Reporter 450, 3 April 2000


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‘PROVINCIAL THEATRE AND THEATRICAL CULTURE IN VICTORIAN LEEDS’ (F/122/BA): FINAL REPORT

a. the grant

The research project ran from October 1998 to September 1998. It had a budget of £22,480. Details of final expenditure can be found on the accompanying appendix. The principal investigator for the research was Dr Gail Marshall, who retained overall responsibility for the co-ordination of the research, and supervised one of its three component parts. The project investigated ’Victorian Theatre in Leeds’ under three headings:

Mapping the theatrical culture of Leeds;

1895 and the Grand Theatre;

Shakespeare and Victorian Leeds.

Dr Amanda Price, Mr Tim Skelly and Dr Marshall were respectively responsible for investigating one each of these topics. Each of these three members of staff worked on the project for approximately one morning a week during the time for which each was responsible for the day-to-day management of research. Ms Helen Townend was appointed as a research assistant to work full-time on the project.

Work was carried out principally at the West Yorkshire Archive Services, where the archives of the Grand Theatre are held, at the Local History library in Leeds, and the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. Use was also made of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, the British Library, Colindale Newspaper Library, and the Harry Ranson humanities research center at the University of Austin, Texas, which houses the extant papers of Wilson Barrett, the first manager of the Grand Theatre.

 

b. objectives

The primary objective of the study was to begin to build up a picture of Leeds theatre, in its broadest sense, at the end of the nineteenth century, how it was experienced and located culturally in a major industrial city, and how it was physically provided. To this end, the study was divided into the following parts:

i. mapping the theatrical culture of Leeds

Taking the Grand Theatre as its initial focus, this part of the project aimed to map the theatrical culture of Leeds at a specific moment drawing as accurate and as wide-ranging a picture as possible of the available range of theatrical activities. In this preliminary study we focused on a short period of time, the years 1895-96, which witnessed the end of the Barrett management of the Grand.

ii. 1895 and the Grand Theatre

In this part of the project, we aimed to explore the physical environment of the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds, and placed particular emphasis on the refurbishment and modernisation programmes undertaken between 1895 and 1904 under the new managing director, John Hart. This significant period of change follows immediately upon the end of the tenure of Wilson Barrett at the Grand. Drawing on the resources of the West Yorkshire Archive and the local planning office, we aimed to investigate those physical developments, the financial measures necessitated by them, and the changes they effected in the theatre and in audiences’ perceptions.

iii. Shakespeare and Leeds theatre

For much of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was a figure capable of according both cultural status and significant financial benefits to a theatre. During the first year of this project, the aim was to put together a preliminary study of the presence of Shakespeare in Leeds at the end of the nineteenth century. The place of Shakespeare within the Grand repertory was explored, and the history of Shakespeare’s reception at this largely ‘legitimate’ theatre was charted. Other venues in which Shakespeare was made available to Leeds audiences were also studied.

We also hoped that some of the year might be spent on investigating other local theatres and archives with a view to further expanding the project into other areas of the West Riding.

 

c. research activity

The principal source employed in each part of our research was the archive of the Grand Theatre. Comprising letter books, financial records, minutes of directors’ meetings, plans, and much miscellaneous material besides, including details of the original stage machinery, the archive was an invaluable means of firmly grounding our research. We were able to evaluate the popularity of particular plays and performers, and the demography of the audiences which went to various types of attraction.

The separate sections of the project also made use of the specific resources detailed below:

i. mapping the theatrical culture of Leeds

An overview of theatrical culture in Leeds at the end of the nineteenth century was offered by Alfred Mattison’s lecture "Chronicles of the Leeds Stage" (1912), held in the Leeds Local History Library alongside his lecture notes, accompanying magic lantern slides, and diaries. Much of this material deals with the development of Tate Wilkinson’s Theatre Royal and Northern Circuit and pays only passing attention to the rapid growth and development of less legitimate entertainments in Leeds such as the '‘singing rooms’ and the Music Hall.

A detailed study of The Yorkshire Post, The Leeds Mercury, The Yorkshire Owl and The Leeds Programme of Amusements for the year 1895 provided a more detailed and diverse insight into both the habits and preferences of the Leeds audiences. Leeds boasted, at this time, two large and successful Music Halls (The Princess’ Palace and the City Varieties), two large theatres (The Grand and The Theatre Royal), and The Coliseum which was used, during the course of the year, as a circus, an exhibition hall, a concert hall, and a meeting hall. Whilst the local newspapers tend only to review the theatrical products, the Yorkshire Owl offers detailed and lively coverage of the Music Hall, ranging from lists of performers, alongside descriptions of their acts, weekly interviews with selected ‘stars’, and gossip pertaining particularly to those involved with the more popular end of the entertainment spectrum. In addition to this it also reviews plays and occasionally offers interviews with visiting actors and actresses. This publication, in particular, has proved invaluable in attempting an assessment of the range and variety of ‘amusements’ both offered to, and expected by, the late Victorian audience in Leeds.

