Argument 3.1: Illegitimate Objects

I’m going to try out a new argument that I think might just work. Also, I think it might actually be an argument, so extra points for that. Here goes (nothing?).

Sensation novels of the 1860s are obsessed with the legitimacy and illegitimacy of objects. We can see this in the concerns over forged handwriting, vials of poison taken completely out of context, pieces of clothing that may come from one dress or another, disguises of all kinds, portraits that may or may not be faithful representations of the sitter, antiquities that need to be authenticated, and homemade dresses that just don’t look quite right. We can connect these objects to larger themes about anxieties over illegitimacy: the bigamy plot, disinheritance, false imprisonment, marriage under generally false pretenses, etc. However, I argue that advances in theatrical technology and changes in the format of stage productions exert an influence on these “illegitimate” objects that has hitherto been unexplored. Since these novels were widely adapted for the stage, I think it makes sense to apply the novels’ questions of legitimacy and illegitimacy to a mid-Victorian theatrical context. Illegitimacy is a fraught term for the mid-Victorian theater, and it affects the ways in which objects and object-relations are presented. If we can read a certain “object theatricality” into the sensation novels of the mid-century, then we also need to examine issues of legitimacy and illegitimacy as they apply to the stage.

Legitimate theater vs. illegitimate theater: The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 changed the hierarchy of London theaters. Before 1843, there were “legitimate” patent theaters–mostly just Covent Garden and Drury Lane–which had received their patents in the 1660s, when Charles II was restored to the monarchy. Patent theaters were the only ones allowed to perform what was known as “legitimate” drama: farce, comedy, and tragedy. Legitimate drama can also be characterized as “spoken-word” drama, since only the patent theaters were allowed to produce plays in which people talked. The other theaters produced “illegitimate” drama, which was everything else: opera, burletta, burlesque, pantomime, extravaganza, etc. These plays might have words, but they could only be sung, not spoken. The Theatre Regulation Act ended the monopoly on spoken-word drama by the patent theaters, but theaters continued to struggle to raise their social legitimacy long after 1843. In 1863, H. J. Byron’s burlesque, 1863; or, The Sensations of the Past Season tries to assert the legitimacy of burlesque:

Burlesque is like the winnowing machine:

It simply blows away the husks, you know,

The goodly corn is not moved by the blow.

What arrant rubbish of the clap-trap school

Has vanished–thanks to pungent ridicule;

What stock stage customs, nigh to bursting goaded,

With so much blowing up have now exploded. (72-73)

Repertory vs. Long Run: Another change in theatrical tradition happens during the mid-century that changes the way objects are presented as “legitimate” or “illegitimate”: the shift from repertory productions to long runs. Repertory theater had dominated English theater, probably since its beginnings in the medieval period. Theaters collected a repertoire of plays and produced those plays in some sort of cycle. This was an efficient production model in small towns or on tours, since in small towns, the audience might be the same for every production, so it made sense to produce a series of different plays in order to keep them coming to the theater. On tours, acting companies had to carry all their equipment with them all over the world, so it made sense to carry only a set number of scenes, etc, and perform an entire repertoire before moving on to the next location (much like a touring band’s set list, I imagine).

By the 1860s, railway travel had vastly increased the number of people coming into and out of London, and advances in steam had cut down on international travel time, which in turn increased the number of tourists in London. Thus, it was easy for many more people to get to London just to see a play. With 1500, even 3000-seat theaters selling out with popular plays, it started to make more sense to shift to a long-run format, in which a theater would produce the same play, night after night, presumably for a new audience. Some of Tom Robertson’s more popular plays ran for over 1000 nights. The long-run format meant that the theater could focus its energies on making the play as scenically elaborate as possible. Scenes and backdrops were no longer generic; they were built anew for each individual play. And thanks to the parallel aesthetic popularity of realism, audiences started to demand more scenic “legitimacy”–in other words, sets needed to look as realistic as possible. If there was a train crash in the play, the audience wanted to see a train crash on stage–and set designers gave them what they wanted.

Archaeology: Archaeologists were discovering all kinds of stuff all over the world. And stealing it from the countries it belonged to. So there you go. Scene and set designers went crazy over archaeological detail. Some even travelled to the countries in which plays were set to study the landscape and ruins–one of them brought a gondola back from a trip to Italy to use on stage. Audiences demanded precise attention to detail, and if scenes weren’t EXACTLY historically accurate, the set designers would hear about it in the reviews. The key word here might be “accuracy” more than “legitimacy,” but it’s a parallel concept, and relates directly to object-relations on stage.

Object-relations in sensation novels should be read in the context surrounding issues of “legitimacy” on the Victorian stage. Since the novels’ use of disguise and role-playing already suggest a theatrical context, and since the novels are obsessed with issues of legitimacy on a variety of levels, it makes sense to see them partially as fictional descendants of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. This means that discussions of “legitimacy” should include the valences that that term would have had for the theater.


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