John Pruitt »

John Pruitt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Rock County. His publications on literature and on teaching and learning have appeared most recently in Currents in Teaching and Learning, Library Quarterly, and Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research.

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This article is copyright © 2009 Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).

Referring to this Article

J. PRUITT. ‘Collecting the National Drama in Revolutionary England’, Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 19 (Winter 2009).

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Collecting the National Drama in Revolutionary England

Let’s begin with an irritated Elizabeth Inchbald. At the bidding of prolific and insistent publisher Thomas Norton Longman, she undertook the task of collecting and critiquing a series of plays spanning the two centuries between Shakespeare’s time and her own. In 1808, Longman released this twenty-five-volume series titled The British Theatre; or, a Collection of Plays, Which Are Acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket, a collection with sales so ‘prodigious’ (according to Inchbald) that with great alacrity Longman employed her to proceed with the ten-volume Modern Theatre and seven-volume Collection of Farces, each selling equally well. However, no critical remarks accompanied the latter collections as she detested the ‘dreadful task’ of writing them. In fact, she dismissed the fifty-guinea retainer that she had earned for compiling the Collection of Farces ‘by merely looking over a catalogue of fifty farces, drawing my pen across one or two, and writing the names of others in their place’. [1] To Inchbald, collecting illegitimate drama simply became a perfunctory act in random selection.

To others of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, collecting, publishing, and circulating farces, spectacles, operas, pantomimes, and melodramas served in many ways as a forum for debating the cultural positioning of these minor dramatic genres in England’s political and cultural landscape. Although a great deal of critical attention has focused on the various editions of collections of Shakespeare’s plays since the publication of the First Folio in 1623, we must recognise some of the trends in the production and reception of non-Shakespearean collections, which circulated in larger numbers through the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and provide a basis for greater contextualisation of these collections in terms of the tenuous position of the theatre in England’s revolutionary culture. During the period in question, Inchbald’s collection of farces sat alongside at least fourteen additional collections of plays strictly of or including minor dramatic genres published and circulating throughout the nation between 1784 and 1815 amid accusations of a decaying national theatre (see attached checklist). Such complaints occurred so frequently that reviews and newspapers brimmed over with laments over the theatre’s catastrophic degeneration into illegitimate, gothic, and spectacular drama attributable to the tastes of managers who staged farces and operas rather than classical tragedies in order to compete in a capitalist market economy; to the revamped architecture and technology that distanced audiences from the stage; to the decline in national taste; and to destructive German influences. The latter two concerns, stemming from a strong sense of a unified national character attempting to emerge throughout the eighteenth century, reflected the tendency of thinkers to place a high value on national institutions in determining the character and stage of development of English society. [2]

Despite such anxieties of a fragmented national culture, this essay will argue that collecting and binding minor dramatic genres actually legitimised these plays within English theatre history despite their Continental origins and appeal to the lower orders. At the forefront of collectors of minor dramatic forms stands bookseller John Bell, celebrated for the twenty-volume Bell’s British Theatre, Consisting of the Most Esteemed English Plays (1776–78). Following its success, he compiled and published from 1784 to 1788 a supplemental six-volume Collection of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainments Now Performing on the British Stage. In the advertisement to the first volume, Bell proposes that these collected works ‘will be peculiarly acceptable to those who are possessed of a good Collection of Plays, to which it will form a proper Companion or Supplement, as including the principal performances of a Garrick, a Foote, &c. printed in an elegant and uniform manner, and attainable at a moderate expence’. [3] For the first time, a variety of minor plays written by a variety of authors appeared together in print. [4] Following Bell’s model, Walter Scott compiled the three-volume collection The British Drama; Comprehending the Best Plays in the English Language (1804), in which he suggests that readers respond more positively to genre divisions—one volume of tragedies, one of comedies, and the final of farces and operas—than to miscellaneous assortments for ease of browsing through and scrutinising their preferred species of drama. Although Scott appears to seek reader gratification by segregating these genres, he emphasises the clear distinctions between generic values by appealing to their national character, for ‘Tragedies may serve as a register of national genius’; comedies reflect a free English government under which ‘No laws operate to restrain caprice; no tyrant watches to punish private folly, controul inconsistencies, or revenge fickleness’; and farce and opera owe their existence to comedy but ‘cannot be deemed an exact and legitimate species of the Drama’. Together, however, readers and collectors will find The British Drama ‘to constitute a commodious, cheap, and judicious theatrical library’. [5] And as similar collections multiplied and lined bookshelves throughout the early nineteenth century, a number of critics determined that the nation required a standard for measuring the national value of literary (and, indeed, theatrical) productions. [6] Whereas men of letters repeatedly maintained that the theatres required sanitising, collectors positioned minor plays written by English hands alongside the pillars of classical and contemporary English drama in order to participate in dialogues about the nation’s fluctuating and ill-defined cultural and political identity.


