“rising nightly among the metropolitans”: The Fun and Fascination of Victorian Theatre Adverts

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This week I’ve been redrafting a chapter from my book about Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and remembering why Victorian theatre adverts are one of my favourite things.  There is something very pleasing about their combination of bombast and high-mindedness, as seen in this newspaper advertisement for the Great National Standard Theatre (the name alone is terrific) in 1855:

 

GREAT NATIONAL STANDARD THEATRE, Shoreditch.

The celebrated Miss Glyn and Mr Henry Marston in their powerful delineations in Tragedy, Mr. G Wild and Miss Fanny Williams in Comedy. 

Tragedy and Comedy in one night in the highest perfection. 

This great theatre, rising nightly among the metropolitans in attraction and importance, extending its fame throughout the provinces, offers this Easter to its numberless patrons in town and country, the most splendid, classical and interesting entertainments to be found among the London bills of mental fare.  Tragedy in its tenderness and sublimity – Comedy in its raciness of wit and humour.  Production of Shakespeare’s favourite and interesting play THE WINTER’S TALE, in all the classical elegance and splendour which characterised ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI.  On Monday and during the week (Thursday excepted), to commence with THE WINTER’S TALE… After which, every even, MY UNCLE’S CARD, in which Mr. G Wild and Miss Fanny Williams will perform. To conclude with THE DESERTED MILL.

Sources like this are immensely valuable in discovering what was being staged in the nineteenth-century theatre, and how it was being framed for audiences before they even arrived at the theatre.  Despite being adverts, and thus designed to entice customers in rather than simply describing the performances, they can provide useful information on how drama was being thought about.  For example, we can’t tell from this whether Fanny Williams’ performance in My Uncle’s Card was in fact infused with “raciness of wit and humour”, but we can tell that those were qualities which the writers expected audiences to value.  We can’t discern (without other sources) just how lavish and elaborate the stage settings for The Winter’s Tale were, but we can see that “classical elegance and splendour” are criteria by which Shakespeare productions might be judged.  Beside that, there’s also something delightfully C.M.O.T. Dibbler about the “numberless patrons” and the theatre “extending its fame throughout the provinces”, as well as the restaurant metaphor of the “bills of mental fare” offered to Londoners like menus of theatrical food.

NationalStandard

There’s also an implicit cultural politics to be discerned in this advert’s harping on “tragedy” and “comedy” being both provided by the theatre.  This advert was printed in 1855, less than fifteen years after the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843  This law abolished the effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which (amongst other things) limited the performance of “legitimate” drama – the classical, spoken drama including traditional comedy and tragedy – to a small number of theatres in London.  Originally designed to restrain the rampant and sometimes outrageous satire aimed at the government by theatres in the 1730s, the system of legitimate drama at the “patent theatres” and “illegitimate” forms (such as musical comedy and melodrama) at the “minor” theatres became a central part of British cultural life.  Long after the Theatres Act was abolished, there was a residual dramatic class system in British theatre (along with the actual class system, of course, this being Britain.)

So when the Great National Standard theatre keeps boasting of “tragedy” and “comedy” in their “tenderness and sublimity” and “raciness of wit”, it is both telling the potential audience what they might get out of a visit to the theatre, and claiming a place in British cultural life which would have been denied to it fifteen years earlier.  Shakespeare was the absolute touchstone of the “legitimate drama” in the early nineteenth century, and so proclaiming that “Shakespeare’s favourite and interesting play” The Winter’s Tale will be performed is making a strong statement about the theatre catering for customers who both appreciate the cultural inheritance of English-speaking drama, and have the right to enjoy it, as Londoners no longer constrained by legal restrictions.  The passing of the electoral Reform Acts in the previous decade gave a democratic and even constitutional tang to the language around drama in this decade, and I think this advert has some of that air, advertising “splendid, classical and interesting entertainments” which Shoreditch patrons can watch as part of their rights as free citizens.

The terms in which those tragedies and comedies are described can also tell us something about the aesthetic and literary expectations which were in play for these actors and their theatre.  Tragedy in its “tenderness and sublimity” is a striking phrase, and not one which a modern theatre would probably use in advertising a tragedy.  Today it’s more likely to be “human”, “bleak”, “profound” or something similar.  These choices of adjectives don’t just try to guess what potential audience members passing by the theatre might personally like, gambling on whether an individual in search of theatre might be in the mood for “harrowing realism” tonight rather than “trenchant social critique” or “ironic brilliance”.  Rather, they appeal to the standards which literary criticism, newspaper reviews, education (and these days radio and TV shows) have agreed as constituting “good theatre”.  Adverts don’t simply describe what’s going on inside the theatre, nor do they simply use superlatives like “best”, “funniest” “most tragic”, etc.  They take part in an ongoing cultural discourse around what art should be like – and in doing so, give clues to scholars in later centuries about precisely what those criteria were.

