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  • Anselm Heinrich


William Ewart Gladstone, four times prime minister (1868–74, 1880–5, 1886, and 1892–94), the “greatest colossus of the Victorian Age,” the most influential prime minister of the nineteenth century, and the Grand Old Man (G.O.M.) of British politics and statesmanship, seems an unlikely advocate for the theatre. Deeply religious, conservative, and serious, Gladstone is not easily imagined as an avid theatregoer. It is difficult to imagine him supporting the ephemeral, often subversive, and suggestive character of the theatre. And indeed, in his early years Gladstone despised the theatre and called it an “encouragement of sin.” As prime minister, he was almost obsessed by a religious zeal; Richard Foulkes has noted that “Few, if any, prime ministers have carried out their role in making senior Church appointments as assiduously as Gladstone did.” For members of Victorian Britain's Christian majority, the theatre was anathema and regarded as morally suspect. They were intensely suspicious and saw playgoing as a distraction from religion and as a promoter of frivolity, vanity, and female forwardness. They linked theatres to “prostitution, juvenile delinquency, idleness, drunkenness and frivolity.” In fact, theatres were the “antithesis of the Victorian world view which prized respectability, gentility, decency, education and uplift.” Until at least the later decades of the nineteenth century, theatre “was widely regarded as the lowliest of the arts, if one at all.”


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1. Quote from the dust jacket of Shannon, Richard, Gladstone, vol. 1: 1809–1865 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1982).

2. Diary entry for 19 December 1832, in The Gladstone Diaries: With Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence, 14 vols. (the last, indexes), ed. M. R. D. Foot (vols. 1, 2) and H. C. G. Matthew (vols. 3–4 with Foot, vols. 5–14 solo) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968–94) [hereafter, GD], vol. 1 (1968), 1825–1832 [hereafter, GD 1; each volume will be treated similarly].

3. Foulkes, Richard, Church and Stage in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 240.

4. See, for example, Adamson, William, The Theater: Its Influence on Actors and Audience: A Lecture (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1883). Answering the question of whether it was “possible to reform the theatre, and make it the centre of an elevating influence,” Rev. Adamson claimed that this “has been tried again and again, without success… . The reason being, the evil is essential, not accidental; and if this is the case, permanent reformation is impossible” (29–30).

5. Richards, Jeffrey, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World (London: Hambledon & London, 2005), 66.

6. Foulkes, Church and Stage, 241.

7. See, for example, the entries for 24 July 1879, in GD 9 (1986): January 1875–December 1880; 3 January 1881, in GD 10 (1990): January 1881–June 1883; and 9 June 1887, in GD 12 (1994): 1887–1891. Gladstone personally congratulated Frank Benson on his production of Aeschylus' Agamemnon at Oxford University in 1881.

8. Phippen, Francis, Authentic Memoirs of Edmund Kean (London: Printed for J. Roach, 1814]).

9. Arnold, Matthew, “The French Play in London,” Nineteenth Century 6 (August 1879): 228–43; reprinted in Irish Essays, and Others (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1882), 208–43. See the entry for 5 April 1882, GD 10; and that for 19 January 1886, in GD 11 (1990): July 1883–December 1886.

10. Entry for 5 May 1859, GD 5 (1978): 1855–1860. Interestingly, Gladstone's reading was similarly diverse. It was not just policy-oriented literature he read—and Gladstone read a lot—but also books on theology, history, biography, and monarchy as well as “many lesser works which made an impact in their time,” including Ben-Hur and the Kama Sutra. See Matthew, H. C. G., Gladstone: 1875–1898 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 275–6.

11. Some of the standard biographies do not mention the Gladstone theatre link at all, such as Jenkins, Roy, Gladstone (London: Macmillan, 1996); Shannon, Gladstone, vol. 1; and Shannon, Richard, Gladstone: [vol. 2] Heroic Minister, 1865–1898 (London: Allen Lane, 1999). The contemporary biographies are not much better; see, e.g., Smith, George Barnett, The Life of the Right Honourable W. E. Gladstone, 2 vols. 2nd ed. (London: Cassell, 1879); and Morley, John, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, 3 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1903).