Before exploring the collections of minor plays themselves, I find it necessary to review popular perceptions of the decline of England’s legitimate forms of entertainment in order to contextualise the national conversation regarding this cultural transformation. Neoclassical and Shakespearean tragedy, of course, held the vanguard position of this conservative cultural programme while critics continued to traduce spectacular drama such as farce and opera as ‘illegitimate’—a term bearing not only legal connotations under the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 but also bearing aesthetic, moral, and political resonances. Critics and politicians sporadically attempted to resolve the ambivalence of the analogy between theatre and nation by distinguishing the depravity of spectacular theatre from the virtues of moral or legitimate political action in drama. Jane Moody suggests that we can trace the status of the ‘legitimate’ as a theatrical term to Edmund Burke’s definition of such political culture in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Countering the revolutionary proposition that a government loses its legitimacy in the absence of representation, Burke, Moody continues, suggests that the nation’s system of virtual representation actually constitutes political legitimacy. As such, Burke defends legitimate government as a series of institutions and associated moral values based in property, heredity, monarchy, and the church, and dismisses illegitimacy as their distortion. Ultimately, under this political model, conservative commentators attempted to separate the tradition of loyalist drama from the apparent surge of innovative but deviant theatrical change. [7]

In response to the popular reception of the illegitimate fare arguably polluting the licensed and unlicensed theatres, occasional dramatists and drama enthusiasts William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—not the only conservative voices but certainly two of the loudest—complained that minor genres and spectacular performances unremittingly infected the stage by levelling generic and social hierarchies and challenging the national drama as a cultural symbol of a British heritage. [8] At the centre of a discussion in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802) on the public’s inability to interact with life imaginatively, Wordsworth laments that the ‘theatrical exhibitions of the country’—especially ‘sickly and stupid German tragedies’— had ‘conformed themselves’ to the nation’s ‘craving for extraordinary incident’ and to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’. If the efficient cause could be attributed to ‘great national events which are daily taking place’, the result was nevertheless a psychological ‘state of almost savage torpor’. [9] Like Wordsworth, Coleridge denounces in Satyrane’s letters (1798–99/1809) contemporary, especially sentimental, drama as ‘a moral and intellectual Jacobinism of the most dangerous kind’ and identifies its political and aesthetic deviancy as the antithesis of the classical European legacy marked by Shakespeare, Ariosto, Milton, and Molière. [10] In similar terms, Charles Dibdin the Younger, responding to an anonymous letter he received confronting his audacity for staging illegitimate pieces, contrasts the rational and moral licence of pantomime with the damaging effects of farces, ‘which have done more towards degrading what is called the legitimate Stage, than almost any other species of extravaganza ever produced’. [11]

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dibdin followed in a tradition beginning earlier in the century, when writers censured illegitimate performances for the collapse and fusion of generic hierarchies and the inversion of the social order. With a disparaging tone, for example, Alexander Pope in The Dunciad (1728) denounces the marvellous on stage for its hectic and anarchic variety:

All sudden, Gorgons hiss, and Dragons glare,
And ten-horn’d fiends and Giants rush to war.
Hell rises, Heav’n descends, and dance on Earth:
Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jigg, a battle, and a ball,
’Till one wide conflagration swallows all. [12]

Writers also censured the patent theatres for carelessly staging foreign dances and acrobatics. The narrator of An Impartial State of the Case of the French Comedians, Actors, Players, or Strollers, Who Lately Opened a Theatre at the Hay-Market (1750) broadcasts that nothing can ‘be imagined more derogatory, more unworthy of the greatness of this nation, than, that the tolerating, or non-tolerating, of a parcel of French comedians […] should be made a national concern’. [13] Likewise, the narrator of The Dancers Damn’d; or, the Devil to Pay at the Old House (1755) recounts the recent riot inspired by the presence of Jean Georges Noverre and his French dancers performing The Chinese Festival on the Drury Lane stage. The patriotic mob, demanding to hear God Save the King, Britain Strike Home, and Rule, Britannia, contemptuously dialogue with Reason, ‘a French bitch [who] may have [her] pockets full of gun-powder’, as they prepare to scuffle in an undoubtedly premeditated and violent riot that killed two men and left Drury Lane in splinters. [14]

The apprehensive images in these early complaints complement contemporary anxieties about the disintegration of the nation’s traditional dramatic corpus, but the denunciation of illegitimate drama became much more prominent as attempts to define it repeatedly set the form in conflict with a popular audience’s capacity to critique these performances intelligently. It was commonly understood, of course, that theatre audiences were neither fundamentally uniform nor ultimately convergent; it was also commonly asserted that vulgar illiterates drove refined scholars from the playhouse and into the library, and that whatever might be physically seen or heard would be a crude reduction of the response to the text. In fact, the appearance of the lower ranks in the playhouses appalled a number of critics who held the patrician perspective that the stage began to define a nation dominated by the interests of the uneducated masses populating the pit rather than the ranks in the boxes and galleries. Among many voices, one Oliver Oldstock decries the new illegitimate stage, finding that

Nothing now but melo-dramas will go down; Ella Rosenberg at Drury-lane, and the Blind Boy at Covent-garden, seems all the rage; and, when the babies of the town are tired with gaping at them, they will be removed only to make room for some other mongrel exhibition equally or perhaps even more contemptible. [15]

In his article ‘On the Dramatic Taste of the Age’ spanning three issues of the European Magazine in 1799, Joseph Moser makes a similar argument, observing that

whilst [modern authors] have decorated their dramas with scenery and dresses adapted to the most elevated stations and the most elegant characters, they have made those characters speak a language, the dulness and poverty of which would not, in an æra of greater judgment and nicer discrimination, have been suffered in the lowest. [16]

Indeed, a large working-class audience had long frequented the London theatres, from the cavernous, patent Drury Lane and Covent Garden seating more than three thousand patrons to minor houses such as Sadler’s Wells, the Royal Circus, the Coburg, the Surrey, and the Adelphi, where the repertoire always included or even specialised in illegitimate performances. In this spectacular climate, the social meaning of both the audience and the theatre changed dramatically. Rather than functioning didactically, the stage became an unfashionably entertaining site for the pleasure of plebeian spectators. [17]

In many respects, it appeared that the blame for plebeian contempt for morality, decorum, and dramatic tradition lay in large part with German influence. Critics increasingly labelled German literature as culturally and ideologically invasive, morally corrupting, and sentimentally amplified, particularly in the context of the rise of an undisciplined reading public and the demand for escapist fiction. [18] As the debate over the appropriateness of the supernatural on stage suggests, German drama, while treated as a corrupting and invasive force by reviewers, makes manifest generic pollution that had existed for decades, for pantomime, farce, and associated forms of dramatic spectacle become impurities of legitimate tragedy and comedy on Britain’s national stage. The stimulus to castigate German drama was diffused primarily on behalf of Kotzebue and Schiller, whose popular and controversial plays assailed the London stage between 1790 and 1810, and were collected, translated, and published by Benjamin Thompson in the six-volume The German Theatre (1797–1801) for readers already voraciously consuming German-inspired gothic novels.

