Michael Booth: A little too conservative for my taste….

First of all, let me say that I absolutely love Michael Booth’s book Theatre in the Victorian Age. It’s incredibly detailed and readable, and I now owe the majority of my Victorian theater knowledge to this book. Also, I should note that the intention of this book seems more expository than argumentative, so I can’t fault it for not over-interpreting the cultural phenomena that it introduces. I can read Elaine Hadley’s take on the Old Price Wars for more of a “perspective” on that issue… Also, I know that there is no such thing as pure objectivity, so I also can’t fault Booth for presenting his material in any way he sees fit.

BUT… sometimes as I’m reading his book, I get the sense that he’s not telling me the full story, and this bothers me–especially since I’ve just praised him for being so “detailed.” This happens early on in the book, when he throws out some trickle-down economics to explain why working-class people had so much money to spend on the theater: “To some extent the benefits of prosperity spread socially downwards, for real wages generally rose during the second half of the century and the cost of living declined, largely due to the availability from about 1870 to 1900 of cheap imported food” (7). Okay, okay, I know he says “to some extent” and “generally” to qualify this statement, and I see the point he’s making. And actually, this sentence alone doesn’t bother me. But in his chapter on management he goes on to narrate the rise of the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales’s, and later the Haymarket, through raising the prices of seats in the pit, despite protest. Fine. But here’s his take on the issue:

It has been argued that these managers were socially elitist, that above all they coveted status and social standing and catered in their prices, their repertory, and their auditorium arrangements to a middle- and upper middle-class audience with money to spend on the now socially fashionable theatre. There is undoubtedly some truth in this. […] However, one can hardly blame them, in the entirely commercial Victorian theatre, for capitalising on their advantages and designing a product that would sell well in a market eager to buy. […] Why not make more money rather than less, if that were possible in fair competition and if one offered value for the money? […] It would be difficult to deny them that, or to blame the managers for taking advantage of a favourable situation. (55-56)

Yes, why not make more money, rather than less? That’s the logic of all capitalists, along with “why not work my employees more hours, rather than less?” But I think it’s the non-specificity of that logic that bothers me, as well. We could literally sympathize with anyone who exploits human labor on that logic: why not make more money, rather than less? I mean, lots of people in world history have been enslaved because someone took advantage of “a favourable situation.” And, in fact, wage slavery (and actual slavery, BTW) was a huge issue in London, in England, and in the world during this time, so yeah, this logic feels a little off-putting to me. And what about working-class audiences? I know there’s plenty of documentary evidence about their reactions to these price increases–so where’s the discussion of that evidence? Not in this book.

And what about colonial audiences? Booth mentions that many of these companies toured all over the world, from North America to Australia and New Zealand to India, South Africa, China, and the Pacific. All this touring took careful planning:

Even the most careful planning could be undermined by illness, unpredictable accidents and civil disturbances, and conditions in the country visited could vary from pleasant to appalling. After the necessary theatrical abilities, the most important qualities for touring performers to possess were adventurousness, perseverance and adaptability. They also had to confront and learn to cope with all kinds of minor irritants like strange and unfamiliar insects, climactic extremes, indifferent food, wearying train or coach travel and uncomfortable hotels. Nevertheless, companies persisted, for the rewards could be substantial. (21)

Good to know. But what were some of these “civil disturbances”? Could any of this have been related to British colonial subjects not wanting to welcome people they perceived as colonizers? Can I get a specific example here? And why were the conditions in some of these places “appalling”? Could this have anything to do with the effects of colonization (hint: yes)? It’s subtle, but this account treats the British players like heroic adventurers, and again, it ends on the vaguely economic suggestion that “the rewards could be substantial.” Again, I feel like I’m supposed to mythologize the acting company at the expense of finding out what was actually happening on those colonial tours.

One final note. I loved the “Playhouse and Production” chapter–that’s the first chapter I went to when I started reading this book. But in the midst of talking about pictorialism and archaeology on the stage, Booth tells me that the “visual image on the Victorian stage was neutral; it was never, as it is now, used to undermine a theme or directorial point of view, or to reinforce or undercut the text, but for pictorial beauty, recreation of the contemporary and historical environment, archaeological display, or sheer spectacular effect” (96). Art for art’s sake. No deconstruction. Okay, I guess maybe that makes a certain kind of sense, especially compared to contemporary filmmaking? I guess? I don’t know, though, even in these spectacle productions, calling the visual image “neutral”? The deconstructionist in me feels like that’s all kinds of wrong. Even if the intention (and c’mon, are we still talking about “intention”?) is simple historical accuracy and transparent representation, is historical representation EVER just “neutral”? Hint: no. Lurking in the background here is another form of historical colonization that seems absolutely fascinating to analyze and dig into more deeply…. but this book is giving me nothing on that front. Or perhaps I’ve completely turned into Sedgwick’s “paranoid reader” and I’m reading waaaay too much into this. More likely, though, I’m a person trying to write a dissertation and fill in some gaps that others have left wide open…. Either way, Theatre in the Victorian Age is an awesome book, and right now I don’t know what I’d do without it.

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