On humbug and historians

12 Sep

Is it possible, do you think, for a middle-class historian to research past working-class entertainments without hypocrisy?

My immediate reaction to accounts of such entertainments is almost always a defensive one. I would defy any leftish-leaning reader, in fact, not to feel a sense of injustice when encountering the snobbery of past accounts of working-class theatricals – accounts written, that is, in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, almost all of which were by affluent outsiders. To read reviews of East End theatres and penny gaffs is to run a gamut of Wildean-wannabe irony in this period, referring to the ‘coarseness’ or ‘crudity’ of the people’s theatre with a patronisingly sniggering air. Little wonder, then, that so many histories of ‘low’ theatre are infused with a sort of low-burning anger at the elitism of past critical observers.

At the same time, however, I am aware that for myself, this sense of injustice hardly corresponds to my contemporary preferences. One of the first things I caught myself thinking while walking through the West End in London this week was how terrible it was that most of the theatres were showing tacky musicals. I know that West End musicals aren’t ‘working-class entertainment’, but the correlation between this reaction and the snobbishness of past critics should be obvious. So what to do with the gulf between one’s taste cultures in the present, and what one is drawn to historically?

As I said at the beginning – and I mean it as a genuine question – is it possible to criticise contemptuous accounts of theatre posters on street hoardings in the late-nineteenth century (to choose but one example), while at the same time nurturing a bitter distaste for street advertisements today? Is it humbug to turn up one’s nose at the latest action-extravaganza on-screen, and simultaneously feel indignation at the fact that Victorian critics did the same about blood-and-thunder plays? Is there a way to avoid the sort of populism any cultural-studies reader will recognise – the sort of vacuous approach which says ‘is popular culture is good’ – and at the same time avoid a dishonest gap between one’s research convictions and aesthetic values?

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2 Responses to “On humbug and historians”

  1. Lidian 12 September 2008 at 11:21 pm #

    Melissa, this is something I think about too – as you know, a lot of the historical stuff I love is what was considered ‘low-brow’ in the late Victorian era (I say late because the designation didn’t really take hold until mid-century corresponding to the rise in ‘yellow’ journalism and sensational writing)…I think that the answer is a resounding Yes for me, provided that the historian genuinely likes enough about the ‘low-brow’ to appreciate and analyze it without being condescending.

    My unfinished PhD was on sensation novels and one problem I ran into was that several faculty members with whom I had to interact did not feel the same way at all. So this post – which is excellent – resounds with me quite a bit.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 13 September 2008 at 6:55 am #

    What: people throwing a dampener on your work because sensation novels weren’t worthy? Terrible, if so.

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