The absolute, compulsive fascination generated by plays such as Schiller’s The Robbers (1781, trans. 1792) and Kotzebue’s Pizarro (1796, trans. 1799) and The Stranger (1789, trans. 1798) was specifically what worried contemporary reviewers and critics. [19] German drama seemed seditiously to design and anticipate the disintegration of an aristocratic, Protestant, political state. [20] Although such a threat emerged at the end of the century, shortly before the German literary invasion, Henry Mackenzie addressed the Royal Society of Edinburgh in order to applaud the contemporary German theatre’s negotiation between French standards of imitation of the ancient dramatic unities and liberation from these restraints exemplified by Shakespeare, who focused instead on characterisation. Mackenzie models his argument on that of Baron Riesbeck, who wrote that the distinct class divisions in Germany and the aristocracy’s apathy toward common life enslaved the theatre to pretentious French standards of taste and sensibility. Consequently, contemporary German dramatists unleashed Shakespeare’s model of virtue and genius on their theatre, which, unlike that of the French, ‘is that deep impassioned sensibility, which resides in serious and ardent minds, which can brood with melancholy’ and, interestingly, which is found only among common spectators. [21] Mackenzie celebrates the virtuous simplicities of the lower ranks ‘whose opinions may often be folly, whose conduct may sometimes be madness, but whose sentiments are almost always honourable and just’, unlike the aristocrats ‘who, in the coldness of self-interest, or the languor of out-worn dissipation, can hear unmoved the sentiments of compassion, of generosity, or of virtue’ (p. 174). By aligning his critique of German and French aristocratic sensibilities with the monotony of Continental theatre, Mackenzie distances the virtues of contemporary theatre from the proud and callous affluent. [22]

Like Mackenzie, many dramatists and critics valued the link between minor (German-inspired) generic forms and the lower-class audiences that embraced them. Leigh Hunt, for one, condemns the artificiality of comedy and tragedy, ‘a gross piece of effort from beginning to end’ revealing only ‘a number of people pretending to be what they are not, the actors affecting an interest, while they are deploring their bad parts’. In pantomime, however, no one is ‘so busy and full of glee as the understrappers and the Banbury-cake men’, and spectators find nothing ‘gay and eternal as the music, which runs merrily through the whole piece, like the pattern of a watered gown’. [23] In the preface to his six-volume collection of Old English Plays (1814–15) by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Charles Wentworth Dilke traces the effects of the lower ranks on drama much earlier to the sixteenth century. Before the Reformation, only the aristocracy and religious leaders held literary merit until the split with the Catholic church, when ‘all classes of society burst into the arena to contend without distinction’ and rampaged through the newly translated Bible not only for its wisdom and morality but for its poetry. [24] We see in this violent clash of opinions over the role of the lower ranks in the contemporary theatre a set of contradictory responses to the breakdown of what is perceived as an old theatrical order based in the nation’s Shakespearean heritage. The fragmentation or mutation of dramatic genres and the disintegration of Drury Lane and Covent Garden as national cultural institutions seem to evoke a culture tyrannically ruled by promiscuous plebeian desires. When read as a unit, these essays deplore minor drama’s subversive relationship to theatrical, critical, or political authority.


The literary consensus that plays reward the intellect only when read because dramatists fortunately cannot inscribe into their writing the public mayhem of the unkempt masses continued through the nineteenth century. In his ‘Essay on Drama’ (1819), Walter Scott granted that performances were of course necessary for the illiterate and for ‘persons not very nice in their taste of society’ and presented this philosophy in his second collection of plays, the five-volume Modern British Drama (1811), dominated by two volumes of tragedies and two of comedies—the most intellectual, imaginative, evocative, generically pure, and innately British of dramatic forms. [25] As in The British Theatre (1804), Scott sought to create a ‘whole work [which] may be considered as the full and undivided essence of the British Drama’ and again isolated the genres, devoting the fifth volume to operas and farces, but then denounced them as literary failures in order to dismiss minor drama as vulgar entertainments for the boorish masses. [26] Opera receives a glancing blow, for ‘like a disregarded colony, it has not thriven the worse for its exemption from authority and restriction [and] must be given up as unnatural and artificial’. But farce and its vulgar admirers, who regrettably frequent the same theatres as their social superiors because ‘the existing theatrical laws do not permit their betters and them to seek amusement in distinct theatres adapted to their several tastes’, undergo a more severe attack: the spectators, particularly ‘females of the worst description’, who display a lawless disregard for morality and decorum, transfer the cultural degradation represented by the minor theatres into the salubrious environs of the patent playhouses, thus polluting the cultural iconography of the institutions and the cultural authority of the fashionable elite who frequent them. For Scott, it appears that selecting and assembling all of these texts exercises a significant amount of cultural power: by positioning minor plays alongside the pillars of classical and contemporary English drama, he contains between book covers the pleasures and experiences of spectating, thus transforming the plays into writerly drama ideally quarantined from the vulgar (illiterate) masses.

