v32-1 Collecting to the Core — Victorian Playwrights

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments


by Angela Courtney  (Head, Arts & Humanities, Indiana University; Victorian Studies Subject Editor, Resources for College Libraries

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL) 

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

Nineteenth-century British drama is frequently marginalized in historical overviews of theatre and drama, often overshadowed by the looming legacy of Shakespeare and less critically-revered than other periods and forms of English literature in general.  However, theatrical pursuits throughout the Victorian era are marked with an enviable amount of creativity and innovation in both form (from Romantic closet dramas to melodramas to social dramas to comedies) and shape (as production techniques, management, and business models evolved and thrived).  One reason that the theater in England’s revitalization parallels the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901 is the passing of the Theatres Act 1843 which loosened existing restrictions mandating that performances be held only at patent theatres and granted local authorities increased power to license new theaters and performances.  Owing in large part to shifting popular taste and increasing modernity, Victor Emeljanow contends “the variety of dramatic forms suggests a dynamic, changing audience composition and that this audience responded to and demanded novelty.”1  The rise of spectacular and exciting entertainments (e.g., dramas that featured re-created Naval battles on stage) illustrated both the rising urban population and a decided shift in mass appeal.  Melodrama as a form enjoyed an unheralded amount of popularity from the mid-nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century, providing fodder for the later development of cinematic and televisual dramas.  So, too, did the business of theatre evolve and grow. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, fire, reconstruction, and the sheer cost of staging spectacular melodramas demanded innovation on the business side.  Stage design, direction, production, and management all enjoyed a level of invention that shaped the theatre-going experience for the decades that followed. It would be difficult to portray the evolution of drama across the nineteenth century in one volume.  However, for those interested in a comprehensive overview, Michael R. Booth’s Theatre in the Victorian Age discusses the relationship between theatre and society during this period, along with management, playhouses, production methods, actors (including the dominance of the actor-manager), and selected dramatists.  A chronological timeline, recommendations for further reading, and illustrations such as theater posters round out this important work.2 

Countless scholars have offered critical examinations of individual playwrights, theatre companies, dramatic forms, actors, directors, and so on.  Examining these shifts through the lens of a small collection of Victorian comedic plays, Klaus Stierstorfer’s expertly-edited entry in the venerable Oxford World’s Classics series, London Assurance and Other Victorian Comedies, presents an interesting and ideal exploration.3  The authors represented in London Assurance and Other Victorian Comedies range in popular appeal and creativity.  While Henry James’s literary reputation stems largely from his output as a novelist and critic, his dramatic work provides a unique view of his evolution as a writer and the ways in which literary forms influence each other.  Dion Boucicault, an extremely prolific and popular dramatist in his time but largely overlooked by contemporary audiences, left a legacy far beyond his writing — influencing stage and set design, production length, and the very notion of a touring company.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a name more synonymous with the oft-quoted opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” from his novel Paul Clifford, experienced relative success as a playwright and his works were later revived for film, radio, and the stage throughout the twentieth century.  While W. S. Gilbert’s dramatic works are often overshadowed by the considerable success and endurance of the light operas he wrote in partnership with composer Arthur Sullivan, he was also considerably popular on his own. 

Playwright Dion Boucicault, whose colorful and widely-varied reputation at once celebrated his innovation while decrying him as plagiarism incarnate, “exerted an influence on the nineteenth-century British and American theater that was far-reaching and is frequently underestimated.”4  Although no longer a household name, Boucicault’s literary and performative influence was extensive.  Influential on such contemporary theatrical concepts as the long run, the out-of-town opening, and the touring company, the Irish dramatist Boucicault was an ardent champion of copyright law and a keen innovator of theatrical performance as well as a consummate actor-director.  His bibliography, replete with melodramas that stretch from an adaptation of Dumas’s The Corsican Brothers to the financially triumphant The Shaughraun (both of which appear in Andrew Parkin’s excellently-curated collection, Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault), illustrate the breadth and scope of his output.5  London Assurance is perhaps both his first significant accomplishment as well as his most enduring play.  Having opened in the spring of 1841, London Assurance is very much situated in the Victorian era, but more reminiscent of Restoration drama.  Using the now-familiar trope of a father who does not recognize his disguised son, the play’s original production is significant for its use of the box set (where the proscenium arch stage opening becomes the fourth wall) as well as its use of everyday, real set props (furniture, windows, etc.).  Although critically viewed as mediocre, it was an immense success with the public, later opening in New York during the fall of 1841. It has since been revived countless times, as recently as 2010 when the Royal National Theatre staged a well-received production.

