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MILITARY MELODRAMA

by Catherine Haill, V & A


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Spectacular military melodrama was a great crowd-pleaser in the 19th century and was staged as ambitiously in the East End as at Drury Lane or Covent Garden. Theatres including the Pavilion, the Britannia and the Standard had stages built for massive productions and effects, to satisfy the seemingly insatiable audience demand for thrills and action in a variety of locations. Georgian and Victorian audiences were also fiercely patriotic. The sight of a triumphant British battalion marching in full dress uniform, or Britannia descending from the heavens to bless a victory could stir an East End audience to roars of approbation, despite its considerable proportion of immigrants.

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The war with France inspired the military and naval melodrama that glorified the British army and navy at home throughout the 19th century. Most people knew little about the constant battles that Britain fought throughout the century to maintain the Empire, but relished seeing them lavishly recreated on stage with music, song and dance for good measure. The Battle of Waterloo of 1815 was frequently dramatised, and the Royal Albert Saloon's 1842 version came complete with performing horses, a doppelganger Napoleon Bonaparte, actors playing the Duke of Wellington, General Blucher and Marshal Ney, and real war veterans playing themselves. The East End would have been home to many former soldiers since thousands were discharged when the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, leaving many of them destitute.

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The Crimean War lasted from October 1853 until February 1856. Its progress and various battles were often dramatised, not unlike today's televised news, although far more fanciful and jingoistic. The prolific author George Dibdin Pitt provided the Pavilion Theatre with The War With Russia, or, Turkish Bravery and Cossack Cruelty! at Easter 1854, featuring scenes taken from sketches made on the spot in a wide variety of locations, and exotic and stirring parades including the `Grand Entrée of the Sultans, Pashas and Emirs', and the arrival of the British Guards and French Imperial Guards at Constantinople. Staged combats were especially popular, and playbill advertising the production on the 29th April featured a lively woodcut illustration of the `Grand Military Coup d'Oeuil' - the arrival of the French and English Imperial Guards. The Crimean War also, somewhat bizarrely, inspired the Pavilion's pantomime in December 1855 when Peace and War, or, Harlequin and the Great Bear included the evil King Desolation, a Grand Fairy Ballet, a Grand Moving Panorama showing the destruction of Sebastopol, and a Grand Tableau of Happiness which predated peace negotiations of the real war.

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There was no shortage of skirmishes in the Empire to provide theatrical fodder, and in June 1868 the Britannia Theatre staged The Abyssinian War which ended the previous March. The conflict began in 1862 when King Theodore II of Abyssinia held Captain Charles Cameron hostage, along with other British subjects. Sir Robert Napier, commander of the operation to rescue the hostages, King Theodore and Captain Cameron were all represented on stage, along with the more fictional characters sure to please an East End audience, Peter Puffy: `once a Baker's Boy at Bethnal Green' and Sam Snappers: `formerly a Tailor in the same locality'. Real soldiers of the Scots Fusilier Guards from their barracks in the Tower of London were also employed to perform drill or `military evolutions', presumably to the accompaniment of stirring military music played on bagpipes.

The Great War provided theatrical subject matter in the East End as late as 1928 when the East Ham Palace staged Barbed Wire, a musical revue with a cast of over 70 including a military band and 24 ex-Guardsmen. It is hard to believe the exhortation on the programme to: `Join in Tommy's Fun in the Front Line',: `Experience the thrill of being under fire' and `recuperate with Tommy in Hospital', but the description of the Trench Scene and: `the wonderful humour and cheerfulness our British Tommies' seems utterly without irony, and calls for a suspension of disbelief as great as that needed to enjoy a pantomime based on the horrors of the Crimean War.


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Search Terms

Subject Terms: Soldiers,Crimean War, 1853-1856,Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1815,Women soldiers,
Keyword Terms: Military,War,Battle,Soldier,

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