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Rash Speculation or Sheer Misfortune? Insolvency and Bankruptcy in the Victorian and Edwardian Theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2016


Bernard Ince here surveys insolvency and bankruptcy in the theatres of England and Wales during the period 1830 to 1913. His methodology analyzes failures in absolute and relative terms, using aggregate and disaggregated data. The annual pattern of failure shows a marked volatility in the aggregate, with the absolute number of failures tending to increase towards the 1880s before declining thereafter. When the data are expressed as a rate relative to annual theatre population change, the trend is, however, reversed, failures being much higher in the 1830s and 40s than in the later decades. When annual failures are analyzed alternatively in terms of the number of theatres actually managed or owned by bankrupts, and the data disaggregated between the London and provincial theatres, different patterns of failure emerge, London theatres experiencing higher risk during those early decades, while the provincial Theatres Royal on the other hand are especially vulnerable during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, and other theatres in the provinces are exposed more during the 1860s. From an analysis of over 200 cases it is clear that factors contributing to theatrical failure are diverse and often complex. Rarely is failure the result of a single catastrophic event but is more often caused by a combination of events, or from the cumulative impact of insolvencies carried over from previous years. While a correlation between annual fluctuations in theatrical failures and cycles in the general economy cannot be firmly established, anecdotal evidence suggests that regional or local conditions play a more important role. It is concluded that while the financial situation of many theatres operated on the limits of financial viability, bankruptcy on a significant scale was uncommon, indicative of remarkable resilience in the face of profound economic, social, political, and legislative change. The author is an independent theatre historian.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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