Theatre and mid-Victorian society, 1851-1870

Richard Schoch*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

7 Citations (Scopus)


In a formation that has rapidly become canonical in British historiography, the mid-Victorian years — from 1851 to 1870 — were an “age of equipoise’: a collective sigh of relief at having safely negotiated the landmines of electoral reform, Chartist agitation and revolutionary phobia. As the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wildly and, as it turned out, accurately prophesied, 1851 – the year in which the Great Exhibition opened at the iron and glass Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park — would “long be remembered as a singularly happy year of peace, plenty, good feeling, innocent pleasure and national glory’. Although the mid-Victorian period lacked the sharp social and political contrasts of the 1840s and 1880s, it was nonetheless a crucial period in British history, because it provided a moment of respite in which the nation could pause to consolidate and savour its economic prosperity, technological modernity and political serenity. From the new perspective of the Crystal Palace, a dream of social order founded on respectability at last seemed possible. And leisure pursuits, one of the prized benefits of economic prosperity, were a prime area for achieving and advancing social harmony and intellectual enlightenment.This chapter explores how the theatre made a bid for respectability, that most cherished of nineteenth-century virtues. Yet the exploration is not straightforward. Indeed, my central claim is that the mid-Victorian theatre both embraced and resisted the dominant middle-class goal of respectability — for the theatre as a cultural institution, for the acting profession and even for the social standing of theatre audiences. Just what the mid-Victorians meant by “respectability’ was always a bit unclear, even to them.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of British Theatre
Subtitle of host publicationVolume 2 1660 to 1895
PublisherReader, Cambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139054065
ISBN (Print)0521650682, 9780521650687
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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