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The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914

Author(s):Davis, Tracy C.
Reviewer(s):Pilbeam, Pam

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)

Tracy C. Davis, The Economics of the British Stage, 1800-1914. Cambridge

and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvii + 506 pp. $80 (hardback),

ISBN: 0-521-571115-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pam Pilbeam, Department of History, Royal Holloway,

University of London.

This book is an investigation into how British theaters paid their way before

the age of government subsidy. It is based on research in the Public Record

Office and a wide range of county archives. Influenced by economists from Adam

Smith to Alfred Marshall, the book is divided into three sections, dealing with

competition, profit and labor. First the theater industry is situated in the

debate on competition, second ownership is related to financing, the chance of

profit and business structures. The third section looks at the workers as

aspects of commodity capitalism and theaters themselves as manifestations of

cultural capital. While acknowledging the significance of the theaters

themselves and their scenery and costumes as property, this volume focuses on

performance as the only real gauge of successful theater capitalism.

There was no such thing as free competition in the early nineteenth-century

theater. From 1792, in the name of public order and morality, only two patent

royal theaters, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, held the monopoly to perform

spoken drama in central London. Neither was very successful and in reality

other “minor” theaters, such as the Lyceum and Astleys in central London and a

myriad of theaters elsewhere, operated with annual restricted licenses,

although it was easier for them to stage dog fights than Shakespeare. In the

free trade atmosphere of 1843 the Theaters’ Regulation Act leveled the playing

field. Thirty-six theaters soon competed for customers in central London, to be

joined from around 1850 by music halls — 101 in London by 1892, 360 a decade

later. These were regulated by local magistrates and in their early decades

attracted a worker clientele, rather than the middle-class customers who went

to the theater. There were arguments between theaters and music halls about

what each could perform; theater proprietors were jealous because music halls

offered food and drink as well as song. To fight back theaters sometimes staged

“sketches” with music. Theaters asserted their superior status as guardians of

the “common good”; music halls, they claimed, cared only for profit. Music

halls responded that they also served the common good by amusing working people

and keeping them off the streets.

From 1855 the Lord Chamberlain’s office organized annual inspections of

theaters, although with about fifteen minutes allocated to each theater, the

inspectors would have needed to be world class athletes to see much. The

inspections were directed at fire safety and public health. Given their flimsy

construction and the concentration of highly flammable material in sets,

costumes, paint and so on, the risk of collapse and fire was considerable. In

1828 the New Brunswick Theater collapsed a few hours before the first

performance. Ten people died, but many times that number might have perished a

few hours later. The average lifespan of a theater was no more than eighteen

years. Despite attempts to regulate numbers, extra customers were crowded in

and staircases were inadequate. In 1883 two hundred children were crushed to

death and another hundred badly injured at the Victoria Hall in Sunderland when

a magician tossed gifts into the pit and children in the gallery died rushing

down to seize their share. Theaters were also very smelly. The few closets that

existed were rarely emptied. They relied on customers in need being

sufficiently public-spirited to leave the building. Amazingly not a single

customer complained in writing, despite concern that miasmas caused cholera. It

was well into the century before theaters made adequate provision for customers

and actors.

Public morality was apparently a priority in government inspections, yet the

interval promenade remained a time for active business by prostitutes.

Customers were, however, protected from immoral stage performances through

prior censorship. Until 1968 all theaters had to submit the text of their plays

to the Lord Chamberlain for scrutiny, although the government Examiner seemed

to prefer to let the customers decide whether they wanted to pay to see

undressed females — unless it was a foreign troupe and then he was more


Unlike France the two original theaters royal received no privileges or

subsidies and were strictly commercial concerns. Theater investment, usually by

limited liability, was risky. A theater cost half the price of a battleship.

Few theatrical entrepreneurs made a fortune. Richard D’Oyly Carte left

?240,817, but he was exceptional. The family firm predominated, which could

become embarrassing when the leading lady grew a little too mature to be

plausible. Most entrepreneurs and managers were male, a situation reinforced by

informal and formal old boy networks. Unique in the nineteenth-century business

world however, there were a handful of outstanding wo-managers, beginning with

Eliza Vestris. She was a burlesque actress who held the lease of the run-down

Olympic from 1831-38, turning it into the most fashionable of theaters. At this

point the debts of her former lover forced her to declare bankruptcy. She

married her leading man, leaving him responsible for her debts, but they went

on to run other theaters. Until the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870, wives

had no independent right to their property or wages — or indeed responsibility

for their debts, making it difficult for a businesswoman to secure financial

backing. Even after the legislation female theater managers were the exception

and often the butt for innuendo; the morality of actresses was often still

called in question.

The best chance of a profit was a London hit followed by a provincial tour.

Only a tiny number made real money on foreign tours. The cost of a theatrical

production was huge; music halls, with far more modest operating costs, were

more profitable. This book concentrates on theaters as a branch of industry,

with only brief references to the competition. Cinema, referred to in the

concluding pages, was an even more successful competitor than the music hall.

By 1914 there were 5,000 cinemas in Britain and towns of 100,000 or more had an

average of twenty-three cinemas each. In total contrast to theaters foreign

capitalization and penetration was rapid. By 1914 sixty percent of the films

shown were American. In the nineteenth century there were a few attempts to

justify theatrical investment in the name of civic pride and public good; the

competition of cinemas were soon to push the case for government subsidy of

live theater, although that is outside the scope of this volume.

This book will appeal to historians of the theater and of media studies; its

focus on the theater as an industry adds a new dimension. The author brings

very useful statistics to illuminate the study of costs. The book will also

make fascinating reading for social and cultural historians. Given the

predictable problems listed here, how was it that there were any successful

wo-managers? This will be a particularly gripping question for gender

historians, since men were so dominant in the cinema industry, especially in

America. It would have been interesting to hear more about how the market

developed during the century — to what extent the price of seats, what was

performed, the competition from music halls and other entertainment, plus the

increased leisure of working people affected their presence/absence in the

audience. The economics of the stage depended on investment, managers and

actors, but it was the enthusiasm of paying customers that clinched the deal.

To what extent did theaters perceive the new opportunities of the mass market?

(The author, Tracy Davis, is Professor of Theater, English and Performance

Studies at Northwestern University and this is her third monograph on aspects

of the nineteenth-century British theater.)

Pam Pilbeam is Professor of French History at Royal Holloway, University of

London. Her latest book, Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks,

will be published by Hambledon and London Books in November 2002.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII