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Ruskinian Theatre: The Victorian Theatre and the Visual Arts

Date: 6 July 2007 Time: 9.00 am

Ruskinian Theatre: The Aesthetics of the Late Nineteenth Century Popular London Stage, 1870-1901

Principal Investigator: Professor Jeffrey RichardsCo-Investigator: Dr. Kate NeweyResearch Associate: Dr Peter Yeandle

The AHRB has awarded the Ruskin Programme £179,000 over three years to pursue this research programme. It is a joint initiative between the History and Theatre Studies departments based in History. Work on the project started in October 2004.

Research Questions

  • How might a detailed analysis of John Ruskin's engagements with the popular theatre, from 1870-1901, further our understanding of both Ruskin as a major cultural figure of the nineteenth century, and the theatre as a site of nation-building and dissemination of contemporary texts?
  • What new knowledge about the stage as the meeting place for the contemporary arts - as influenced by Ruskinian aesthetics - will be revealed through the scrutiny of the London theatre using visual, textual and archival sources in interdisciplinary research?

Aims and Objectives

This project examines Ruskin's active engagement with and influence on the Victorian popular theatre. In 1888, Ruskin said: 'I have always held the stage quite among the best and most necessary means of education - moral and intellectual.' Ruskin was an enthusiastic and catholic theatre-goer, enjoying pantomime as much as Shakespeare. It is already known that Irving had a set of Ruskin's works, and engaged in debate with Ruskin; and Wilson Barrett worked closely with leading Ruskinian, E. W. Godwin. However, there is no substantial study of Ruskin's engagement with and influence on the theatre, nor an examination of his thinking about the theatre in the context of his other aesthetic and cultural theories. The project focuses on the theatre of London's West End as opposed to its drama in the period 1870-1901, the heyday of the Victorian actor-manager (Irving, Tree, Barrett, and the Kendals), and the spectacular theatre (the Drury Lane pantomimes). It is intended that this project will extend both the scope and the depth of cultural history and cultural studies for this period. The project aims to:

  • Chart the interest and involvement of John Ruskin in the theatre, and examine the influence of his ideas about education, culture and society on the Victorian theatre.
  • Assess the impact of Ruskinian aesthetics on the Victorian theatre, and chart the involvement in the theatre of leading practitioners of other arts, examining the stage as a meeting place of the contemporary arts.
  • Trace the circulation and cultural significance of Ruskin's gender theories in the iconography of Victorian performers, and examine the relationships between the popular iconography of performers and the aesthetic principles of the Ruskin-influenced Pre-Raphaelites.
  • Examine the theatre as a national institution participating in the Victorian culture of improvement.

Research Background and Context

Orthodox accounts of the British theatre in the nineteenth century established a narrative of the triumphant emergence of the modern drama from a worn-out popular theatre, devoid of aesthetic value, and increasingly reliant on spectacle and star performers. This orthodoxy argued for the evolution from this despised theatre of spectacle and sensation -- a theatre of actors and directors -- to a theatre of Naturalism, Modernism, and ideas - a writer's theatre. According to this narrative, the ideal theatre was a literary drama communicating through Naturalism or Modernist experimentation, with current theatre practices valued only for their contribution to this goal. Aspects of the theatre which did not fit this model were ignored, or perhaps more potently, seen as corruptions to be excised from theatre history. This model leaves out more than it can include, in particular ignoring most of the actual activity of the theatre profession, and thus can no longer offer a useful account of the theatre of this period.

In recent years, the emergence of a New Theatre History, embodied in the work of such scholars as Tracy Davis, Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow, Peter Bailey, J. S. Bratton, Thomas Postlewait and Bruce McConachie, has transformed the study of nineteenth century theatre. This history moves away from a literary focus on the dramatic text, to an investigation of the theatre's wider cultural context, and seeks to relate theatrical developments to contemporary social, political and aesthetic developments, in order to understand the nature, structure and response of the audience to what they are seeing. The distinctive features of the New Theatre History are its rigorous use of a broad range of archives, mostly beyond the literary playtext (e.g. Davis and Emeljanow's quantitative use of census data), within an historiographical framework which is attentive to current theories of evidence and the handling of historical narrative (e.g. Postlewait and McConachie (eds), Interpreting the Theatrical Past), and social science studies of national cultural institutions, (e.g. P. Bourdieu, B. Anderson).

Our objective is to challenge the dominant narrative through the frame of John Ruskin's cultural criticism, with particular attention to his drawing together of aesthetic and social theory into a comprehensive theory of culture. Ruskin's work in reconnecting the popular mass audiences for all genres of art with what he saw as the aesthetic and spiritual mainsprings of British culture (to overcome the "cash nexus" which Thomas Carlyle saw as dominating social relations) offers an important frame within which to synthesise the new insights offered by the materialist approach of the New Theatre History. From the starting point of Ruskin's personal involvement with the theatre, his public and private commentaries on the London stage, his direct engagements with theatre practitioners, his commentaries on theatre practices and aesthetics, and an exploration of the influence of his aesthetic and gender theories on theatre practitioners and audiences alike, this project offers a revisionist study of a rich period of theatre practice.

Conferences and Colloquia

  • On the 6th-7th July 2007 the 'Ruskinian Theatre' project will be holding a two day Colloquium at the University of Birmingham on the re-visionings and rethinkings of theatre history and historiography. In the last 20 years, there has been a significant movement in developing new approaches to theatre history and historiography which has been labelled 'The New Theatre History'. Much of this work has focused on the theatre of Britain in the nineteenth century, in particular in the first three decades of the century, and its final years, as significant moments of the transition into modernity. The Ruskinian Theatre project takes as its rationale a revision of the standard narratives of theatre and cultural history in this period which ignore the popular theatre: we challenge the focus of standard theatre histories on the 'literary drama' and an emergent Modernist aesthetic. For further details, please see the Conference Programme.
  • 'Victorian Life Writing': international conference organised by the Ruskin Programme at Lancaster University in conjunction with the Ruskin Library and Gallery on 21st - 23rd July 2005. Plenary Speakers include Philip Davis, Kate Flint, Robert Hewison, and George Landow, and Jeffrey Richards. The Ruskinian Theatre project has its own strand in this conference with papers on significant themes in late nineteenth-century theatre and culture. Plenary speakers include Jeffrey Richards, Richard Schoch, Gail Marshall, and Kate Newey.
  • In July 2006 the Ruskinian Theatre project will organise its own colloquium on 'The Victorian Theatre and the Visual Arts' at Lancaster University. Our focus will be twofold: (a) the stage as a meeting place for the contemporary arts, particularly for the interconnections between the visual and the performing arts; and (b) the possibilities of the late nineteenth-century popular theatre as a site for aesthetic and ethical education, propaganda, debate, or controversy.


  • A book to be jointly authored by Jeffrey Richards and Kate Newey will cover the main research questions of the project.
  • Another book to be jointly edited by Jeffrey Richards, Kate Newey and Anselm Heinrich will be a collection of essays devoted to the question of the relationship between Victorian theatre and the visual arts.

For further information on the Ruskin Programme:


Who can attend: Anyone


Further information

Organising departments and research centres: History


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