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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
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.
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:
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
For further information on the Ruskin Programme: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/centres/ruskin.
Who can attend: Anyone
Organising departments and research centres: History
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