The Structural Transformation of Domiciliary Entertainment

Daniel O’Quinn
University of Guelph

Gillian Russell has written an extraordinarily important re-evaluation of women’s place in the entertainment industries of late eighteenth-century Britain in her new book, Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London (Cambridge, 2007). With the clarity and precision that readers of her previous work, Theatres of War: Performance, Politics and Society, 1793–1815 (1995), have come to expect, Russell’s new book traces the establishment of proto-commercial forms of domiciliary entertainment by impresarios such as Teresa Cornelys and demonstrates how these new forms of entertainment exerted significant influence on London’s theatrical institutions in the 1760s and 1770s. The book is composed of seven primary chapters and is framed by a theoretical introduction and conclusion. The theoretical frame situates the book within recent work on the public sphere and on sociability. Russell’s account of the public sphere is thoroughly Habermasian, but the book’s interest in gender and sexuality resonates with the work of Americanists such as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner.[1] In fact, the book’s intense engagement with the notion of sociability is a significant intervention in the history of the public sphere that could undermine any solid separation of spheres. What Russell brings to the analysis of sociability is careful scrutiny of the traces of social performance itself. That said, it is Russell’s close attention to the newspaper archive, to the most quotidian armature of the public, which makes this book so valuable. One is repeatedly left with the sense that her analysis of the representation of women’s activities in the realm of entertainment carries the authority one associates with the most exacting archival research. Rarely have women’s roles as facilitators of cultural and social exchange been represented so cogently.

At first glance the arrangement of chapters appears simply chronological, but careful reading indicates an important genealogical progression that traces the emergence of certain styles of fashionable entertainment at venues such as Carlisle House, Almack’s Assembly Rooms, the Coterie, and the Pantheon. Chapters 2 through 5 work through this emergent nexus of sociability and entertainment in detail and I will discuss this portion of the book as one continuous argument. Across these chapters, which introduce us to Cornelys, her patrons, and her imitators, the treatment of the spaces of sociability is as illuminating as the subtle representation of complex power dynamics of the world of fashion. These four chapters establish the commercial parameters of these private entertainments and carefully demonstrate how more established entertainment venues—the patent theatres—attempted either to discredit or to mimic these events. Chapter 2, “The Circe of Soho: Teresa Cornelys and Carlisle House,” defines the kind of “domiciliary entertainment” which had such a profound effect on London’s cultural institutions. Elite women had been visiting and socializing with each other for some time, but the middling Cornelys and her elite sponsors changed the social game by surreptitiously commercializing these events. This subterfuge was necessary to avoid governmental licensing of entertainment and Russell’s analysis of how Cornelys used the press to essentially propagate the open secret of these entertainments offers a fascinating view of how the print public sphere could be manipulated for commercial and social gain. We still don’t know enough about how these papers generated the desire for certain kinds of cultural experience and one of the most important elements of Russell’s argument is its close attention to the press.

The third chapter, “Harmonic Routs and Midnight Revels: The Politics of Masquerade,” builds on this genealogy of surreptitious commerce by providing a vivid sense of the emotional and physical transactions housed in the putatively private residences of fashionable women. The complex denunciation of these entertainments, and of their sponsors and participants, was part and parcel of the larger assault on aristocratic vice in the press; thus by tracking the development of these entertainments, Russell also opens up a new avenue for analyzing the political rhetoric around fashion, dissipation, and rank. Her treatment of masquerade is an important renovation of Terry Castle’s work and offers important evidence from which to scrutinize Dror Wahrman’s arguments in The Making of the Modern Self  regarding the centrality of masquerade to British social history.[2] Because Russell is so attentive to the market dynamics of entertainment and to the sexual marketplace of the world of fashion, she resists the temptation to make masquerade into a trope for identity. This is important because it is precisely the transactional qualities of these entertainments that presented such a threat social hierarchy. Crucial to any discussion of these events is the place of gaming in domiciliary sociability. As Russell turns her attention to Almack’s Assembly Rooms and the Coterie in the chapter entitled “Dissipation and the Hydra’s Reign,” the larger implications of her arguments begin to come in focus. In 1762, a private society was established next door to William Almack’s tavern in opposition to the Tory club at White’s gentlemen’s club. The history of clubs is a well traveled topic, but what interests Russell is that Almack’s quickly became a site of mixed sociability where men and women went to gamble and converse after a play or a concert. Russell demonstrates that the controversy generated by this development and the ensuing founding of the Ladies Club or Coterie not only heralded the translation of many of Cornelys’s strategies to a non-domiciliary locale, but also marked an escalation in the critique of fashion’s gender insubordination. The methodological implications of these largely forgotten historical formations becomes evident when Russell states late in the chapter that “all this entailed an amplification of the sphere of elite and privileged women which offered considerable opportunities for such women to assert a place for themselves as part of the public sphere of ‘the Town,’ in Habermasian terms, as well as being profoundly threatening to the male homosocial integrity of the public sphere of the club and the coffee-house (86–87).” By still arguing for the utility of the notion of the “public” and yet showing how so much of Habermas’s account of the public sphere cannot adequately deal with either the gender problematics revealed in her readings, or the issues surrounding performance that will dominate the later chapters of the book, Russell is sketching in a full scale re-evaluation of how notions of publicity impinge not only on social formation, but also on the reception of culture itself.

