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Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London.

In the prologue of his book on the Old Price riots at the Covent Garden theatre in 1809, Marc Baer explains the need for a new study of the event: in the past, the riots have been "something of an embarrassment for a variety of scholars ... for political and social historians such apparent frivolity is out of keeping with the struggle of the lower orders to emancipate themselves."(p. 1) Baer's carefully researched and extremely readable book should eliminate any question that the OP riots, or for that matter, any "theatricality" practiced by English crowds, was less than serious. Those particularly interested in the delicate balance between economic and social change and popular culture will find Baer's book a fresh interpretation of early nineteenth-century English society.

The OP riots began when John Philip Kemble, actor and manager of the rebuilt Covent Garden theatre, opened the new building in September 1809 (the old one having burned to the ground a year earlier) with a production Macbeth, a remodeled seating arrangement and a new scale for ticket costs. The raising of prices and the elimination of seats in the cheaper pit in favor of expanded galleries and private boxes prompted 66 nights of rioting that brought together men and women from all social classes in an attempt to undo Kemble's changes.

Baer examines the riots from the varying perspectives of theatre, political and social history. As "theatre", he argues, the riots were part of the Georgian manner of "consciously being theatrical"; the rioters were deliberately acting in a manner fitting with the ideology of melodrama as a means of expression. They saw themselves as defenders of a "popular constitution".

This was not the English constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and the common people, but rather popular culture and traditional concepts, both moralist and ideological in nature, which focused on the preservation of existing rights within the society rather than those of property ownership and political representation. As a result, the OP riots were, politically, an opportunity for those without the franchise to be heard on the issues of tradition, the moral economy and equity. The purchase of a ticket gave theatre-goers a political voice that they otherwise did not possess and an opportunity to organize and act.

For the social historian, the OP riots reopen the question of whether, as early studies have argued, such collective action and disturbances of the peace were a manifestation of class conflict. Baer contends that they were not. Removing cheap seats and creating private boxes were reflective of a growing middle class and consumerism. But Baer demonstrates that the rioters were not exclusively motivated by condemnation of such bourgeois developments. Rioters could be found among skilled and unskilled laborers, tradesmen and clerks and even those identified as "gentlemen". No single group and no single change put forth by Kemble in 1809 (whether prices, seating, space and comfort) dominated all 66 nights of rioting. Audience members from all priced seating participated in the action, leading Baer to conclude that this collective action was not criminal in nature, nor fundamentally revolutionary. Moreover, particular "patterns" were missing from the riots, indicating that they were not "class" motivated. In fact, leaders and participants in the disturbances contained the protest so as to prevent a mass destruction of property and larger social revolution which would undermine the traditional moral order and British national identity. The riots were a social action grounded in cultural rather than economic foundations.

The argument put forth in this book is persuasive: the OP riots in Covent Garden were symptomatic of a larger social change in early nineteenth-century England. They manifested the perception that the rights and traditions of the English "popular constitution" were steadily eroding in a new socio-economic world which placed property rights and social rank above the old order. Secondly, the OP rioters believed that they represented John Bull against those, like Kemble, determined to attack Britain's ancient liberties. Finally, the riots themselves provided, "a variation of normal patterns of audience participation ... an outlet for discontent ... [and a transition in social behavior] from impulsive upheaval to institutionalized political parties and trade unions - or even well-organized protest movements." (pp. 182 and 237)

In the end, the old prices for the pit were restored, the number of private boxes was reduced, charges against the rioters were dropped and tradition and morality defeated consumerism and profit, all as a result of a "defensive" protest. Far from frivolous, Baer clearly demonstrates that the OP riots of 1809 were a crucial component in the evolution of English popular culture and the creation of an English national identity during the early nineteenth century.

Nancy LoPatin University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:LoPatin, Nancy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Words:778
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