Staging History Back

The Bodleian’s Staging History exhibition superbly brings to life the world of spectacular extravagance, innovations in genre, costume and set design, manipulated truths, and artfully veiled political commentaries that characterised performances of history presented at the Georgian theatre. Through detailed placards and captivating visual artefacts, the curators Michael Burden, Jonathan Hicks and Susan Valladares unveil the diverse and fascinating ways in which historical events – including the siege of Gibraltar, the voyages of Captain Cook, the reign of Richard III, Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, William Tell’s liberation of Switzerland, the Tyrolean rebellion against the revolutionary Napoleonic invasion, and the adventures of a number of protagonists from Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction – were represented and re-appropriated on the stage, during a period of intense social and political transition.

History plays were immensely popular among Georgian theatregoers. At a moment of rapid change,  sparked by imperial expansion, global discoveries, and major revolutions that threatened to destabilise established customs, performances of history could be used to help the public make sense of the quickly evolving, topsy-turvy world in which they lived. More so than written histories, performances of the past were widely accessible. Theatrical entertainments cost little to attend if viewed from the upper galleries, and they transcended the reach of prose narratives, as they did not require literate audiences. The Georgian theatre therefore provided a unique arena in which individuals from all sections of society were united under one roof.

In order to appeal to a mass audience, dramatists and theatre managers regularly created wildly extravagant versions of the past. The emergence of new technologies offered a wealth of possibilities for inventive and spectacular re-enactments of historical events, the novelty of which frequently delighted contemporary theatregoers. Alongside excessive spectacle, performances of history were also prone to strategically employed fabrications. By creatively recounting politically resonant historical events, playwrights were able to engage subtly with contemporary public affairs, at a time when direct political commentaries were, for the most part, considered too dangerous for the stage. History plays could consequently be credited with the tripartite function of educating, entertaining, and manipulating their audiences.

All three of these functions are clearly demonstrated at the Staging History exhibition. In several of the performances selected for perusal, developments in scenography and machinery are shown to have enhanced the possibilities for historical accuracy and verisimilitude. The section of the exhibition devoted to Richard III features a sketch of a costume made for Shakespeare’s eponymous hero, designed by the playwright James Robinson Planché in the early half of the nineteenth century. Richard wears a full coat of silver armour, an elaborately decorated red and blue cloak, and a crown upon which sits a small golden lion. His apparel is juxtaposed with that worn by David Garrick’s Richard III, who, in the previous century, had appeared in white leggings and a gown decorated with sequins. As the opposing costumes indicate, by the nineteenth century, far greater attention was paid to the veracity of historical clothing than it had been in previous years. Planché was keen to produce accurate replicas of historical garments, and, by studying items including tomb effigies, royal seals and illuminated manuscripts held at the Bodleian Library, he was successful in his task.

Just as Planché influenced the accuracy of historical costume, Franco-British artist Philip James de Loutherbourg is shown to have increased the realism of historical set designs. On show at the exhibition is a set maquette for John O’Keefe’s dramatisation of Captain Cook’s voyages, titled Omai; or, a Trip around the World, first staged in 1785. Loutherbourg sought to develop set designs that imitated as closely as possible the actual site of the historical event depicted. Consequently, for Omai, Loutherbourg studied sketches from Cook’s voyages, and liaised with an artist who had joined Cook on his adventures, before creating a set which, as the maquette reveals, featured a naturalistic ensemble of asymmetrically positioned trees, the shadows of distant mountains, and a skyscape that changed colour using lantern slides.

While innovations in costume and set design are shown to have augmented the potential for historical verity, the period’s experimentation with new machinery also amplified the entertainment possibilities with which performances of history were endowed. This is brilliantly demonstrated in the account of Charles Dibdin’s Okeaneia; or, the Naval Spectacle, first performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1804. Dibdin’s dramatisation of Britain’s victory at the siege of Gibraltar constituted a new type of dramatic genre: the ‘aquadrama’. It earned this title from its utilisation of the tank installed beneath the new Sadler’s Wells Aquatic theatre, which was filled with water from the nearby New River. The water was used to flood the stage, enabling a tremendously dramatic rendition of the naval battle; the impressiveness of which was heightened by the use of model ships and gunboats designed by the makers of the originals. Dibdin’s incorporation of extravagant spectacle thereby provided an enthralling visual experience, while simultaneously aiding his narrative’s historical realism. Before long however, the hype surrounding technological advancements meant that aquadramas depicting the siege came to prioritise ostentation over history, and things like the ‘blow up’ – that is, an explosion which destroys the enemy’s ship or castle – were thrown into performances, regardless of whether or not they actually occurred. The grand displays that aquadramas offered to their audiences, and the popularity that the genre acquired, are excellently captured in the image Sadler’s Wells Theatre (1809), by John Bluck after Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, on display at the exhibition. The painting shows a chariot drawn by horses making its way across the flooded stage before a vast crowd of attentive and animated theatregoers who watch on with excitement.

