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Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards. John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-230-52499-6. Price: $US 90.00

  • Sharon Aronofsky Weltman

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  • Sharon Aronofsky Weltman
    Louisiana State University

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John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre is the most recent book by theater historians Kate Newey and Jeffrey Richards. Their latest collaboration shows how thoroughly John Ruskin’s ideas permeated theatrical practice in the second half of the nineteenth century. Through his formal writing on art, architecture, and society, as well as through his personal relationships and informal correspondence, Ruskin significantly influenced the aesthetic and didactic aims of mid- and late-Victorian theater. He encouraged theater that cultivates and expresses beauty, that educates, and that inculcates morality. An original and necessary contribution to Victorian studies, John Ruskin and Victorian Theatre breaks new ground even though it is Newey and Richard’s second book dealing with this topic. Their first is Ruskin, the Theatre, and Victorian Visual Culture (Palgrave 2009), a collection of essays edited with Anselm Heinrich: only half (including one by Richards) deal primarily with Ruskin’s influence on the theater; the rest explore relationships between Victorian theater and visual art. In their new book, Newey and Richards frequently engage with the contributors to their previous collection. They also reply to my own Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science and Education. What distinguishes their study from mine is both disciplinary and focal. My book is literary and cultural criticism, centering primarily on Ruskin’s writing on theater and on how his ideas about performance operate within his work; it also considers what Ruskin-as-character represents in several twentieth-century plays. In contrast, John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre is historical scholarship showing how nineteenth-century Britain’s most powerful art, architecture, and social critic influenced late-Victorian theater. Besides their publications and mine, there is little on Ruskin and theater. Newey and Richards open up the field for more by assembling what could operate almost as a source-book for literary and cultural critics interested in Victorian theater and its connection to Victorian aesthetics.

Although dual authorship could result in a book that loses focus or abruptly switches voices, John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre is organized into eight well integrated chapters. It gathers an exceptional array of data demonstrating that Ruskin’s ideas significantly affected the Victorian theater both directly and indirectly. It also furnishes absorbing details about the plays, actors, managers, set designers, and so on that fit into the realm of Ruskinian theater. It is a work of new theater history, participating in the shift within theater historiography toward economics, gender, and other vital but somewhat neglected fields, exemplified by the work of Jacky Bratton and Tracy Davis (and, of course, earlier books by Newey and Richards).

The first chapter describes Ruskin’s frequent attendance at all kinds of theatrical entertainments—from Shakespeare to the Christy Minstrels—and establishes his attitudes towards theater as a didactic and moral tool. By the second paragraph, the chapter has quoted a half dozen comments in which Ruskin offers a variation on his statement that he has “always held the stage quite among the best and most necessary means of education–moral and intellectual” (qtd 1). He formed friendships with many theater people; through them, Ruskin’s aesthetic influence extended from art and architecture to theater. The second chapter expands on this point, arguing that “those who wished to . . . change the theatre” in the late nineteenth century “were all Ruskinians, to a greater or lesser degree” (20). This chapter looks at nine influential people whose ideas about the theater Ruskin affected: Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll, W. E. Gladstone, Henry Arthur Jones, Reverend Stewart Duckworth Headlam, Henry Irving, Wilson Barrett, Madge Kendal, and Helen Faucit. Although in some cases the influence Ruskin exerted was specifically addressed to drama or theatrical practice, in most cases the authors argue for a more diffused impact derived from Ruskin’s writing on art and aesthetics.

The third chapter demonstrates that Edward William Godwin acted as an important “conduit for Ruskin’s ideas about the theatre and actual theatre practice” (45). Godwin trained as an architect; in 1853 he read Seven Lamps of Architecture and Stones of Venice, experiencing “an instant conversion” to Ruskin’s ideas (45). Although Godwin claimed a later unconversion, Newey and Richards convincingly present him as continuing to echo Ruskin in his many theater reviews and in his criticism of the aesthetic underlying scenic, set, and costume designs. His zeal for antiquarian correctness on stage was so strident that he “published 33 articles on the correct architecture and costume for each of Shakespeare’s plays in The Architect in 1874 and 1875” (61). The authors attribute this goal of historical accuracy, along with Godwin’s concern for the theater’s capacity to educate, to Ruskin’s influence. The chapter concludes by tracing a genealogy of influence from Ruskin, through Godwin as the main link, to the late nineteenth-century theatrical triumvirate: Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Wilson Barrett.

