Drama & Theater

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

  1. Faust (Part 1, 1808; Part 2, 1831)
    1. Faustus legend
      1. Originated in Middle Ages
      2. Tragic tale
      3. Man sells soul to devil in exchange for 24 years of knowing, doing, having anything wished
    2. Very different from earlier versions
      1. Deal struck between Faust & Mephistopheles: devil only wins if he quenches Faust’s desire for ultimate knowledge and experience
    3. Highly problematic
      1. No limit on locations (many locations and supernatural events, impossible to resolve in 19th century)
      2. No limit on length
      3. No limit on number of scenes or lines

Other Famous Romantic Plays

  1. Victor Hugo
    1. Cromwell (1827) – tells story of Oliver Cromwell’s disputes in being offered the crown of England; 6920 verses long, was ever performed on stage
  2. Alexander Dumas
    1. Three Musketeers – story of d’Artagnan leaving home to travel to Paris and join the Musketeers
    2. The Count of Monte Cristo – adventure story; themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy and forgiveness; man wrongfully imprisoned, escapes from jail, acquires a fortune and sets about getting revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment
  3. Edmond Rostand
    1. Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) – nobleman of many talents, not attractive (large nose, no self-confidence); prevents him from expressing his feelings to the girl he’s fallen for
      1. Protagonist was real-life swordsman, poet, playwright who was contemporary (and perhaps schoolfellow) of Molière


  1. Melody and drama
  2. Employed background music to heighten the emotional impact of onstage action
  3. Lyrical music underscored love scenes
  4. Ominous chords created tension as suspense built to climactic moment
  5. Simplified characters and clearly defined moral issues (you were either good or evil)
  6. Typical plot:
    1. Series of exciting events often set in motion by evil opponent, placing hero and/or heroine in some perilous predicament
    2. Good triumphs over evil through perseverance, strength, wit, unflagging virtue, and often a dash of pure luck
    3. Stock characters developed:
      1. Threatened female
      2. Villain’s comic sidekick
      3. Promiscuous fallen woman who may repent but is still punished for her wicked past
  7. Most popular form of entertainment in 19th century
    1. Especially working class
    2. Used as an escape from reality
    3. Improved public transportation made theatre more accessible to masses
    4. New theatres started springing up all over Europe and America
  8. Common types of melodrama
    1. Domestic melodrama, equestrian, frontier melodramas with trained horses (influenced westerns)
    2. Crime/Detective (Sherlock Holmes plays)
    3. Nautical melodramas with swashbuckling pirates and exciting swordplay
    4. Canine melodramas (think Lassie)
    5. Disaster melodramas
  9. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin – anti-slavery novel that helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War
    1. Most frequently adapted for the stage during 19th century
    2. Most well-known version is George Aiken’s 1852 adaptation
    3. 6 acts long, performed without any afterpiece (short, humorous one-act performance following the main play); contributed to the trend toward theaters that specialized in one primary entertainment form
    4. In 1852-53, UCT played for 325 consecutive performances; indicative of a new trend that continued from 1860s to 1880s as:
      1. runs of plays were extended
      2. Number of performances offered by theatre company in a single season began to decrease
  10. William Pratt: Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1858) – small-town miller gives up his trade to open a tavern, the novel’s narrator is an infrequent visitor who over the course of several years traces the physical and moral decline of the proprietor, his family, and the town’s citizenry due to alcohol
  11. John Buckstone: Luke the Labourer (1826) also called The Lost Son
  12. Dion Boucicault: The Octoroon (1859) – residents of a Louisiana plantation called Terrebonne, and sparked debates about abolition and the role of theatre in politics

18th-19th Century Theaters

  1. Designed to hold as many people as possible
  2. Horseshoe-shaped auditorium
    1. Pit
    2. Box
    3. Gallery – stacked 4 or 5 stories high
  3. 2,500-4,000 spectators WHITNEY HALL ONLY HOLDS 2300
  4. Size made it necessary for actors to speak loudly and gesture broadly so audience could see and hear performance; considered laughably exaggerated and overblown (melodramatic) but was considered serious acting by 19th century audiences

Changes in Architecture

  1. PIT
    1. backless wooden benches replaced with individual seats
    2. Now called orchestra
    3. More desirable and expensive seating area
    4. Adelphi Theatre (London)
      1. boxes raised so that the pit could be extended to the side walls
      2. Tiers became more like balconies
      3. Cantilever balconies
    5. Booth Theater (New York City)
      1. Cited as first modern theater
      2. Features hydraulic elevators for lifting scenery from below the stage
      3. 76-foot fly loft above the stage, possible to raise drops without folding/rolling

Changes in Scenery, Costume, Lighting

  1. Increased interest in historical accuracy in set designs, costumes
  2. Charles Kemble: Shakespeare’s King John (1824); first to claim complete historical accuracy
  3. Chestnut Street Theater, Philadelphia: first gas stage-lighting system
    1. Gas gradually replaced oil
    2. Allowed for the adjusting of brightness or dimness
    3. Colored also by stretching translucent fabric in front of it
    4. Theater first called “The New Theatre”; burned down in 1816; Second Chestnut Street Theatre built 1818 in same spot, burned down 1856; Third Chestnut Street Theatre in 1862 about 7 blocks from the first, closed its doors in 1913 and was demolished shortly after

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