual level prescribed by the manager. The rhetoric of laissez-faire predominated what was, too often, a speculation more profitable for the manager than the benefitees. In their attempts to secure socially eminent patronage, however, benefitees combined the free marketplace with a form of subsidization otherwise rare in the post-monopoly Victorian stage (1843 and after).
Belief in economic liberty was pervasive in Victorian Britain, and there are many instances of the theatrical establishment's opinions of regulation in line with classical economic theory. Testimony before the 1866 Select Committee on Theatres and Music Halls claims that there was always opposition from existing halls when a new one was proposed, on the basis that there was insufficient demand to warrant another house.(25) The government had a role to protect property fights and settle private disputes, and so responded to the dilemma opponents faced between self-interest and laissez-faire economics. The Lord Chamberlain's invocation by rival proprietors in such instances is consistent with classical capitalism. Theatre proprietors' attitude toward the Lord Chamberlain (who licensed play texts and regulated theatres) wavered between indifference and deification. Authors complained that regulation prohibited the public taste from reigning, that restrictions on the number of theatres meant there were fewer outlets for their work, and that unfree trade forced up rents so that their remuneration was even lower. However, in its bias toward heavily capitalized firms and preference for non-interference, the Lord Chamberlain's office was undeniably partial (the executive committee of the capitalist class which Marxists condemn in such instruments of the state) so there were few serious complaints from within the theatrical compact. Despite analogies between theatres and factories, proprietors did not wish to be subject to the Factory Acts' regulated hours (especially for women) or fines for industrial abuses and dangerous working conditions: the Lord Chamberlain would have been the most likely governmental instrument to enforce inspections of the accommodations for theatrical personnel. Partly out of resistance to increased surveillance, and partly out of fear that the Lord Chamberlain would insist on costly remodeling and vigilant production safety codes, theatre owners complied with the licensing of plays in order to avoid friction on more potentially expensive and disruptive issues. Spectators were increasingly protected by the annual inspections that set the conditions for licence renewals, but working conditions of adult performers saw no improvement. Finally, theatres fought to sell refreshments (particularly liquors) on a par with music hails under the rallying cry of "free trade", but pulled an about face and appealed to the Lord Chamberlain when exclusivity and self-interest coincided, as in the sketch issue. (At the end of the century, music halls flagrantly violated their "music and dancing" licences by producing brief plays or "sketches." Theatre managers strenuously objected to this practice as an infringement on trade. A compromise was eventually reached: music hall sketches could be no longer than thirty minutes in length, must not involve a change of scenery, and only one could be offered on each bill.)
All histories culled from the archives are selectively processed: the archival booty is crafted into narratives according to reigning models of storytelling. It is important to fight the acquired rationalizations of the past by questioning how the events are narrated, judged, and made to represent meaning. Typically, details give way to patterns, and structure is deduced from the patterns. This is value-laden, for as Michel De Certeau argues "there exists a historicity of history, implying the movement which links an interpretive practice to a social praxis."(26) Rhetoric is immutable and political.
Out of a desire to document empirically the practices of nineteenth-century theatre, even the historians who are interested in financial issues have neglected the motivating effects of economic theory. Its presence is at least as important as aesthetic influences--Romanticism, pictorialism, and modernism--that shaped the repertoire and visual presentation of Victorian theatre. Dorothy Eshleman's edition of The Committee Books of the Theatre Royal Norwich 1768-1825 purports to be particularly interested in the history of multiple ownership of the Norfolk/Suffolk/Essex circuit, reprinting business records so that "we can gather a detailed account of the many concerns of the twenty-seven gentlemen and two ladies who held the thirty shares valued at $200 each... [in] one of the most important theatres outside London."(27) But the unannotated records and rather bald introduction place the book in the tradition of local history studies (positivistically inflected) rather than an examination of the business practices per se, the ideology of proprietors' debates, or the theatre's relationship to the economy writ large. Ann Saddlemyer's edition of letters between the Abbey Theatre's first three directors, William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J.M. Synge, Theatre Business, is heavily annotated but the purpose of the book is to reveal three nationalist geniuses' relationship and the daily battles within this theatre qua theatre, rather than the theatre's function as a business entity buffeted by larger economic circumstances.(28) A third example, Lynn Garafola's Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, devotes a chapter to the vicissitudes of this company within the international dance marketplace prior to World War I.(29)It addresses business practice in response to the binary of free enterprise and subsidization; the relationship between aesthetic choices, repertoire development, and the costs of artistic talent; the consequences of economic choices on audience response; performing talent within the scope of an international marketplace and the fluctuations of market demand; and choices such as company relocation and refocus in response to local, regional, and international political events effecting the money supply. A complete treatment of the topics Garafola outlines would be a mammoth undertaking. It is not her project (nor Eshleman's or Saddlemyer's) and I mean no disrespect in describing such works as falling primarily within historiographic traditions other than economic history. The most important point is that theatre did happen in an economic context, economics do not operate without theory, and the evidence is plentiful and ripe for evaluation.
