Victorian

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Plays

Arrah-na-Pogue

Dion Boucicault
Acts: 3. Scenes: 12. Roles: Male (12), Female (6), Neutral (0).

Written in 1864 and set during the Irish rebellion of 1798, Arrah na Pogue is an rollicking tale of romance and misadventure with rascally rebels, despicable villains and love-struck youths.

As night falls on the Wicklow mountains, the popular but incorrigible rebel Beamish MacCaul is lying in wait. He’s out to ambush the cowardly rent-collector Michael Feeny and collect some rent from him in turn. That done, he’s off to marry Fanny Power. Down in the valley, love is in the air for Shaun the Post and the play’s heroine Arrah Meelish too. But Arrah has a secret, and Michael Feeny has found it out. As Shaun and Arrah celebrate their wedding, revenge comes a-calling. Now love must conquer all – including the hangman’s noose. The play is brim-full of Boucicault’s trademark comic roguery, farce and melodrama.

The Bear (after Chekhov)

Brian Friel
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (2), Female (1), Neutral (0).

Elena Popova, a young and attractive widow, has immersed herself in the role of mourning for her once philandering late husband. Luka, her frail and ancient man-servant, tries in vain to snap her out of it. Then Smirnov barges in.

The Bear (after Chekhov) was first produced, with Afterplay, at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in March 2002.

Creditors (trans. Greig)

August Strindberg
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (2), Female (1), Neutral (0).

Anxiously awaiting the return of his new wife, Adolph finds solace in the words of a stranger. But comfort soon turns to destruction as old wounds are opened, insecurities are laid bare and former debts are settled.

Regarded as Strindberg's most mature work, Creditors is a darkly comic tale of obsession, honour and revenge. David Greig's version premiered at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in September 2008.

A Doll’s House

Henrik Ibsen
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (4), Female (4), Neutral (1).

This Student Edition of A Doll's House provides a wealth of scholarly information, annotation and background to aid the study of Ibsen's seminal play.

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s electrifying play shatters the romantic masquerade of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, they have deceived themselves and each other into thinking they are happy. But Nora’s concealment of a loan she had to take out for her husband’s sake forces their frivolous conversation to an irrevocable crisis, until Nora claims her right to individual freedom.

Ibsen’s 1879 play shocked its first audiences with its radical insights into the social roles of husband and wife. His portrayal of his flawed heroine, Nora, remains one of the most striking dramatic depictions of late-nineteenth century woman.

This version is translated by Michael Meyer, and was first performed in 1964 at the Playhouse, Oxford.

A Doll's House (trans. Stephens)

Henrik Ibsen
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (4), Female (6), Neutral (0).

The slamming of the front door at the end of Ibsen’s delicate and electrifying play shatters the romantic masquerade of the Nora and Torvald’s marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, they have deceived themselves and each other into thinking they are happy. But Nora’s concealment of a loan she had to take out for her husband’s sake forces their frivolous conversation to an irrevocable crisis, until Nora claims her right to individual freedom.

Ibsen’s 1879 play shocked its first audiences with its radical insights into the social roles of husband and wife. His portrayal of his flawed heroine, Nora, remains one of the most striking dramatic depictions of late-nineteenth century woman.

This version is translated by Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, and was first performed at the Young Vic, London on 29 June 2012

The Duchess of Padua

Oscar Wilde
Acts: 5. Scenes: 5. Roles: Male (10), Female (2), Neutral (0).

The Duchess of Padua is a tragic melodrama that centres around a young man named Guido Ferranti who has come to Padua to learn the secret of his birth. There he is told that his father's life was ruined by the current duke of Padua; Guido is convinced that he should revenge his father's life by murdering the duke. He agrees at first to undertake this mission, but later balks at the task, only for it to be carried out by his lover, Beatrice, the wife of the murdered Duke. The play ends in further bloodshed, with the double suicide of the lovers.

The Duchess of Padua, written in 1883, is Oscar Wilde's second play. Written for, but ultimately rejected by, the American actress Mary Anderson, it finally premiered anonymously at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

An Enemy of the People (trans. Hampton)

Henrik Ibsen
Acts: 5. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (9), Female (2), Neutral (0).

