Arts: Return to Victorian values

Good news for William Hague: there is a Tory revival on. Unfortunately for him, the bad news is that it is restricted to the stage of the National Theatre. And it is also entirely off-message. You can't have everything. By Carl Miller

Carl Miller
Tuesday 01 June 1999 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the Jeffrey Archer of his day. He enhanced his salary as a Victorian MP with a hugely successful stream of best- selling novels, until inheritance of a peerage and the Knebworth estate allowed him to sheath his nib a little. He was less matrimonially fortunate than Lord Archer, as his own ex-wife exuberantly attacked him in print for 46 years.

He did, however, fare better in the theatre. Those who saw Archer's West End offerings can be reasonably sure that, 150 years from now, the National Theatre will not be dusting them off as neglected masterworks of late-20th-century drama. Yet this week's revival of Bulwer-Lytton's 1840 comedy Money sees the National Theatre returning a favour to one of its earliest champions. Bulwer-Lytton campaigned vigorously for a subsidised theatre devoted to "Higher Drama". He despaired of contemporary theatre's fraud, incompetence and plagiarism, and most accounts of 19th- century drama support his view.

The National Theatre is also currently running "NT2000", celebrating 20th-century drama in English, based on nominations for 10 plays of the century. A similar event a century ago would have been hard going. Bet someone a tenner that they cannot name the top 10 playwrights writing in English during the 19th century. Indeed, can they come up with any 10 dramatists writing during that 100 years? Yes, of course, there is Oscar Wilde. And Shaw squeaks in, although most of his plays come in the 20th century (he is number six in the NT2000 hit parade).

At the other end of the 1800s, Sheridan lived until 1816, but his great plays belong to the previous century. Even taking the best of the Irish, therefore, 19th-century English drama looks pretty threadbare. JM Barrie? (No, Peter Pan kicks off the NT list in 1904); WS Gilbert? (Not best remembered for his non-musical output); Pinero? Jones? Unless you have challenged a specialist in the field - a professor of Victorian theatre - your bet is safe.

Yet thousands of writers produced plays in the 19th century - and some were great writers. But although Browning, Byron, Coleridge, Dickens, James, Keats, Lamb, Scott, Shelley, Swinburne and Tennyson all wrote drama, it is scarcely remembered. Bulwer-Lytton's explanation for the dearth of serious drama blamed contemporary theatre's sheer depravity.

The 19th-century stage may have ended up with fan-fluttering and quippery, but it opened with riots. Had the current Covent Garden management overseen the 1809 redevelopment, they would have had rougher treatment than the odd sardonic aside from Gerald Kaufman. Audiences annoyed with current arts policy - particularly seat prices and foreign imports - were quite capable of ripping the auditorium to pieces. Performers were at risk of assault, occasionally deadly, when the fighting crossed the footlights. Audience members could find themselves tossed fatally from balcony to pit in a fracas.

Even when violence was under control, audience involvement tended to be vocal. Vigorous heckling could disrupt a dramatist's most affecting moments. Byron, who was on Drury Lane's play committee for a while, saw no reason "to risk my reputation in a place where any rascal may hiss me for a shilling".

More pungent comment came from the orange peel, fried fish or pigs' trotters that could hail down on a particularly hapless piece. No wonder the period is rich in "closet" drama - plays which were written expressly not to be staged under such circumstances.

If audience members managed to concentrate on the action, they risked the attentions of pickpockets who worked the auditorium as vigorously as prostitutes did the foyers. The theatre's connection with vice persisted; as late as 1898, The Daily Telegraph's Clement Scott lamented: "it is nearly impossible for a woman to remain pure who adopts the stage as a profession."

Reluctant dramatists such as Byron did not have only their audience to worry about. Considerable violence could be done to a piece by the performers themselves. Rehearsals were notoriously brief and careless. Even those for Money, under the famously disciplined Edward Charles Macready, nearly collapsed when an actor's alcoholism threatened to disrupt performances. The punctilious Macready insisted on a contract allowing him to cancel the performance, even in the middle of the first night, if the actor "should present himself to the audience in such a condition as to warrant the suspicion of the least drunkenness".

When Bulwer-Lytton first thought of writing a play, he contacted Macready, the leading actor of his day, attracted by his passion for reforming the sloppy practices of the profession. Their collaboration, which sustained the whole of Bulwer-Lytton's brief career as a dramatist, was mutually beneficial. Macready's professional instincts sharpened Bulwer-Lytton's stagecraft; in return, he got quality writing, some star roles and (mostly) box-office success. Money, however, lacks the kind of epic part Macready got from Bulwer-Lytton in a play such as Richelieu. Indeed, the current production is part of the NT Ensemble project, which celebrates the work that can be done with a company of actors rather than a star vehicle. It is a kaleidoscope of early-Victorian gamblers and self-seekers, dryly observed by its hero, Evelyn. The role now seems intriguingly sardonic, but Bulwer-Lytton worried it lacked showiness. Other actor-managers would have ditched Money when they saw, as Macready did, that the star was the play.

Bulwer-Lytton and Macready were joined by Queen Victoria in their successful quest to make London's West End theatre a respectable place in which middle- class audiences did not risk brushing against the grubby clothes of their social inferiors. Had Bulwer-Lytton persuaded William Hague's predecessors to set up a state-funded theatre, his repertoire would have included high-minded plays such as Barry Cornwall's Mirandola and Richard Sheil's Evadne, which he considered to be among the greatest English drama. It would be a brave theatre that would mount either of those plays today.

Tastes change, however, and once-derided dramatists can come back into fashion. Money was ignored for most of this century, until the Royal Shakespeare Company, under Trevor Nunn (now running the NT, where the Ensemble is one of his innovations), revived it as a studio production in 1981. It now arrives on the National's largest stage, proof that Nunn, at least, thinks it is more than a curiosity.

Bulwer-Lytton and Victorian dramatic reformers saw populism, melodrama and addiction to spectacle as the theatre's ruin. Yet the 19th-century pantomime, an apparently infinitely degradable form of theatre, still provides most people's sole live theatrical experience year after year. What could be more 19th-century an experience than the enduringly popular, indisputably melodramatic and hugely spectacular Les Miserables, directed by Trevor Nunn with John Caird (who directs Money at the National)?

They also directed David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, in which Vincent Crummles' travelling theatrical company embodies the fraudulence, shoddiness and plagiarism that Bulwer-Lytton sought to drive from English letters. Handed a pirated French playtext, Nicholas is advised: "Just turn that into English and put your name on the title page." As long, that is, as he introduces "a real pump and two washing-tubs" - recent Crummles acquisitions that are to feature as "new and splendid scenery" on the playbills.

Dickens's satire, in which his hero becomes the kind of hack dramatist Bulwer-Lytton despised, retains affection for the deluded shambles of Crummles' theatrical ventures. For Victorian theatre reform did not revive playwriting. It may even have set it back, bringing in as audience, according to one theatre paper, "a very dull set of people, stupid, yet captious, who only ask to be amused and object to being emotionally excited". Joe Orton was even more succinct: "The Theatre started going downhill when Queen Victoria knighted Henry Irving - too fucking respectable."

As a Tory politician, Bulwer-Lytton has earned his obscurity. Yet his backstage knowledge of the corridors of Westminster and clubland keeps Money mint even after 150 years. It savages greedy, corrupt politicians and businessmen, who remain all too recognisable. Its hero derides those who claim: "to squander money on those who starve is only to afford encouragement to starvation." Just the thing for a Shadow Cabinet night out.

`Money' opens at the Olivier Theatre tomorrow. Box office: 0171-452 3000

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