Leman Rede (1799-1832) was only a small-time actor, but his little manual The road to the stage gives a fascinating insight into life in the provincial theatre during the 1820s and 1830s. He outlines the regulations under which performers worked and explains the rules for benefit performances, the custom by which an actor was allowed to supplement his salary with the proceeds of an evening’s entertainment. He lists the costumes every performer should have in his wardrobe, and the wide range of skills required for the varied elements of a 19th century theatrical programme. Most intriguing of all, he describes the approved method of expressing passions and emotions at a time when acting was highly stylized and often consisted of a succession of dramatic poses.
Charles Dickens and the popular theatre
All of this would have been very familiar to Charles Dickens. As a young boy he was captivated by enthusiastic performances of Shakespeare’s plays at the Theatre Royal, Rochester. For a time in his late teens he even considered becoming an actor, going to the theatre almost every night so as to study the best acting techniques. The theatrical scenes with the Crummles touring company in Nicholas Nickleby read like a high-spirited, fictionalised version of Rede’s pamphlet. Like Wopsle’s stage appearances in Great Expectations, they contain some of Dickens’s best comedy. Although he leaves us in no doubt about the quality of the performances, these episodes reflect Dickens’s appreciation of the exuberant, if unsophisticated, popular theatre of his day.
- Article by:
- Jacky Bratton
- Popular culture
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were only two main theatres in London. Emeritus Professor Jacky Bratton traces the development of theatre throughout the century, exploring the proliferation of venues, forms and writers.