Draw Back the Curtain
Although Bath’s current Theatre Royal is unfortunately not the one Jane Austen would have regularly visited.
It was built in 1805, the year the Austen's left Bath for Chawton – its Regency style, fashionable location and willingness to accommodate various events for the Jane Austen Festival make it an excellent setting for a talk on Georgian theatre and its influence on Jane Austen’s work. On 21 September, ‘Draw Back the Curtain’ provided all the necessary background information, and then illustrated it with a tour around the theatre itself. So, for a little while, our small group could pretend to be Georgian actors or theatre-goers.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, partly owing to George III’s wife Queen Charlotte’s love and patronage of the theatre, theatre-going became a highly fashionable as well as entertaining way to spend one’s evening. When previously, plays had often been put on in the afternoon, Georgian plays moved to the evening, and seeing them became an increasingly elitist, showy and expensive activity. One dressed in one’s finery, took a sedan chair, and hired a box for the evening, in which to be seen by the rest of the audience was sometimes even more important than to see the play. Plays often started at 6pm, but could last until midnight, as the main play would be followed by a pantomime.
Jane Austen was an avid and critical theatre-goer, and is likely to have been able to view a wide range of high-quality plays, since the theatre’s status as a Theatre Royal licensed it to put on a variety of dramas and pantomimes. Bath’s Theatre Royal was known as a ‘nursery stage’ for London, since the fashionable audiences staying in the resort were a good indicator of what would go down well in Drury Lane or Covent Garden.
The influence of the theatre is visible in many Georgian novels, and indeed in Jane Austen’s own work as well. The ‘novel’, derived from the French ‘nouvelle’, was a very new style, and many novelists of the period, such as Henry Fielding, were or had been playwrights as well. If we consider that large parts of the first half of Pride and Prejudice are written in dialogue, it becomes clear that Jane Austen’s love of the theatre was strongly linked to her own writing.
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