Consider the following snippet from a document frequently scrutinized by literary and theatre scholars. Charles Dickens's 1860 essay "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre" is famous for its descriptions of a prosperous East End theatre, the Britannia, yet it begins by way of contrast with a description of what lies outside Dickens's door in the West End.
At the pipe-shop in Great Russell-street, the Death's-head pipes were like theatrical memento mori, admonishing beholders of the decline of the playhouse as an Institution. I walked up Bow-street [the heart of the theatrical district rounded around the patent theatres], disposed to be angry with the shops there, that were letting out theatrical secrets by exhibiting to work-a-day humanity the stuff of which diadems and robes of kings are made. I noticed that some shops which had once been in the dramatic line, and had struggled out of it, were not getting on prosperously .... In a word, those streets looked so dull, and, considered as theatrical streets, so broken and bankrupt, that the FOUND DEAD on the black board at the police station might have announced the decease of the Drama, and the pools of water outside the fire-engine maker's at the corner of Long-acre might have been occasioned by his having brought out the whole of his stock to play upon its last smouldering ashes.(30)
Dickens seems to be describing a cataclysm in theatrical business, with the former theatrical specialty shops and suppliers having given way to other equally unprosperous trades, and the theatres themselves in the final stages of decay. Allowing for a novelist's hyperbole and a journalist's desire to shock readers into realizing there was an alternate theatrical universe thirty minutes to the east, Dickens also provides vital hints about the economy of this mini-region. Legitimate economic questions arise. Were all Covent Garden trades depressed in 1860? Was there a crisis in the West End economy (largely specialized bespoke production and retail trading) while the East End flourished through its dock trade, canal shipping, large scale heavy industries, and mass manufacturing? Does Dickens describe the conclusion to a long cycle of depression, a temporary lull, or the bitter end for West End theatre? Are theatrical supply businesses undergoing some kind of transformation in focus or relocation? Is there a concomitant change in repertory or production methods fuelling such a change? Are the theatrical shops' workers unionized, and if so, had they struck or been locked out? Just how localized is the phenomenon he describes: does it extend to the Strand (just a few paces away), to the Haymarket or Regent Street (supplying bespoke goods for non-theatrical clientele), or to the theatres clustered around Piccadilly Circus? If the Britannia is so healthy, what is it doing differently from West End theatres? Is it in direct competition with the Covent Garden theatre community, or is it in an entirely separate marketplace? The answers lie in a combination of sources (economic reports, the theatrical trade press, and local records) and methods (social history, new historicism, and urban studies). The means to finding answers are eclectic, but the unifying subject pursued is economic.
Whose Economic History?
In all instances, it is crucial to consider the costs of theatre relative to other arts and entertainments, both for the producers of culture and the consumers. For example, Dorothy Leighton accounts for the existence of the Independent Theatre Society as the most cost-effective form of artistic provisioning.
The mere scene-painter's bill for one act alone of a play at a West-End theatre often exceeds the cost of a Richter concert or a new edition of one of Mr. Thomas Hardy's novels. . . . if a couple of thousand people buy a book, the publisher is remunerated; whilst if no more than that number go to see a play the manager is ruined. Fortunately, it is also the case that if a couple of thousand people club together to give theatrical representations they can secure at least a few performances every season of the kind they prefer at less cost than ordinary playgoing involves.(3)
The Independent Theatre is not only a public service, according to her argument, but a boon to mainstream managers and financiers who cannot otherwise afford artistic experiments. They can observe the public's response to new works without undertaking the risk, so they should encourage the venture. And considering the alternatives in arts investing, this form of experimental theatre is a bargain! Of course, the efficacy of these claims cannot be taken on face value, but the terms of the argument resurface prominently in twentieth-century discussions and should be extended to all periods.
