New exhibition explores Regency theatre's fascination with history

Staging History: 14 October 2016-8 January 2017 in the Bodleian's Weston Library

24 August 2016

Exploration, revolution and patriotism take centre stage in the Bodleian Libraries' newest exhibition, Staging History, which reveals how historical events were presented on stage in Regency-era Britain (1780-1840).

Image of a storyboard for a production of The Exiles as performed at the Royal Theatres in 1809, Bodleian Vet. A6 c.118 (50). 

The exhibition looks at the growth in history and historical events as the subject of theatre and opera productions of this time period, ranging from the travels of Captain Cook to the Napoleonic Wars. Although the historical play was not a new genre, this period of theatre saw a fresh drive for historical accuracy, with authors and playwrights advertising their plays as founded upon real facts.

The exhibition also examines how pioneering set design and historically appropriate costumes and props brought history to life on the stage. Image of a production of The Siege of Gibraltar in 1804, : Bodleian Don. c. 29, page 41.The quest for accurate re-enactment of real-life events pushed the bounds of theatrical spectacle: a water tank with model floating ships was deployed at Sadler's Wells for the staging of the Siege of Gibraltar, and another production on the same theme used live cannons which set fire to the vessels in each performance.

Rare materials held by the Bodleian Libraries and other national institutions are featured, including intricately detailed set designs and maquettes, theatrical documents (such as tickets, playbills and playtexts) as well as theatrical portraiture, paintings and illustrations (such as those showing famous London stages like Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Sadler's Wells Theatre).

Some highlights include:

  • A beautiful set maquette for the pantomime Omai, or a trip around the world designed by Philip James de Loutherbourg, an artist who revolutionized English stage design with his naturalistic scenic effects
  • An illustration of Sadler's Wells 'Aquatic Theatre' production of The Siege of Gibraltar in which a large tank on the stage was filled with water from the nearby New River, producing one of the grandest theatrical spectacles of the time
  • A 3-dimensional set design for a play about legendary Swiss marksman William Tell. It shows a sublime Alpine landscape rendered in watercolour by the Grieve family, who were among London's best-known scene painters
  • An oil painting of a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII showing its attempt to clothe characters in historically appropriate costume
  • Early maps of Captain Cook's travels across the Pacific, which inspired many theatre productions at the turn of the nineteenth century
  • The musical score from Pizarro, a 1799 play about the conquest of Peru led by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Image of a print from the mid-1800s showing Mr Kean as King Richard, JJ Trade in prints and scraps 11(17).

Michael Burden, Fellow in Music at New College, Oxford
One of the exhibition's curators Michael Burden said: 'In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, audiences consumed dramas on historical topics with unprecedented enthusiasm. Even in an age of expanding print culture, theatres played an important role as dramatic newsreels for the masses, disseminating information and representing events of national interest.'

'In this exhibition, we present a number of evocative theatrical works that cast light on how history was told and retold on the stage through words, music and spectacle. We also explore how Regency theatre shaped popular interpretation of historical events.'

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian said: 'This fascinating exhibition explores how theatre has navigated the fine line between fact and fiction to bring history to the public. Although it focuses on the turn of the nineteenth century, the themes remain highly relevant today with historical fiction alive and well, on page, stage and screen. Perhaps, by considering how our ancestors performed their pasts, we might learn something about the present moment and how we understand the stories of history that are told today.'

Staging History is curated by Michael Burden, Fellow in Music at New College, Oxford and Professor in Opera Studies at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Hicks, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Music Department at Kings College London and Susan Valladares, College Lecturer at St Hugh's College, Oxford and Departmental Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford. The exhibition is based on research into the history of theatre, in particular on the long running project The London Stage 1800-1900, headed by Professor Burden, which will provide an online calendar of stage performances in London theatres during the nineteenth century.

A catalogue to accompany the exhibition, Staging History: 1780-1840, will be released in October 2016.

The Weston Library is one of the newest cultural destinations in Oxford and has welcomed more than 1 million visitors since opening to the public in March 2015. The Library has also won a string of architectural awards and was recently was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2016.

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