Staging History 1780-1840.
Michael Burden, Wendy Heller, Jonathan Hicks and Ellen Lockhart (eds)
Bodleian Library, 2016
25 [pounds sterling] pb., 224 pp., 37 col. ill., 43 b/w ill.
Staging History 1780-1840 is a sumptuously illustrated collection of essays about a period when the thirst for historical stories on the British and American stages was responded to with vigour.
Structured into three thematic strands, each essay follows a similar pattern which explains the historical stories behind each production before describing aspects of its performance. This is then used to reflect (or speculate) on its connection to, and impact on, the political and social framework of the time.
"Among Facts and Fictions" begins with a look at the Kembles' productions of Shakespeare as an exercise in historical veracity where the stage was to become "a history painting brought to life" (34), whilst also keeping a careful eye on its own claim to posterity. An account of theatrical iterations of the 1779 Siege of Gibraltar, each more monumental (and dangerous) than the last, shows how spectacle, informed by notions of re-enactment, was of huge public interest. Finally James Sheridan Knowles's 1832 masque in honour of Walter Scott is used to discuss the idea of the "memorial industry" (73), with all of its attendant contradictions.
Part Two, looking at "Politics, Nation and Identity", is perhaps the most interesting with its analysis of a number of operas as exercises in raising national consciousness or American nation building. Two productions of Gioachino Rossini's Hofer, The Tell of the Tyrol in politically turbulent times extol allegiance to the sovereign to one audience and Chartist republicanism to another. G.F. Bristow's and J.H. Wainwright's 1855 New York premiere of a stage adaptation of Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle is seen as a landmark production in "an era of infancy for American opera", (121) in which the original story is altered so that the "nationalist message could hardly be clearer" (120). An account, of the 1858 melodrama The Pioneer Patriot by Harry Watkins, moves, slightly unconvincingly, into a description of the contemporary American military re-enactment industry.
The final section begins with a fascinating account of the ballet-pantomime of the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii as an example of an ethnographic turn in which the theatre sought to observe, if not understand "the other". The Exile by Frederick Reynolds ties some of the key themes of the book together by looking at the role of the stage in immersing the audience into a simulacrum of world events. Here the staging of the coronation of the Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna "may well have been one of the models for the actual coronation of George IV in July 1821" (173). Tension between the meaning of the past when re-presented on the stage comes to the fore in a trio of plays about Christopher Columbus during the immediate post-revolutionary period, where "divergences from the factual record" (194) are required to stay on the right side of the censor.
Whilst the book aims to show how these productions were talking about the present as much as the past, the real interest is in the research, documentation and description of the shows them selves. It is ultimately the many small details in this enjoyable book--such as the great attention that was paid to the creation of the Siberian snow for The Exile, or the Woolwich shipwrights who built the warships for the Siege of Gibraltar being tasked to make replica models for the Sadler's Wells Aquatic Theatre--that bring this dynamic historical and theatrical period to life.