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Reviving the spirit of private theatricals

Posted on 03/11/2010

A hand-coloured print of a private performance of 'The Court of Oberon', devised by Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwicke

Academics at Royal Holloway, University of London are recreating the once highly-fashionable art of staging plays in the home as part of an ongoing project to investigate the historical phenomenon and bring it back to life.

Professor Judith Hawley from the Department of English and Dr Elaine McGirr, Senior Lecturer in English and Drama, are holding a symposium next month and are also staging a performance devised by students in the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway. In June 2011, they will organise a second conference at the College to investigate the cultural significance of amateur dramatics and to explore ways of reviving the practice in stately homes.

The inspiration for the project was Jane Austen’s depiction of the disruption caused by the attempt to put on a production of ‘Lover’s Vows’ in the billiard room in Mansfield Park. As well as turning the house upside down, the young characters disturb the ‘status quo’ by acting out their desires. This fictional scenario hints at the excitement caused by private theatricals in the Romantic period (approximately between 1780-1820). The project has received funding from the Research Strategy Fund with contributions from the Departments of English and Drama, totalling £5,000.

Professor Hawley and Dr McGirr are leading a network of scholars, literary critics, theatre practitioners and stake holders in the heritage industry to investigate the history and contemporary possibilities of this form of entertainment. Central to their investigation is a practical exploration and on 10 December the great hall and kitchen of Chawton House in Alton, Hampshire will be transformed into a make-shift theatre to evoke an event which took place on 24 February 1803 at Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith.  On that night, the theatre-mad Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Anspach, staged her adaptation of Frances Sheridan’s Oriental fantasy, ‘Nourjahad’ as a birthday entertainment for her husband. Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, is both a magnificently preserved Elizabethan manor house and a centre for the study of early women’s writing.

Professor Hawley said: “Theatre history has concentrated almost exclusively on the public theatres but there is a fascinating aspect of private life waiting to be uncovered. The possibilities for the transformation of space and self were so appealing that hundreds of upper class families got in on the act, while others decried the liberties so taken. We are very grateful to Royal Holloway for supporting this endeavour which is intended as a pilot for a more extensive project.”

“Students from the Drama Department will perform their interpretation of Lady Craven’s elaborate entertainment as a play within a play, to explore the ways in which texts were tailored to particular spaces and performers. Recapturing the spirit of amateur drama, this performance will bring both history and the house itself back to life”, explains Professor Hawley.

For more information on the performance on Friday 10 December and the Symposium on Saturday 11 December 2010 please contact Professor Hawley






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