Dore's Picture of London Theater By the middle of the nineteenth century, Victorian London had become the heart of the theater world, which now also ceased to be an only upper-middle class luxury and interest. During the eighteenth century, the urban poor, who rarely attended shows at all, were forced to view from the upper galleries of the patent theaters (Drury Lane, Convent Garden (image), and the Haymarket) and “watch a drama largely aimed at the tastes and concerns of their betters” (Dyos and Wolff 212). Starting in the nineteenth century, however, for the first time in British theater history, playhouses and scripts targeted the working, lower-middle class, mainly focusing on the themes of daily urban life in London, and what was called the “entertainment industry of an urban industrial society” (Jackson 1). During a period of rapidly increasing urban population and modes of transportation, as well as the rise of successful competitors to the previously limited ‘legitimate’ stages, theater was now becoming a central expression of popular culture. Attending these new theaters by the masses, “the physical and moral simplicities” (Dyos and Wolff 213). were often illiterate and did not appreciate the refined tragedy/comedy of the past century. Instead, they wanted “the colour, action, excitement, illusion, poetic justice, and moral satisfaction that constituted an escape from the dreary monotony and daily discomfort of lives spent mostly in the business of survival” (Dyos and Wolff 213).

Managers and writers of the dramas effectively produced modified modes of theater, which entertained millions of spectators for the rest of the nineteenth century, and attracted the attention of intellectuals such as Charles Dickens in his journal Household Words and his novel Great Expectations. Pip describes an experience with the pleasurable, if not valuable, pastime:

I thought I would afterwards go to the play. The theatre where Mr. Wopsle had achieved his questionable triumph, was in that waterside neighborhoods (it is nowhere now), and to that theatre I resolved to go. I was aware that Mr. Wopsle had not succeeded in reviving the Drama, but, on the contrary, had rather partaken of its decline. (GE 256)

The nineteenth century, overall a time of great social and economic transformation, saw changes in many areas in the realm of pleasure and pastimes, including the newly commercialized theater. With new developments in lighting, acting, costumes, set design and other visuals, and the rowdy lower-middle class audience in expansive playhouses, many argue that it is little wonder that this century “produced so little great drama and so much delightful theater” (Axton 25-26) and amusement for a new market of workers.

In 30 March 1850 Household Words, Dickens's article entitled “Amusements of the People” criticized the upper and upper-middle classes for not knowing or caring to understand “how the lower half amuses itself” (13). Even within the socially mixed playhouses, “policies of hierarchical division were applied, with separate entrances for each section of the house, so that affluent ‘box holders would not have to rub shoulders at a common entrance with those headed for pit benches or gallery’” (Horn 11). Using “Joe Whelks, of the New Cut, Lambeth,” Dickens argues that the pastimes and amusements of the working class, mainly theatrical and musical performances, should be viewed sympathetically and that “it would be a very doubtful benefit to society” if the “innate love for dramatic entertainment” could be “rooted out” (13). Dickens explains that

Joe Whelks, of the New Cut, Lambeth, is not much of a reader, has no great store of books, no very commodious room to read in, no very decided inclination to read, and no power at all of presenting vividly before his mind’s eye what he reads about. But, put Joe in the gallery of the Victoria Theatre; show him doors and windows in the scene that will open and shut, and that people can get in and out of; tell him a story with these aids, and by the help of live men and women dressed up, confiding to him their innermost secrets, in voices audible half a mile off; and Joe will unravel a story through all its entanglements, and sit there a long after midnight as you have anything left to show him.

The theater that Dickens wrote about, The Royal Victoria Theatre (originally the Royal Coburg Theatre, and now the Old Vic Theatre) was noted for bringing theatre to the common people, which, as Dickens noted in his second article titled “Amusements of the People” (13 April 1850) was always full: It was apparent here, as in the theatre we had previously visited, that one of the reasons of its great attraction was its being directly addressed to the common people, in the provision made for their seeing and hearing. . . Instead of being at a great disadvantage in comparison with the mass of the audience, they were here the audience, for whose accommodation the place was made. (Household Words 58). (emphasis added) Overall, Dickens portrayed his belief that a love of theater and dramatic representations is inherent, and that all people, including and especially the working class, “have a right to be amused” (Household Words 58).

Although theater was now opened up to a wider range of people, categorizing playhouses by class was typical in this time period, and changed with emigration and rapid migration into urban areas. Spectators were often divided into boxes, pit and gallery (as shown in the images of Appendix A), and separate entrances were provided to attract the upper classes. As Dickens described a visit to the Royal Victoria Theatre in his Household Words:

The Theatre was extremely full. The prices of admission were, to the boxes, a shilling; to the pit, sixpence; to the gallery, threepence. The gallery was of enormous dimensions (among the company, in the front row, we observed Mr. Whelks); and overflowing with occupants. It required no close observation of the attentive faces, rising one above another, to the very door in the roof, and squeezed and jammed in, regardless of all discomforts, even there, to impress a stranger with a sense of its being highly desirable to lose no possible chance of effecting any mental improvement in that great audience. [14]

As wealth began to grow among the middle-class, attendance at the theaters increased, and owners began to drop their prices to profit from volume. The previous patent theaters (Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Haymarket) were not as populated by the lower classes because they were still too expensive, but with increased salaries, more were able to attend. Emigration also had an effect on “urban theater as well as on urban economics, and two of the particular characteristics of Victorian melodrama were its idealization of the village home and its denigration of London” (Dyos and Wolff 213). Economics and social transformations were both the subject matter and cause for the success of the new commercialized theater.

Sources

Axton, William F. Circle of Fire; Dickens’ Vision & Style & The Popular Victorian Theater. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 17 May 2010.

Dickens, Charles. Household Words. UK: Published by Bradbury & Evans, 1850. Digitized Dec 12, 2008, Web. 1 May 2010.

Dyos, H. J. and Wolff, Michael. The Victorian City. UK: Routledge, 1999.

Horn, Pamela. Pleasures and Pastimes in Victorian Britain. UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

Jackson, Russell. Victorian Theatre; The Theatre in Its Time. New York: A & C Black Publishers, 1989.


Victorian Web overview Victorian Musical Theater  Charles Dickens