So in the case of the “tenderness and sublimity” of the tragedy being performed at the Great National Standard, we have a quick summing up of what an ideal tragedy should be like, according to this advertiser’s sense of Victorian culture.  The combination of terms suggests to me two models of tragic drama coming together.  In “tenderness” we have an emphasis on the evocation of feeling in the audience: the emotion is displayed onstage in touching situations, and the audience’s own feelings are stimulated.  This is a model which formed the basis of the eighteenth century’s tragedies, which were concerned with “pathos” and rousing “the passions”.  It was continued strongly through the nineteenth century, and is one of the reasons why the drama of this era can seem maudlin and sentimental to many modern readers.  (I suspect it’s not that we’re less interested in emotion as audiences, but that we prefer a different range of emotions, and so we can see more clearly how the Victorians wrung the tears in ways which seem obvious and manipulative to us.)

“Sublimity” is something else: this is a more recent aesthetic theory, which claimed roots in Classical thought but which was developed and propagated by the Romantics.  Sublimity is the awe and terror felt before the vastness of nature, or the unplumbable depths of human experience.  Rather than nurturing soft emotions, it thinks humans should be struck silent in contemplation, faced with things too great for them to comprehend.  This brief phrase brings together two whole systems of aesthetics, gesturing towards a considerable set of principles about art and its role in human life, and suggesting that you can get both by buying a ticket at the Great National Standard.  The writer of the advertisement might not be able to explain the notion of pathos inherent in eighteenth-century “she-tragedy” or to cite Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime, but they are part of a public system of producing, selling and interpreting theatre in which those ideas are present in an instinctive and discursive form.  (Which is not to say, either, that this is a “trickle-down” effect, where elite works “invent” ideas and popular culture adopts them – the elite works are often articulations of more broadly-spread trends or tendencies in culture.)

The politics of theatre in this era become even more involved in another advert for the same theatre, which appeared the following year:

“The cry is still, they come” at the Great National Standard , and the cry is likely to “stretch until the crack of doom” as novelty succeeds novelty, attraction follows attraction.  What wonder?  Compare the bill of fare with that of any other establishment, it will easily be seen why the Great National Standard, though containing 5,000 persons, is nightly crowded.  Miss Glyn, the acknowledged Siddons of the day, Mr. Henry Marston, of Sadler’s Wells, Miss Rebecca Isaacs, and the most powerful company in London including the names of Mr. James Johnstone, Mr. Frederic Morton…&c., &c.; Mrs. R. Honner, Miss Adelaide Cooke, Miss Eliza Terry… &c., &c. assisted by at least 100 artistes in the sundry departments.  Come, then, and come in time, which, extensive as the theatre is, is yet a needful piece of advice.  The prices are no less inviting than the entertainment, being suited to all parties.

I copied rather more of that piece than was strictly necessary to make the point about the politics of drama, because I couldn’t resist the “at least 100 artistes in sundry departments” or the “yet a needful piece of advice”.  But the quotations in the opening line caught my eye.  I first noticed when transcribing them that there seemed to have been an error in the typesetting of the newspaper: it should surely read  The cry is “still they come”, not “The cry is still, they come”, but on looking it up I found that the whole phrase is a quotation from Macbeth, and thus belongs in the quotation marks:

 

Hang out our banners on the outward walls.

The cry is still “They come!” Our castle’s strength

Will laugh a siege to scorn

 

Macbeth’s defiance in the face of an army marching to overwhelm his stronghold is borrowed here to imagine the theatre as a castle which armies of audiences are trying to enter.  The second quotation gives another odd twist, producing a phrase from Macbeth’s vision with the witches:

 

Start, eyes!

What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom?

Another yet?

 

What was originally Macbeth’s horror at the apparently interminable line of kings descended from Banquo is here recast as the sight of an unending line of patrons queuing outside the box office for tickets.  Given the politics of the Licensing Act and the Theatre Regulation Act I mentioned above, it is fascinating to see a quotation in which the kings of Macbeth’s vision are now the theatre-goers of London, who can now all have access to the kind of high culture which was previously reserved to a few theatres, at prices which are “suited to all parties”.