12. Matthew, 277–8 (the second of the two volumes).

13. Wickham, Glynne, “Gladstone, Oratory and the Theater,” in Gladstone, ed. Jagger, Peter J. (London: Hambledon, 1998), 132.

14. See ibid., 20 and 24–26.

15. See Richards, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor, 77–82.

16. Minihan, Janet, The Nationalization of Culture: The Development of State Subsidies to the Arts in Great Britain (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1977); Weingärtner, Jörn, The Arts as a Weapon of War: Britain and the Shaping of National Morale in the Second World War (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

17. Shaw, Bernard, Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3 vols. (London: Constable, 1948), 3: 108.

18. Archer, William, About the Theatre: Essays and Studies (London: Fisher Unwin, 1886), 5.

19. Stoker, Bram, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1906), 30.

20. Entry for 3 January 1881, GD 10.

21. Entry for 27 April 1883, GD 10.

22. Alfred Thompson's Yolande; entry for 25 September 1877, GD 9.

23. Entry for 2 July 1877, GD 9.

24. Entry for 20 July 1878, GD 9; and entries for 30 April 1884, 17 May 1884, and 18 November 1884, GD 11.

25. As noted by Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, former private secretary to Gladstone (1880–1885), in his unpublished diary (held at the British Library), entry 18 March 1890 (also referred to in GD 12, 279 (note 1).

26. Entry for 7 May 1875, GD 9.

27. Entry for 21 July 1877, GD 9.

28. Entry for 8 Mary 1875, GD 9.

29. As noted in the Daily News, 11 March 1882, 5.

30. Gladstone noted in his diary on 23 February 1889 that he stayed at the afternoon circus performance for ninety minutes. GD 12.

31. On the occasion of Little Goody Two Shoes; entry for 22 January 1863, GD 6 (1978), 1861–1868.

32. Entry for 23 June 1879, GD 9.

33. Entry for 28 July 1887, GD 12.

34. He remarked in his diary that their “style of acting has altered since my earliest recollections being more vehement and demonstrative. The play was Hernani. M. Maubant (Duc de Silva) was nearest (I thought) to the older school.” Entry for 17 October 1879, GD 9.

35. Entry for 17 June 1881, GD 10.

36. Regarding a production of Othello at the Lyceum, for example, she remarked that she “felt it all, every word, marvellous… . All one's breath seemed taken away in awe and admiration of the conception. Iago's character specially strikes one as a superhuman masterpiece… . It is awfully sad.” Entry for 18 February 1876, in Mary Gladstone (Mrs. Drew): Her Diaries and Letters, ed. Masterman, Lucy, 2d ed. (London: Methuen, 1930), 103.

37. Entry for 5 May 1877, in ibid., 122.

38. Richard Schoch argues that “without the Queen, the stage would have remained morally suspect; without the stage, the Queen would have seemed more distant and remote”; Schoch, Richard W., Queen Victoria and the Theatre of Her Age (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2004), xiii.

39. Entry for 17 November 1876, GD 9.

40. See diary entry for 10 March 1882, in Mary Gladstone, ed. Masterman, 242.

41. Terry to Gladstone, 20 June 1882, Gladstone Papers, 44475, 305, British Library, London (hereafter, Gladstone Papers).

42. Entry for 1 October 1880, Godwin Diary 1880, Godwin Collection, AAD 4/5-1980, Archive of Art and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

43. Stoker, 2: 29–30, 32.

44. Escott, T. H. S., Social Transformations of the Victorian Age (London: Seeley & Co., 1897), 209.

45. Brereton, Austin, The Life of Henry Irving, vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1908), 297.

46. See Alfred Bryan's drawing in Wickham, 29.

47. Stoker, 1: 167–8.

48. On receiving an honorary doctorate; speech delivered by Irving at Cambridge on 15 June 1898, quoted in Sir Henry Irving: Theatre, Culture and Society—Essays, Addresses and Lectures, ed. and intro. by Jeffrey Richards (Keele, Staffordshire: Ryburn Publishing and Keele University Press, 1994), 223, 227–8.

