Review: ‘Staging History’ at the Weston Library

One of the first things you see upon entering the Bodleian’s ‘Staging History‘ exhibition are the playbills, pinned to makeshift brick walls. They evoke the sense of a 19th century Victorian street — these advertisements would have been plastered across Britain, absolutely crammed with information, from the location and time of the play, to actors’ names, forthcoming shows, and even detailed descriptions of important scenes. Alongside this thriving theatrical activity, the 18th and 19th centuries were also a time of political tensions with Imperial Expansion, Napoleonic conquests, global exploration, and the French and American Revolutions to contend with. Rather than being an escape from national concerns, British theatre chose to engage with them, by dramatising historic events such as the Battle of the Nile through spectacular and hair-raising shows. Both the artistry and political commentary on stage enlivened — perhaps even prejudiced — 18th and 19th century audience’s opinions during this period which, like ours, stood on the cusp of change.

The exhibition is thoughtfully sectioned into several notable plays which influenced the course of British history in the 18th and 19th centuries such as: The Death of Captain Cook, The Exile, The Siege of Gibraltar, Hofer, The Tell of the Tyrol, and Pizarro. The collection I found most impressive was the theatrical artefacts surrounding the Siege of Gibraltar. The triumph of Gibraltar in 1782 had been remarkable — British troops numbering only 7,500 triumphed against the far more intimidating 60,000 French and Spanish companies, due to their sheer distinction in strategy. It was the longest siege ever endured in British military history, stretching seven years and three months, lasting fourteen sieges altogether. The memory of such a dramatic victory, where tactics overtook numbers, was immediate breeding ground for national witness, especially in the arts. A stunning documentation of this in the exhibition is John Singleton Copley’s painting (c. 1793) of the famous battle. The painting is as enduring now as it was in the 18th century – on one side, General George Eliott (the governor of Gibraltar) commanding an unscathed British platoon, and on the other, ships ablaze and crumbling into the choppy, murky sea. A drama of sea, fire, and smoke; the resultant chaos inflicted by British cunning is contained in this painting, making its profound impact on the 18th century audience unsurprising.

In 1804, Sadler’s Wells staged Charles Dibdin’s dramatization of the siege of Gibraltar, called Okeaneia; or, The Naval Spectacle, notable for it being the first attempt at an ‘aquadrama’. The production used an 8,000-gallon water tank beneath the stage, flooded by the nearby river, to allow the majority of the drama to play out on water. Real artillery, ships, and gun vessels were used to re-enact the battle as closely as possible. To further exploit the aquadramas, Sadler’s Wells presented The Battle of the Nile in 1815. This dramatized Nelson’s 1798 victory over the French at Aboukir Bay in Egypt — particularly the point when the French flagship, L’Orient, exploded during the battle. Charles Dibdin re-created this momentous event on stage at a time of renewed public interest in the threat of Napoleon; British naval efforts may understandably have required a great level of national confidence. The exhibition contains an original bill advertising The Battle of the Nile, using the spectacle of the ‘real water’ as the production’s main selling point. There is also a brilliant 1809 illustration showing an aquadrama in the Sadler’s Wells where the tank had been flooded, and a figure resembling Neptune is driven in a chariot by horses.

Advertisement for the Sadler’s Wells aquadrama. Image from ‘Staging History’ catalogue

These historico-romantic dramas clearly must have endured a selective process, and what was chosen to be staged and the message given to the public is significant. In this sense, the audience’s reliving of historical moments through plays shows history as the audience would wish to remember them. How these producers capitalised on British victory with all the embellishment the stage could afford is invaluable for understanding the development of a national consciousness rooted in those propitious events that could be interpreted as declaring Britain’s greatness — a model or ideal that the arts had a direct role in shaping in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Throughout the exhibition, it becomes increasingly apparent that theatre in the 19th century was tangibly linked to politics and patriotism. Even international affairs that were illuminated on stage bled into national fervour. For example Hofer, the Tell of the Tyrol, which was originally about the 1809 insurrection of a man called Andreas Hofer who sought to free the Tyrol from Austrian rule – became a battlefield of Victorian political opinions. Theatre reconstructions of the story in the 1830s and 1840s were used to motivate patriotism, but the nebulousness of ‘patriotism’ soon emerged when some saw it as loyalty to the monarchy, while others saw revolutionary, republican patriotism in the play. There are several objects documenting the dramatization of Hofer on the British stage in the exhibition such as a scene design of its Alpine landscape by the Grieve family (famous scene painters) and brilliant costume designs from the period.

