Georgian Theatre Criticism


A Scene from “The Farmer’s Return” by David Garrick. c 1766
Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810)

The theatre critic is a fixture in today’s newspapers and it turns out that such people have a long history behind them. Even in Georgian times, people turned to their newspapers to discover what was on at the local theatre, and whether it was worth attending — at least in terms of the play and the acting.

Here are several examples, all taken from the pages of The Norfolk Chronicle and referring to performances at the various theatres in Norwich itself.

5th May 1781

For the benefit of Mr and Mrs BANNISTER.

At the Theatre-Royal, by his Majesty’s Servants, on Wednesday May 9, will be reviv’d a Comedy called A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

Note: This Comedy, which has lately been revived at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and repeated since with distinguished Applause, is the Production of that ingenious Gentleman Mr Philip MASSINGER, and is thus spoken of by the Critics: — “The Plot is good and well conducted; the Language dramatic and nervous, and the Characters, particularly that of Sir Giles Overreach, highly and judiciously drawn.”

11th Jan 1783

Theatrical Intelligence

We hear Mrs COWLEY’s much admired comedy of “Which is the Man?” will be performed at our theatre this evening, with that most excellent and laughable farce of “The Agreeable Surprise,” which was acted here for the first time on Monday last, and received with the greatest marks of approbation.

Mrs SHARPE, who made her first appearance on this stage in the character of Euphrasia, the Grecian daughter, is a very pleasing performer. Though she has not the advantages of a fine person, she is sufficiently graceful in manner and address, and is pointedly correct in the emphasis. Without an approach to the strut and rant of the stage, she has feeling and dignity to express the most violent exclamation, and, to fill the most complicated situation. At the same time she is capable of the tender pathos. Her Juliet is chaste and pathetic.[1]

Mr WEST’s comic ballet of the Drunken Swiss is a species of figure- dancing never exhibited on this stage till Monday last. Miss VALOIS has equal merit in the piece. They were received with very great applause.
The Agreeable Surprise is one of the most Agreeable farces we were ever Surprised with. The Son-in-law, by the same author, is getting up. [2]

Sometimes, however, the ‘criticism’ could get a little too rough.

On Monday last was committed to the above gaol, Thomas SAUNDERS, a private soldier in the 9th regiment of foot, for throwing a glass bottle on the stage at the Theatre on Saturday night last.

Theatrical comment might also prove a useful way to attack a rival publication. However, in this case, it does look as if something had gone awry. Not just a rude comment in a rival newspaper, but also an “illiberal, malicious and Ill-judged” handbill.

Theatre Royal, Norwich, March 21, 1783.

The Performers of the Theatre-Royal, fired with an honest Indignation against the illiberal and ill-founded Attack in last Saturday’s Norwich Mercury, upon the Proprietors of the above Theatre, hold it their indispensible [sic] Duty, in the most unequivocal and public Manner to declare, they, so far from having experienced the least Injustice, Inconvenience, or Discontent by the Interference of those Gentlemen, in the getting up, or casting of any Piece, or in the other internal Regulations of the Theatre, they have, on the contrary, in every Instance, received Proofs of their Judgment, Attentions, Liberality, and Respect.

22nd March 1783

Fired with an honest indignation at the Hand-bill impudently and officiously obtruded [3] on the Public Notice by those Ladies and Gentlemen of the Green Room whose Names are on it; and conceiving ourselves as much interested in the Censure Miss LAURA[4] has thrown on the Mode of conducting this Theatre; We the Scene-Shifters, Lamp-Lighters, Bill- Stickers, Trumpeter, Hair Dressers, Stage-Sweepers, Door-Keepers, Fidlers [sic] and Carpenters, in our own Right, and for the Scenery, Machinery, Trap-Doors, and Orchestre [sic], do Protest against the illiberal, malicious, and ill-judged Paper and its Contents; it having been irreverently issued without our Advice or Privity [sic].
For Us All,
Jeffery DUNSTAN X His Mark

The theatre wasn’t the only entertainment in Norwich by any means; nor was it always the most popular, to judge by this plaintive appeal. I wonder if the “correspondent” was genuine or a pseudonym for the theatre manager?

4th Jan 1783

A correspondent, who is an admirer of the Drama and a constant attendant on the Theatre, recommends it to the principal inhabitants of this city “not to give or receive public visits on a play-night,” as is the case in most other towns in the kingdom: for, how can the proprietors afford to give new scenery, dresses, etc, unless the receipts of the house are adequate; or, can a performer play with so much spirit to empty benches ? — Do not give entertainments, card-parties, routs, balls, etc, on play-nights, and you’ll find more satisfaction in the Theatre.

  1. I would count this as “damned with faint praise!”  ↩
  2. Being rehearsed prior to some future performance.  ↩
  3. Why don’t journalists write like this any more? I’m always being deluged with marketing material, which is definitely “impudently and officiously obtruded” on me.  ↩
  4. Either the journalist or the writer of the handbill — or both.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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