In the context of such animosity toward the depravity and improbabilities of illegitimate drama and the increasing heterogeneity of the social spaces of the theatres, John Cross’s Circusiana (1809), published by subscription through the encouragement of the Earl of Craven, indicates the emergence of the minor play not only to be enjoyed as theatrical spectacle but also as a text to be read and appreciated for its ‘moral tendency’. [27] Aiming to challenge the ideal category of legitimate English drama that saturated institutional criticism, Cross, a writer of fashionable but critically disreputable dramatic forms, sought to formulate a legitimate generic claim aligning spectacle with high drama based on their common reflection on virtue. Recognising the remoteness of arguments from the material conditions of a great deal of dramatic production, Cross suggests that popular dramatists benefit from identifying the formative powers of their material conditions on their own works and on the generic categories used to assess those works.

Variously defined by Cross as ballets, burlesques, spectacles, pantomimes, melodramas, and extravaganzas, the plots of his musical plays exploit popular enthusiasm for strapping British heroes revelling in triumphant patriotism. At the centre of the Circusiana lies the archetypal narrative of the villainous usurper finally defeated amidst various horrors in wild and picturesque settings and the final restoration of domestic and political hierarchies. In the ballet The Fire King (1801), Albert and his army of Christians rescue Rosalie from the Fire King, his acolytes, and their band of marauding skeletons, tossing them into a dark chasm as the Sorceress sings to Rosalie that ‘thy envied name | Shall be engrav’d in Virtue’s dome’ (II, 102). In the gothic melodrama Julia of Louvain (1797), after Clifford and D’Arcourt rescue Julia from an abbess who has immersed her in a gloomy sepulchre, a nun at the altar of Hymen sings that ‘love now has yielded the monster despair, | And beauty and virtue are blest’ (I, 92). And in the Grand Scotch Spectacle Halloween (1799), as Edric avenges his father’s murder on the Scottish highlands, the Countess Mary dances a pas seul and a fairy sings that ‘Virtue yields a genial glow, | Tho’ from Obscurity, we find, | Oft snail-like it emerges slow, | It leaves a shining track behind!’ (II, 130). Throughout the Circusiana, anarchy contrasts with jubilant scenes of eleventh-hour unions and, through the final songs of each piece, proclamations of virtue similar to those throughout Shakespeare’s comedic dramatic corpus (albeit far more formulaic in the melodramas). The political meaning of the spectacles and narratives of restored hierarchies and reinforced institutions lies in how they suggest the literary and cultural values Cross seeks to associate with the unlicensed Royal Circus, effectively summarising the way that minor drama constructs virtue and patriotism at the end of the century.

Although heroes and marriages reinforce long-established British institutions, Cross’s patriotism emerges most strongly in Our Native Land, and Gallant Protectors (1803), a musical proclamation against the Napoleonic wars that subdues conservative attacks against illegitimate drama’s attraction to the lower orders. The musical drama begins in a rustic setting, where a dairy maid sings of her love for a ‘comely young man’:

And when we are married, which soon will take place,
I don’t care how soon I must own;
My fears will be hush’d, all my terrors will cease,
For I hope, and I dare say it will be the case,
My husband won’t leave me alone. (I, 82)

When the Genius of Britain interrupts the impending rustic dance, with a wave of his wand he transforms the scene from a farm toiled by haymakers, cottagers, and country lasses to an encampment with stands of muskets instead of haystacks and a corps of volunteer men and women soldiers in uniform singing ‘Then our island for ever, and that we’ll defend, | Our King and our state bold and hearty; | Till the safety we fight for puts war to an end, | And a rope’s-end for grim Buonaparte’ (I, 84). By reproducing the dramatic topoi of the war, the Royal Circus put its own system of representation at the service of the national cause. Cross not only represents the conflict, but he censures his own practice as a writer of plays criticised as spawns of Continental theatre. This performance, representing the significant issue of the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the common English, including women portrayed as soldiers in the heroic male endeavour against the French, is indicative of the way in which the unlicensed theatre and Cross’s collection of illegitimate plays commemorated the war and the enhancement of patriotic values. Not only is the narrative of anticipated marriage in Our Native Land immediately interrupted by the harlequinade of the Genius of Britain: the democratising tendency of the musical identifies patriotism not with traditional figures of military authority but with men and women of comparatively low social status, thus identifying the lower-class population, associated with the unlicensed theatres and spectacular performances, strongly with its defenders and with those enlisted in the nation’s military mobilised against the French. In performance, the minor theatre becomes significant as a framework for articulating the anxieties of war and foreign invasion. In print, the minor theatre self-consciously circulates as print media among patriotic political tracts in the burgeoning climate of nation building central to the wars.

While Cross negotiates between print and performance as a means of instruction through spectacular devices without risking censure, dramatist and critic John Galt—variously Secretary of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, Secretary to the Canada Company, textbook author, and novelist—conversely suggests that confining plays to print stifles the legitimate theatre’s pedagogical function. By means of his four-volume collection of plays written by himself and unnamed authors, and published as The New British Theatre; a Selection of Original Dramas, Not Yet Acted; Some of Which Have Been Offered for Representation but Not Accepted, with Critical Remarks by the Editor (1814–15), Galt challenged the restrictive management practices of the London theatres that staged only plays derived from French and German drama, and attempted to reposition British plays (even translations into English) within the nation’s theatre history by formally and structurally separating them from those of the Continent.

In his preface, Galt engages with the managers of the patent theatres by claiming that a collection of rejected pieces relegated to print

would enable the lovers of the drama to appreciate the taste and the judgement with which the management of the theatres is conducted, in relation to the refusal and reception of plays, and how far the assertion is correct, that the pantomimic state of the stage is owing to a decline in the dramatic genius of the nation […] [28]

His bold endorsement of unacted plays supposedly proves the corresponding decadence of modern theatrical institutions, and through his collection, he prepares a model for a sanitised British theatre.