Mr Osbaldiston, playing Andreas Hofer. Image from ‘Staging History’ catalogue

Similarly, in 1808, the King’s Theatre re-created the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s opulent procession and coronation at the Moscow Cathedral, which took place in 1742. The melodramatic opera of this event in Russian imperial history was called The Exile, as the story follows a young girl who petitions for her father’s release from exile in Siberia. One contemporary critic who reviewed the show wrote, ‘at the conclusion of the piece, the horses and soldiers again, made their appearance, and with the aid of a car drawn by rein-deers.’ This visual excess would have been a celebration of Western pomp, order and regalia while also reconstructing the Queen’s impressive procession with some verisimilitude as can be seen in one particular item in the exhibition — a 1744 engraving of the Queen’s gargantuan train with her innumerable exquisite baroque horses, carriages, and attendants. The lavish memory and construction of a European coronation on the British stage also conveniently coincided with George IV’s coronation in July 1821. What better way to fuel reverence towards the Crown than to dramatise the apogee of its power in theatrical form?

Finally, an exhibition on period theatre without Shakespeare would be largely amiss. ‘Staging History’ has a charming collection dedicated to Shakespeare, among which my favourites were those associated with arguably the most famous Shakespearean actor of his time, David Garrick (1717-1779). A formidable cultural icon in 18th century Shakespearean theatre, Garrick was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre as well as a playwright. Drury Lane subsequently passed into the hands of Richard Brinsley Sheridan who eulogised Garrick’s memory in the form of a monody, in which he touchingly remarked, “Ev’n matchless GARRICK’s Art to Heav’n resign’d / No fix’d Effect, no Model leaves behind!” Though there may be no ‘Model’ of Garrick in our deposit, a surviving scrap of the actor’s costume that he wore as Richard III does remain — and it can be found in the exhibition. One can also find a musical notation for the spoken word written by Joshua Steele in the 18th century — his musical score records how to pronounce each word complete with pitch, breath, volume and emphases in Hamlet’s monologue ‘To be or not to be’ — as it was pronounced by Garrick himself. In this inventive way, Steele’s notations granted an immanence of the past to the present, immortalising Garrick by preserving his voice like amber in his speech notation. The gravitas of Garrick’s personality can still be felt by observing these items, even without the possibility of hearing his voice. Their preservation throughout the centuries is a testament to how, despite lacking a physical ‘Model’, we will always forge a material one — because there is a sense that historic artefacts including theatrical props, designs, costume, and scripts, are relevant to us today, helping us to find ever new intersections between history and culture.

Having visited the Bodleian’s ‘Staging History’ exhibition twice, I will be sure to visit again. In the unpredictable wake of Brexit and the refugee crisis, I found this exhibition illuminating as I began to realise how the 18th and 19th century audiences were in many respects like us: concerned with defining our national identity and understanding our pivotal place in history by referring to past events and exploring future possibilities. Hadley Freeman’s recent weekend column in the Guardian expresses just this: she refers to Michael Bond’s inspiration for Paddington Bear stemming from the memory of child refugees during the Second World War, and that this historic event should hold currency for how we should act now. If the exhibition proves anything, it is that the arts have a direct monopoly in probing our national narrative; expressing who we are as a collective, and mapping our ideas of destiny.

Pratibha Rai

‘Staging History’ runs at the Bodleian’s Weston Library until 8th January 2017. For more information, please visit their website.

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