Existing economic studies of the contemporary theatre, as one among many arts, have a variety of orientations including communications studies, public policy, tourism, and arts administration. Roger Troub breaks this down into three approaches:
1) economics in the arts,(32) consisting of "resource analysis decisions in arts administration"; 2) economics for the arts,(33) analyzing "the case for public support, [and] the efficiency of various levels and types of support"; and 3) an economics of the arts,(34) stressing "economic analysis of demand and supply characteristics of various arts industries and of associations with other industries and the economy."(35) All of Troub's categories are useful, but
tend not to coexist in the secondary literature and are almost entirely absent from historical research. A broad based interdisciplinary model for studying the economic philosophy of nineteenth-century practitioners and the intersections between their work and the economy at large can be culled from economic history, economic theory, business history, labor history, the sociology of economics, and historiography. In what follows, I elide several fields and methodologies that are usually practised in separation; I find the varied perspectives and questions extremely useful categorical approaches.
In order to write about the theatre within the context of entertainment, which in turn is within a range of cultural phenomena which all intersect with local, regional, national, and international wealth fluctuating over time, I propose the following model. Correspondences between discipline-based questions should be sought, emphasizing ways in which economic enquiries intersect with social consequences and pragmatic concerns of theatre production. For the purpose of maximizing interdisciplinary correspondence, I set out four broad categories--Theatre History and Aesthetics, Business History and Finance, Social and Economic History, and Women's History--and align topics typical to these disciplinary enquiries.
For the sake of argument, I have selected five theatrical topics prominent in the study of Victorian theatre among the scholars who been able to let go of "qualitative" literary biases: technical innovations, spectacularism, repertory, long runs, and the star system. Technical innovations underscore studies of the operation of the Victorian stage house, architecture, and machinery,(36) but this has not yet been aligned with questions preoccupying the
social sciences: the cost of such innovations, the source of investment money, the money supply, human control of the money supply, and the consequences for women. In reverse, this is a way to ask why women sometimes become managers and lessees, the operant circumstances, and the limitations that may have bound them because of their sex. Spectacularism has been documented in two excellent studies by Michael R. Booth and Martin Meisel, yet the cost of such tastes in relation to other stylistic options, the cost-saving measures tried, the consequences for labor and personnel training, or the gendered allocations of laboring specialties is ignored.(37) Under the heading of "women's history," macroeconomic questions (inflation, unemployment, and industrial growth) of the marxian tradition are invoked. The study of repertoire, a subject central to Victorian theatre historiography, corresponds with inquiries about the schedule of (re)investment, the cycles of prosperity within a company and beyond in the microeconomy of a community willing to support it, and the fluctuating effects (seasonal and longer) on the employment available to women, men, and children.(38) Development of long runs, an issue related to repertoire, takes rather different partners in the social sciences. It relates to the development of middle-management in a corporatized business world, changes in the consumption of leisure on class and gendered lines,(39) and inquiries about the consequences for employment and collective action in an industry with a longer lasting product. The star system, a subject of much study among theatre historians, aligns with business historians' biographically based studies of impresarios and their methods, the degree of separation between the conveyors of culture and the financeers, the coincidence of women's claims to equality in law and finance, as well as the constructedness of ideology and its human embodiments studied by historians of women.
Embracing the enquiries of the social sciences is a worthy objective, but who is to fulfil it? Economics remains surrounded by an aura of scientific pretense, impermeable jargon, intimidating mathematics, and "value-free" male exclusivity. I, in contrast, have a background in the performing arts, believe that broadly-based communication is a worthy objective, stopped doing calculus in high school, and am a feminist. While researching the economic history of the nineteenth-century British theatre it is important to become educated in the numerical, tabular, and graphical languages in which economists argue, but it is not necessary to replicate what they do. Instead, with the eclectic tastes of theatre historians, I propose we borrow these questions and methodologies, consciously exploiting the overlap to write a fuller account of the social history of cultural production.
Social history is notoriously time consuming to research. That is a major reason why theatre historians love to read it yet avoid trying to write it, with or without an economic dimension. But literary historians can also take part in reading for economic history. As brief case studies, consider two texts that were produced in the decade following publication of Adam Smith's Principles of Political Economy (1848).
