Jacky Bratton (2003)
New Readings in Theatre History

Cambridge Univ. Press

Review: © Patrick Cattrysse (2003)

In this book, Jacky Bratton suggests new histories of theatrical storytelling, of performing families, and of the disregarded dramatic energy of Victorian entertainment. As a result we gain a new perspective on theatre history, not only for the Romantic and Victorian, periods, but for the discipline overall.

In the first part of Part I, Jacky Bratton discusses two paradoxes: one dealing with the observation that, in the early nineteenth century, worth and value and cultural significance were said to have disappeared from a theatre that was thriving, multiplying and serving ever-increasing numbers of spectators. And secondly, in a period where the received history denies any serious involvement of women in writing for the stage, research today constantly turns up women whose contribution to theatre was substantial, innovative and decisive.

In the rest of part I, the author argues for the dating of current theatre historiography from the first third of the nineteenth century, showing first that a different kind of historicisation in the hands of theatre people themselves, preceded that period.

Chapter 2 deals with that historical vision. Chapter 3 offers a contextualising materialist overview of the state of London theatre in the 1830’s and simultaneously attempts to model a new way of telling such a story, by means of the intertheatrical reading of contemporary playbills. Chapter 4 then examines what happened in theatre politics in the years of Reform, 1830-2, the moment when the previous historical practice was successfully challenged and discredited. Bratton concludes that the dominant writing of theatre history of that period was dictated by a socio-cultural and political agenda: appropriating the theatre increasingly to the middle-class in Britain.

In Part 2, Jacky Bratton considers alternative possibilities for accessing and retelling the history of the period from 1790 to 1832 in the British theatre. A first study takes up the importance of anecdote in personal and professional histories, and seeks a particularly theatrical dimension of such storytelling in the art of mimicry. The second turns to the discursive management of the binary between art and entertainment, the setting up of an idea of the “the popular” with which to control and incorporate the ancient people’s theatres of the market and the fair. The final study challenges received academic history with genealogy, taken in its literal sense as the histories of families. Bratton calls this an “unfashionable history from below” which is especially significant to theatre professionals. It is moreover an approach which offers some purchase on the otherwise hidden histories of women in nineteenth-century theatre.

Although the focus is on British theatre, reflections of a more general epistemological interest accompany the case studies. The author discusses the relevance of new types of historical source material (such as autobiographical writings, anecdotes and stories, and collective memory a.o.), materials that previous academic research often neglected. She borrows concepts from women’s studies and tackles the problem of interpretation when the analyst has to “read” the historical material and communicate research results among peers. The discussion about “high” vs. “low” culture and the way a dominant historical meta-discourse operates a segregation between the artful and the vulgar, definitely rings more than one bell among scholars of mainstream screenwriting and cinema.

Professor Jacky Bratton has published extensively in the field of theatre and cultural history. She is currently working on a revisionist history of the Victorian stage, beginning with an edition of two previously unpublished clown manuscripts.



Part I. Background:

1. Theatre history today

2. British theatre history: 1708–1832

3. Theatre in London in 1832: a new overview

4. Theatre history and reform

Part II. Case Studies:

1. Anecdote and mimicry as history

2. Theatre history and the discourse of the popular

3. Claiming kin: an experiment in genealogical research

Notes –Index.