The City Varieties archive, held at the City Varieties, has proved, as yet, inaccessible but this would obviously enhance greatly the broader picture we are attempting to create. Axel Burrough’s ‘Strategic Study for the Future Refurbishment of the City Varieties Music Hall’, commissioned by Leeds City Council in 1992, and made available in this instance by The Theatre’s Trust, provides details of alterations made to the building, post 1876, and this has proved extremely helpful in assessing the changing needs of the audiences and performers. In the report Burroughs indicates the existence, in the Leeds City Archives, of "many thousands of drawings" relating to the period 1860 – 1876 which are not, at the present time, in a fit state to be handled by the public, but would – at some future date – offer further evidence relating to the evolution of the building.

The Thoresby society in Leeds offers a wealth of local historical material, a small part of which relates to theatre and entertainments. The Chairman of the society, Steven Burt, has been extremely generous in helping me to track down rather obscure references and his interest in this project will, I’m sure, generate further relevant material.

ii. 1895 and the Grand Theatre

The West Yorkshire Archive Service provided the main starting point for all central research, with both the Bradford and particularly the Leeds Local History Library forming extremely useful and pertinent links to sources of elucidating data. The Theatre Museum, Theatres Trust, and the Mander & Mitchenson Theatre Collection all provided additional helpful material and advice. It has not been possible to access the archive at the City Varieties theatre, which has been disappointing and limiting.

It has been possible to clearly map the end of Wilson Barrett’s tenure as theatre manager, through close scrutiny of the Director’s Minutes, the directors’personal letters, and Wilson Barrett’s private correspondence Housed in Austin, Texas).

Alongside this investigation of the management of the theatre, we carried out a study of the structural and decorative changes to the theatre building which coincided with the change of management in 1895. A clear picture of the reforms was achieved through through detailed examination of the building itself, cash books, minutes, scale plans and models, and various tenders and quotations contained within the archive. This study has provided further essential information relating to the various different local companies who were involved with theatre building and renovation within the region, and has shown how prolific their output was.

iii. Shakespeare and Leeds Theatre

The primary sources for this investigation were again to be found in the Grand Theatre archive and in the Local History Library. The Grand records were an invaluable source of information in seeking to assess the popularity and prevalence of Shakespeare in the city’s leading legitimate theatre space. Financial returns give an indication of the popularity across a twenty-seven year period of the various plays and managements who appeared at the Grand, and also provide an invaluable account of the relationship between a leading provincial theatre and the London touring companies, most notably Wilson Barrett’s own London theatre, the Princess’s.

The Grand material and experience was supplemented by a survey of local newspapers, which provided reviews of the Grand’s productions, and evidence of the ways in which Shakespeare was made available both in other theatres and non-theatrical venues.

This research also drew heavily on the resources of the Local History Library which holds as yet uncatalogued play-bills from the Leeds theatres of the early- to mid-nineteenth century. Though not absolutely central to the project, they provided helpful contextual evidence of the shift in performance practices discernible by the end of the century. The library also houses the reports and proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution. Exhaustive study of the records of these bodies provide a fascinating parallel to the theatrical records we possess, and show how central readings and lectures of Shakespeare were to the pedagogic and philanthropic activities of the two societies. The overlap in personnel betwen the directors of these societies and the directors of the Grand theatre is also significant, as is the extent to which the socities drew for their own uses on those actors and actresses appearing in local theatres.

In addition to these public sources of information, some private family papers lodged in the West Yorkshire archive also show how some of the female members of the theatre directors’ families incorporate Shakespeare into their private discussion groups.

The only significant problems encountered in terms of resources in this part of the research were those perhaps necessarily involved in local archival work, of incomplete catalogues and incomplete runs of information. We had also hoped that more information about amateur groups’ activities would be available, but little material of that kind has come to light.

 

d. conclusions and achievements

We are satisfied that as a team we met the objectives that were set in each individual part of the project. The main frustration that was generally felt was that we had actually unearthed much more material than we had expected to find, and that the time allocated to the project had proved insufficient to deal with it all. Because of this, it is our intention to apply for further funding which will enable us to carry forward some of the primary research which remains to be done on the available material, and also, and most significantly, further to develop some of the methodological issues which arose as a result of our researches.