49. Kruger, Loren, The National Stage: Theatre and Cultural Legitimation in England, France, and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 89. Kruger intriguingly discusses the target audiences of the different schemes for a national theatre during the nineteenth century and concludes that, despite some differences in their approaches, the protagonists of the movement envisaged as patrons “leisured amateurs in confident possession of their patrimony” (101). They did not intend to open up “their” national theatre to new (i.e., working-class) audiences outside the “leisured” middle class.

50. See Archer, William and Barker, Harley Granville, A National Theatre: Scheme & Estimates (London: Duckworth, 1907).

51. Ibid., 44. See also Guest, Kristen, “Culture, Class, and Colonialism: The Struggle for an English National Theatre, 1879–1913,” Journal of Victorian Culture 11.2 (2006): 281300, at 290–1.

52. Guest, 296.

53. The most significant successes of this vogue were Tennyson's The Cup (1881), W. G. Wills's Claudian (1883), Wilson Barrett's The Sign of the Cross (1895), and W. S. Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea (1871). See Mayer, David, ed., Playing out the Empire: “Ben-Hur” and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883–1908—A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); and James Michael Thomas, “Wilson Barrett: Actor-Manager-Playwright” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1975 [Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984]).

54. Gladstone to Barrett, 8 August 1896, Wilson Barrett Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin (hereafter, Wilson Barrett Collection). This letter and other material from this collection are reproduced here with many thanks to Professor Kate Newey, University of Birmingham.

55. See Wilson Barrett (the Younger), “… And Give Me Yesterday,” typescript of biography by Wilson Barrett's grandson, ca. 1960s, 228–9, Wilson Barrett Collection.

56. Speech delivered at St. Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin, New Zealand, 12 January 1902, Wilson Barrett Collection. (Underlines in the original speech are shown in italics.)

57. Ibid.

58. Gladstone, William Ewart, The State in Its Relations with the Church, 4th rev. ed., 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1841), 1: 151.

59. See Peaple, Simon and Vincent, John, “Gladstone and the Working Man,” in Gladstone, ed. Jagger, Peter J. (London: Hambledon, 1998), 7184, at 72.

60. Smiles, Samuel, Self-Help, with Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance, ed. and with intro. by Sinnema, Peter W. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Self-Help was first published in 1860.

61. Peaple and Vincent, 83.

62. For a good discussion of Christian rejection of the theatre, see Richards, Sir Henry Irving, 393, 395–6.

63. Entries for 22, 25, and 30 April 1857, and 12 May 1857, all in GD 5 (1978), 1855–1860.

64. Entries for 29 May 1858 and 10 June 1858, GD 5.

65. Shannon, 1: 392. See also Smith, 2: 484, 486; and Morley, 2: 528.

66. Quoted in Schoch, Richard W., “Theater and Mid-Victorian Society,” in Cambridge History of British Theatre, vol. 2: 1660 to 1895, ed. Donohue, Joseph (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 331–51, at 342.

67. Arnold, “French Play in London,” 240 (Irish Essays, 235). Even to Victorians, “respectability” was a bit of a slippery term, although most accounts of respectable behavior include ”cleanliness, hard work, self-sufficiency, thrift, piety, deference to authority and even correct speech”; Schoch, “Theater and Mid-Victorian Society,” 331. Concerning changes in audience composition, see also Joseph Donohue, “Theatres, Their Architecture and Their Audiences,” in Cambridge History of British Theatre, 2: 292–308.

68. Gladstone, State in Its Relations, 81.

69. William Wordsworth as quoted in Foulkes, Church and Stage, 103.

70. Ibid., 211.

71. Ibid., 240.

72. Entry from Phillimore's diary as referred to in editorial annotation in GD 9, 286 (note 1, referring to Gladstone's entry on 26 January 1878). Robert Joseph Phillimore (1810–1885), judge, jurist and Peelite, was one of Gladstone's best friends. The diaries form part of the Papers of Sir R.J. Phillimore collection held at Christ Church Library, Oxford.

