Aristophanes Wasps by Douglas M. MacDowell

By Douglas M. MacDowell

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A German observer, Prince Puckler-Muskau, commented on the boisterousness of theatre-goers in 1826: The Rise of the West End - and Some Independent Theatres 27 English freedom degenerates into the rudest license, and it is not uncommon in the midst of the most affecting part of a tragedy, or the most charming cadenza of a singer, to hear some coarse expression shouted from the galleries in stentor voice. This is followed, according to the taste of the bystanders, either by loud laughter and approbation, or by the castigation and the expulsion of the offender.

Both novels were dramatised all over the country, setting off a vogue for Turpin canes, masks and other 'memorabilia'. The plays invariably concluded with a repentant or dead criminal- but only after the audience had spent the major part of the play delighting in his exploits. However in the 1860s this type of play was banned from the stage by the Lord Chamberlain,13 a ruling which leads on to the question: what part did censorship play in toning down the political content of stage melodrama? From 1737 the theatres had been governed by the Stage Licensing Act, a statute which granted the Lord Chamberlain complete and arbitrary powers.

At the Adelphi in 1858 the apron stage was discarded in 25 26 Other Theatres favour of a picture-frame stage - the apron jutting out into the auditorium encouraged performers to 'play to' the spectators. Henry Irving at the Lyceum in the l870s began the practice of rehearsals, introduced the lit stage and darkened auditorium, and ended the custom of the recall of actors and actresses at the end of bravura passages but in the middle of the play. Programmes, reservations, an 8 o'clock start, evening dress, much higher admission prices of up to a guinea and a halfin the stalls, carpets, and fixed, upholstered and numbered seats were other innovations introduced throughout London's more 'up market' theatres in the last decades of the Victorian period.

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