Restoration through Romanticism (late 17th century, 18th century, & 19th century)
Restoration (England) late 17th century
The Restoration is a historical period that specifically applies to England. In the latter part of the 17th century, England restored its monarchy when, in 1660, Parliament recalled the son of the previous king, Charles I, back from exile in France and invited him to resume the monarchy that had not existed in England for 11 years. Parliament had deposed, tried for treason, and executed King Charles I in 1649. In the interregnum (between kings) period, the country was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, who had been the leading general of the Puritan Army that overthrew the King in the Civil War. He ruled until his death, in 1659, as the Lord Protector of England. Even though the purpose of the interregnum was to get rid of hereditary rule in England, Oliver Cromwell’s son was selected s his successor. Where Oliver Cromwell had been a fairly effective leader, his son was incompetent. So, just about a year after the son took over, Parliament decided that having an incompetent leader was not a good thing! After 11 years of not having a king, Parliament realized that the monarchy had not been so bad, and invited Charles I’s son to come back and restore the kingship, and he accepted and became Charles II.
As a result of the restoration of the monarchy, the last part of the 17th century saw marked changes in theatre in England. When Charles II took the throne, he was instrumental in returning theatre to England (it had been abolished by the Puritan-dominated Parliament in 1642). His time in exile in France allowed him to grow up viewing French Neo-classical theatre, and that experience influenced what theatre in England became during the restoration.
Significant influence of French theatre
One notable way that theatre was influenced was in the types of plays that were written during this time. Moliere and other French playwrights had a huge influence over the plays being written in Restoration England. One development was the English Comedy of Manners. This was a style, as discussed in the previous supplement on Genres, that looked at the foibles and shortcomings of the upper classes through the eyes of the lower classes. It often satirized the excesses and eccentricities of the upper classes. It was often filled with witty dialogue and sexual innuendo.
Other important elements of Restoration Theatre (in England)
Part of the influence of French theatre in England included an increased role for women. Female playwrights, as in France, were allowed to write and publish plays. Some chose to write under male pseudonyms to increase the possibility of publication and performance, but others circulated their scripts privately. In addition, women were finally allowed to perform on the English stage. Women’s roles were played by women, based in large part on the influence that Charles II had on Parliament, and the influence one of his mistresses, who wanted to act on stage, had on him!
Play-going, in England, became even more of an “event” that the well-to-do sought the opportunities to “see and be seen” in a social environment. Often, it was as if there was a social event at which a play just happened to be performed!
There was also a shift in the way theatre companies were formed. In contrast to the Renaissance practice of patrons and share-holder companies, there was an increase in contract performers, where actors would be hired for a season or a specific play.
Since most of the theatres, particularly the public theatres of the Elizabethan age had been torn down or permanently repurposed, new theatres were built. Here, again, the French influence was felt in England. Many of the Renaissance Theatres being built in France in the late 1600 were used as models for similar new construction in England. English theatres were purpose built along the lines of the Neo-Classical theatres in France, and included a fusion of the elements of Italian scenery, French amphitheater style seating, the English “pit” for standing room, and the Proscenium Arch.
18th Century (Europe & England)
After the Restoration in England, the theatres there were on a par with those in the rest of Europe, and the remainder of the development (post-Renaissance) that will be discussed will be representative of all European theatre, including England.
The 18th century was a time of transition. Improvements in transportation and expanded markets across the globe resulted in a significant increase in trade and manufacture. Not only in the world of goods and services, but also in the world of ideas, this time was a period of expansion, an outward looking period. The growth of Humanism had created an awareness of social issues that had never been heard of outside of the Church and its focus on religious issues. However, now the exploration of human traits and the thinking about thinking that was becoming common, the ideas about social circumstances, politics, and even religion took new turns. This is the beginning of what came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment, a period when scholars, politicians, and thinkers of every type began to question the way things had been done for thousands of years.
The 18th century was also a century of wars. Some of the more significant ones are the American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleon, and the War of 1812. Most of these wars were results of new ways of thinking about how people rule and are ruled. Most, in fact, were fought to either throw off a tyrannical monarchy, or to restore one. All in all, this was a century of ideas and expansion.
In the arts, things were also expanding and become more and more exaggerated and extravagant. So much so, in fact, that one of the major movements in the arts in this century is called the Baroque. This style was a very ornate artistic style, meant to explore the extremes of everything: detail, color, ornamentation, and even movement. Baroque style, though begun in the other areas of artistic expression and architecture, also found its way into theatre scenery and design.
18th Century Theatre
The 18th century theatre was just as expansive as the rest of society. A number of new forms of theatre emerged. They were generic labels that tried to better define what was being written by many new playwrights. We covered the ideas of most of these when we explored the genres of theatre earlier in the course. Among these new styles were the following:
“Drama,” based on the French word drame (pronounced= “drahm”). It was a serious play that was not quite tragedy.
Bourgeois tragedy and Domestic Tragedy – dramatic version of the Roman New Comedy – a domestic focus with a look at the serious issues of common people.
Ballad Opera grew out of the Italian Renaissance creation, Opera, but instead of being all sung, it was a play that instead of having everything set to music, would draw on the popular songs of the day and work them into stories told on stage.
Sentimental Comedy grew out of the medieval tradition of the Morality play, but instead of looking at the church doctrine for achieving salvation, these plays emphasized right-living, or morality, in everyday life. They often showed the rewards of living within the social conventions of the day.
“Sturm und Drang” is a new German development based on the humanism in Shakespeare’s dramatic style. It means “storm and stress” and it looked at the emotional motivations that the characters were facing in the conflicts they encountered in the play. This genre led to what developed into Romanticism in the 19th century.
There were also changes in Italian Commedia delle’Art. These changes were essentially toward the extremes of realism and fantasy. As mainstream theatre began to take on the romantic story telling that had originally been the purview of the Commedia, the commedia shifted to different focus ideas.
In the 18th century, most governments and even to some extent the church continued to try and regulate/censor popular theatre. However, as both of those institutions were being lessened in social significance, their reach into theatre was limited. As a result, theatre grew in popularity. Theatre spaces grew in size to accommodate the increase in audiences. This meant bigger auditoriums that seated more people, though they still accommodated standing audiences, there was a growth in the comfort of the theatres. In addition, playing spaces (the stages themselves) got roomier to allow for more scenery and machinery.
The Italians introduced “angle perspective” and “multipoint perspective.” These were developments in the artistic creations, and they found their way into the theatrical scenery. It was an advance on the use of one-point perspective scenery in the Renaissance. The use of multiple vanishing points gives scenery the appearance of vanishing at a great distance and give the impression of an even larger space being suggested by the scenery. This grew out of the idea that plays were reflective of the larger world, and as a result, they were depicted as to be a piece of that larger world. The multipoint perspective allowed the observer to see that the action was part of a scene that continued into the world across the entire horizon.
There were some other new elements developed to use with stage scenery. All of these were developed to allow more versatility in scenery and to help create the sense that the play fit into the larger world. They included the following:
Curtains – were used to block sightlines at the top and sides of the stage, especially once sets were being built on the stage and not using the entire performing space as the scene.
Drops – instead of painting hard scenery elements, scenes would be painted on canvas or other fabric and then lowered onto the stage, and raised when the scene was finished, to speed up scene changes.
Ground rows – a low piece of scenery that would allow actors to be scene behind it while other actors could be in front of it (such as a fence or a line of shrubs) to build the sense of three-dimensionality in settings.
Rolled backdrops – these were drops that instead of being lowered into the scene would be rolled side to side, sometimes in a continuous loop to give a sense of travel or greater movement than the stage itself would allow.
Free standing scene elements – instead of having scenery elements only at the sides and back of the performing space, free-standing elements that the actors would walk all the way around, if needed, would also give a sense of three dimensions to the scenery.
Some other elements that were introduced into scenery usage in the 18th century include the following:
Box sets were introduced. These are sets that include a nearly enclosed room built on the stage with all of the walls except the one facing the audience (this is where the “fourth wall” convention got its name).
This is also the time frame when stage lighting was developed. Most lighting up until this period had been sun light or candlelight. However, the use of oil lamps allowed for some degree of control over the light that an instrument gave off. By using reflectors and wick adjustments, oil lamps could be dimmed and the light could be directed in a rudimentary way. Gas lamps were an improvement of oil lamps, as they were even more controllable.
18th Century Acting
In the 18th century, the popularity of theatre was such that individual actors were often very popular. This popularity resulted in the development of star actors. Stars were born! Yes, even then, people would go to the theatre to see a favorite actor perform, and not just to see the pay (or to see and be seen!)
Acting itself started to develop a little further than it had in the Renaissance. However, though it drew on the ideas of verisimilitude, it was NOT realistic by a modern sense at all. It was quite bombastic, over the top acting, using stock gestures and movements to create the sense of an emotional moment. We would call it “overacting” today.
The Director comes into being
This is also the period of time that the idea of a director, separate from the leading actor or playwright, was developed. The influence of George III, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, was covered in the earlier supplement on Directing in the Theatre, so it won’t be covered again here.
19th century (Europe & America)
By the time the 19th century rolled around, the world was moving rapidly into the Industrial Revolution. Agriculture had previously been the primary use of land and resources, even during the early decades of trade and merchandising development. However, the demand for product and natural resources was booming, and the cultures of Europe, and now America, were trying to keep up with the rapid rate of change.
This was a period of social change. In addition to the Industrial Revolution, there was an increase of scientific enquiry and technical development. The Age of Enlightenment had opened up a whole new path toward understanding the world. It was in the 19th century that the world was introduced to Steam powered industry, improved Transportation (trains, steam ships, etc), and faster communications – the Telegraph.