The watershed chapter on the London Pantheon, entitled “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome,” makes the key transition to the production and reception of culture, because the establishment of this commercial pleasure venue in 1772 both crystallized emblematic representations of the Bon Ton and exerted significant economic pressure on the patent theatres. What emerges in her discussion of the Pantheon’s rise and Cornelys’s relative demise is a remarkable consideration of the theatricality of everyday life. Through a series of readings of the phenomenon of big hair, Russell argues that patrons of the Pantheon developed a theatrical experience where the audience was the entertainment. This liberation of the theatrical audience from the necessity of a play was a profound threat to the cultural hegemony of theatre in eighteenth-century British life that sent shock waves through the theatrical institutions. Russell looks at these effects in the remaining chapters of the book, but before turning to her analysis of the theatre it is important to recognize the degree to which the opening chapters revitalize scholarly interest in audience formation and reception. Russell’s genealogical approach allows her to read the press and visual print media in a way that allows us to understand the performance of rank and identity among London’s elite. And it may well provide a model for thinking about less-privileged constituencies as well when she turns the reader’s attention to the more mixed entertainments in the theatre.

When the proprietors of the Pantheon moved toward applying for a Royal License and thus legitimacy, the prospect of Drury Lane and Covent Garden competing with an entertainment venue liberated from the necessity of putting on plays put the entire notion of theatrical legitimacy at risk. At stake was the firmly entrenched ideological position that the theatres were the custodians of national morality and social stability. The first four chapters offer an innovative discussion of how extra-theatrical entertainments impinged on the patent theatres. The remainder of the book takes us into the heart of London’s theatrical world. The readings of Fanny Abington’s woman of fashion roles in chapter 6, of the representations of the Duchess of Kingston’s bigamy trial in chapter 7, and of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) in chapter 8 define the cutting edge of theatre research in eighteenth-century studies. But what is so startling is the way that Russell marshals different kinds of evidence in each chapter to make her argument. Chapter 6, entitled “Lady Bab and Mrs. Ab,” would be interesting simply for its analysis of John Burgoyne’s neglected play The Maid of the Oaks (1774), but Russell approaches her reading of Abington’s performance of the ultimate woman of fashion, Lady Bab Lardoon, in that play via an extremely important discussion of prologues and epilogues. In Russell’s hands, these paratexts become vital signs of the remarkable meta-theatricality of virtually all productions at the patent theatres. Her key recognition is that the performance of these poems in the theatre and their propagation in the papers made theatrical experience about audience reception. Thus the audience itself, as in an evening at the Pantheon, becomes the focus not only of social exchange but also of aesthetic consumption. In short, the performance of epilogues in particular incorporated key elements of the pleasures afforded at venues such as the Pantheon or Carlisle House and subjected them to managerial regulation. Russell’s discussion of Abington’s career, and the shows mounted to capitalize on her fashionability, effectively rewrites the history of David Garrick’s late theatrical management from the perspective of Abington’s celebrity. This shifting of the critical ground, perhaps more than any other gesture in the book, indicates why “women” is the first word in this book’s title.

Russell’s bracing treatment Abington’s celebrity is followed by a rather different analysis of celebrity. Chapter 7, “‘Alias, alias, alias’: The Trials of the Duchess of Kingston,” utilizes recent developments in the analysis of performance to examine the Duchess of Kingston’s trial for bigamy in Westminster Hall in 1776. This remarkable event is an important stopping point for Russell because so many of the ideological concerns that she has been tracing through the press congeal in a particularly nasty form at this moment. Matthew Kinservik has recently written a book-length study on this affair and on the assassination of Foote’s character.[3] This is not the place to discuss Kinservik’s argument, but for Russell the key point to be drawn from these scandals is “that changes in public culture were destabilizing categories of class, gender and sexuality, particularly the privileged ‘privacy’ of male homosociality. Sexuality, therefore, is only one strand of a complex dynamic of cultural, social and political change in the 1770s” (176). The salutary move here is away from the perhaps impossible specification of identities and acts toward the discussion of dynamic social relations. For Russell, gender and sexual identity are an effect of social exchange, not a straightforward cause. This is crucial for her argument because her analysis of theatrical and social experience consistently highlights the relations among producers, participants, and consumers by forcing the argument back into the archive.

The lengthy analysis of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal is itself a virtuoso performance and will become a model for scholars seeking to blend the close reading of performance materials with the micro-historian’s attention to the complexity of social and cultural history. This chapter returns to the problem of big hair, or “high heads,” with thoroughly entertaining results. Russell is one of our most capable historians of performance and her attention to costuming here, as elsewhere in the book, shows the potential latent in the combined analysis of performance, material culture, and the print media. But as elsewhere in the book, the key to Russell’s highly innovative reading of Sheridan’s play lies in her attention to both the representation of women in the comedy and to the actions of women in the public world surrounding its performance. Indeed, the most compelling aspects of her reading of Sheridan’s practice in the theatre emerge from her analysis of Hannah Cowley’s plays. By arguing that Cowley’s work is in critical dialogue with Sheridan’s main piece comedies, Russell not only provides a deeply satisfying analysis of The Belle’s Stratagem (1780), but also demonstrates that it is only by consulting other theatrical performances and productions, notably by women, that we can fully comprehend the significance of Sheridan’s intervention in the political discourse on fashion. Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London quite literally folds the primary male figures in eighteenth-century theatre history into a strikingly different narrative of how entertainment operated in this period of rapid cultural and social change. The benefits will be obvious to all who read this book—suddenly a period of relative scholarly neglect will be recognized as a crucial era of generic and institutional experimentation. The struggle over the politics of fashion, which animated much of the recrimination over the American War of Independence, will once again be seen in its full complexity. And perhaps most importantly, the book will serve as a case study for scholars seeking to demonstrate how feminist interventions in cultural history can re-structure the kind of questions we ask about performances and texts.


[1]   See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [1962], trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); and, for example, Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, 1997), and Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Brooklyn, 2002).

[2]   See Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, 1987), and Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England  (New Haven, 2004).

[3]   Matthew Kinservik, Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity in Late Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2007).