Reflecting the Audience: Review Notes

5 Sep

In Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840-1880, Jim Davis and Victor Emiljanow attack the idea that only the great unwashed went to the theatre in the Victorian East End.

This is obviously something of a crusade for them. After all, a barrage of snobbishly exoticised accounts of the East End theatre were produced by West End critics from the mid-Victorian era. Most implied that the only people who went to such places were fish-reeking thieves and prostitutes – people who spent their whole time throwing things at the stage or at other people in the auditorium. This incenses Davis and Emiljanow (and rightly so), especially since so many later historians have accepted the fascinated revulsion or outright dismissiveness of affluent critics towards audiences of eastside theatres.

To counter these prejudices, Reflecting the Audience presents detailed census data and evidence from local newspapers to show that the neighbourhoods in which East End theatres were located had a considerable amount of social diversity in the mid-Victorian years. Skilled tradespeople and successful retailers went to theatres such as the Britannia and the Pavilion. So did respectable people from further afield (for example, from London’s north). Davis and Emiljanow also suggest that even those audience members who fit the description of the ‘great unwashed’ were largely orderly during East End performances. The idea that they just went along to be unruly is incorrect.

All of this is important to hear. Having just listened to a few presentations on Victorian theatregoing at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference, in which East End theatres didn’t rate a mention, and those speaking still felt the need to argue for the need for theatre historians to take melodrama seriously, what Reflecting the Audience has to say obviously needs to be said. But the constant insistence that East End theatres are worthy of serious historical attention becomes over-emphatic and repetitive after a while. I would have preferred if Davis and Emiljanow had spent more time simply demonstrating the character of East End theatregoing and its significance in local neighbourhoods, rather than feeling that they had to make a special pleading for it. And I was also unsettled by their implication that East End theatres are worthy of theatrical scholarship because they attracted respectable or orderly people, not just prostitutes and thieves. There is more than a whiff of a Victorian social reform agenda about this. It’s as if they are saying ‘look, these people are more like us than we realised, and thus deserving of our notice’. Wouldn’t they be deserving of attention anyway?

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