The Game of Speculation, produced by Charles James Mathews in 1851, is a meditation on the maxim "all our morals lie in dividends."(40) It coincides with
a crisis in British finance: the partner system of unlimited liability and the unregulated commerce in bills of exchange before Britain went on the gold standard were ruining generations of investors. The author dramatizes the economic downfall of a nation where private and public responsibilities conflict. In a well-made plot of missing partners, marriages for class mobility, and the exchange of fateful props (in this case, promissory notes), George H. Lewes metaphorically demonstrates how speculation and the unlimited proliferation of checking outside the banking system in excess of the money supply brought about the crash of 1847. Another such cycle culminated in the crisis of 1857. Debts structure the social nexus of The Game of Speculation and the world; without them plots and french scenes are inconceivable, as the leading character (constantly pursued by creditors) argues:
Mr. Affable Hawk: Think, my dear- a man who owes nothing, what a solitary, miserably incomplete human being! Nobody cares for him; nobody asks about him; nobody knocks at his door. Whilst I am an object of intense and incessant interest to all my creditors. They think of me in going to bed; they think of me in rising every day--their lips grow familiar with my name; their hands love my knocker.(41)
Hawk swears by the principle that free cooperation motivated by the prospect of self-gain leads to everyone's benefit. Or, in Adam Smith's pithy maxim: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our dinner, but from [his] regard to [his] own interest."(42) Only the feminine principle (good faith , honest virtue, and forthright simplicity), embodied by Hawk's wife, puts a stop to the spiral of debt, deceit, and endlessly exchanged credit that constituted the gambling fever of stock market speculation and everyday commerce in the 1850s.
Still Waters Run Deep (1855) also dramatizes economic principles in human terms. An excessive profit motive is given to the villain; his economic villainy is matched by his willingness to spoil a young wife's marriage and ruin the reputation of her foolish aunt. The hero, John Mildmay, has steadfastly quiet ways in love and finance, while the villain Hawksley (apparently the favorite bird of economic dramatists) plies his sexual and economic allure as a confidence trick of "shadow to substance."(43) Once again, in the decade before the London stock exchange was reformed and regulated limited liability joint stock investments became feasible to float, business is likened to gambling, though on a much more ruthless basis than at the ring or turf. Lewes's "butcher" maxim is challenged on moral grounds as the villain and hero discuss their business plans:
Hawksley: Next, we destroy Bristol.
Mildmay: Destroy Bristol, too!
Hawksley: That is, when I say destroy, we reduce her to a second-rate port.
She will still have the coasting and fruit trade, and may do a little in turtle. We destroy Hull--
Mildmay: But stop--stop--stop. You're going to destroy everything.
Hawksley: My dear fellow, it's the law of the universe. If by our line we can
introduce West Indian sugar into the market at two-thirds the price of East Indian, are
we to hesitate because Ceylon may be ruined?
Mildmay: Of course not. I suppose that would be what the political economists
Hawksley: Predsely. If Ceylon is ruined on these terms, so much the better
for the world in general.
Mildmay: And so much the worse for Ceylon in particular.
Hawksley: Just so. I see you follow me exactly.
Mildmay: Only, I was thinking--
Hawksley: Pray speak out. The suggestions of a new, fresh mind are
invaluable. You were thinking--
Mildmay: That, as the general interest is made up of particular interests,
if you destroy the particular interests, perhaps the general interes t may not be so much
benefited after all.44
The human dimension of economics, as well as the economic dimensions of humanity plied by Milton and Dryden, merge in the interplay of morals, the trading of women's reputations, and the ruthless pursuit of profit. The prospect of individuals' gains even takes precedence over the moral economy of colonial empire. It is a cautionary tale every bit as pointed as Bronson Howard's Young Mrs. Winthrop or The Henrietta, supposedly the epitome of the U.S.A.'s commerdally reflective stage.
In Lewes's and Taylor's plays there is documentation of their middle-class audience's concern about economic questions. They dramatize and humanize economic theory well beyond the scope of George Lillo's London Merchant (1731), perhaps because of the role economic discourse took a century later. They explore the consequences of a system gone awry, the global implications of local decisions and interests, and the "naturalization" of laissez-faire economics. Mr. Affable Hawk's rationalizations of plotting and debt may not stand up in a world waiting for Godot (Serious Money notwithstanding), but then Godot's disciples can increasingly trade invisible securities with technologies that require no human interaction whatsoever. What can a well-made plot (or a well-made jury trial, for that matter) put on the props list for a drama of insider trading, savings and loan defaults, the collapse of Lloyd's, or other ponzi schemes of our times?
The theatrical realization of late-twentieth century capitalism is an account I leave entirely to others. If the principles I outline--reading differently and including economic texts in our purview--are sound, they can be transposed and adapted to other times and contexts. There is much we can accomplish simply through informed reading strategies, without necessarily conquering methodologies uncustomary in theatre studies.