73. Indeed, as David Cannadine points out, Britain had “the most complex and comprehensive titular hierarchy in existence anywhere in the western world”; Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (London: Allen Lane, 2001), 98.

74. See Shannon, [2]: 363.

75. See Leighton to Gladstone, 16 June 1885, Gladstone Papers, 44491, 130. Similarly, Oscar Wilde stressed “my deep admiration and loyalty to one who has always loved what is noble and beautiful and true in life and art, and is the mirror of the Greek ideal of the statesmen”; Wilde to Gladstone, 21 July 1881, Gladstone Papers, 44470, 239.

76. See Shannon, [2]: 363.

77. Contemporary commentators urged that for the sake of propriety only retired actors of independent means should be knighted and not “young leviathans [who] disport[ed] themselves in the sun of popular favour”; Academy, 26 June 1897. The danger that a knighted actor could face bankruptcy a few years down the line was too great in the context of the financial instability of the theatre industry. And to have a knighted an impoverished actor-manager would simply have been unacceptable.

78. Henry Labouchere to Gladstone, 9 June 1885, Gladstone Papers, 44491, 77.

79. The term “criminal conversation” usually denoted the crime of adultery.

80. Mary Gladstone recorded her impression of Irving as a walking companion after this visit: “Irving came to luncheon… . Afternoon walked with G.O.M., Ld. Derby and Irving, a dead failure—in vain had hoped his long, thin legs would fly over the Park. For an hour and ¼ we dawdled round the house, damp and chilly, the topics never rising above trees, soil, atmosphere. Irving walks ¼ of a mile an hour. What a brilliant walk it ought to have been.” Diary entry for 9 October 1883, in Masterman, Mary Gladstone, 295.

81. See entries for 29 June 1882, GD 10, and 23 April 1885, GD 11. See also Matthew, 277.

82. Minihan, 154.

83. Wyndham, letter to the editor, Daily Telegraph (London), 26 March 1908.

84. Foulkes, Richard, Performing Shakespeare in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 109.

85. In his magisterial 824-page study of Victorian Britain, Theodore Hoppen devotes less than three pages to the theatre, and those pages focus on salaries paid and profits made; Hoppen, Theodore K., The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846–1886 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 391–3. See also Davis, Tracy C., The Economics of the British Stage, 1800–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

86. Foulkes, Performing Shakespeare, 132.

87. Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3: 117.

88. A recent example is the English National Opera (ENO), which was reported to face job losses. Rather than lamenting the possible threat to this flagship institution, the press pointed to the ENO's repeated calls for public funds without changing its structure (see “Bloodbath at English National Opera,” The Daily Telegraph, 18 January 2003) and appeared relieved that the Arts Council eventually denied the ENO the chance to approach them “cap in hand” again (see “Cash Crisis Forces ENO To Axe 45 Jobs,” The Guardian, 24 February 2007).

89. Foulkes, Performing Shakespeare, 1.

90. See ibid., 4.

91. Gladstone, State in Its Relations, 78, 81.

92. Entry for 12 May 1857, GD 5.

93. Irving's presidential address on 26 September 1894 to the Walsall Literary Institute, quoted in Sir Henry Irving: Theatre, Culture and Society, ed. Richards, 212. The speech was originally published in The Theatre, December 1894.

94. The opinion of the majority was perhaps best summarized by The Era, which argued that “free trade is good in the long run whatever people may say”; The Era, 8 June 1879, quoted in Foulkes, Performing Shakespeare, 109.

95. In addition to Archer and Granville Barker's joint publication, see Barker, Harley Granville, A National Theatre (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1930).

96. Archer and Granville Barker cautiously commented on the possibility of state funding for their proposed national theatre but deemed this both unlikely and unnecessary, as they expected sufficient funds to be raised by private donations.

97. For a summary of the movement's history, see “National Theatre: A Site on the Bedford Estate: The Shakespeare Memorial,” The Times, 19 December 1913; Whitworth, Geoffrey, The Making of a National Theatre (London: Faber & Faber, 1951); and Foulkes, Richard, The Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1864 (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1984).

