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Distributed for Bodleian Library Publishing

Staging History


Throughout the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, historical events were tremendously popular as adaptations for the stage. From the Revolutionary War to the French Revolution, stage dramas brought history vividly to life through powerful vocal performances and visual spectacle. The scale of the production was often ambitious, such as a Sadler’s Well staging of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, which featured a large water tank with floating vessels. Another production on the same topic added live cannons, which set fire to the vessels during the performance!

Drawing on copious new research, Staging History reexamines extraordinary theatrical works of the period to show the role they played in shaping popular interpretations of history. Editors Michael Burden, Wendy Heller, Jonathan Hicks, and Ellen Lockhart are joined by other experts in the field in analyzing theatrical documents, including playbills, set designs, and musical scores, as well as paintings, prints, and other illustrations, in order to explore what counted as historical truth for the writers, performers, and audiences of these plays.

224 pages | 74 color plates | 8 1/4 x 8 1/4 | © 2016

Art: Art--General Studies

Music: General Music

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“This book uncovers a surprising and unfamiliar world of theatricality. A particular strength is the volume’s concentration on performance contexts.  Acting, costuming, dancing, scenography and, above all, music are given unprecedented treatment throughout the book. The volume includes more than 70 rare or difficult-to-find illustrations.”


David Worrall, University of Roehampton

“This illuminating collection of essays transports the reader to the spectacular world of the London theatre in the early nineteenth century and demonstrates how seemingly trivial entertainments engaged with the world-historical events unfolding around them.  The strength of this collection lies in the careful interweaving of theatre history, musicological analysis, and a thrilling attentiveness to scenographic innovation. That this book is so superbly illustrated and so cognizant of the importance of music and dance is crucial to its effect, for one leaves the volume with a very clear sense of how the theatre targeted all of the senses in a multi-media whirlwind. The editors and contributors have a set a new standard for dealing with a repertoire that has all too often been ignored by social and cultural historians. Every essay reconstructs the dynamic relation between performance and historical consciousness and in so doing we are forced to think about the transience of evidence and about what counts as history in new ways.”

Daniel O’Quinn, University of Guelph

“This sumptuously illustrated book provides a series of carefully researched case studies on the uses of history in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century theatre. Michael Burden’s excellent introduction indicates how a move towards factual accuracy and realism, both in the historical material used and in the visual representations of the past, through scenery and costume, was often spurious and the productions linked as much to contemporary issues and political agendas as to historical authenticity. This is very much a key theme of several of the essays, whether exploring the relevance of plays about Hofer ‘the Tell of the Tyrol’ to the Chartist movement or Columbus’s discovery of America (here represented, somewhat anachronistically, by Peru) to the French Revolution. The Saratoga Campaign, the Siege of Gibraltar and the death of Captain Cook are all the subjects of essays examining historical events reworked as ballets, operas and melodramas. As well as a strong emphasis on context, contributors draw on pictorial evidence—paintings, prints, political satires, scene designs, music covers and playbills—and on the use of music and songs, in order to investigate the theatrical impact of their chosen topics. The memorialisation of Sir Walter Scott through theatricality and spectacle and attempts to capture the vocal delivery of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons in Shakespeare are among other subjects touched on in the book. Organised into sections which focus on the theatrical creation of British history on stage, the representation of national politics and identity, and the mediation of empire, the exotic and exploration, all the essays are of a very high standard, offering new and original insights. This volume makes a significant and accessible contribution to our understanding of the way theatre used history in the period covered. Beautifully presented, it will appeal both to scholars and to the general reader.”

Jim Davis, University of Warwick

Table of Contents

                        Michael Burden
Part One         Among Fact and Fictions
1.         Staging Shakespeare’s History Plays: The Past as Tone and Material, 1779-1830
                        Ellen Lockhart
2.         Red-Hot Shot and Real Water! Staging the Siege of Gibraltar
                        David Stuart
            3.         Forget about Walter Scott: The Vision of the Bard in 1832
                        Jonathan Hicks
Part Two        Politics, Nation, Identity
            4.         Hofer, The Tell of the Tyrol: Patriotism and the Chartists in Early Victorian Britain
                        David Kennerley
            5.         Completing a Nation-building Story: Bristow and Wainwright’s Rip Van Winkle
                        Victoria Aschheim
6.         American Historical Melodrama: The Pioneer Patriot, or The Maid of the War Path
                        James Steichen

Part Three     Exploration, Exoticism, Empire
            7.         A Killing in Paradise: The Grand Pantomime Ballet of the Death of Captain Cook
                        Michael Burden
            8.         ‘A Tale Founded Upon the Facts’: The Exile in Britain and American
                        Wendy Heller
9.         Empire, Revolution and Patriotism in Columbus: Or, A World Discovered
                        Susan Valladares
                        Further Reading
                        Picture Credits

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