Victorian Redux

Any 19th century stories catch your attention recently?
written by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington

Anyone else watching the new Victoria series on PBS? I’m still not absolutely sold on it, but I’m sticking around another episode or two. Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne is trying to out-Byron Lord Byron and it’s fun to watch. And Jenna Coleman is an interesting “work in progress” Victoria when she comes to the throne. I’m glad we’ve recently allowed ourselves to remember how painfully young Victoria was—and sassy! Her energy at the beginning of her reign was the shot in the arm the monarchy needed, and the dynamism of the age and the dynamism of the queen waxed and waned in tandem.

(I’m also just loving the costumes. The massive skirt with massive sleeve combo in the 1830s looks fiendishly uncomfortable—but we invented stiletto heels, so I cast no stones.)

Remember how Tudor-centric pop culture was about ten years ago? It felt like every time you turned around Cate Blanchet was gliding down a torch lit corridor in slow motion or Jonathan Rhys Meyers was . . . making a new lady friend. In the theatre world this trend culminated just a couple years ago with the RSC’s opulent production of Wolf Hall.

Any time the cultural world fixates on a particular historical period (not just as escapism, but really spends some significant time there) I wonder what “metaphor” the past is offering to so mesmerize the present. My guess is the Tudor metaphor was tied to the prevalence at the time of discourses about political dynasty and intrigue. Tudor England is a total soap opera but a soap opera with world-changing impact. In a time of war, that combination of high emotion and high stakes felt spot on.

This cultural “group think” happens all the time with classical theatres. Someone announces a title and discovers a dozen theatres across the country are also producing it. Sometimes the motive behind the choice is obvious—at the beginning of the Obama administration there were endless Othellos. Sometimes the intention reflects shifting artistic trends. Last year there were productions of Pericles popping up everywhere as artists basked in its unique scope, diversity, and design possibilities.

Between our upcoming Vanity Fair production, and the fact that I’m teaching a course in the development of Realism, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 19th century—metaphorically speaking. During a recent free-association internet search (the kind where you start by looking up the Marriage Law of 1836 and end up learning about the use of silk in WWII parachutes) I found a site detailing the particularly rich crop of television and film productions based in the Victorian era recently: everything from the straightforward Victoria, to Julian Fellowes’ cheeky adaptation of Trollope’s Doctor Throne—even the BBC’s Sherlock returned to its Victorian roots with a special set in the original time period (sort of).

And that’s just on the British shore—America’s turbulent 19th century also figured prominently in the cultural landscape. Of course, our “Victorian” experience, though it reflects much of the morality taking hold across The Pond, can’t be separated from the build up and aftermath of the Civil War. 2016 saw a sweeping “Roots” remake, the gruesome “Undergound,” and the layered “Mercy Street” just to name a few. It’s history that offers quite a different view of the world than the goings on at Buckingham Palace.

I’m still mulling over what we’re searching for by spending so much time in the Victorian landscape. There are plenty of potential answers. The era forces you to consider tricky questions of empires and their progression. It shows how technology reshaped societies across the globe at a breakneck pace (she says writing this on her iPad). There’s also an awareness of group action as a catalyst for change, but a deep mistrust of almost all the groups taking action—you know, those pesky suffragists, abolitionists, and workers.

And it’s interesting that the more self-evident cultural shifts became, the more emphatically they were ignored. How long can a society hold on to an image of itself that doesn’t really reflect the reality? Apparently a long time. I have this image of an entire world of toffs in top hats putting their white-gloved fingers in their ears and chanting “la la la la!” It’s easy to see why an Ibsen or a Shaw might start poking their particular societal bears in response.

When we jump into rehearsals for Vanity Fair next month, we’ll be telling a Victorian story of the Napoleonic era as told by a 21st century playwright. It’s a metaphor wrapped in a simile inside a symbol! I’m looking forward to watching this group of artists play with the various levels of meaning in Kate Hamill’s fantastic script, and seeing what metaphors our audiences find in a distant (but familiar) landscape.