Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2009
The theatre world of the English Romantic period gives us phenomenal access to the fantasies and daily realities of a people living through one of the Western world’s most revolutionary periods. The content of what is presented on stage, the manner and places of its presentation, the types of person creating it, and commentary on its reception all provide extraordinary access to cultural ferment in the period and insight into how a people processes current events through theatrical means. Even the legal terminology that designates London theatrical scenes in this period – legitimate vs. illegitimate theatre – suggests an artistic forum in transition. It also accurately suggests how politics is addressed through aesthetic media. This is in large part because what animates theatrical discussion is debate over national representation, a concern deepened by reflections on the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery with their impassioned descriptions of what and who best represent ‘the English’ in an emerging democracy.
While concerns over representation emerge in discussions of all forms of art in this period (and in all periods of art), they are particularly salient in descriptions of Romantic theatre. At once aesthetic form and social forum, theatre requires an elaborate coordination of artistic, financial, technical and audience demands that, in this period, is distinguished by two pressures. First, each of these domains is not only in enormous flux but is also described as being so in ways that dramatize clashes between established and innovative or radical interests.