Some of you may have noticed that, in the last couple of days, images have been appearing on some of the theatre records on the Special Collections website. This initial digitisation has allowed us to put up all of the smaller sized playbills from the Britannia Theatre which are held in the Bigwood Collection. This is all thanks to Chris Hall, who has been volunteering with Special Collections two and a half days a week. Not only has he made a start on this long-awaited digitisation, but he even agreed to write a blog post to keep us up to date.
A few months ago, I was speaking with my friends on the subject of great British playwrights. We came up with the usual names, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson for the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, Sheridan, Shelley and Coleridge for the Romantics. Then we skipped roughly 80 years and listed Wilde and Shaw as the major figures of the late 19th Century stage. But what of the mid Victorians, who were their great playwrights? To be honest, I still can’t think of one, but there is a reason for that, because in the mid-Victorian age, something rather bizarre, yet very entertaining, happened to British theatre, and it is codified by the Bigwood collection of playbills from the Britannia Theatre.
Most people would have heard of melodrama, but probably in a different context. When we think of melodrama, we think of melodramatic actors delivering their lines with overemotional abandon – think Brian Blessed playing Hamlet. However, the root of melodrama is slightly different to how we know it now. The root of the word is simply melos from the Greek for music, and the French drame, which needs little explanation. Essentially then, melodrama is musical drama. Not in the sense of it being a musical, instead music was often used to underscore the dialogue in order to raise the emotions, a technique used so much in modern film and theatre that we barely even notice it. It is this style of theatre which dominated with mid 19th Century, as well as high and low comedies and adaptations of Shakespeare. These were big productions, with full scale orchestras, evil villains, courageous heroes and fainting damsels, who were probably tied to railway tracks on a fairly regular basis. With this conception of melodrama in mind, we can begin to picture the spectacle of a play performed in the 1860s.
The Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, London, was one of the most glamorous and capacious theatres in the city at that time. The most famous version was constructed in 1858, with the previous building being classified as a saloon, rather than a theatre. Unlike many theatres of that time, The Britannia took the relatively modern approach of providing drinks and food in the auditorium, possibly setting a standard for what we now take for granted when we go to the theatre. Sarah Lane, wife of the theatre’s founder, Samuel Haycraft Lane, was the manager and also performed in many productions as a dancer. However, the collection that this blog entry is about was amassed by George Bigwood, who gathered the playbills, largely from the 1860s. The playbill is a valuable resource in researching theatre culture in the 19th Century. Many of them display a melodrama of their own; the print is large and bold, not too far removed from the typography seen in modern tabloids. One bill alone promises such titles as ‘THE KING’S DEATH-TRAP’ described as: ‘A New Historical Drama (never before acted)’ and the familiar name of ‘RIP VAN WINKLE’.
These playbills are a vital part in the study of the history of British theatre, and helps fill a gap between the plays of the late 18th Century and the fin de siècle. While this was not theatre designed to be great art, it does not lessen the importance of the plays in 19th Century culture. The writers of this era were not the jobbing playwrights of Shakespeare’s time, who were immersed in, or possibly constrained by, classical education. Indeed, they were men of the people, writing for the people. Of course, with Sarah Lane as manager, it wasn’t just men delivering this entertainment. As such, this collection represents a vibrant, if a little silly, period of theatre. But there’s nothing too wrong with a bit of melodrama and silliness from time to time.
Larger playbills from the Britannia in this collection need to be scanned on a large overhead scanner which is currently experiencing some technical problems, so we’re awaiting developments there. Next, we intend to digitise the Britannia playbills in our general playbill collection, so keep watching the website!