The fact that the quotation is from Shakespeare makes the point in its form as well as its content: both the producers and the patrons of the Great National Standard are familiar with Shakespeare, as the epitome of the “legitimate” cultural inheritance of British people.  It both flaunts the discernment of audiences who seek theatrical quality, and reflects a tension in its availability represented by this advertisement.  On the one hand, Shakespeare is available without legal restraint or the social trappings of the West End theatres, on the other, seats may sell out so patrons should hurry to buy now.  It is both democratic and exclusive, levelling and distinctive.

The theatre is vast and splendid (“containing 5,000 persons), to assure the reader that this is proper full-scale Shakespeare and spectacular entertainment, but is “crowded every night”, to encourage them to purchase immediately.  The image of Macbeth’s castle offers them the chance to storm the stronghold of legitimate culture, and claim their share of the drama on offer, but only if they join the invading hordes early.  Likewise they could become one of the kings in Banquo’s line, a particularly shrewd image since tragedy and comedy had been restricted by royal patent, just by queueing up to buy a ticket.  The complexity of this negotiation between ideas of plenitude and commerce, between the social distinction bestowed by becoming a consumer of legitimate culture and the democratic virtue of it being available to all, is all tied up in the Shakespeare quotation.

This raises the question of how many readers would recognise it as from Macbeth, and how many would be able to connect it with the precise scene.  Would they have heard it as a faintly elevated phrase which sounded like it came from a legitimate play?  (Which after all, would have been enough to get the general sense.)  Would they know it as a Shakespeare quotation?  Would they remember the scene itself from private reading or other productions, and reflect on the humour involved?  Or would they do so subconsciously, feeling the tensions I mentioned above?  Indeed, did the person who wrote the advertisement deliberately choose those quotations because of their connections of castles, royalty, etc?  Or did they pick them because they felt as if they summed up the right tone of how they wanted the Great National Standard to be regarded?  These are questions which the historical evidence doesn’t allow us to answer definitively, but we can certainly probe the complexity of the quotation, and how precisely it aligns with the politics of theatre-going at the time.

One final advertisement I had to include was perhaps the strangest I have come across in my research into the Victorian theatre.  Not the weirdest or the most outlandish – there were far more odd things going on in the theatre of the time – but the most odd and unexpected  It takes the form of a short dramatic poem, printed without any further explanation or details:

 

GREAT NATIONAL STANDARD THEATRE, Shoreditch

– Proprietor, Mr. JOHN DOUGLASS

SCENE – FRONT OF THE EASTERN COUNTIES STATION.

Dram. Pers.:  Two Provincials arrived by Train.

“Oddzookers, Ralph, why what a glorious sight

Yon royal palace is, all arched wi’ light;

Talk of your glittering diamonds, I’m cocksure

Those brilliant lamps outsparkle Koh-i-noor.”

“A palace, Giles, thee well may’st think it so,

The crystal one don’t cut so bright a show;

That’s Standard, man, thee’s heard such talk about,

As beats all other playhouses to nowt.”

“Ees, that’s the place we com’d by rail to see,

And here’s a bill as tells what Play’ll be –

THE WINTER’S TALE.  Well sure enough, by gum,

The winter has turned tail, and April’s come;

Miss Glyn, that’s she our mayor and squire ha’ seen,

They say you’d take her for a royal queen;

And all the folks about, so great and grand,

It’s like a palace in some foreign land.

Miss Fanny Williams!  Mr Wild!  here’s glee,

We’re in, old feller, for a glorious spree;

To crown the evening with true delight,

Here’s Tragedy and Comedy each night:

Come, Giles, we’ll pipe our eye, then roar with laughter,

Go home by rail, and send our neighbours after.”

 

Not content with advertising the many splendours and refinements of the Standard, the management have now invented a pair of comedy Northerners to perform a sketch in the newspaper about it.  “Giles” and “Ralph” are clearly meant to be “provincials” by their grittily realistic dialect: “’Ees”, “by gum”, “to nowt”, and so on.  Giles’ belief that the theatre is a “royal palace” places the establishment on the level of the other great sights of London, such as Buckingham Palace.  Again there is a tension under the joke: more sophisticated readers are surely meant to find it amusing that this bumpkin gets off the train in Shoreditch and thinks he is looking at the royal family’s residence, but they are also meant to appreciate how the splendour of the theatre might mislead him.

