Edifying Exhibitions: Education and Improvement in Romantic-Era Theatre

Melissa Marie Whalen, Fordham University


During the Romantic period, the theatre was the most popular form of entertainment and as such offered exciting opportunities for financial, professional, and social gain. Because it was widely recognized as an important cultural site, the theatre was also viewed as a vital way to reach the public, whether for the purposes of moral education, as in the case of Joanna Baillie, or political education, in the case of John Keats. Given its cultural prominence, the theatre was also a target of various efforts to improve it, which William Hazlitt aimed to do through his criticism, and manager John Philip Kemble through frequent staging of Shakespearean dramas. These four figures launched ambitious projects aimed at bettering the stage and educating the public from their different vantage points of playwright, critic, actor, and manager, but their success was limited each time by the collaborative nature of staged drama, including the say of the public. Even Kemble, who arguably had the most powerful position as both manager and popular actor, was beholden to a public who saw the theatre as its own. Kemble's career demonstrates the possibilities and limits of managerial power to modernize the stage. As a playwright, Baillie viewed the theatre as a type of classroom in which the audience learned to strengthen an innate sympathetic impulse. Baillie cautions her audience to be wary of spectacle, enacting her theories in Count Basil. As a critic, Hazlitt also viewed the theatre as a type of school, and aimed to provide lessons to actors and to theatre-goers of the present and future in his reviews and essays. He also aimed to preserve prize cultural moments of Romantic theatre and improve future productions through the medium of print, which would outlast performances of the present day. Keats too had an instructional purpose, as he criticized late-Regency government corruption and oppression through the lens of his historical drama, Otho the Great. Unable to make overt political references, Keats nevertheless shows the damage oppressive regimes inflict upon the individual in his plot, and his choice of lead actor, Edmund Kean, publicly associated with revolutionary roles.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Whalen, Melissa Marie, "Edifying Exhibitions: Education and Improvement in Romantic-Era Theatre" (2013). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3600982.