While the varying renditions of the siege indicate the occasional sacrifice of facts for spectacle, examinations of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro (1799), and productions of Hofer: The Tell of the Tyrol, staged first by Planché and later by Edward Fitzball, uncover the manipulation of historical truths for political ends. It is suggested that Sheridan painted the tyrannical Pizarro in the image of Napoleon, and fashioned his tragedy’s undisputed hero, Rolla, as the defender of British rights. Meanwhile, Planché is shown to have omitted key events from his dramatisation of the Tyrolean rebellion, led by Andreas Hofer, to ensure his libretto’s communication of an explicitly loyalist standpoint. Having connected the Tyroleans’ rights to those of the British people, Planché dismisses events including the suppression of the Tyrolean peasants’ rebellion, and Hofer’s eventual execution, in order to produce an emphatic celebration of patriotism and loyalty to legitimate sovereigns. Interestingly, Hofer’s narrative is shown to have been subsequently re-interpreted as a radical manifesto. The exhibition sheds light on Fitzball’s 1832 production of Hofer, in which the Tyrolese uprising could have been recognised as an implicit call for a free Republic. The exhibition goes on to reveal how this iconoclastic slant was later adopted by the working-class activists the Chartists, who idolised Hofer as the abolisher of monarchical tyranny, and learned songs from performances of Hofer which they recited at political meetings.

Songs from Pizarro are also shown to have been re-contextualised. The exhibition displays a printed copy of the song ‘Fly Away Time’, written by Michael Kelly. The song sees the Peruvian women of Sheridan’s tragedy anticipating the outcome of their country’s battle, while surrounded by their children. The lyrics were understood to epitomise British anxieties about the ongoing war with revolutionary France, and the song therefore came to represent British feelings of apprehension towards the current conflict. ‘Fly Away Time’ acquired such popularity following Pizarro’s debut that it was frequently sold independently of the published play script. The large sales of the song provide one indication of the phenomenon termed ‘Pizarro-mania’ which is shown to have consumed the nation. The public’s fascination with Sheridan’s play meant there was a lot of money to be made through merchandise. Exemplifying the types of things that could be produced and sold, the exhibition features a pottery figurine of the actor Charles Kean imitating Rolla’s notorious child-defence pose, famously captured in Thomas Lawrence’s striking painting John Philip Kemble as Rolla in Pizarro (1800), also on display.

By drawing on such an eclectic range of rich and stimulating historical materials, the curators of Staging History offer an alluring insight into the evolutionary techniques and intricately formulated political meanings that permeated re-enactments of the past staged at the Georgian theatre. Impressively thorough accounts of the performances’ contextual and literary backgrounds are packed into the relatively small exhibition, which is confined to just one room. While there is a fair amount to read, the breakdown of information into short blocks of writing, devoid of unexplained jargon, and presented as a series of helpfully numbered cards, ensures an inviting, all-accessible and easy-to-follow narrative. This is rendered aesthetically pleasing by the plethora of eye-catching paintings, costume illustrations, annotated manuscripts, performance memorabilia, and even a battle-standard believed to belong to Pizarro, by which it is accompanied. Thoughtfully, a large print copy of all written information is provided in the form of a dossier, and an enlightening video in which the curators themselves discuss the exhibition is available to all attendees. Relics placed on show are attributed to institutions including the Garrick Club, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Bodleian Library itself, all of which warrant thanks for enabling such an elaborate and thought-provoking display. Burden, Hicks and Valladares have placed the Georgian theatre under the spotlight it deserves, and for this, they merit a standing ovation.

Staging History is at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, until January 8th 2016.