19th Century Theatre

19th Century Theatre

Nineteenth-century theatre describes a wide range of movements in the theatrical culture of the 19th century. In the West, they include Romanticism, melodrama, the well-made plays of Scribe and Sardou, the farces of Feydeau, the problem plays of Naturalism and Realism, Wagner’s operatic Gesamtkunstwerk, Gilbert and Sullivan’s plays and operas, Wilde’sdrawing-room comedies, Symbolism, and proto-Expressionism in the late works of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen.

Several important technical innovations were introduced between 1875 and 1914. First gas lighting and then electric lights, introduced in London’s Savoy Theatre in 1881, replaced candle light. The elevator stage was first installed in the Budapest Opera House in 1884. This allowed entire sections of the stage to be raised, lowered, or tilted to give depth and levels to the scene. The revolving stage was introduced to Europe by Karl Lautenschläger at the Residenz Theatre, Munich in 1896.

Romanticism in Germany and France

In Germany, there was a trend toward historic accuracy in costumes and settings, a revolution in theatre architecture, and the introduction of the theatrical form of German Romanticism. Influenced by trends in 19th-century philosophy and thevisual arts, German writers were increasingly fascinated with their Teutonic past and had a growing sense of nationalism. The plays of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and other Sturm und Drangplaywrights, inspired a growing faith in feeling and instinct as guides to moral behavior. Romantics borrowed from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to formulate the theoretical basis of “Romantic” art. According to Romantics, art is of enormous significance because it gives eternal truths a concrete, material form that the limited human sensory apparatus may apprehend. Among those who called themselves Romantics during this period, August Wilhelm Schlegel andLudwig Tieck were the most deeply concerned with theatre. After a time, Romanticism was adopted in France with the plays of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Alfred de Musset, and George Sand. By the 1840s, however, enthusiasm for Romantic drama had faded in France and a new “Theatre of Common Sense” replaced it.

Theatre in Britain

In Britain, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were the most important dramatists of their time (although Shelley’s plays were not performed until later in the century). In the minor theatres, burletta andmelodrama were the most popular. Kotzebue’s plays were translated into English and Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery was the first of many English melodramas. Pierce Egan, Douglas William Jerrold,Edward Fitzball, and John Baldwin Buckstone initiated a trend towards more contemporary and rural stories in preference to the usual historical or fantastical melodramas. James Sheridan Knowles andEdward George Bulwer-Lytton established a “gentlemanly” drama that began to re-establish the former prestige of the theatre with the aristocracy.

Melodramas, light comedies, operas, Shakespeare and classic English drama, pantomimes, translations of French farces and, from the 1860s, French operettas, continued to be popular, together withVictorian burlesque. The most successful dramatists were James Planché and Dion Boucicault, whose penchant for making the latest scientific inventions important elements in his plots exerted considerable influence on theatrical production. T. W. Robertson wrote popular domestic comedies and introduced a more naturalistic style of acting and stagecraft to the British stage in the 1860s. So successful were thecomic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Mikado (1885), that they greatly expanded the audience for musical theatre. This, together with much improved street lighting and transportation in London and New York led to a late Victorian and Edwardian theatre building boom in the West End and on Broadway. At the end of the century, Edwardian musical comedy came to dominate the musical stage.


Theatre in the United States

In the Theatre of the United States, Philadelphia was the dominant theatrical centre until 1815. Thomas Wignell established the Chestnut Street Theatre and gathered a group of actors that includedWilliam Warren and Thomas Abthorpe Cooper (who later was considered the leading actor in North America). In its infancy, playwrights such as Royall Tyler, William Dunlap, and John Howard Paynelaid the foundations for a native drama. Professional theatre was first established in the west in 1815 when Samuel Drake (1769-1854) took a company down the Ohio River and established a circuit that included Lexington, Louisville, and Frankfort.

New York City’s importance as a theatrical center grew until it became the primary theatre center during the century, and the theatre district slowly moved north from lower Manhattan until it finally arrived in midtown at the end of the century. On the musical stage, Harrigan and Hart innovated with comic musical plays from the 1870s, but London imports came to dominate, beginning withVictorian burlesque, then Gilbert and Sullivan from 1880, and finally Edwardian musical comedies at the end of the century.

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