Publication details [#9776]

Schoch, Richard W. 1996. The homestead of history: Medievalism on the mid-Victorian stage. Stanford, Calif.. 271 pp.
Publication type
Ph.D dissertation
Publication language


This study examines the relationship between theatricality, nationalism, and historical consciousness in mid-Victorian Britain with reference to Charles Kean's spectacular and antiquarian revivals of Shakespeare ('King John, Macbeth, Henry V, Henry VIII, and Richard II') at the Princess's Theatre in London between 1851 and 1859. The first section explains how the 19th-century theatre used a rhetoric of synecdoche to stage the medieval past. The diverse fragments of theatrical performance (acting, text, design, and spectacle) assimilate to evoke the presence and material continuity of the past. By emphasizing the restoration of objects, theatrical historicism sought to reverse the ruin: to endow images of the past with presence, not absence; wholeness, not fragmentation; and fulfillment, not loss. Historicism needed performance because the integration of historical parts in theatrical mise-en-scene enhanced the power of the no-longer-isolated artifact to conjure up the fullness of the past that it betokened. Such a poetics of restoration, however, carried an ideological weight. Performing the Middle Ages played into the 19th-century desire to recover (or invent) a usable past which could provide a unifying moment of national origins. By going to the theatre and seeing the history of England recalled to life, London theatre audiences of the 1850s gained an increased sense of their own cultural rights at the moment they exercised newly-won political rights. Moreover, the social integration of the mid-Victorian theatre enabled Kean's medievalizing productions - the reenactment of the birth of Englishness - to become a broad bid for cultural and political inclusion. In the final section, the author reads moments from Kean's Shakespearean revivals as early instances of the crisis of historicism. The hypertrophic detail of Kean's mise-en-scene, in which the theatre had to meet increasingly higher thresholds of accuracy and precision, resulted in a kind of inversion of authority. That is, performances themselves began to "act out" the impossibility, but unabated necessity of recovering the past. Torn between affirmation and denial, the theatre of Charles Kean disclosed the gap between historiographical representation and the historical real. (Richard Schoch)