Theatregoing

James Hayllar, ‘At the Theatre’ (1866)

I’ve just launched a new website. It’s called Theatregoing, and it’s a companion to my Picturegoing site. The subject of Picturegoing is eyewitness accounts of going to see pictures. The subject of Theatregoing is eyewitness accounts of going to see a show.

The aim of Theatregoing is to document the experience of going to the theatre. As Picturegoing does for going to the cinema (and any other kind of projected or moving picture), it do so by gathering eyewitness testimony from diaries, letters, blogs, newspaper articles, memoirs, reports, travel books, pamphlets, histories, photographs and illustrations. By ‘theatre’ is meant all forms of live theatrical performance: stage plays, opera, musicals, concerts, dance, music hall, variety and more.

The interest is not in formal reviews but rather in informal texts that document the audience’s particular engagement with theatregoing. Theatre reviews, however are different to cinema reviews, which I mostly avoid on Picturegoing. The latter seldom mention the conditions under which the viewing experience was held, while theatre reviews are almost obliged to do so. This makes them a little more relevant to my enquiries, though I will still only feature them sparingly.

It is a large subject, and the site has started small. I have been adding texts since September 2016, building the number up to 100 before launching the site. To date the texts mostly document the British experience to the end of the nineteenth century, but the intention is to become worldwide in scope and to cover all periods. Everything is classified by title of production, witness, author of the production witnessed, country, decade and so on, to aid searching and encourage browsing.

When I started this project, the plan was to produce a site that was dedicated to Shakespearean performance, on stage, screen and beyond. For assorted reasons that didn’t quite work, so I broadened it to theatregoing of all kinds, but excluding screen performance, which is covered by Picturegoing.

Edward G. Dalziel, ‘A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night’, illustrating Charles Dickens’s The Uncommercial Traveller, 1877 edition

So what will you find there? Well here is Charles Dickens on a visit to the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in 1860, where he is interested in the audience as the show:

… Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives or conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. We were not going to lose any part of what we had paid for through anybody’s caprice, and as a community we had a character to lose. So, we were closely attentive, and kept excellent order; and let the man or boy who did otherwise instantly get out from this place, or we would put him out with the greatest expedition …

Or the Romanian playwright Mihail Sebastian agonising in 1938 at the sight of what he fears may be the last performance on one of his plays:

On Sunday evening I again watched the third act – for the last time! I was in the balcony, from where the stage appears far off and for that very reason somehow magical, and sometimes I shut my eyes to listen the words. Maybe it was the thought that this really was the last time, that none of these words would be spoken again, that they would remain in a typewritten file or, at best, in a printed book – maybe all these thoughts, with their sense of leave-taking, made me listen with emotion for the first time. I said to myself that something was dying, departing forever, breaking loose from me. Never again will I see the audience’s heads turned toward the stage, in the silence of an occupied auditorium, in the darkness broken only by the footlights, listening, taking in, echoing, answering the words written by me. Never again will I hear that laughter rise in warm animation toward the stage.

Or Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki recalling the Kabuki theatre of his 1890s childhood:

As I took in these smells and listened to the sound of the rain beating upon the awning, the images of the various actors we had seen on stage that day, the sounds of their voices, and the stage music came alive again for me there in that dark, enclosed world. On nights when I had watched scenes of a woman about the same age as my mother having to part with a beloved child, or stabbed by a furious husband, or driven to kill herself for the sake of fidelity or chastity, I asked myself what Mother would do if she found herself in such straits. Would she too abandon me or let me be killed for some principle?

Or the ever-reliable Samuel Pepys telling posterity in 1662 not to bother with A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I sent for some dinner and there dined, Mrs. Margaret Pen being by, to whom I had spoke to go along with us to a play this afternoon, and then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

As said, the entries so far are mostly from the nineteenth century and before. That’s as much due to reasons of copyright, as anything. I will be adding more recent material, either by quoting in proportionately small amounts under fair dealing, or longer pieces if I can obtain permission. It’s also handy being able to take texts from public domain sites such as the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg and Hathi Trust. I’m adding contemporary illustrations to the posts where I can, and where they properly complement the text, so Theatregoing should end up rather more visual than the mostly textual Picturegoing.

Masanobu Okumura,’Shibai Ukie’, depicting Edo Ichimura-za Kabuki theater in the early 1740s, via Wikipedia

Why am I doing this? I had a governing thesis behind Picturegoing, which was to offer a different view of cinema (and other forms of picturegoing) to that corner of film studies which tends to lump all spectators as one, if it considers spectators at all. The picture is less clear-cut with theatre, and really Theatregoing has been done as much for amusement, and because the stuff is there to be found, as anything.

It’s not going to be a comprehensive database of its subject. That subject is too vast, and it would mean adding many records for which there would be little interest, simply to build up numbers. And there’s only one of me, and I’m doing other things. So Theatregoing is there to give a flavour of its subject, selecting pieces because they are interesting to read, while making sure to note some high points in theatre history (e.g. the burning down of the Globe, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, the New York Macbeth riot of 1849).

It’s there for fun, it will build up slowly, and any suggestions for texts that might be included will be warmly welcomed.

About

View all posts by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *