RUSKIN, THE THEATRE AND VICTORIAN VISUAL CULTURE by Anselm Heinrich, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards, eds., Reviewed by Martin Meisel
 

RUSKIN, THE THEATRE AND VICTORIAN VISUAL CULTURE
Eds. Anselm Heinrich, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) xiv + 242 pp.
Reviewed by Martin Meisel on 2009-09-01.

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The essays collected here came out of one of several colloquia, part of an unlikely project at Lancaster University called, "Ruskinian Theatre: The Aesthetics of the Late Nineteenth Century Popular London Stage." About half the essays directly engage "Ruskin and the Theatre" (under that rubric), while the rest take a broader view of "The Theatre and the Visual Arts" in the period, with only an occasional nod to Ruskin. As is common in such a collection, the quality and interest vary, but the general level is more than respectable, and a number of essays stand out. The project can be called "unlikely" because until recently no one would have thought there was much nourishment to be found in the confluence of Ruskin and the stage, or much sense in labeling the late nineteenth-century popular theater as "Ruskinian." But Sharon Aronofsky Weltman changed all that with Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science and Education (2007), and at least four of the essays acknowledge her lead. Trouble is, Aronofsky Weltman may have extracted most of the real juice. Certainly some of the essays-trying to show how Ruskin may (or may not) have been targeted by some of the Savoy operas as an index of his popular currency, or excoriating editors and critics for their neglect of Ruskin's ambivalent (or even duplicitous) treatment of Browning's poems-suggest diminishing returns. And indeed, one uninhibited contributor and doyen of nineteenth-century theater studies, David Mayer, while acknowledging "a considerable theatrical and artistic aesthetic" driving developments as the century progressed, roundly declares, "but I think it does a disservice to a generation of stage directors and designers to call this aesthetic Ruskinian or to force a linkage with Ruskin" (156).

            The agenda that drives the collection, as articulated in Katherine Newey's introductory essay on "Speaking Pictures," is to explore the intersections implied in the title, with the inevitable addition of the written word, wherein lies all that makes Ruskin great. But the editors also aim to "challenge conventional theatre and art historic narratives," thereby displacing-or transcending--an earlier template that alleged "the inevitable replacement of theatre by film as the popular medium and powerful aesthetic force in the twentieth century." This is tagged as a replay of the "more general historiographic narrative of Modernism, which characterizes late nineteenth century culture as a worked out and exhausted aesthetic " (9). (Though Newey tactfully implies that I for one have embraced that characterization, I am happy to repudiate such notions, and would claim instead, as far as theater and film go, an evolving continuity, not least by way of what David Mayer calls "the necessary plasticity of the stage" [156]. It is worth noting that three of the five essays in the "Theatre and the Visual Arts" section make a point of the bridge to-not displacement by-film).

            Among the more rewarding explorations, Jeffrey Richards traces a line of theatrical events that reflect a convergence of university influences-where Ruskin was still in the air --with an impetus from Victorian Classicism, most pertinently in painting. Out of it came Frank Benson's pioneering student production of Agamemnon at Oxford in 1880 (leading eventually to Benson's remarkable managerial career), the Oxford Union Dramatic Society (O.U.D.S.) Julius Caesar in 1889 with Alma Tadema designs, an Oresteia involving Walter Crane and Edward Poynter , charity tableaux, and E. W. Godwin's notable production of John Todhunter's unfortunate Helena in Troas, using Parthenon frieze attitudes. Richards foregrounds the tension between formalist aestheticism, as articulated by Poynter among others, and Ruskinian views on the stage and moral content; and he makes much of how both Olympian painting and the theater it influenced reinforced Ruskin's reductive set of female archetypes.

The motif of Ruskin's attitudes to women is further developed by Rachel Dickinson, who probes the theatrical manifestations of his desire to renew and encourage that "innocence of the eye" which allows one to see truly. She links this desire to Ruskin's appetite for the kind of theater that appealed to children: theater with no moral ambiguity (as he thought), such as pantomime, the Christy Minstrels, the circus. Dickinson suggests that the innocence of the eye Ruskin sought, he associated with a "feminized" and infantilized innocence, and accordingly he loved taking what the Victorians called young persons (girls) to such theater, to enjoy their enjoyment. There is a great Ruskin and a little Ruskin (here represented by his baby-talk letters and the lamer aspects of his "feminized ideals"), and his admirers would sometimes do better to take the wheat and leave the chaff. Nevertheless, we learn something here about Ruskin's capacity for childlike delight along with his yearnings for moral clarity, and something about the ethos of the forms he relished, despite his arrested sense of their simplicity, and that of their ideal beholders.

            The moral issue resurfaces in Andrew Leng's revisionist assault on the cover-up concerning Ruskin's duplicitous, if back-handed, public endorsement of Browning's dramatic monologues, which he then undermined in his private criticism. What I find significant in all of this is less Ruskin's behavior than his deep-seated resistance to poetry as impersonation and self-occlusion. Here, I suspect, he transfers the traditional evangelical horror of acting and the stage to an art with a higher claim to sincerity, and does so in spite of his earlier challenge to the traditional suspicions during student debates in the Oxford Union, as noted in Heinrich's essay (97-8). For if in fact it was the true mission of art to elevate the life of man on a broad front, and refine the moral sense, then it was doubly culpable for Browning to bury his authentic voice in such unworthy subjects-corrupt churchmen, spiritual charlatans, murderous aesthetes-especially when he had available such burning topics as war, poverty, and the rest. Underlying all, as Leng argues, is a contest for critical authority. Because Leng can muster considerable outrage towards both Ruskin and the lazy or complicitous editors of Browning, he occasionally over-reads Ruskin. In "Mr. Sludge, 'The Medium,' " for instance, the "it" that Ruskin calls "disgusting" and associates with water closets and "corporeal dejection" in a letter to Browning is not (as I read it) the poem itself, as Leng suggests, but rather Browning's subject . (The name "Sludge" most likely gave Ruskin a lead.) And it takes some tortuous reasoning on Leng's part, involving recent legislation on obscenity, to conclude that Ruskin "effectively criminalized Browning" (85). But then again, with Leng as with Ruskin, a modicum of intemperate passion here and there can make up for a muckle of blandness in the universe elsewhere.

          Turning from Browning's dramatic monologues back to the stage itself, Anselm Heinrich traces Ruskin's contribution to the long history of frustration and fulfillment in the creation of England's National Theatre. Noting Ruskin's pleasure in the theatre, his lifelong immersion in Shakespeare, and his enthusiasms for Wilson Barrett and the "Toga Play" (complementing Richards' essay on Ruskin and the Olympians), Heinrich argues that Ruskin's latent influence percolated through Gladstone, Irving, Barker, Shaw, and Henry Arthur Jones. Through them, we are told, it contributed to the eventual establishment of the National Theatre as-in the Ruskinian language of the presiding Lord Chancellor at its creation-"a real contribution to the idea of a people's civilisation" (107). But can we therefore-as in Heinrich' summation-"justifiably include the National Theatre idea in Ruskin's legacy-alongside the National Trust, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Labour Movement" (108)? I am reminded of the exchange at the end of Shaw's John Bull's Other Island, where God's Englishman, John Broadbent, praises the visionary Father Keegan as "almost equal to Ruskin and Carlyle." Doyle, the Irishman, scoffs: "and much good they did with all their talk!" to which Broadbent replies, "Oh, tut, tut, Larry! They improved my mind: they raised my tone enormously"-and heads off to choose the site for development of a tourist Mecca.

          Andrew Tate makes the case for the neglected importance of Molière's comedy and French culture in general in Ruskin's thought and feeling. He also touches on the paradox of Ruskin's associations with the birth of socialism in England, in the light of his non-egalitarian sentimental ruralism, reflected in the program of The Guild of St. George, and his endorsement of the redemption of Molière's Alceste among the contented pastoralists in Marmontel's saccharine Contes moreaux (118, 125). But it is especially Molière's Misanthrope and Tartuffe that evoked Ruskin's enthusiasm and claimed his attention, and Tate's close attention as well. The Misanthrope is great because, among other things, it is not easy to construe, and Molière leaves room for sneaking sympathies and unprogrammed responses in the contest between honesty and civility, which only became richer with the changing times. So Ruskin celebrates in The Misanthrope "what he improbably describes as 'the first Wordsworthian poem'." This is the "vieille chanson" that Alceste hurls at the head of the egregious Oronte's conventional courtly exercise. Forgoing wit and innuendo and paradox, the singer in the old song unaffectedly declares that he wouldn't trade his love for the whole of Paris, because "J'aime mieux ma mie"--I like my sweetheart better. Ruskin misreads what Molière was up to with the line, especially as Alceste gives fanatical repetition to the whole poem. And it would have been interesting for Tate to read the misreading. Tate makes the pitch—a little puzzling—for a higher estimate of Molière (is he not already, very properly, stratospheric?), and points to a continuing "profound and largely unconscious anxiety about French culture in the contemporary Anglophone imagination," an anxiety he discerns in Ruskin "and his fellow monarchists" in the 19th century (129). Truth to tell, it is easier to discern a reverse tendency this side of the water. But be that as it may, Tate also draws an amusing parallel: the summoning of Alceste before the tribunal of marshals for his insulting criticism of Oronte anticipates he comedy of Whistler vs. Ruskin, which is enough in itself to make a reader Francophile.

            Janice Norwood, opening Part Two, brings us back from France to the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton. There she finds, in the particulars of its repertory, matters exemplary of visual culture in the wider field of popular theater. Seeking to measure large trends by contrasting the Britannia's mid-century and end of century offerings, she also spotlights a major house playwright, C. H. Hazlewood, who had 201 of his plays first performed at the Britannia. Norwood establishes Hazlewood as a major contributor to the contemporary alignment of the pictorial and dramatic imagination in the theater, and as a systematic fabricator of pictorial "realizations." Recognizable realizations were a regular part of his method, even of his inspiration, and indicate a ready collaboration with an alert and receptive audience and a shrewd and efficient management. Norwood gives a thorough sense, not only of the Britannia's repertory, but of the array of sources, literary and other, that provided the grist for Hazlewood's mill. She also seeks to explain the decline in pictorial realizations in the eighties and nineties. Among a spate of influences in the changing milieu-probably all of them relevant-she mentions the Olympian and mythological turn in painting (Poynter, Watts, Burne-Jones), but wonders why the nearly contemporary strain of social realism (Holl, Fildes, Herkomer) could not have received "the Hazlewood-type treatment" (141). In fact, to a degree, it did. Fildes' notable Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874, but based on his 1869 engraving for The Graphic, "Houseless and Hungry"), which Norwood calls "an obvious candidate" (152n), appeared in G. R. Sims's The Lights o' London (1881) at the Princess's Theatre (as noted in Mayer's essay and elsewhere), and so did Frederick Barnard's lost Saturday Night in the East End (1878). (See Meisel, Realizations). Interestingly, Norwood points out that Hazlewood's play of 1866, The Casual Ward, "included a realistic portrayal of 'Shoreditch on a Saturday Night' complete with street vendors and market stalls" (153n), thus anticipating both the Fildes and Barnard paintings, as well as the Sims play that brought them together. Norwood's is a rich and valuable piece of scholarship, thoroughly researched, but perhaps less sure-footed when it comes to generalized explanations of cultural change-shifts in taste and practice. But then, too much self-assurance on such matters is usually a mistake. In concluding her account of change, Norwood more or less adopts Gertrude Himmelfarb's blanket thesis on "the Democratization of culture." Yet there is an equally good argument to be made for the stratification of what before had been a more promiscuous cultural space, where "high" and "low" often met and shared their pleasures, before the hiving off of coterie art and entertainment,.

            From a close look at the use of supernumeraries on the late Victorian stage--that is, the marshalling of crowds-- David Mayer extracts a whole developmental history, indeed, "a hidden history." As one might expect, he identifies as a transforming event the visit of the Meiningers in 1881, though he gives due credit to Charles Kean's earlier hordes in procession (still in a painted environment, and pictorially deployed), and he might have looked even further back to Macready. With the visit of the Theater Duke's company, however, came a new plasticity, and an unexampled degree of drilled and organized realism. Mayer discerns an immediate impact, as for example on Wilson Barrett's staging of the crowd scenes in The Lights o' London. (He notes that D. W. Griffith toured in this play and later parodied Fildes' Casual Ward in his 1909 Biograph film, A Corner in Wheat. Similarly, he links the "supernumerary-work" in his Orphans of the Storm [1922] to Griffith's encounter with Irving's production of Robespierre.) Mayer has written on the development of the great theater machines in the form of spectacular melodrama towards the end of the century and into the next, and he here underlines the advent of organized travel, replication, and market efficiency in mustering labor. With such things in mind, he pillories Ruskin's blindness to the industrialization of the stage, particularly in the manufacture of illusion (165). Irving, on the other hand, he credits as "surely the most consistent, extravagant, and artful theatrical user of supers" (162); witness his 1888 Macbeth, with its impression of accumulating hordes of semi-barbarian warriors, and its great battle scene that extended, in its clash and rush, far offstage (162). Nevertheless, for all his well-oiled machinery of management and gesamtkunstwerk achievements, Irving was a notorious Luddite when it came to technology. Rather than accept the glaring advantages of electricity, he clung to the familiarity and warmth of gas lighting, and also to labor-intensive rather than machine-efficient stage operations. And, at the height of his achievement, he turned from spatial forms of "plasticity" to atmosphere, paint, and chiaroscuro.

           He did so, memorably, in his signature production of The Merchant of Venice, one of the exhibits in Richard Foulkes's essay on Victorian stagings of the play. With his customary verve and authority, Foulkes identifies Macready's production of The Merchant in 1841-with its appealing combination of beauty and a claim to historical accuracy-as "the foundation of the play's popularity over the ensuing decades" (171). He also credits the publication of Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (1851-53) with a flurry of revivals, including Charles Kean's, "the most sumptuous and scholarly" of them all, in 1858. Though the evidence for such causation is rather thin, Ruskin's monumental exploration may well have given additional stimulus to the inveterate British love affair with Venice and reinforced Kean's major stock in trade, lavish archaeological authenticity. Ruskin's model may even have made almost obligatory the managerial site visits--for ambiance, but especially for the selection of appropriate locales. Foulkes documents in engaging detail the visits and production decisions of Kean, Charles Calvert, and the Bancrofts. He makes much, as did they, of the varying choices of a suitable chamber in the lavish Palazzo Ducale for the trial scene. Foulkes is especially full and interesting on Calvert's preparations for and production of The Merchant in Manchester (1871), a huge success with a sympathetic Shylock-a precursor to Irving's-which might have had a special resonance in that bustling Second City. It also featured a genuine gondola, one long in service, which Calvert had purchased and brought back from Venice, to have it magically float from the scene. (One can't help remembering Crummles.) Irving's Merchant , which opened in 1879 and thereafter stayed long in his repertory, was in many ways a radical departure, not least for its atmospheric scenery, painted and painterly rather than archaeologically correct, and completed in a mere three weeks. Moreover, it took its inspiration not from the stones of Venice but from the ports of Morocco and the Levant, not from architecture but from costume. Bram Stoker reports that Irving told him, "When I saw the Jew in his own dress, Shylock became a different creature. I began to understand him; and now I want to play the part" (182).

            Irving's features, with Ellen Terry's, loom in Shearer West's lively account of their portraiture in photographs, for which of course there was a considerable market in an expanding celebrity culture. Operating at a high level of cultural and cognitive criticism, West situates her subject between the symbolic figuration of Reynolds' Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse and Warhol's Marilyn Monroe(s). The photographic imagery of Terry and Irving, however, is in itself somewhat disappointing (in some cases perhaps over-familiar), for the liveliest, most character-rich portrait of all those reproduced here is that of Bernard Shaw. By Ruskin's criteria for portraiture (he saw photography as merely utilitarian), it manages to show some soul. Also genuinely interesting is the virtual snapshot of Irving, Stoker, and some passers by at the stage door, heading for a cab. West gives us the opportunity to compare Sargent's famous painting of the brilliantly costumed Terry as Lady Macbeth with a photograph of Terry by William Henry Grove of nearly the same date, in the same costume, and at a histrionic moment of dark suspicion or intent. Though West calls attention to "what the absence of colour can do to drain the power from an image" (203), both images are actually reproduced here in black and white, and the significant difference lies in pose, draping, elongation, gesture, and expression. In the painting, the proportion of head to body is about 1: 10; in the photograph, more like 1: 7.5. One other point may be questioned as well. While pursuing the uses of photography, West treats the correspondence between Terry and Shaw (who carefully avoided meeting) as a "lengthy and often salacious epistolary romance" (207) wherein photographs of Terry (encountered in a shop window) operated "semi-pornographically." I think this badly mischaracterizes both the game these two skilled performers were playing and its deeper psychological underpinnings.

            Finally, Jim Davis (in something like a concluding Satyr play) takes up "Representing the Victorian Stage through Cartoon and Caricature." But it is as critique rather than as representation that he finds the materials most useful, in a field rife with pitfalls and complications. For one thing, there is a bias in what is most readily available-Punch with its class-conscious snobberies, for example. There is also an evolution, from Georgian savagery to Victorian gentility, and shifts in the (increasing) dependency on text. Besides noting these complications, Davis also takes note of the use of theater as metaphor in political cartoons like those of Tenniel, and examines the cartoon or caricature as theatrical portraiture. (While it could be cruel or reductive in representing a quirky elevated tragedian like Irving, it could also be friendly and celebrative with a favorite comedian like Toole.) Among the most interesting of Davis's examples is the Judy cartoon of 1869 that also embellishes the boards of this volume. Called "The Stalls and the Stage," it shows dancers in the corps de ballet of a Fairy Play, Pantomime, or Extravaganza in tights and abbreviated skirts (modest to our eye), while in the stalls a scandalized lady-like others, displaying much back and décolletage-is being cloaked by her escort for departure. The image (which in fact speaks for itself) is accompanied by verses, "The humble apology of Grace Tarleton, a poor ballet girl," an appealing defense of working in what is in effect a hard, poorly-paid, honest profession, subject to the whims of management and audience. But Grace's "apology"carries a sting in its tail:

Why should to dance, for bread, 'in tights'

So scandalize beholders

Who vie, from choice, in showing off

A great deal more than shoulders. (225)

The editors are to be complimented for their artfulness in placing this essay just before the curtain. Apart from being informative, engaging, and thought-provoking, it serves as an effective plaudite, virtually forestalling an attitude of severity towards this somewhat unruly but on the whole valuable book.

 

Martin Meisel is Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature, Emeritus at Columbia University. His books include Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (1983).


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