The work carried out so far has enabled us to build up a more accurate and sophisticated picture of the theatrical culture of Leeds than has been known before, and a more accurate picture of the relationship between Wilson Barrett and the Grand directors. We have also learnt an unprecedented amount about the local economic negotiations involved in refurbishing the Grand, and the hitherto unknown extent of the indigenous theatre industry. Most significantly perhaps, we have started to develop a methodology for local theatre research which should prove more responsive to the dynamics of the local stage than has previously been the case. By determinedly setting the theatre within the context of Leeds as a major manufacturing city, we have been able to chart the theatre’s place and function within that society, and to trace the links between it and the city’s industrial and civic fortunes. The interdependences which we have discovered suggest that a new form of methodology of theatre research needs to be developed, and our new research bid will offer the chance to expand on the work already carried out in this area.

Because of the wealth of material which we found concerning the Leeds theatres, we were unable to make much progress with our projected explorations of other local archival and theatre resources. This is regrettable, but during the course of the year, we decided that the best way to make progress with the work in hand was to concentrate our efforts on the considerable resources that Leeds offered. Though there clearly is much work to be done on other theatres in the region, and most particularly the Alhambra at Bradford, there is a very significant amount of material still to be properly dealt with in the Leeds area.

 

e. publications and dissemination

On Septemer 4, 1999 we held a conference, ‘The Grand Perspective: or, Theatrical Culture in Late-Victorian Leeds’, which publicised the work carried out so far on this project. The one-day conference attracted a broad-based, international audience of academics, theatre practitioners, and local theatre-goers. A programme for the conference is enclosed. Speakers included the researchers on the project, local theatre researchers, and the current manager of the Grand Theatre, who has been highly supportive of our work. The day combined conventional academic papers with dramatisations of some of the material turned up in our researches, and a magic lantern lecture. The texture of the day thus responded in its variety to the breadth and diversity of the materials with which we had been working.

As originally proposed it is intended that at least four of the papers will be published in academic journals. These would be Dr Price’s paper on ‘mapping the theatrical culture of Leeds’, which would include a reading of Mattison’s Chronicles; Mr Skelly’s work on the physical theatre, which would generate two articles on i. the physical changes occurring at the Grand in 1895, with details of electrical innovations, reupholstery, redecorating, recarpeting, etc., and an account of the particular firms (all based in Yorkshire) who carried out the work, and ii. a detailed account of the end of Wilson Barrett's tenure at the Grand; and Dr Marshall’s paper on Shakespeare in Victorian Leeds. Revision of all these papers is underway for their publication in the appropriate academic theatre journals.

However, we also feel that it would be important to make this material, and some of our sources, more readily available within the city which generated the research, and so we are at the moment negotiating with Leeds city council the possibility of publishing our research on the council’s arts web-site. Leverhulme support for this work would of course be acknowledged.

 

f. future research plans in this field

As the conference made clear to our audience, the primary aim of this one-year research project had been to determine the scope and diversity of information available on various aspects of theatrical production in Leeds in the late-1890s. The papers, therefore, reflect our first findings, but in no way adequately represent the potential of a full-scale investigation into the material available. In addition to this, the cross-referencing of material which occurred throughout the process of preparing and presenting the material at the conference suggested further uses of the material which would help to illumine the creation, development, and manipulation of a city’s culture in the late-Victorian period.

There is no doubt that the researched material could prove a rich vein within the field of theatre history, and it is now our aim to work with our findings in order to develop them to their full potential. We have no desire, at this time, to broaden the geographical scope of our work, as one of the unique qualities of the work we have done thus far is to examine in detail the ‘weave’ of cultural development in Leeds with a distinct accent upon the particular relationship between industry and entertainment in the city.

The sources we have so far used in our research include:

We are currently developing research plans in conjunction with the city archivists and librarians, and are negotiating a possible partnership between Leeds Ciy Library and ourselves to pull together these diverse sources and to create a research project which will both map and interrogate the conditions of theatrical culture in Leeds from 1850-1900. It is our aim, in the creation of this documentation, to supplement the sources with ongoing inter-disciplinary academic commentary and thus, in the process, to create a methodological model for this kind of research.

The electronic resource which we aim to create will be unique in its combination of traditional static archival material set alongside a developing commentary, provided initially by the primary researchers. However, it is hoped, in the long term, to attract interest and input from other scholars and academics working in related fields. The network of links and cross-referencing, accompanied by detailed documentation of sources will demonstrate a methodological model which, it is anticipated, will attract developmental support from academics and provide the foundation for an expansion of research into regional theatre history both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Our ultimate aim is to invite the initiation of comparative studies and form the basis for a network of regional projects initially in the UK but eventually linking into Europe where at least two comparable studies are currently being developed (in Leiden and Cologne).

 

 

Dr Gail Marshall

16 February 2000

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