18th Century Theatre Criticism

The professional 18th century theatre critic emerged some time mid century, armed with caustic humour, scathing words and imbued with Georgian disdain for histrionic art, they devoted column space to either acerbic criticisms or encomiums of both plays and performers. This tradition of both prejudice and adoration had a long history: Roman society shared an equivocal relationship with its actors recognising that an entertained populace was a happy one, while excluding them from positions of privilege and authority.
   For the Georgians, sundry amateur entertainments arranged for the amusement of gentlemen and their friends were tolerated by society, but professional actors were considered low and monetary gain for performance was regarded as tawdry as this letter illustrates: 

‘…The ‘young gentlemen’ were informed by some of their friends, that there were a parcel of counterfeited tickets then selling about the town… (… if he asserts so, he is mistaken; for there were only 52 genuine tickets struck off, which were given to the “Exhibitor’s” particular friends) they immediately on this information, resolved to postpone the performance till some other opportunity, their intention being only amusement, (as may be seen by the tenor of their tickets) they thought it below their rank and characters to perform for the sake of a little paltry gain…’ 

Letter to the New York Gazette & Weekly Post-Boy 26th June 1769 announcing the ‘postponement of an amateur production of The Orphan because it was let out that the company was selling tickets.’ (Courtesy of The Colonial American Stage 1665-1774 by Odai Johnson et al.) 

   The derision for professional players and their rising popularity might have opened the doors for the theatrical reviewer to step in and create a whole new field of journalism. Critics could take the higher ground and become the conduit for public opinion or so they may have thought, however the public had already begun its long love affair with actors and many of the players were seeking to distance themselves from the seedier aspects of the profession.
   Even though the reviewers were not always biting with their criticisms, they were all the more entertaining when they were writing with vitriol. It is worth reading John Genest’s ten volume opus purely for gems such as this: 

[On the play ‘Battle of Hastings’] ‘Cumberland’s [the author] usual good sense was taking a very sound nap, when he made Matilda speak of “Pallas springing from “the brain of Jove”-it is wonderful that respectable authors should so frequently be guilty of improprieties for the sake of introducing allusions to the ancient Mythology, which after all are (generally speaking) only worthy of a schoolboy.’ 

Genest published Some Account of the English Stage: From the Restoration in 1660 to 1830  in 1832, but he was clearly a man of the 18th century – he was born in 1764 – and from the same tradition as this critic writing about a performance of Macbeth in 1767:


Mr Adcock's review

Mr Adcock’s Review

‘Mr Adcock has an agreeable Person and Voice, but knows not how to use either to Advantage. His Gait and Attitudes are most ungraceful; he speaks with an unnatural Stiffness, labouring like a Man in an Asthma. In Banquo he seems practising with his Cudgel against Shrovetide. I was in Pain for the poor Witches, at whom he furiously shook his Truncheon, storming and bellowing when he should address them mildly, and in the low Voice of timid Apprehension.’

Unlike her father, Sarah Maria Adcock (Mrs Wilson) never received a poor review for her onstage performances, only her offstage ones. She was often the recipient of sometimes gushy, but often honest reviews that prove not all critics were simply out to disparage the profession: 

Hannah Cowley, A Bold Stroke for a Husband, The Morning Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser No. 4298 26 Feb 1783:

‘Mrs Wilson played the latter part of Minette incomparably. She deserves great praise for throwing a novelty of manner into those of her scenes, in which the Maid appears the Mistress. The situation is by no means a new one to the stage; to colour it therefore so as to give it the appearance of originality is a real merit.’ 


MJ Holman @mishjholman

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