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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2010

7 - Theatre

Summary

What we think of as the Victorian theatre emerged from the late Romantic period, and the aesthetic and political anxieties of the early decades of the nineteenth century were woven into the legislative, industrial and aesthetic characteristics of that theatre throughout the rest of the century. Many of the enduring debates about the theatre - about its audiences, texts and performance practices - were first broached in the late Romantic period, when the break between popular and high culture was institutionalized and embedded in ideologically loaded hierarchies of aesthetic value. These hierarchies are still with us today: whenever impassioned public debate erupts over the place of Shakespeare's plays in English-speaking national schools curricula, or the advisability of the (British) National Theatre staging Oklahoma in a state-subsidised theatre, or the paucity of new plays which are not musicals on Broadway, we are re-enacting Victorian debates about the competing roles and values of theatre as entertainment, or art or education. Abiding anti-theatrical concerns that theatre professionals value art over entertainment, evident in the assumptions and actions of state funding bodies (where these exist), and the suspicion that performance for the sake of pleasure (entertainment) is somehow both ethically and aesthetically 'wrong', are views inherited from the nineteenth century. And canonical literary histories of the Victorian period - the privileging of some narratives over others - have reinforced these ideological and aesthetic anxieties.

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