The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

Dr Stockmann attempts to expose a water pollution scandal in his home town which is about to establish itself as a spa. When his brother conspires with local politicians and the newspaper to suppress the story, Stockmann appeals to a public meeting - only to be shouted down and reviled as 'an enemy of the people'. Ibsen's explosive play reveals his distrust of politicians and the blindly held beliefs of the masses.

Christopher Hampton's version of Ibsen's classic was first staged at the National Theatre, London, in 1997.

An Enemy of the People (trans. Lenkiewicz)

Henrik Ibsen
Acts: 5. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (8), Female (2), Neutral (0).

Power. Money. Morality. In a tight knit community a shocking discovery comes to light and threatens the lifeblood of the town. Truth and honour are pitched against wild ambition and corruption in Ibsen's emotional maelstrom.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People premiered at the Arcola Theatre, London in April 2008.

A Florentine Tragedy

Oscar Wilde
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (2), Female (2), Neutral (0).

A Florentine Tragedy is a tragedy in blank-verse set in the sixteenth century. It tells the story of the illicit love between a burgher's wife, Bianca, and the young heir to the throne of Florence, Guido. Guido has come to the house of the burgher Simone to claim Bianca for his own. Encouraged by her, Guido promises a fortune to Simone in exchange for her hand. Simone, though greedy for the money, is not to be swayed so easily, and a fight to the death ensues.

Written in 1894, A Florentine Tragedy exists only as a fragment, often accompanied for the purposes of presentation by an opening scene commissioned from the Irish poet Thomas Sturge Moore by Robert Ross, Wilde's literary executor. Only Oscar Wilde's work is presented here.

Ghosts (trans. Lenkiewicz)

Henrik Ibsen
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (3), Female (2), Neutral (0).

Norway, 1881. Mrs. Alving is ecstatic when her son Osvald visits after many years abroad. He has returned to celebrate the heroic memory of his dead father. But within hours of Osvald's homecoming his mother is forced to unearth the past and reveal its terrifying ghosts.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's version of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, or Those Who Return, premiered at the Arcola Theatre, London, in a co-production with ATC in July 2009.

The 19th century was the age of a truly popular theatre. New theatres opened to satisfy a demand for entertainment from the workers who flooded into the major cities as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

Early Victorian drama: In the early years of the 19th century, restrictions of the Licensing Act allowed plays to be shown at only two theatres in London, at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Their programme was predominantly Shakespearean although some contemporary writers like Sheridan, who managed Drury Lane until 1809, were also popular.

To escape the restrictions of the royal patents, non-patent theatres interspersed dramatic scenes with musical interludes. Melodrama and burlesque, with their short scenes and musical accompaniment, were popular at this time. Indeed, melodrama was so popular that it was also produced in the patent theatres.

The huge growth in demand for theatrical entertainment in the early 19th century made the patent theatres' system unworkable. Theatres had sprung up across London and the boundaries between what was allowed in the patent theatres (legitimate drama) and what was presented in other theatres (illegitimate theatre) had become blurred.

In the 1830s J R Planché, a writer of burlesques and later famous as a Pantomime writer, created a sketch starring the characters of Mother Drama, and her two sons, Legitimate Drama and Illegitimate Drama. This burlesqued the Licensing Act and coined the terms legitimate and illegitimate drama. In 1843 the Licensing Act was dropped enabling other theatres to present plays.

The old price riots: The most famous theatrical riots were the old price riots of 1809. After the Covent Garden theatre burnt down the management decided to raise the prices from six shillings to seven shillings for the boxes and three and six to four shillings for the pit and the third tier. The gallery price remained the same, but the new gallery was so far up and the rake so steep that the audience - crammed into so called 'pigeon holes' - could only see the legs of the performers.

After the singing of the national anthem on the first night, the audience began shouts of 'Old Prices! Old Prices!'. This continued with cat-calling throughout the performance of Macbeth and the noise was so bad that soldiers were sent up to the gallery to restore order.