Like that of his predecessors, Galt’s nationalistic argument surfaces by his linking the corruption of the contemporary theatre—that is, the plays selected for performance—with the revolutionary atmosphere and impending or existing political instability stemming from the series of wars mounting steadily in scale and expense. In such a disruptive and timorous climate, the profligacy of French- and German-inspired spectacular performances menace the nation as readily as Jacobin political ideologies. In fact, Galt asserts that the theatre more accurately measures the patriotic climate than do ‘all those excrescences in the government, to which theoretical quacks so loudly call attention’. To be sure, ‘through a long course of political events of the most extraordinary nature’ compared to the enthusiasm for spectacular, gothic, and romantic theatrics, it is difficult to imagine that ‘the good sense of England is so far impaired as the public taste appears to be corrupted, judging from the exhibitions of the stage’ (NBT, I, iii–iv). However, by appealing to traditional English values and ideally a pervasive rejection of political radicalism, he predicts that, by reforming current stage practices, the patent theatres, like other institutions, will revive their dual purpose of instruction and entertainment, and produce plays based on timeless, classical British subjects, premises, and models. In fact, if government officials and other proclaimed pundits ‘would look a little more to their private trusts; and evince that they really possess some capacity for directing national affairs, by the judgement and liberality with which they promote the interests of the drama,’ the theatre may reclaim its function of public instruction, but the program must begin in the mind of the reader (NBT, I, xiv).

While seeking to revive the theatre illustrative of British sensibilities, Galt critiques the variety of generic forms—operas, interludes, sentimental comedies, classical tragedies—that compose his collection of new and rejected plays as a means of properly defining what constitutes new legitimate drama. In a variety of ways, Galt’s criticisms of these selections, which refrain from commenting on the plays themselves to focus primarily on their conformity to British expectations, reveal the necessity of seceding from the Continent. Unlike Coleridge, who believes that acts of reading involve a higher exercise of mental activity than observation of stage effects while often limiting this distinction to the experience of reading Shakespeare’s plays, for Galt Shakespearean drama and the traditional canon take less precedence than the British sensibility that created them. Galt himself wrote what Coleridge and Lamb would consider illegitimate or spectacular drama, and in his notes on the unattributed play Villario included in his collection he admits that, like his own early tragedies, ‘though some of the rejected dramas have certainly great literary and poetical merit, still they are so deficient in spectacle and interesting incidents, that they would be tedious on the stage’ (NBT, II, 189). [29] Indeed, Galt advocates the necessity of performances that resist dreary pedantry, remarking on his own interlude The Mermaid that ‘of all dramatic writing, either ancient or modern, the British exhibits the greatest stock of rich and curious fancy; which, perhaps, more than any cause, tends to render our plays tedious to the people of the Continent’ (NBT, II, 388). He also surprisingly praises the unattributed The Bandit for its ‘ingenuity and fancy’. In this opera, Angela flees from her pursuer Ethelwolfe through Germany’s dark forests and ruined abbeys, and discovers her noble lineage through her reclusive uncle Manfred Lichtenstein, who resides in the family tomb. Although the opera arouses the auditor’s critical judgment, Galt admits that ‘The style and incidents of this opera are of the German school. On this account it is not to our taste [….] Our objection, indeed, is not to the piece, but to the class of productions to which it belongs’ (NBT, I, 430–32).

In particular, Galt’s assumptions concerning the theatre echo those of his critical contemporaries who define dramatic value by rejecting foreign influences and impurities. Still, we must remember that Galt’s construction of a properly national drama depends on sanitising the stage. The process requires an appropriately pure British voice capable of transcending historical and partisan disputes within the nation. In his own The Conquest of France, for example, with Edward III and the Black Prince in the background, Galt attempts to resist what he perceives to be meaningless pantomimes:

I therefore offer the Conquest of France, not so much as a play as a spectacle, the object of which is to exhibit a cycle of history. In fact, I have long thought the stage, especially those of the great theatres, adapted for a more gorgeous exhibition than the common dramatic tales, and I wish my essay to be considered entirely of this description. (NBT, II, 157)

Most interestingly, in the remarks on his The Star of Destiny, Galt admits to creating a performance ‘which should combine intellectual energy with visible magnificence […] more impressive than pantomime, and equally gorgeous in the spectacle’ (NBT, III, 217). Because the potential for social instruction appears greatest in plays most titillating to audiences, Galt’s desire to harness the fashion for spectacular, visual representations leads him to argue against the almost unanimous objection of reviewers throughout the decade that these scenes particularly interest rational, empirical, enlightened spectators.

As Galt recalls in his Autobiography (1833), the propriety of establishing a third patent theatre in London, where ‘representations should be more classically conducted than the shows and pageants which had usurped the place of the regular drama’ dominated a great deal of the national conversation in 1813 and 1814. [30] In the early nineteenth century, such criticism presented the rise of the minor play and the rejection of the formal tenets regulating classical and Shakespearean tragedies and comedies as irrefutable evidence that the Theatres Royal had simply abandoned literary drama in favour of the superficial exigencies of an institution now devoid of intellectual capital. As he continued to reflect on his career, Galt ultimately consigned to the bookshelf the plays he included in The New British Theatre and vindicated the theatres’ managers for the pathetic repertoire they were compelled to stage:

I know not how dramatic talent is to be revived; perhaps its excellence belongs to an epoch in the history of a language, a semi-barbarous period, which has gone past with us never to be recalled, like the beauty of the teeth and ringlets of those elderly gentlewomen, who are tottering in desperation to hide their false locks and irreparable faces in oblivion and the grave. [31]

But as Galt and his predecessors recognised, spectacular effects were an integral element of all theatrical forms, ranging from high tragedy to pantomime and ballet.