98. The committee wanted to raise £500,000, estimating “that the site … is likely to cost some £100,000, the building and equipment £150,000, and that an endowment fund will be required amounting to £250,000”; “Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre,” The Times, 23 October 1909.

99. See, for example, David Fairweather, “Over the Footlights,” Theatre World, January 1936, 3, which is discussed in Anselm Heinrich, Entertainment, Education, Propaganda: Regional Theatres in Germany and Britain between 1918 and 1945 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2007), 68 n. 117.

100. One notable example was a call for the institution of a ministry of fine arts modeled on the French example. See Dewhurst, Wynford, Wanted: A Ministry of Fine Arts (London: Hugh Rees, 1913).

101. See “National Theatre: A Site on the Bedford Estate: The Shakespeare Memorial”; and Whitworth, 38–63.

102. See The Parliamentary Debates (Official Report), 5th Series, vol. 52, Third Session of 30th Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, House of Commons, Third Volume of Session 1913, Comprising Period from Monday, 21st April 1913, to Thursday, 8th May, 1913 (London: HM Stationery Office, 1913), 454–94.

103. See The Times, 28 December 1903, 7.

104. Ibid.

105. The Times, 14 March 1906; see also 21 March 1906.

106. Entry for 9 March 1878, GD 9.

107. Gladstone, Letter to the Editor, The Theatre, 13 March 1878, 103.

108. “A Subsidised Theatre for London,” The Theatre, 1 August 1878, 8.

109. George Godwin, “The National Theatre Question,” The Theater, 1 December 1878, 349. This article was based on a public lecture Godwin had presented at the Social Science Congress. See also the journal's lead article, “The Past Year at the Theatres,” 1 January 1879, 399.

110. See note 9.

111. Irving, speech to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on 8 November 1881, quoted in Richards, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor, 89.

112. Irving, speech at the Social Science Congress in 1878, quoted in Whitworth, 31–3.

113. Irving, speech at Cambridge on 15 June 1898, quoted in Sir Henry Irving: Theatre, Culture and Society, ed. Richards, 223, 227.

114. Quoted in ibid., 228–9. A few years later, at a speech in Buffalo, New York, in 1902, Irving claimed that “I doubt not that by and by every great city will have its own theatre built by its municipality”; ibid., 234.

115. Irving, presidential address to the Walsall Literary Institute, 26 September 1894, originally published in The Theatre, December 1894; reprinted in Sir Henry Irving: Theatre, Culture and Society, ed. Richards, 206–12.

116. Ibid., 212.

117. See The Era, 4 May 1889.

118. “Mr. Stead on the Theatre,” The Times, 14 January 1905.

119. Wickham, 28.

120. Knight, G. Wilson, This Sceptred Isle: Shakespeare's Message for England at War (Oxford: Blackwell, 1940), 1.

121. CEMA was a government-funded organization that subsidized performing arts companies, acted as an agent for ensembles, and drew up funding schemes. It received rapidly increasing funds from the Treasury and in 1942 took over the Theatre Royal Bristol as the first British state theatre. CEMA was the forerunner of the Arts Council, which was founded in 1946. It aimed at creating “permanent, educated audiences all over the country”; CEMA, The Fifth Year: The End of the Beginning—Report on the Work of CEMA for 1944 (London: CEMA, 1945), 32. See also Weingärtner.

122. Peaple and Vincent, 74.

123. See, for example, Bratton, Jacky, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, ed. Postlewait, Thomas and McConachie, Bruce A. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989).

124. For recent studies on Ruskin, see Ruskin, the Theatre, and Victorian Visual Culture, ed. Heinrich, Anselm, Newey, Kate, and Richards, Jeffrey (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2009); and Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky, Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007).

I would like to thank the two anonymous readers of an earlier version of this essay for their helpful and constructive suggestions. I would also like to express my gratitude to St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, for a research grant that facilitated my research there. This research was further supported by a research grant from the Department of Theatre, Film & Television Studies at the University of Glasgow.


  • Anselm Heinrich


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