The industry of entertainment is part of the economy as a whole--local, regional, national, and international- rising and falling in relation to factors completely external to art. This should be accounted for. Theatrical ventures were enterprises oriented industrially rather than primarily as artistic ventures, or what is now called the service sector. When we read of the attractions of Vestris or Irving, their identities as industrial entrepreneurs are forgotten except in footnotes of bankruptcy or postscripts of estate auctions. But our reading need not be oriented in this way. Most theatre history emphasizes repertoire, style, and artistic skill as determinants of success; I think that in the profit-driven unsubsidized theatre of nineteenth-century Britain concerns of investment, return, and means underpinned most of what happened on the stage and these factors should be recognized vis-a-vis the past as they are in the present instance, along with external factors such as recessions and booms, economic migration, business cycles implicating the availability of capital, and international investment and trade. The Victorian theatre was profit-driven, viciously competitive, probably over supplied, and market sensitive very much like the Merseyside mills and Glaswegian shipyards of a century ago or the motion picture industry today, probably because they competed for the same funds (at the bank and box office) in regional marketplaces. Some of what is commonplace in motion picture marketing and universally recognized in contemporary media studies is lacking in studies of an earlier era in the theatre and should be incorporated. Let us look, therefore, at multi-variate analyses based on cities, nations, genres of drama, competing entertainments, scales of investment and return, the means of distribution, and market trends. Let us not be content with reading the footnotes.
1 Donald N. McCloskey, "The Rhetoric of Economics," Australian National University Working Papers in Economic History 9 (October 1982); Donald N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); and Donald McCloskey, If You're So Smart: the Narrative of Economic Expertise (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990). See also J. Shackel, "Gender, Metaphor, and the Definition of Economics," Economics and Philosophy (Spring 1992): 103-25.
2 Donald McCloskey and Roderick Floud, The Economic History of Britain Since 1700 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Donald McCloskey, Econometric History (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987).
3 McCloskey, Rhetoric, xvii.
4 Arjo Klamer and Donald N. McCloskey, "Economics in the Human Conversation," in Arjo Klamer, Donald McCloskey, and Robert M. Solow, eds., The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 12.
5 Kristina Straub, Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
6 Nancy Folbre and Heidi Hartmann, "The Rhetoric of self-interest: Ideology and gender in economic theory," in Arjo Klamer et al., eds. Consequences of Economic Rhetoric, 184.
7 Economic historians of the British tradition are usually trained in social history, choosing to specialize in economically inflected questions. Their counterparts trained in the Uruted States almost invariably come from economics backgrounds, hence their intense verve to protect and defend mathematical modeling. Given my specialty in British social history, I have more need of addressing the former group, regarding the latter as less disposed to be interested in the subject of theatre history, more recalcitrant in their methodological biases, and less interested in British studies. Business historians (particularly out of Harvard Business School) also require attention; they may prefer either History's or Economics' disciplinary tradition but tend to study individual corporations rather than inclustry-wide or culture-wide economic trends. In a sense, then, business historians model research in ways complementary to biographically- or company-based theatre historians. I am interested in a compound of business and economic history that is as widely comparative and
8 Allan Gates Halline, ed., American Plays (New York: American Book Co., 1935), 410. Halline alludes to Bronson Howard's article "The American Drama," Sunday Magazine 7 October 1906.
9 Exceptions can be found in Peter Bailey, "Custom, Capital and Culture in the Victorian Music Hall," in Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1982); John Russell Stephens, The Profession of the Playwright: British Theatre 1800-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Rachel Low and Roger Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1948). See also Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).
10 John Pick, The West End: Mismanagement and Snobbery (Eastbourne: John Offord, 1983). Primary sources are similarly prone: The Bancrofts, Mr. & Mrs. Bancroft on and Off the Stage (London: Richard Bentley, 1889).
11 Tracy C. Davis, Actresses as Working Women (London: Routledge, 1991), 4.
12 "Of the 200 or so non-royal peerages created between 1886 and 1914, some seventy, more than a third, represented new wealth from industry, commerce and finance." Harold Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England Since 1880 (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), (43-44).
13 Austin Brereton, The Life of Henry Irving, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Green, 1908); John William Cole, The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean, F.S.A., 2 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1859); Charles Dickens, ed., The Life of Charles James Mathews (London: Macmillan, 1879); Wendy Trewin, All On Stage: Charles Wyndham and the Alberys (London: Harrap, 1980). Other examples entirely avoid matters of management, preferring to chronologize their parts and summarize performances and playscripts, e.g. Thomas Edgar Pemberton, The Kendais (London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1900). The scholarship in these biographies is negligible yet the narrative patterns of examples spanning a century are significant. Alan S. Downer's The Eminent Tragedian William Charles Macready (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966) demonstrates that the tendency is not limited to inferior research.