As the world was increasing in trade, the differences in cultures and peoples around the world began to be readily seen. Whereas prior to the later part of the 18th century, most people never travelled much more than 60 miles from where they were born, in the 19th century, new ideas and products, and information began to be readily available from the increases in transportation that exploration was not just the purview of adventurers anymore. This awareness of different cultures led to a rise in nationalism. People clung to those who were like them in language and culture and physical proximity. Nationalism was a way to differentiate between “us” and “them” on a wider – world-wide scale.
The growth of scientific thinking and examining the world led to numerous intellectual advances. Theories that challenged millennia old beliefs came to the foreground, such as the Theory of Evolution and the socio-economic ideas challenged by the Theory of Communism and the apparent successes of Republicanism and Democracy.
19th Century American entertainment
Our focus in the remainder of this supplement will be on American entertainment. It was in the 19th century that the American forms and styles of entertainment, which reflected the new open and adventurous American spirit emerged and developed their own styles different from their European theatrical and entertainment heritage, though many of those older influences can still be seen beneath the surface.
A classic American development that grew out of the vast distances that the new landscape covered, was the traveling entertainer. This wasn’t new, since it had been common in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and later. However, the American developments included variety shows, burlesque, minstrel shows, circuses, wild west shows, and medicine shows.
The development of localized centers of commerce and culture (i.e. towns) meant that though they were far apart, the desire and need for entertainment created a demand for spaces that would cater to entertainment. Often these were associated with saloons, though not always. There were dance halls and playhouses built for local talent and to accommodate traveling entertainers from larger towns and cities. An early form of entertainment was vaudeville. It was essentially a series of variety acts that mixed different kinds of entertainment to appeal to a broad cross section of the population in an area.
19th century theatre concepts
There are a couple of general concepts in theatre that developed in the 19th century. The first one is named for an entire artistic movement: Romanticism. This movement, or style in theatre, grew out of German “Sturm und Drang” of the 18th century, which in turn was based in the Humanism of Shakespeare in the late Renaissance. Essentially, Romanticism is focused on the emotions and motivations of the characters instead of action. That is, instead of seeing a lot of things happen in a play, the audience observes how the characters feel and react to the circumstances they encounter. This places the Romantic movement at the heart of the shift from “what happens” in a play to the “why” the action happens.
Another style, or genre, that developed in the 19th century is Melodrama. We explored what the characteristics of Melodrama are in the Genre supplement to the course. Remember that it based on the French concept of “melody drama” where music was used during a play to cue the audience to the emotional content of the play. It is still used to a very large extent in our modern movies and television shows.
In the Romantic period in theatre, a concept was developed (out of the Neo-classical ideals of the Renaissance as modified by the developments of the 18th century) that described the basic sort of play structure. If you recall from the Supplement on the Play and the Playwright, we examined a play’s structure. The simple Introduction-Rising Action/Conflict-Climax-Falling Action/Denouement-Resolution structure came to be known in the 19th century as the “Well-made Play.”
Unlike earlier dramatic criticism, the idea of the Well-Made Play was not a tool to determine if a play was acceptable or not. It just became a guiding principle for play development. If a play varied from this structure, it wasn’t condemned or prohibited from production, but it did often suffer from bad reviews.
19th Century acting & directing
Along with the idea of the well-made play, the 19th century saw a change in basic acting style. Once again, building on the ideas of verisimilitude and the changes of the 18th century, acting became somewhat more natural. The bombastic over-acting that was considered good in the 18th century was gone, but there were still elements in the 19th century that would not sit very well with modern audiences. For example, a star performer would often be positioned directly downstage center and the other characters would move beside the star to perform a scene, and then retreat into the background to let the star stay centered and most important.
This is especially true since this was till a time of “stars” in the theatre. In many ways, they were the precursors to our modern movie stars and rock stars. They would often develop huge supporting groups of fans who would flock to and fill a theatre just to see the star or get an autograph. Imagine every performance being a red-carpet event (like a modern opening night celebration) but only for the star, and you start to get the picture of what these stars would be like in the 19th century.
The Repertory style of scheduling plays that the French National Theatre made routine, started to spread across many large theatres in large cities throughout America and Europe. So too did the idea of Touring companies. These large shows would often travel around the country stopping in smaller cities and towns for a few nights to share big-city plays with audiences who otherwise would not be able to ever see something like that. This was a mostly American development, but it did spread back to Europe on a somewhat more limited scale since the distances between cities and towns in Europe was significantly less than it was in America.
The last significant development that theatre saw in the 19th century was the return of Performer-Managers/Directors. Stars would often take charge of their own shows, if not an entire theatre (as part owner, usually) and manage the performances. However, this return of performer/managers-directors did not replace the separate Director that had developed in the 18th century. Instead, it supplemented that new role, but allowed the really big stars to have an input in their own performances and the shows they appeared in.