Clearly written, tightly constructed, and very interesting, the fourth chapter looks at toga plays–dramas set in ancient Rome–which were popular in Victorian Britain. This theatrical vogue “coincided with the classical revival in paintings from the 1860s to 1914" (85); it is part of a phenomenon of classicism often seen as a way for the British to define their empire as the modern Rome. Newey and Richards locate Ruskin in the thick of concern for the success of the British Empire and interest in the toga play as a site of moral and aesthetic education. Indeed, the chapter points to Ruskin’s letter to actor-manager Wilson Barrett about his 1884 production of Claudian, complimenting the scene-painting as doing “more for art-teaching than all the galleries and professors in Christendom” (qtd. 83). It turns out that Lewis Carroll was also a fan, seeing the show three times (107). This informative chapter supplies production specifics (including financing) and relates the experiences of actresses starring in toga plays, such as Lilly Langtry and Mary Anderson, while including parts of reviews by Oscar Wilde, Clement Scott, and others. Toga plays were a subset of melodrama, one of the period’s most popular forms of entertainment, whose “aesthetic and ethical conventions . . . pervaded Victorian culture” (115); the book shifts smoothly to mainstream commercial melodrama in the fifth chapter, which situates itself with thorough sophistication among current discussions and debates about the genre, including its relation to the novel. Melodrama is in many ways an ideal manifestation of “Ruskin’s cultural theory,” which “called for the integration and combination of aesthetic and ethical seeing and reading” (118). Newey and Richards trace Ruskin’s influence through a “web of connections” between Wilson Barrett, Henry Arthur Jones, and Hall Caine, “in large part attributable to their individual engagements with Ruskin’s work, and their recognition of a central ethic of the power of art to elevate and educate a mass audience” (138). But the real excitement in this chapter comes from its concluding argument that viewing “mainstream stage melodrama through the lens of ‘Ruskinian theatre’ offers a way out of historiographical binaries and value judgments” typically used to dismiss melodrama (138). Instead, this Ruskinian view highlights “the cultural and political work done by melodrama in the social positioning of emotion, particularly strong emotion expressed by male characters”; linking “politics to the personal and private emotions of the spectator, in the service of a traditional morality, but through non-traditional means . . . allows for the anti-theatricality of Victorian ethics to be set aside” (138-139).

Ruskin’s chief enjoyment at the theater was found at the pantomime, the subject of Chapter six. The authors give a brief but useful history of English pantomime in the nineteenth-century, focusing on its fairy-tale extravaganzas and Ruskin’s many connections to fairyland in art and literature, as well as to his specific comments on the multitude of pantomimes that he attended. They argue convincingly that Ruskin’s belief in the didactic power of the theater and its influence on aesthetic values extended to pantomime. Perhaps going too far in taming Ruskin, however, this chapter depicts his enthusiastic interest in pantomime as just one more example of a theatrical opportunity for promoting moral education. For a different interpretation of some of the same material, see my article on Ruskin and pantomime in Jim Davis’s volume Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays.

The seventh chapter returns to the notion of archeological correctness as a Ruskinian virtue; focusing primarily on productions by Lewis Wingfield, this chapter also offers an excellent overview of the struggle for the recognition of theatrical scene painting as a serious art. The illustrated Chapter eight explores the Victorian/Ruskinian notions of stage beauty and critiques their gender implications. Returning to Mary Anderson and Madge Kendall, to Shakespeare and melodrama, this chapter deftly pulls together the many threads of argument in the entire volume, serving effectively as its conclusion.

Excellent though this book is, the John Ruskin depicted is almost exclusively Ruskin the moralist and art educator. The Ruskin who wrote stunning prose, who made wild assertions for rhetorical effect, whose beautiful and disturbing imagery carries multivalent meaning, whose engagement with art and architecture was entirely wrapped up in his effort to make material changes for the better in the world around him–that Ruskin rarely steps onto these pages. Surely it was that Ruskin that was attracted to and repelled by pantomimes and operas, but the book understandably avoids the richness of Ruskin’s complexity and self-contradiction in order to focus on how his acolytes and acquaintances in the theatrical world implemented his most famous ethical and aesthetic pronouncements.

Yet the book is well written, enjoyable, and necessary for understanding the breadth of Ruskin’s importance. His impact reached even further than most scholars have thought, affecting an art form rarely associated with Ruskin. The theater is frankly somewhat ignored in Victorian studies, but it was not neglected by the Victorians themselves, and certainly not by Ruskin. The authors’ prodigious amount of original research in gathering the primary materials for this book is roundly impressive. No one could read John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre without learning a great deal about Victorian performers and performances and about an aggregate of theatrical lore connected with Ruskin and his circle. Proving unequivocally that John Ruskin’s influence on Victorian theater was substantial and pervasive, this book opens the field for significant new work on connections between literature, theater, and visual culture.

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