14 See Clifford John Williams, Madame Vestris: A Theatrical Biography (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1973).
15 Alfred L. Crauford, Sam and Sallie: A Romance of the Stage (London: Cranley and Day, 1933), 309.
16 Cicely Hamilton and Lilian Baylis, The Old Vic (New York: George H. Doran, ), 280. See also Peter Roberts The Old Vic Story: a Nation's Theatre, 1818-1976 (London: Alien, 1976); Richard Findlater, Lilian Baylis: the Lady of the Old Vic (London: Allen Lane, 1975); and Sybil and Russell Thorndike, Lilian Baylis (London: Chapman and Hall, 1938).
17 Entr'acte Annual (1900): 13.
18 Select Committee on Public Houses, 1852, question #4198. Quoted in Bailey, "Custom, Capital, and Culture," 185.
19 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (1848; rpt. London: Longman, Green, 1926), Book II, ch. iv, 247.
20 Stephens, Protection of the Playwright, 53.
21 Mill, Principles, Book III, ch. ii, p. 442.
22 Report from the Select Committee on Theatrical Licenses and Regulations with Proceedings Minutes of Evidence Appendix and Index, 1866 (rpt. Shannon: Irish University Press, n.d.) 154.
23 Vesta Tilley, Recollections of Vesta Tilley (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1934), 49.
24 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, ch. vi; Mill, Principles, Book II, ch. xv, and Book W, ch. ii.
25 Testimony of H. Pownall, Report from the Select Committee... 1866, 19.
26 Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 21.
27 Dorothy H. Eshleman, ed., The Committee Books of the Theatre Royal Norwich 1768-1825 (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1970), 12.
28 Ann Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the first Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge (London: Colin Smythe, 1982).
29 Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 177-200. See also chapter 7. "Underwriting Modernism: American Intermezzo," 201-10.
30 Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller (London: Mandarin, 1991), 29.
31 Dorothy Leighton, Short Summary of the Position and Prospects of the Independent Theatre (London: ), 4. See also the introduction to William Archer's Theatrical "World" of 1896 (London: Walter Scott, 1897).
32 For example, John Pick, The Theatre Industry (n.p.: Comedia, 1985); and Alfred L. Bernheim, The Business of Theatre (1932; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964).
33 Justin Lewis, Art, Culture, and Enterprise: the Politics of Art and the Culture Industries (London: Routledge: 1990).
34 Paul Huntington, "Cash and Customers: Theatre Revenue and the National Economy," New Theatre Quarterly 4:15 (August 1988): 25863; H.L. Vogel, Entertainment Industry Economics: a Guide for Financial Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
35 Roger M. Troub, "The Arts in Economics: Conventional, Institutional, and Neoinstitutional," in W.S. Hendon, ed., Economic Policy for the Arts (Cambridge MA: Abt Books, 1980), 9.; see also William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen, Performing Arts--the Economic Dilemma (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1966).
36 I am thinking particularly of work by Michael R. Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1981); Russell Jackson, ed., Victorian Theatre: The Theatre in its Time (New York: New Amsterdam, 1989); and Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
37 See Tracy C. Davis, "Labourers of the Nineteenth-Century Theatre: the Economics of Gender and Industrial Organization," Journal of British Studies (forthcoming December 1993).
38 This inquiry was begun in Davis, Actresses as Working Women.
39 Dagmar Hoher, "The Composition of Music Hall Audiences, 1850-1900," in Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, ed. Peter Barley (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986), 73-92; and Richard Butsch, ed., For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
40 "Slingsby Lawrence" [George H. Lewes], The Game of Speculation (London and New York: Samuel French, ), 6. For a discussion of business crime as a category of melodrama see Michael R. Booth, Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 164--67.
41 Lewes, The Game of Speculation, 7.
42 Quoted in Graham Bannock, R.E. Baxter, and Evan Davis, The Penguin Dictionary of Economics, 4th ed. (London: Penguin, 1987), 71. It is also literalized in a minor subplot of The Game of Speculation.
43 Tom Taylor, Still Waters Run Deep (Chicago and New York: Dramatic Publishing Company, n.d.), 33. First produced at the Olympic Theatre, London, in 1855.
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|Title Annotation:||Disciplinary Disruptions; in theater research|
|Author:||Davis, Tracy C.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1993|
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