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Theatre and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century


Henry Emden, City of Coral scene, Drury Lane, pantomime set model, 1903 © V&A

Funded by the AHRC, this collaborative research project examines theatre spectacle and spectatorship in the nineteenth century by considering it in relation to the emergence of a wider trans-medial popular visual culture in this period. Responding to audience demand, theatres used sophisticated, innovative technologies to create a range of spectacular effects, from convincing evocations of real places to visions of the fantastical and the supernatural. The project looks at theatrical spectacle in relation to a more general explosion of imagery in this period, which included not only ‘high’ art such as painting, but also new forms such as the illustrated press and optical entertainments like panoramas, dioramas, and magic lantern shows.

The range and popularity of these new forms attests to the centrality of visuality in this period. Indeed, scholars have argued that the nineteenth century witnessed a widespread transformation of conceptions of vision and subjectivity. This project draws on these debates to consider how far a popular, commercial form like spectacular theatre can be seen as a site of experimentation and as a crucible for an emergent mode of modern spectatorship.

This project brings together Jim Davis and Patricia Smyth from the University of Warwick and Kate Newey and Kate Holmes from the University of Exeter Drama department. Running from 2018-21, we will be organising conferences, exhibitions and public engagement activities, working with partners at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Promenade Promotions.

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Image: courtesy of the V&A museum.

Find out more about the project here