This rioting continued every night week after week. The audiences carried banners and placards with slogans written on them. They brought pigs, rattles, trumpets, bells and whistles into the theatre. People wore badges with 'OP' embroidered on them and released pigeons into the auditorium. Audiences also started to dress up wearing false noses and some men wore drag. Such was the furore that eventually people came to see the riot rather than the play.

After three months of rioting the manager John Philip Kemble accepted the demands of the rioters and made a public apology from the stage.

The Kemble family: At the turn of the 19th century the Kemble family dominated the London stage. Actor John Philip Kemble was said to be the finest actor in England and his sister, Sarah Siddons, was regarded as one of the greatest ever tragedians. Their parents had been strolling players and John had earned a similar living on the road and in provincial theatres. Their younger brother Charles Kemble and his daughter Fanny were later stars of the London stage in the 1820s.

Sarah Siddons was first introduced to David Garrick when nearing the end of his career. He brought her to London in 1775, but she failed to make an immediate impression on the public. Siddons returned to London six years later, with Drury Lane under the management of playwright Richard Sheridan. She played 80 times in seven different parts in her first proper London season, inducing faintings and hysterics amongst her audiences.

John Philip Kemble made his debut on the London stage in 1783 as Hamlet. His acting style was static and declamatory, with long sweeping lines and a detached grandeur. He excelled in tragic Shakespearean roles. One critic said he was 'absolutely electrified' by the actor's transition as Romeo from gallant lover to anguished avenger, and Kemble's style became the style of London for three decades. However he was not a natural comedian or suited to romantic leads.

The first of a long line of 19th century actor-managers, Kemble took over management of Covent Garden in 1803, but his tenure was not a happy one. The theatre burnt down in 1808 and when it was rebuilt the following year Kemble raised prices to cover costs resulting in the now infamous old price riots.

Edmund Kean: The popular actor Edmund Kean replaced Kemble as the darling of the London stage after making his Drury Lane debut as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1814. The critic William Hazlitt wrote of this performance:

'For voice, eye, action and expression no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him. The applause from the first scene to the last was general loud and uninterrupted.'

Kean was one of the few actors who could fill the vast Drury Lane theatre to its capacity of 3,000. His natural passion and fiery spirit suited a melodramatic style of acting but he made his name playing in Shakespeare, particularly as Macbeth, Iago and Richard III.

He was said to be at his best in death scenes and scenes that required intensity of feeling or violent transitions from one mood to another. Another famed role was as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

Kean's private life was full of scandal and heavy drinking. He was the father of actor-manager Charles Kean and died shortly after they had appeared together on stage as Othello (Edmund) and Iago (Charles) in 1833.

Melodrama: Melodrama became popular from the 1780s to 1790s and lasted until the early 20th century. The first drama in Britain to be labelled a melodrama was Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery in 1802.

Melodrama consisted of short scenes interspersed with musical accompaniment and was characterized by simple morality, good and evil characters and overblown acting style. Characters in melodrama were stereotypical - there was always a villain, a wronged maiden and a hero. The emotions of the actors were played out in the music and accompanied by dramatic tableaux. Because of these musical interludes melodrama was not considered a 'play' and thus evaded the monopoly of the patent theatres stipulated in the Licensing Act.

Early melodrama: Early melodrama aimed to appeal to a working class audience. Indeed the heroes and heroines were nearly always from the working class and the baddies were aristocrats or the local squire. Melodrama often had romantic settings; ruined castles and wild mountains, reflecting the Romantic movement's obsession with the wilds of nature and exotic travel.

In the 1820s and 30s there was a craze for domestic melodrama and for real life horror stories. Maria Martin or Murder in the Red Barn was based on a true story of the murder of a young girl. Popular novels were also turned into melodramas. Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of the slave Uncle Tom, and the cruelties and harshness of his life. It was the first famous abolitionist work of fiction, and became a stage play in 1852. After its American success, the play opened at London's Adelphi Theatre.

