Women's Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain by Katherine Newey

By Katherine Newey

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Playwriting competitions were one of the methods adopted in the Victorian (and Edwardian) theatre for generating new plays which conformed to criteria of excellence determined by literary rather than theatrical standards, and conflicts around their establishment, judging, and the afterhistories of performance (or not), attest to the power of ideas about the roles and standards of drama and theatre in this period. The use of competitions to elicit ‘good’ new plays is of a piece with the new politics and economics of competition pursued by a rising professional and industrial middle-class, and the presence of these practices in the theatre, however contested or ridiculed, is indicative both of the power of the new modes of economic and social thought emerging under the banner of Reform, and of the important position of the (London) theatre in the cultural imaginary of the Victorian period.

London theatre in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century was changed by the rapid growth of the city, producing a new popular audience characterized by geographical and class mobility, working in an expanding city, increasingly organized socially and economically around mechanized labour. 85 The theatre manager himself (it was only occasionally herself) had a far less stable economic environment in which to conduct the business of entertainment – the inflation of the Patents, the incursions of the ‘minor’ theatres, the demands of new audiences for different kinds of diversions – all these factors diminished the opportunities for the kind of protective patronage under which women playwrights apparently flourished in the eighteenth century.

On the other hand, I do not wish to claim simply a triumphalist reverse of the disappearing playwright. Rather, my approach is to note the oscillations between recognition and obscurity, visibility, and invisibility, of women playwrights, to attempt to track the dialectical relationship between patriarchal theatre practices and aesthetics, and women’s activity within these structures. In the period after the heyday of women’s theatre writing identified by Ellen Donkin, women playwrights did disappear.

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