Saturday, July 30, 2016

Regency Theatre Conference

I'm in Cambridge for the Society for Theatre Research's conference on Theatre in the Regency Era. And it's wonderful!

Yesterday, we had a tour of an extant Regency theatre, the Barnwell Theatre, subsequently renamed the Festival Theatre, and now a Buddhist center in Cambridge. Though the space doesn't immediately look like a Regency theatre, a number of original elements remain, and you really can experience what it was like to be in the audience, whether in the pit, in the boxes, or up in the gallery.

Today we had the bulk of the presentations. I first went to the session on dancers and dancing with Moira Goff of the Garrick Club and Michael Burden of New College, Oxford. I am particularly interested in social dancing on stage, and Groff mentioned that minuets were performed in both High Life Below Stairs and in The Belle's Stratagem. The focus of the session was on theatrical dancing, of course, and Burden spoke about Hughes Balls Hughes' scandalous elopement with the ballerina Mercandotti.

The next session I went to was on Shakespeare in the Regency era. Fiona Ritchie gave a great presentation on Dorothy Jordan's response to the Old Price riots. Though she was touring in Birmingham at the time, she heard about the events at Covent Garden and wrote about them. Franklin Hildy then gave a fascinating talk about period-appropriate productions of Shakespeare. He presented the novel idea that it was Regency fashion, in particular the replacement on knee breeches with trousers, but also the simplified fashions more generally, that made Shakespeare for the first time sound odd when performed by actors in modern dress. It was only then that antiquarian productions started to become popular, a fact Hildy linked to the simplified cuts of modern clothes not matching the complexity of poetic language.

Celina Fox gave the keynote address about public entertainments in London functioning as a type of theatre. She mentioned that the last Frost Fair was when the Thames froze over in 1814, which was the occasion for a massive fair out on the ice. Later that year was the Great Jubilee, celebrating the centennial of the Hanover Dynasty, as well as the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. Fox walked us through a number of other public festivals as well, going up to the coronation of King George IV in 1820.

In the afternoon, there was a great session on Hippodrama, with presentations by Ellen K. Gjervan, David and Cassie Mayer, and Lucy Barnes. They discussed some of the plays of the period that called for horses on stage, including The Blood Red Knight, Timour the Tartar, and Mazeppa. Theatres also used horses to stage recent battles, as when J.H. Amherst wrote plays about Napoleon. In many cases, both the human and equine actors were veterans of actual battles.

My own panel came later in the afternoon, with Terry Robinson speaking about Sarah Siddons and Michael Gaunt speaking about George Frederick Cooke and the mysterious disappearance of his skull. He was able to tell me that the Stranger's Vault, where Cooke was originally buried, no longer exists. (I had looked for it at St. Paul's Chapel, but had not had any luck. No wonder why!) I then gave my one presentation on Eliza O'Neill, which I thought was well received.

We then had a performance of reconstructed period acting, and then the conference gala dinner. Tomorrow, I hope to attend sessions on melodrama and on the theatre architect James Winston. It should be fun!