Later melodrama: Melodrama became synonymous with spectacle and remained popular until the early 20th century. Charles Kean's The Corsican Brothers was a hit with Queen Victoria in 1856. William Terriss presented successful melodramas at the Adelphi Theatre between 1885 and 1887 including Seymour Hicks's One of the Best which George Bernard Shaw declared was One of the Worst. Terriss himself came to a melodramatic end – he was assassinated at the stage door of his theatre in 1897. Melodramas at Drury Lane were truly spectacular productions, designed to show off the new technology of the theatre. The Whip and Ben Hur were designed by Bruce 'Sensation' Smith and stage effects included train crashes, boats sinking and chariot races.

Pictorial Drama: From the middle of the 19th century the theatre began to take on a new respectability and draw in more middle class audiences. They were enthralled by the historical accuracy and attention to detail that was becomingly increasingly influential in stage design. Pictorial drama placed great emphasis on the use of properties, and carefully studied costume detail and reflected a fashionable interest in archaeology and history. The inevitable long and complex scene changes meant that the plays, especially those by Shakespeare had to be cut. This use of historical detail gave the theatre a sense of learned respectability.

One of the main exponents of pictorial drama was Charles Kean (son of Edmund Kean). Charles Kean made painstaking research into historic dress and settings for his productions at the Princess's Theatre in Oxford Street during the 1850s. Kean was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and his passion for historical accuracy was lavished on the sets and costumes for his productions (which were then explained in detail on his lengthy playbills). He spared no efforts to ensure the absolute accuracy and historical correctness in the design of Shakespeare's plays and he employed the best designers of the day.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were ardent theatregoers and great admirers of Mr Kean. Queen Victoria saw The Corsican Brothers four times and Ken organised private theatricals at Windsor Castle. The Theatre Museum holds a letter written by Queen Victoria to Kean's widow lamenting his death.

Actor-managers: 19th century theatre was dominated by actor-managers who ran the theatres and played the lead roles in productions. Henry Irving, Charles Kean and Beerbohm Tree all created productions in which they were the star. Henry Irving at the Lyceum dominated the London stage for over 25 years and was hero-worshipped by his audiences. When he died King Edward VII and the President of the United States sent their condolences. Shakespeare was the most popular writer for these actor-managers. It became fashionable to give Shakespeare's plays detailed and historically realistic sets and costumes. The stage spectacle was often more important than the play, and texts were cut to allow time to change the massive sets and to give maximum exposure to the leading role.

Many actor-managers instigated reforms of one sort or another. William Charles Macready who managed both patent theatres in his career introduced proper rehearsals. Prior to this the main actor would rarely rehearse with the rest of the cast. Edmund Kean's famous stage direction to his supporting cast was simply 'stand upstage of me and do your worst'. Macready, who was a rival to Edmund Kean, was an excellent Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear but had a wild temper and made many enemies. He retired in 1851.

Other actor-managers included John Martin Harvey who took over from Henry Irving at the Lyceum in 1899. His acclaimed roles included Oedipus in 1912 directed by Max Reinhardt and Pelléas in Pelléas and Mélisande at the Prince of Wales Theatre with Mrs Patrick Campbell. George Alexander was actor-manager at the St James's Theatre and was responsible for finding new work by British dramatists, particularly Oscar Wilde and Arthur Pinero. Both Martin Harvey and Alexander acted with Henry Irving's company at the Lyceum.

By 1914 most of the actor-managers were growing old or had died. Irving died in 1905 and Tree in 1917.

Women managers: The first woman actor-manager in London was Eliza Vestris who managed the Olympic Theatre in 1830. Famous for her shapely legs, she was a singer and dancer of some repute. At the Olympic she presented a programme of Burlesques (many starring herself in breeches roles) written by J R Planché (who later made his name as a writer of pantomimes). Vestris encouraged the use of historically correct costumes and of a box set complete with a real ceiling. Other women managers in the 19th century included Madge Kendal and Sarah Lane at the Brittania Theatre, Hoxton.

courtesy of the V&A