5.6 Romantic Theater


Romantic Theater Overview

The variety of theatrical entertainments to be found on the stage expanded greatly during this era.   The Romantic tendencies were intrigued by the strange and exotic, by myths, legends, dreams and horror.   Virtuosity was applauded.   These tendencies were the fertile ground that created such a variety of live entertainments.   Theater events attracted large audience.   At some venues the upper classes watched the same performance as the middle classes.   Additionally, theater expanded to provide entertainment for the working class as well.

American Theatre

  • Philadelphia and New York both had play houses in the mid 1700’s
  • More theaters were built during the 1800’s
  • The advent of trains made it easy for theater companies to tour

Innovations in Theatrical Lighting


Gas Lighting

  • Introduced in 1817
  • Some complained of the glare
  • It was even a greater fire hazard than candles and oil lamps


  • Introduced shortly after gas
  • Brilliant and lens focused
  • Made from calcium flare
  •  Perfect for a spotlight
  •  Hence the term “in the limelight


  • 1881 -The first building in London to be lit entirely by electricity was the Savoy Theatre  
  • 1882 -A theatre in Boston is the first American theater to have electric lighting a year later

The Expansion of Theater into All Things Entertaining


  • Not to be confused with Mime
  • A variety show
  • Based on a folk tale, legend or nursery rhyme
  • Acrobatic acts thrown in that have nothing to do with the plot
  • Cross dressing is usually involved – Boys playing young women, and an older man playing a comic “Dame”
  • Very popular at Christmas time
  • Primary audience was children

Pantomine, or Panto is still very popular today in Britain, particularly at Christmas time.   Enjoy this televised version from London.


  • The meaning is music and drama — a play with music
  • Very popular in England and America
  • Audience participation — Booing, hissing — encouraged
  • Classic tales of good vs. evil
  • Sound effects created off stage to heighten the realism
  • Towards the end of the century the theatre at Drury Lane would stage massive melodramas with shipwrecks and natural disaster

Example from The Shade (1802)

SHADE (a ghost):   There thy friend was foully murdered! (Music in a terrific chord) Blood for blood! (chord more terrific)   Revenge! (chord) Revenge! (chord) Revenge!   (chord — thunder)


  • In the same vein as Moliere
  • In the 1700’s it was a short one act play inserted as a breather in a 5 act tragedy
  • Developed into an international sensation — culminating with Charley’s Aunt    (1892) by Brandon Thomas — which ran simultaneously in 48 countries in 22 different languages

Farce Example


Opera – See Music Section


  • A little opera, or light opera
  • Born out of English Ballad Opera and German Singspiel
  • Included speaking

The Rise of the Director


  • Russian actor turned director and teacher
  • Sought be have actors bring out the truth, rather than act in a stylized manner
  • Much of character development isn’t in what characters say openly

The Actress as a Star

  • Elise Rachel   French (1820–58)
  • Eleonora Duse   – Italian, career in London (1858-1924)
  • Ellen Terry English (1847-1928) Father was an actor — her great-nephew is Sir John Gielgud (famous for his role in the original Arthur)
  • Sarah Bernhardt –   French (1845-1923) Possibly the most famous actress of all time


  1. World famous — toured USA 9 times
  2. Established her own theatre
  3. Continued to act, even after losing a leg in an accident in 191 5

Entertainment Venues GALORE!!!



But wait — There’s MORE!


Jacques Offenbach 1819-80
German (Jewish) career in Paris

  • Humorous scripts and songs
  • Included topical satire, the meaning of which is now lost on audiences
  • Alleged source of the can-can

Popular work — Orpheus and the Underworld
Please watch this modern adaptation containing about 10 minutes from this work.

Johann Strauss (the younger) 1825-99

Famous composer of waltzes

Popular work — Die Fledermaus (The Bat)

Gilbert and Sullivan

  • Collaboration began in 1871 worked for 20 years together
  • English
  • Almost half of their works are still performed today.
  • Noted for cruel wit, fabulous wordplay and dexterous rhyming

Frequently featured a “Patter Song’

Popular Work — The Mikado

Famous Playwrights

David Belasco   (1859-1931) American

  • Reworked old plays and staged spectacular melodramasWorked in New York CityKnown for realism — snow storms, real horses, 3 story stage sets
  • Of Jewish descent
  • Had an assistant — Cecil B. de Mille

Popular work (Puccini based his opera on this play)   — Madame Butterfly

 Oscar Wilde   1854-1900English

  • Sharp wit
  • Fast moving dialogue
  • Known more for his personality and tragic decline

Popular Work — The Importance of Being Earnest




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