The French Revolution and the London Stage 1789-1805

It would be difficult to imagine a period in history more dramatic in scope and intensity than the years covered by this book. Britain was still finding it difficult to come to grips with the loss of her American colonies and the humiliation of defeat and separation. The reverberations following the ups-and-downs of the Seven Years War with France (1756-63) were still being felt as well. The events of 1789 and beyond came as another kind of shock, creating a sharp division within the country as the traditional distrust of her Gallic enemy clashed with the hope that a new era of liberty, equality, and fraternity might result in France becoming a friend and even an ally. That hope was quickly dashed by the Reign of Terror, the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the ominous threat of invasion by the ruthless despots who took over, leading eventually to the rise of Britain’s greatest enemy to date, Napoleon Bonaparte. There was enough reason, certainly, for Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) to describe events in Paris as “theatric” as well as deplorable, in stark contrast to his reaction to the American Revolution (1775-82), which he had supported and even welcomed.

On the home front, meanwhile, there was drama of a more personal sort. The impeachment of Warren Hastings for his alleged misdeeds in India took on all the characteristics of a prolonged show trial, seven years in all, involving some of the great orator and actors of the day, including Burke himself and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Then there was the crisis in the monarchy, caused by George III’s bouts of apparent insanity, precipitated no doubt by his worries over the irresponsible, and incorrigibly vain, heir to the throne, the future George IV. Real life in Britain had been destabilized, too, by upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution, which gave political radicals like Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and Richard Price the opportunity to foment opposition to the government with their own brand of theatrics.

All such activities, then, were far more dramatic than anything the three legitimate theaters in London (known as the London Patent Houses) might offer. Consequently, as George Taylor’s book demonstrates, the work of playwrights in response to the various upheavals, including the events both in France and in Britain, was often rather less than impressive. It is true that the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 “inspired a more radical reaction from the minor houses” (47) while Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket tended to distance their productions from contemporary issues, partly for fear of censorship or direct political interference at a highly sensitive time. Indeed, the Examiner of Plays, John Larpent, who worked from 1778 till his death in 1824 under the aegis of the official Licenser, the Lord Chamberlain, either censored or ordered the revision of large numbers of plays that had been submitted to him for approval—this in accordance with the controversial Licensing Act of 1737 (which had effectively strangled the theatrical activities of Henry Fielding, for instance).

Fortunately for the record, and for theater historians like George Taylor, the Larpent Manuscript Collection, containing many of the proscribed or tampered plays, found its way to the Henry Huntington Library in San Marino, California, towards the end of World War One. It has proved a treasure trove for researchers ever since. Incidentally, John Larpent’s second wife, Anna Margaretta Larpent, kept a series of diaries over a period of forty years, from 1790 to 1830, six years after her husband’s death, in which she recorded not only the usual day-to-day details of her life but also her reactions to her reading of many of the plays under Larpent’s scrutiny. Taylor mentions the diaries in passing, but appears not to have consulted the originals or the 1995 edition (Marlborough, Wiltshire: Adam Matthew). In any event, some of the most valuable portions of Taylor’s study include critical analyses of several of the confiscated or revised plays. If printed editions of any of them became available, the author listed them in his useful bibliography (249-56) and he provides Larpent MS references in his plentiful endnotes (226-48).

Immediate theatrical responses in London to the events of 14 July 1789 in Paris included at least three stage re-enactments of the storming of the Bastille. One of these, planned for Covent Garden, was disallowed by the Lord Chamberlain, presumably for political reasons, but it appears to have resurfaced as a burletta with the title The Triumph of Liberty; or, the Bastille at the Royal Circus on August 5, 1789. Twelve days later, Philip Astley, who owned amphitheaters in both Paris and London and was well known for his popular presentations of equestrian circus acts combined with clowning, staged Paris in an Uproar; or, the Destruction of the Bastille. A contemporary cartoon, showing a miniature cannon in action against the walls of the prison fortress, is reproduced as the frontispiece (sadly, the only illustration) in Taylor’s book. A third such entertainment, with the exciting title, Gallic Freedom; or, Vive La Liberté, was mounted at Sadler’s Wells on 31 August, but we can only guess at its content from one surviving playbill: “The Cannonade and General Attack….The Skirmish with the Garde Criminelle…The actual Descent of the Soldiers and Citizens by Torchlight, into SUBTERRANEAN DUNGEONS, and the Plundering and final Demolition of the Bastille by an exasperated Populace” (43).