Ralph’s comment that “the crystal one don’t but so bright a show” is another way of connecting the Standard to the sights of London, since the Crystal Palace had been built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and could still be seen in the city.  In fact the building had been named in a satirical piece by another theatre professional, Douglas Jerrold, whose reference to the plate glass building as “a palace of very crystal” stuck it with the name.  The building had  been moved to a permanent location in 1854, so would still have been significant in readers’ minds when this poem was printed in 1855.  As well as representing splendour and tourism, it probably called up a mixed sense of the traditional glories of the royal family (via “palace”) and the industrial and technological advances made in recent years, since the process by which it was made was a new invention.

Another recent British “acquisition” is represented by the mention of the “Koh-i-Noor”, the enormous diamond which was taken by British forces during the conquest of the Punjab and presented to Queen Victoria.  The London presented by this poem is not only a national, but an Imperial, treasurehouse.  The “royal queen” whom Miss Glyn is supposed to resemble is one who also claimed the title Empress of India, and the Standard’s offer of British theatrical culture summons up both the national past and the Imperial present.  In fact, the comparison with Victoria may be more than a superlative: Juliet Dusinberre has suggested that Glyn’s statuesque and rather formal style heightened her slight resemblance to the Queen for contemporary audiences.  From this, she has speculated that Glyn’s performances in plays like Antony and Cleopatra could have provided a kinky thrill for spectators getting to watch a queen misbehaving excitingly.

Certainly the advert’s harping on royalty, and the illusion that being in the theatre is like being in the presence of a monarch, plays into the class and cultural politics I’ve been insisting on.  When the yokels mention the “mayor and squire” have also seen Glyn act, they function as more than a guarantee that socially respectable people attend this theatre.  I think they invoke the idea that culture which was previously restricted is now more generally available, and that any pair of bumpkins can now be in the presence of mimic royalty, which gives them access to the Shakespearean culture associated with the national heritage.  As Imperial citizens, who make references to the Koh-i-Noor, and travel by railway, these two “provincials” can enjoy the cultural pleasures of legitimate theatre just as much as their political or social superiors.

There is something of the same frisson in their arrival by train (though much more muted) that is provided in The Hound of the Baskervilles, decades later, when Sir Henry sends a telegram to check that his butler Barrymore has stayed in the country, or that the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest exploit in their railway-enabled bunburying.  The railways were a literal means of travel, bringing people to the theatres, and sending actors and even whole companies out on tour. But they were also a potent symbol of the breaking down of social and spatial dynamics, when “going to Town” for amusement was no longer the preserve of the landed classes who kept a house in London for the season.

There is a lot more one could glean from this intriguing document of its time, but the last aspect that I’ll discuss is who it was aimed at.  When I first came across this poem some years ago, and transcribed it from the newspaper, I was convinced it functioned as a direct advert.  People in the provinces can now see theatre in London, it said, and you could too if you wanted to.  You’ll travel by train, and look what glories you’ll see.  Alternatively, if you’re travelling into London to see things like the Crystal Palace, remember that theatre is just as much a part of this nation’s Imperial riches, so see a show at the Standard whilst you’re there.  But the more I reread it, the more doubtful I became.  After all, Giles and Ralph are clearly figures of fun.  They get things wrong, they use dialect phrases that are clearly intended to be funny, and they’re overawed by everything.  I wondered if this was intended to remind Londoners of the splendours of the theatres which are much nearer to them than they are to Giles and Ralph.  A reminder that people travel long distances to see what they could see any day, a little touch of the guilt that London-dwelling friends say besets them occasionally.  And perhaps a suggestion that tickets will go fast, because people are flocking to the Standard, so buy now.  Or is it intended to be read by people in the provinces who see themselves as more sophisticated than Giles and Ralph, who will chuckle at their obvious bumpkin ways, and pride themselves on appearing much more suave and urbane when they take their own journey to London.

Or is it all these things?  After all, we know that sources can have multiple meanings, no doubt those who wrote them knew the same thing.  In any case, Victorian theatre adverts are one of the most delightful kinds of text I have to sift through in my work.  This is probably a good thing, as I transcribed something approaching 30,000 words of them as a graduate student.  But who wouldn’t undertake that work willingly, when establishments like the Great National Standard of Shoreditch produced this kind of text?  I’ll leave you with them in their own words:

Tears of pity over the pathos of Miss Glyn and Mr. Henry Marston in their chaste and exquisite delineations; tears of delight over the resistless comicalities of Mr. G. Wild and Miss Fanny Williams.  The DUCHESS OF MALFI exceeds in attraction every production of years past and astonished even the play-goers of the West, prolonging and augmenting the excitement which the rising pretensions of the Great National have stirred up among the patrons of the art.  Mr. G Wild and Miss Fanny Williams in THE BABES IN THE WOOD, present the richest and most racy of comic treats now on the stage.