Accounting for the rejection of German and French spectacles in England is essential to our understanding not only of Galt’s cultural predicaments, but also of the context within which Romantic drama formed its assumptions about literary value. In fact, as a number of scholars have recently revealed, the literature of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain participated in a number of national debates and dialogues. Gothic novels and chapbooks both respond to fears of a lost British identity and embrace the expansion of British imperialism through reinventing past and present; poetry of the long eighteenth century often embraced the contours of colonial desires; and the playhouses staged the political theatricality of the French Revolution. [32] In this respect, we can read the history of the era’s literature as a series of attempts to endow the nation with literary and cultural capital adequate to its burgeoning spirit, ambition, and spheres of influence.

In this context, by defining British drama as a compromise between French pedantry about rules of dramatic composition and German Sturm und Drang rebellion against such rules, British reviewers, from their self-proclaimed centre, saw both countries’ drama as extremist and based in theoretical principle rather than nature and the lower orders as a threat to patriotism and national security. Essential here are the communicative and institutional frameworks to give expression to the nation, a cause that generated a search for and gathering together of, in this instance, English dramatic texts. As media for selecting, preserving, arranging, and exhibiting artefacts in order provide structure to the national culture, these collections also complemented rupture, fracture, and conflict. Between Inchbald’s apathy, Scott’s patrician sensibilities, Cross’ nationalistic virtues, and Galt’s futuristic hopes and visions, we find collections of plays in Revolutionary Britain to stage opposing and multiple debates and developments, both legitimating and questioning values and ideas in national and historical contexts. By prefacing their collections with dedications, arguments, and revisionist histories of the English theatre, collectors seek to persuade readers to confront or confirm conventional hierarchies in order to control or dominate cultures of entertainment.

1. James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs Inchbald: Including her Familiar Correspondence with the Most Distinguished Persons of her Time, 2 vols (London: Bentley, 1833), II, 103 and 132–33.

2. Among many studies on the rise of English nationalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see, for example, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992; rptd 2003); Krishnan Kumar, ‘ “Englishness” and English National Identity’, in British Cultural Studies: Geography, Nationality, and Identity, edited by David Morley and Kevin Robins (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp. 41–55; Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History, 1740–1830 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987); Peter Mandler, The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); and Roberto Romani, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750–1914 (Cambridge: CUP, 2002).

3. John Bell (ed.), Supplement to Bell’s British Theatre, Consisting of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainments Now Performing on the British Stage, 6 vols (London: Bell, 1784–88), I, sig. A2 [v] .

4. Earlier in the century, minor plays often appeared in the collected works of their own authors. For example, see The Dramatic Works of David Garrick Esq; Now First Collected, 2 vols (London: Bald, Blaw & Kert, 1774), and The Dramatic Works of Samuel Foote, 3 vols (London: Vaillant & Lowndes, [1776?]).

5. Walter Scott, The British Drama; Comprehending the Best Plays in the English Language, 3 vols (London: Miller, 1804), I, v, original emphasis; II, iv; III, i; I, v. Although the work was published anonymously, it is widely attributed to Scott.

6. See Philip Connell, ‘Bibliomania: Book Collecting, Cultural Politics, and the Rise of Literary Heritage in Romantic Britain’, Representations, 70 (2000), 24–47. In the context of the end of perpetual copyright in 1774, Connell argues that widespread interest in (old) English literature led to a burgeoning concern for establishing and collecting the nation’s literary heritage. With this fashion for book collecting, Connell maintains that even an aristocrat’s library could be interpreted, ‘symbolically at least, as a national resource’ (p. 27).

7. Jane Moody, Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770–1840 (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), pp. 52–53. See also Jeffrey N. Cox’s ‘Ideology and Genre in the British Antirevolutionary Drama in the 1790s’, which investigates the conservative rewriting of pro-revolutionary drama after 1792—in British Romantic Drama: Historical and Critical Essays, edited by Terence Allan Hoagwood and Daniel P. Watkins (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Press, 1998), pp. 84–114. As Gillian Russell argues on the staging of the French wars on the London stage, English patriotism was determined as ‘a matter of how the wars affected and altered the textures of feeling, thought, and behaviour at this period and, in particular, how men and women perceived themselves as actors in the theatres of war’—The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793–1815 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 3. Regulating theatres and minimising their unseemly practices became important for deflecting the tyranny of France’s revolutionary terror. The playhouse as civic microcosm often captured the fantasy of the English uniting as a nation and served to correct or critique the public performances of politicians, theatre managers, and audiences. By the 1790s, however, minor forms of drama including melodrama, Gothic romance, and spectacular pantomime, which exhibited states of terror and embodied images of moral and political depravity in a more unmediated form than legitimate drama could accommodate, supplied the English Jacobins with a medium for delineating the passions and behaviors associated with the Revolution. See especially George Taylor, The French Revolution and the London Stage, 1789–1805 (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), and Jeffrey N. Cox’s Introduction to his edition of Seven Gothic Dramas, 1789–1825 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp. 1–77.

8. Of course, we must recognise the inherent danger in labelling Wordsworth and Coleridge as consistently ‘conservative voices,’ for it is well known that their political eclecticism facilitated their awareness of the limited place of state and cultural politics in the larger social systems of the nation.

9. In William Wordsworth, The Major Works, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p. 599.

10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), II, 189–90, original emphasis.

11. Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin, Memoirs of Charles Dibdin the Younger, edited by George Speaight (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1956), p. 89. According to David Mayer’s authoritative work on Joseph Grimaldi’s career as harlequin, between 1806 and 1836 pantomime provided a basic form on which the unlicensed theatres relied and was performed in the patent theatres for up to thirty nights per season. Mayer summarises the nature and appeal of the genre by suggesting that ‘the greatest of its faults was a refusal to discriminate between the worthy and the paltry’—Harlequin in his Element (Cambridge: CUP, 1969), p. 8. For the economic impact of pantomime on the licensed and unlicensed stages, see John Russell Stephens, The Profession of the Playwright: British Theatre, 1800–1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), which reveals that legitimate drama at Covent Garden made no profits during the second decade of the nineteenth century. Rather, the theatre was entirely dependent on the annual Christmas pantomime, whose average annual surplus amounted to £3,267 (p. 31).

12. The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by John Butt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), III, ll. 235–40.

13. An Impartial State of the Case of the French Comedians, Actors, Players, or Strollers, Who Lately Opened a Theatre at the Hay-Market (London: Shepey, Spavan, Myer & Woodfall, 1750), pp. 4–5.

14. The Dancers Damn’d; or, the Devil to Pay at the Old House (London: Griffiths, 1755), p. 6 (original emphasis). According to Stone and Kahrl, the rioters caused damage in arrears of 4,000 pounds and moved from the boundaries of the playhouse to smashing the windows at Garrick’s house in Southampton Street—David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), pp. 134–37.

15. Oliver Oldstock, ‘The Old School and the New’, The Cabinet; or, Monthly Report of Polite Literature (Jan 1808), 44.

16. Joseph Moser, ‘On the Dramatic Taste of the Age’, European Magazine (Oct 1799), 231.

17. Drawing from primary sources such as James Boaden’s Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble (1825) and John Doran’s Annals of the English Stage (1880), Marc Baer reveals that, although the interpretation is problematic, audiences in the pit interpreted plays as entertainment while the middle and upper ranks in the boxes and galleries interpreted plays as aural and visual representations of written texts. For an extensive review of primary sources detailing the class struggles pertaining to the patent and minor theatres—see his Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), esp. pp. 39–64.

18. See E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800 (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), pp. 133–55; James Watt, Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764–1832 (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), pp. 70–101; and Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), pp. 48–89, all on the Minerva Press and popular enthusiasm for gothic novels. Also see Paul Keen, The Crisis of Literature in the 1790s: Print Culture and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), which explores the anxieties over the reading habits of women, the lower orders, and colonial subjects and their participation in the exchange of rational ideas; and Jacqueline Pearson, Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750–1835: A Dangerous Recreation (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), pp. 71–77, which centres on the critical construction of the female reader and on women reading German and French novels. In The German Idea: Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought, 1800–1860 (Cambridge: CUP, 1980), Rosemary Ashton dates the total British rejection of Germany’s once-illustrious literary corpus as occurring around 1800, a time when stigmatised German drama transmitted a menacing moral influence more dangerous even than the political rhetoric of the French Revolutionary stage. Ashton adds that new enthusiasm for German literature slowly re-emerged in the 1810s with favourable receptions in England of Germaine de Staël’s De L’Allemagne in 1813 and with Wordsworth and Hazlitt’s enthusiasm for John Black’s translation of Schlegel’s Dramatic Lectures (1809–10) in 1815.

19. For more on the interactions between Schiller’s Die Räuber and English constructions of national identity, see Peter Mortensen’s ‘Robbing The Robbers: Schiller, Xenophobia and the Politics of British Romantic Translation’, Literature & History, 3rd ser. 11.1 (Spring 2002), 42–61.

20. See especially Julie A. Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (Cambridge: CUP, 1994). The association of Germany with political radicalism gradually peaked toward the end of the century as historians, legal commentators, and political philosophers debated over the impact of Germanic or Gothic institutions on the evolution of British political and legal structures. In the preface to his translation of Cornelius Tacitus’s Germania (1777), the dissenter John Aikins uncovers the myth of Gothic origins, fundamental to an emergent sense of British national distinctiveness, that ‘were to originate from the woods and deserts of Germany’. Likewise, Montesquieu asserts in Spirit of the Laws (1748, trans. 1750) that the English derived their idea of political government from Germany’s ‘harmony between the civil liberty of the people, the privileges of the nobility and clergy, and the prince’s prerogative’. Tacitus and Montesquieu excerpted in E. J. Clery and Robert Miles (eds), Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook, 1700–1820 (Manchester: MUP, 2000). Clery and Miles reveal that radical Whigs accepted Montesquieu’s allegation that the German spirit governing England’s laws was sparked by the principle of political liberty, which arose from the manners of the Gothic tribes, while conservative Whigs such as Burke underscored Montesquieu’s endorsement of the view that political liberty could arise only within the evolving framework of existing constitutional structures, such as the historic division between a hereditary nobility and commoners central to German’s government (pp. 61–64). But because a great deal of xenophobia emerged in the late 1790s amid war cries and social upheaval, it appears from the links between British and German political institutions that the dilemma for critics may have stemmed from similarities between British and German drama defined in terms of their deviation from the antiquated rules of French drama.

21. Henry Mackenzie, ‘Account of the German Theatre’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2 (1790), 169.

22. Ibid., p. 174. The link between Shakespeare, the Germans, and the middle and lower classes culminated in the Sturm und Drang dramatic movement, founded in democratic opinions, formal freedoms, the integration of the individual into a larger moral order, a revolt against the dramatic unities, and, in its wider context, against the domination of German taste over French classics. According to Alan C. Leidner’s introduction to his edition of Sturm und Drang: The Soldiers, The Childmurderess, Storm and Stress, and The Robbers (New York: Continuum, 1992), these writers beginning in the 1770s found a precursor in Shakespeare, ‘whose work seemed to be the essence of originality and emotional power. With its treatment of all classes of society, its colorful language, and its masterful character portrayal, Shakespearean drama was held up as the antidote to a tired eighteenth-century dramatic tradition’ (p. viii).

