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Playing Monopoly: Actor/Manager Robert William Elliston (1774–1831) and the Struggle for a Free Stage in London 1802–32

Tames, Elizabeth A (2016) Playing Monopoly: Actor/Manager Robert William Elliston (1774–1831) and the Struggle for a Free Stage in London 1802–32. PhD thesis, University of Essex.


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This study reveals the complexity of relationships inherent in a system of theatre governance shaped by exclusive rights. Royal patents granted in 1662 entrusted sole guardianship of the ‘national’ or ‘regular’ drama to two ‘patent’ or ‘legitimate’ theatres (ultimately, established as The Theatres Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden). These held privileged access to the traditional canon of serious, literary drama, including Shakespeare. The monopoly regime’s power, re-affirmed in The Theatre Licensing Act 1737, prevented all other playhouses, labelled ‘minor’, from producing the national corpus of plays, and from employing ‘the spoken word’: continuous speech unaccompanied by music. ‘Minor’ theatres were restricted to exhibitions of movement, music, and rhyme, commonly termed ‘burletta’. By the early 1800s a consensus held the ‘patent’ regime responsible for degrading rather than preserving dramatic standards. Actor/manager Robert William Elliston purchased his first London ‘minor’ theatre in February 1809. From that moment he began a largely self-interested campaign to overthrow the monopoly. Seeking an equitable footing, Elliston made a series of formal challenges, but when they failed he abandoned official channels. Thereafter, while remaining within the law, he adopted subversive means to gain his goal of a free stage. The Times’s review of Elliston’s first circumvention of the law in August 1809, an innovative ‘burletta’-ized Macbeth, lauded his ‘irregular’ production, while recognizing this novel version as a landmark incursion into the ‘legitimate’ canon. Elliston’s pioneering role in the struggle for reform, recorded in 1926, has been little researched since. The thesis re-evaluates Elliston’s agency in the ‘patent’ cartel’s demise, so contributing to a re-assessment of the narrative of the monopoly regime, and the ideological and social significance of its abolition. Once free competition was achieved, the theatre became a space in which the ‘legitimate’ canon could be accessed by every class of theatre-goer.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN2000 Dramatic representation. The Theater
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > History, Department of
Depositing User: Jim Jamieson
Date Deposited: 31 Mar 2017 11:34
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2022 01:00

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