It’s difficult to discuss the dramatist and librettist William S. Gilbert without mentioning his famous and successful partnership with composer Arthur Sullivan.  Together, over the span of roughly twenty-five years from 1871 to 1896, Gilbert and Sullivan jointly created fourteen light operas, some of which remain popular with contemporary productions staged around the world to extraordinary delight.  Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Gilbert applied his skilled writing and direction to many productions created specifically for certain playhouses.  He produced prolifically and enjoyed a reputation as a master craftsman of the theatre prior to partnering with SullivanThe Palace of Truth, perhaps his greatest triumph as a solo playwright, was a blank-verse comedy that was a notable parody of high society in 1870s London.  Pygmalion and Galatea immediately followed, securing Gilbert with financial and commercial achievements that endorsed his artistic capabilities: “often a single London theater season would feature four or more of his works.”6  These plays are featured along with other contemporaneous works in Original Plays.7  Shortly before Gilbert’s long string of successful co-productions with Sullivan began, he wrote Engaged, a “topsy-turvy” farce that epitomized Gilbert’s comedic style and influenced a litany of writers including Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, and Bernard Shaw.  It has since been adapted, revived, and produced several times across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Perhaps more well-known as a significant novelist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (indeed, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times and his novella The Turn of the Screw is one of the most analyzed and critiqued literary works in the English language), Henry James is often regarded as a bridge figure between literary realism and modernism, whose work emphasizes the duality of spirituality and determinism while remaining highly self-conscious in its exploration of enduring humanistic themes.  Encouraged by the literary possibilities inherent in the dramatic form, James was a playwright and critic throughout much of the late nineteenth century, though many of his dramatic works were never produced.  His output during this time was met with both popular audience approval and resounding failure. Having been jeered by critics and theatre-goers alike, the stage production of Guy Domville was, by all accounts, a tremendous flop and quite possibly the catalyst for James returning to his long-form writing.  Following the failure of Guy Domville, James adapted his one-act play Summersoft into the full-length play The High Bid (these plays are featured along with his other dramatic works in The Complete Plays of Henry James).8  While many of his plays and adaptations were never staged during this time, he repurposed a number of his plays into novel form, leaving no doubt as to the literary synergy between James’s dramatic works and his more lasting novels.

It is unfortunate that many plays from the nineteenth century have all but vanished, both in print and the collective conscience.  A particular challenge is locating primary dramatic texts from this era. The evolving nature of copyright laws (long championed by Boucicault) and ineffective measures to enforce them meant playwrights often intentionally kept their plays out of print.  Reconstructing this history, then, poses challenges to understanding both the text and its author. The playwrights discussed here all contribute to our understanding of Victorian drama and its place in Victorian culture — its appeal, innovation, and durability, despite the eventual changes in audience demands and entertainment forms.  Much of the innovative work accomplished during this era continues to present day, owing largely to the enduring dramatic themes that explore the human experience.  


1.  Courtney, Angela.  “Introduction.” In Nineteenth-Century British Dramatists, edited by Angela Courtney.  Vol. 344 of Dictionary of Literary Biography.  Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009.

2.  Booth, Michael R.  Theatre in the Victorian Age.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.*

3.  London Assurance and Other Victorian Comedies.  Edited by Klaus Stierstorfer.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.*

4.  Courtney, Angela.  “Dion Boucicault.” In Nineteenth-Century British Dramatists, edited by Angela Courtney.  Vol. 344 of Dictionary of Literary Biography.  Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009.

5.  Boucicault, Dion.  Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault.  Edited by Andrew Parkin.  Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987.*

6.  Chemers, Michael M.  “W. S. Gilbert.” In Nineteenth-Century British Dramatists, edited by Angela Courtney.  Vol. 344 of Dictionary of Literary Biography.  Detroit, MI: Gale, 2009.

7.  Gilbert, W. S.  Original Plays.  London: Chatto & Windus, 1913.

8.  James, Henry.  The Complete Plays of Henry James.  Edited by Leon Edel.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.*

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.


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