23. This criticism appeared in the 5 January 1817 issue of The Examiner. See Leigh Hunt, Leigh Hunt’s Dramatic Criticism, 1808–1831, edited by Lawrence Huston Houtchens and Carolyn Washburn Houtchens (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), p. 140.

24. Charles Wentworth Dilke (ed.), Old English Plays; Being a Selection from the Early Dramatic Writers, 6 vols (London: Martin, 1814–15), I, xi.

25. Walter Scott, ‘An Essay on the Drama’, Essays on Chivalry, Romance and the Drama (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1972), p. 392.

26. [Walter Scott], The Modern British Drama. In Five Volumes (London: Miller, 1811), V, iv–v.

27. J. C. Cross, Circusiana; or A Collection of the Most Favourite Ballets, Spectacles, Melo-Dramas, &c. Performed at the Royal Circus, St George’s Fields, 2 vols (London: Burton, 1809; rptd as The Dramatic Works of J. C. Cross [London: The Author, 1809]), I, vii.

28. John Galt (ed.), The New British Theatre; a Selection of Original Dramas, Not Yet Acted; Some of Which Have Been Offered for Representation but Not Accepted, with Critical Remarks by the Editor, 4 vols (London: Colburn, 1814), I, i. Hereafter referenced as NBT in the main body of this essay.

29. Galt dismissed many of his own tragedies, such as his adaptations of The Tragedies of Maddalen, Agamemnon, Lady Macbeth, Antonia & Clytemnestra (1812), as unperformable while lauding them as metaphysical, analytical, and philosophical triumphs. See John Galt, The Literary Life, and Miscellanies, of John Galt, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood; London: Cadell, 1834), I, 109–12. Scott likewise criticised them in a letter to Baillie as ‘the worst tragedies ever seen’—quoted in G. H. Needler, John Galt’s Dramas: A Brief Review (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1945), p. 26.

30. John Galt, The Autobiography of John Galt, 2 vols (London: Cochrane & M‘Crone, 1833), I, 263.

31. Ibid., I, 286.

32Among many interesting titles, see Toni Wein, British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms, and the Gothic Novel, 1764–1824 (New York: Palgrave, 2002); Suvir Kaul, Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000); and Matthew S. Buckley, Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

Checklist of Collections of Minor Drama, 1784–1815

[BELL, John (ed.)]
Supplement to Bell’s British Theatre, Consisting of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainments Now Performing on the British Stage.
London: Printed for John Bell, 1784–88.
6 vols.

A Collection of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainments Performed on the British Stage.
North-Shields: Printed by and for W. Thompson, 1786–87.
3 vols.

[CUMBERLAND, Richard (ed.)]
British Theatre: Adapted for Theatrical Representation as Performed at the Theatres-Royal, Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden, Regulated from the Prompt-Books by Permission of the Managers.
London: Printed for the Proprietors, under the direction of John Bell, 1791–99.
18 vols.

The Minor Theatre: Being a Collection of the Most Approved Farces, Operas, and Comedies, in One, Two, and Three Acts.
London: Printed by J. Jarvis for J. Parsons, 1793–94.
7 vols.

A Collection of Much-Esteemed Dramatic Pieces, as Performed at the Theatres Royal, Drury-Lane and Covent Garden.
London: Printed for J. Debrett, 1795.
2 vols.

[BAILLIE, Joanna]
A Series of Plays: In Which It Is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions of the Mind. Each Passion Being the Subject of a Tragedy and a Comedy.
London: Printed for T. Cadell, Jr., and W. Davies, 1798–1812.
3 vols.
*Vol. 1 1798, vol. 2 1802, vol. 3 1812.
Further edns: 2nd edn 1798, 3rd edn 1800, 4th edn 1802, 5th edn 1806.

[BAILLIE, Joanna]
Miscellaneous Plays.
London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1804.
*Further edns: 2nd edn 1805; rptd 3 vols, 1836.

[SCOTT, Walter (ed.)]
The British Drama; Comprehending the Best Plays in the English Language.
London: Printed by William Miller by James Ballantyne, 1804.
3 vols.

[INCHBALD, Elizabeth (ed.)]
The British Theatre; or, A Collection of Plays, Which Are Acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket.
London: Printed for Longman & Co., 1808.
25 vols.

[CROSS, J. C.]
Circusiana; or a Collection of the Most Favourite Ballets, Spectacles, Melo-Dramas, &c. Performed at the Royal Circus, St George’s Fields.
London: Printed for the Author, 1809.
2 vols.

[INCHBALD, Elizabeth (ed.)]
A Collection of Farces.
London: Printed for Longman & Co., 1809.
7 vols.

[INCHBALD, Elizabeth (ed.)]
The Modern Theatre.
London: Printed for Longman & Co., 1809.
10 vols.

[SCOTT, Walter (ed.)]
The Modern British Drama. In Five Volumes.
London: Printed for William Miller, 1811.
5 vols.

[GALT, John (ed.)]
The New British Theatre; a Selection of Original Dramas, Not Yet Acted; Some of Which Have Been Offered for Representation but not Accepted, with Critical Remarks by the Editor.
London: Printed for the Proprietors by A. J. Valpy, Published by Henry Colburn, 1814.
4 vols.

[DIBDIN, Thomas (ed.)]
The London Theatre. A Collection of the Most Celebrated Dramatic Pieces. Correctly Given, from Copies Used in the Theatres.
London: Printed for Whittingham and Arliss, 1815–18.
26 vols.