Playing to the 18th century audience

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

There was no popcorn. No soda and no reclining seats. Tickets were inexpensive and theatres were huge. Amusements were somewhat limited, so watching a play in 18th Century London was a popular thing to do for everyone from the royal family down to the scullery maid.

The plays they saw were so sentimental that audiences not only wept, but some of them fainted or had hysterical fits.

What they watched was so emotional by today’s standards that most of the plays have been ignored by scholars. Yet they provide insight into social change, says Jean Marsden, professor of English in CLAS.

Marsden, who is researching some of the plays for a book she hopes will be published late in 2012, has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to complete the project.

Marsden, who once delivered a paper on “Why I Work on ‘Dreadful Stuff’: The Importance of Bad Eighteenth-Century Drama” at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, says that the plays may not appeal to today’s audiences but are important because they were a force for social change.

Their topics included the love between a daughter and father, love of country, female heroics, slavery and even a portrait of a kindly Jewish figure. They were viewed by thousands every day.

“Drury Lane and Convent Garden theaters attracted crowds that included royalty and tradesmen, apprentices and aristocrats, and the plays they staged generated a host of spinoff publications, including playbooks and reviews as well as poems, songbooks and even paintings,” says Marsden, the author of three books and numerous articles, chapters and reviews.

Drama was the most widely disseminated and influential form of literature of its day.

“People today just don’t like these plays. They were intensely personal and were considered the highest form of art at the time,” Marsden says. “Audiences responded strongly. The actors were very prominent in society and very respectable. ”

The plays are, she says, “a conduit through which the nation’s view of itself and its society was expressed.”

With titles such as Inkle and Yarico, The Jew and The Grecian Daughter, the works often portrayed people in what was then a new way. For example, for audiences who had seen Shakespeare’s Shylock as such a malevolent figure that children were terrified, The Jew portrayed its central figure as humble, charitable and kind. In Inkle and Yarico, women were portrayed as exotic while in The Grecian Daughter, the central figure was a woman who was heroic, patriotic and strong-minded.

Collectively known as the “theater of feeling” the plays often use emotion to effect moral reform on an individual and communal level, Marsden says.

Marsden, who recently delivered the Cardin Lecture at the University of Hartford, plans to use the NEH grant to visit archives in New England, California and the British Library to learn more about the plays, which were performed in the British Isles, the British colonies and the West Indies.

Her interest in 18th-century theater began in an undergraduate course at Carleton College in her home state of Minnesota and continued throughout her master’s and PhD programs at Harvard. She has also done research on Shakespeare, gender issues and children’s literature.

The book on the sentimental plays was begun during a fellowship Marsden had at the UConn Humanities Institute in CLAS and during a sabbatical she had in 2008.

“The project enhances our understanding of a pivotal moment in English history by restoring to view not simply an individual text or an individual reader but a broad-based audience who shared both emotions and ideals,” Marsden says. “They were performed in an age in which the mercantile classes grew in influence, changing the overall social structure of the nation at the same time that England evolved into a dominant imperial power. Drama was used to affirm British identity on a national and individual level,” she says.

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