In two chapters devoted to reactions of the English stage to the Reign of Terror in France, Taylor notes that Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), a militant atheist and a pro-Revolutionary zealot, helped to found in 1792 the London Corresponding Society, whose main aim was to connect with radical elements in Paris in the same year. Yet his own somewhat politically sensitive production, The Road to Ruin, was allowed to be staged at Covent Garden. This play, which dramatizes the great gulf between poverty and wealth, is viewed by Taylor as having a proto-Marxist edge to it (a theme he develops philosophically in a later chapter on “Theater and Alienation,” 188-219). While money is certainly the main motivating force in the play, the connection with Revolutionary ideas seems to me tenuous at best. In any event, the Examiner of Plays saw no obvious subversive tendencies in it, and the play, more of a social comedy than a serious piece of ‘levelling’ propaganda, enjoyed a run of thirty-seven performances.

By contrast, Richard II, a history play by Richard Cumberland (1732-1811), who was on the side of the non-radical angels in such matters, was turned down immediately by Larpent in 1792 as “‘extremely unfit for representation at a time when ye Country is full of Alarm, being the story of Wat Tyler [who had led the Peasants’ Revolt as far back as the year 1381], the killing of Tax Gatherers, and very ill Judged’” (73). The fact that the tax gatherers had mulcted the people in order to pay for a war against France may have had something to do with Larpent’s decision. Whether he knew much about the respective backgrounds of the two playwrights is doubtful: Cumberland, the great-grandson of a highly respected Bishop and himself a devout Christian, and Holcroft, atheist, son of a pedlar, former stable boy, amateur actor and singer, one of the most active radicals of his age. In 1783 Holcroft had been assigned to France as a correspondent for the Morning Herald. Having a certain talent for translation, he produced an English version of Beaumarchais’ play, Le mariage de Figaro, which he titled The Follies of a Night. It was not a great success, lacking as it did the satirical pungency of the original, on which Louis XVI had presciently commented: “The Bastille would have to be torn down before its presentation could be anything but dangerous folly” (40). Set in Seville, of course, Holcroft’s translation was sufficiently distanced from present and future realities to persuade Larpent to pass it.

Carrying censorship to a farcical extreme, Larpent even excised references to the Rights of Man in a ballad opera by the Hon. John St. John, The Island of St. Marguerite (Drury Lane, 1789), though the setting was far from Paris. The Mediterranean island’s governor was worried that the populace might storm his castle and free a prisoner locked in his iron mask. The offending lines, “Generous Hearts Assert your Freedom/Vindicate the Rights of Man,” had to be replaced with an innocuous verse in praise of Liberty in general. Larpent also cut references to the execution of the tyrant and the death march that preceded it. Taylor comments on the “distancing strategy” (46 et passim) to which such performances were forced to conform, whereas one of the minor theaters, the Royal Circus, could stage without much hindrance John Dent’s celebratory burletta, Triumph of Liberty, or, the Bastille (August 5, 1789), a distinctly pro-Revolutionary presentation which also had a prisoner locked in an iron mask.

Larpent showed no objection, either, to a musical afterpiece by Charles Bonner and Robert Merry, presented at Covent Garden on 20 December 1790 as A Picture of Paris, Taken in the Year 1790, with a lavish scene showing the Fête de la Fédération on the Champs de Mars. To convince the Examiner that no dangerous incitement to insurrection was intended, the chorus sang some pointedly patriotic lines glorifying “Britain’s favour’d land” and her “ador’d” King, George III.

This book goes well beyond the implications of its title in many ways. Its seven chapters clearly show the impact of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the spreading shadow of Napoleon on a whole generation of ordinary people as well as politicians and dramatists. More particularly, it discusses the many currents of social change, such as the growing anti-slavery movement, as reflected in theater productions. As the author’s endnotes and bibliography indicate, he makes good use of recent as well as earlier scholarship, and provides a helpful perspective on both French and British stages at a time when great acting in the tradition of Garrick-Siddons-Kemble in England and the Lekain-Clairon-Dumesnil era in France was more of a fact of life than great playwriting. Throughout the book, too, we are made very conscious of the real, often cataclysmic, action taking place in the streets and on the battlefield.

The book is not without its shortcomings, of course. What book is perfect? All the same, occasional stylistic flaws, of the sort that a competent copy editor might have caught, tend to blemish an otherwise solid and reliable contribution to the field of dramatic history. All too frequently, for example, the author uses run-on sentences involving the vexed comma splice. He makes no distinction between “effect” and “affect”, and occasionally confuses “principle” with “principal.” The reformer John Thelwall is wrongly named “Thewell” several times, and Susanna Centlivre is indexed as “Elizabeth Centilever,” while Mario Praz is re-christened “Prax.” He would have agonized over that!