Theatre in Georgian England

 

Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768

Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768

 

During the Georgian Era, Great Britain’s population grew rapidly, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801.  Many people left the countryside to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities.  Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and from across large areas of continental Europe.  Young people were drawn to urban areas by the offer of regular and full-time employment.  The increased income that came from this steady employment allowed these new city residents to take advantage of the entertainments offered in these urban areas: the theatres, inns, and pleasure gardens, as well as the shops featuring the latest fashions.

In today’s post, we are going to look at English theatre – its roots and development over time, the social forces that shaped it, and what it was like attending the Theatre in the Georgian Era.

Medieval Drama

Between 925 and 975, theatre was “reborn” as drama reappeared in church services.  By 975, it had become a small drama within the service, often played by altar boys, used to illustrate various lessons from the Bible.  These “dramas” had little sense of history – reflecting the limited knowledge of the people, and anachronisms were quite common.  In The Second Shepherds’ Play, for instance, the stolen lamb becomes the baby Jesus, although the Shepherds had been using Christian references even before this “baby Jesus” arrived).  Comic elements appeared in plays that were otherwise quite serious, and had as their purpose to teach Biblical stories and principles to the people.  The medieval mind looked at the temporal world (Earth) as transitory; Heaven and Hell were the eternal realities. (Northern Virginia Community College, 2008)

In the 12th century, the fighters, returning from the Crusades, brought traditions from other cultures to Great Britain.  It was during this time that religious dramas began to be performed outside the church in the vernacular [native language].  In the beginning, the church had control of the drama outside of the church, but then it gradually became more controlled by secular groups.  The Guilds took over in some cities, and often certain Guilds retained control over certain plays/stories, all based in some way on the Bible or religious teachings.  For instance, the Bakers’ Guild might control the play about the Last Supper, and the Shipwrights’ Guild would do plays about the Ark. Continue reading

George Washington – Master of the Dance

The following post originally appeared on an English Country Dance blog that I used to write for.  Please enjoy this “different” view of George Washington as you celebrate President’s Day .

 

George Washington Looking out of a window

 

Barely a month before his death, George Washington penned the following letter.

Mount Vernon

12th November, 1799.

 Gentlemen—Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies in Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our  dancing days are no more. We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them; and I am, gentlemen,

Your most obedient and obliged humble servant,

Geo. Washington (Custis, p. 366)

Our first President, known today mostly for his military and political accomplishments, was known throughout his lifetime for his accomplishments on the dance floor. The private assembly, the public ball, and the afternoon dancing party served the same role for Washington and his generation that cocktail parties, golf outings  and country clubs serve today—venues to bring the political leaders, financiers, military leaders and power brokers together under favorable and visible conditions. For most of his career, George Washington depended entirely on the inter-relations between these groups of people, socially, economically, and politically. In many cases, dancing was simply an excuse for a party and one of several activities at the event.

We have no evidence about how or when George Washington learned to dance, but it probably wasn’t from a book. His formal education, provided to him as one of ten children of an aristocratic Virginia family, ended in his early teens. He must have had instruction somewhere, especially to execute the complicated rhythms, patterns, and steps of the minuet, which he had certainly mastered by the time of the American Revolution as shown by the following accounts:

From the winter of 1777-78.

Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, the former Catherine Littlefield of Block Island, turned out to be the life of any party she attended, Kitty, as she was called, was apparently one of George Washington’s favored dancing partners. “At a Valley Forge soiree, according to historian Theodore Thayer in George Washington’s Generals, she danced with General Washington for three hours without stopping, which set a Continental Army record. General Green himself said that Kitty danced with the Commander-in-Chief for three hours without stopping, at Morristown…….Dancing, as Washington said of his gambling, was “an agreeable and innocent amusement,” a welcome relief from the time he spent in the saddle commanding the troops.” (Marvin Kitman, p. 169)

 

George Washington Dancing with Nellie Custis at his Mt. Vernon Home Feb 1777 by E. P Morran

George Washington Dancing with Nellie Custis at his Mt. Vernon Home Feb 1777 by E. P Morran

Apparently, Kitty Green was a favorite dancing partner of the Commander-in-Chief as we see once again in 1778.

When the camp spent a day rejoicing over the French alliance, “the celebration,” according to Thacher, “was concluded by a splendid ball opened by his Excellency General Washington, having for his partner the lady of General Knox.” Greene describes how “we had a little dance at my quarters a few evenings past. His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” (James Tilton in a letter to Gunning Bedford)

In 1779, as he danced a minuet with Lucy Knox, the wife of General Knox, he inspired the following tribute:

The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn trifles into instruction. (Pennsylvania Packet, March, 6, 1779)

In 1781, at a victory ball in Fredericksburg, held less than a month after the Yorktown victory.

It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. . . The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners. The gallant Frenchmen who were present, of which fine people it may be said that dancing forms one of the elements of their existence, so much admired the American performance as to admit that a Parisian education could not have improved it. As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief yielding to the general gayety of the scene, went down some dozen couple in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction (Custis, pp. 143-144)

George Washington dancing at a American Revolution Victory Ball

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

 

And finally in 1783 when he went to Annapolis to resign his commission in the Army.

That night the General Assembly gave a ball at the State House, which was “beautifully illuminated” by eight pounds of candles. “A very numerous and brilliant appearance of ladies were present.” George Mann supplied supper, wine, a potent punch, and twelve packs of cards for entertainment at the ball. Congressman James Tilton of Delaware reported that the general “danced every set, that the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him. (McWilliams, p. 107)

While a great many stories about George Washington may well be legend, (chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a coin across the Potomac, etc.) it is obvious that General Washington’s legendary performance in the ballroom should certainly qualify him for the title of “Master of the Dance”.

Works Cited

Custis, G. W. (1860). Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis. New York: Derby & Jackson.

Marvin Kitman, G. W. (1970). George Washington’s Expense Account. New York: Simon & Schuster.

McWilliams, J. W. (2011). Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pennsylvania Packet. (1779, March 6).

 

©2013  Chuck Hudson

How England Got a German King – the Origin of the Georgians

Portrait of King George I of England

George I of England

 

On 18 September 1714, a 54-year-old German Prince, who had never set foot in the British Isles, arrived in Greenwich, England.  32 days later, without bloodshed or force of arms, he was crowned George the First, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.  How did this stranger come to sit on the throne of England and found the House of Hanover?  To understand the events that led to the rise of the Hanoverians, we have to look back more than 100 years before George’s arrival to the first of the Stuart Kings. Continue reading

The Flowing Bowl: Part 2

 

Gentlemen Socializing Around the Punch Bowl

 

Boy, bring a bowl of China here,
Fill it with water cool and clear:
Decanter with Jamaica right
And spoon of silver, clean and bright.

Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,
Kni[f]e, sieve and glass in order put,
Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then
We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.
(Franklin, 1737)

 Punch in England

With so many sailors returning from Eastern voyages with little else but the memories of drinking punch, it’s unsurprising that the docks and ports of Europe’s biggest seafaring harbors played host to the arrival of punch into European society; quickly becoming just as associated sailors, as weevils, wenches and dysentery. Continue reading

THE FLOWING BOWL: A short history of punch

 

Three Gentlemen making a bowl of punch

Three Gentlemen Making a Bowl of Punch

 

You may talk of brisk claret, sing praises of sherry;
Speak well of old hock, mum, cider, and perry;
But you must drink punch if you mean to be merry.

A bowl of this liquor the gods being all at,
Though good we should know it by way of new ballad,
As fit for both ours and their Highnesses’ palate.
(Purcell, Blow, & Walsh, ca. 1730)

Open just about any book written in English between the late 1600s and the mid-1800s that deals with daily life, more than likely someone is going to make or consume a bowl of punch.  For almost 200 years, punch reigned as the mixed drink of choice in the English-speaking world.

The Origins of Punch

No one really knows, nor are we ever likely to decide who concocted the first bowl of punch.  Many people of an etymological bent are of the common belief that the word ‘punch’ can be traced to the old Hindustani “paunch” meaning five, a reference to the five classes of ingredients in punch recipes; distilled spirits, water, sugar, citrus, and spices.  Sustaining this interpretation is that there are many references to punch in the East India Trading Company’s correspondence, and the reports of travelers to their factories (the period word for trading posts) on the Indian subcontinent.  The earliest English reference to punch is found in a letter sent on September 28, 1632 by Robert Addams, one of the companies men-at-arms wishing Thomas Colley, a factor, good luck on an upcoming trip to Bengal.  Addams wrote, Continue reading

The War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent

American and British Representatives at the Signing of the Treaty of Ghent

Signing of the Treaty of Ghent

On 21 February 2015, the Norfolk (VA) Historical Society will sponsor a series of events to commemorate the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by the US Congress in February of 1815 and 200 years of peace and friendship between the United States and Great Britain.  The capstone to events will be the Treaty of Ghent Bicentennial Gala.  Held at the Norfolk Yacht Club, this will include dinner, a 19th-century dance demonstration, a short talk on the Treaty of Ghent, and a chance for the public to try their hands at 19th-century dances. For reservations, please go to the event webpage

In honor of this anniversary, we will take a short look at the War, the Treaty of Ghent, and the aftermath of this last conflict between the US and the UK.

 The Causes of the War of 1812

The real origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for two decades following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power.  Britain gained mastery of the seas from Nelson’s naval victory at Trafalgar 21 October 1805.  On 21 Nov 1806, Napoleon ordered a blockade (the Berlin Decree) of shipping aimed at crippling British trade.  He ordered all European ports under his control closed to British ships.  He further decreed neutral and French ships seized if they visited a British port before entering a continental port (the so-called Continental System).  Britain responded with a series of Orders in Council (1807) that imposed severe restrictions on vessels trading with the continent, including requiring all neutral ships to get a license before they could sail to Europe.  Because of Nelson’s previously mentioned victory, Great Britain had the sea power to enforce its blockade. Continue reading

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Twelfth Night Party

Today’s post is the last installment for Christmas Season 2014.  It is not about celebrating the New Year, but rather about the traditional celebrations of Twelfth Night, the last big party of the holiday season in the Georgian Era.  Before we go into the period traditions of the celebrations of this holiday, let us begin by talking about what Twelfth Night is, and how Christmas season celebrations have changed over the years.

The origins of the Twelfth Night celebration go back to pre-Christian traditions in Europe.  The Roman winter celebrations of Saturnalia and the Celtic Yule feasts continued even after Christianity began to dominate in the region.  Many Celts believed in the  “Sacred King” who would be sacrificed to the land.  His spilled blood anointed and fertilized the land.  Catholic priests preaching the Gospels to the Celts discouraged such sacrifices, but allowed the people to continue their celebrations.  The “Sacred King” to be sacrificed became the “Lord of Misrule,” who ruled over the village/tribe for the celebration.  This notion, that one of the commoners could rule, was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down. Continue reading