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  • Writer's pictureJulia Warren

A Night at the Theatre ...

In the 19th century, the Victorian era ushered in a shift in entertainment trends. Many parts of

society had increased leisure time and disposable income, and mass entertainment mushroomed.

Music halls, circuses, and theatres emerged as the most popular. Variety shows, which included

singing, comedy, dancing, monologues and more, became a staple of the entertainment industry.

Opera from Italy began to nudge Oratorios off the stage. The “penny dreadful” or “penny

bloods” came into their own: cheap, sensational novels and short stories eagerly gobbled up en

masse. By mid-century, technological innovations such as photography and later the phonograph

became widespread, changing how people consumed and interacted with entertainment. The

Victorian era, a time of great experimentation and growth, lay the groundwork for modern-day

mass entertainment.  


As a result, entertainment took on a vital role in the lives of Victorians, providing them with

diversion, escapism and stimulus, and enabling them to connect with others in a social setting. Its

popularity reflected the desire for new experiences and the thirst for novelty. Victorians had a

wide range of options to choose from, and many made it a priority to attend performances

whenever they could (Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley, for example, were avid theatre-



The importance of entertainment also becomes increasingly visible in the literature of the time:

novels such as Dickens' Oliver Twist and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice portray the lives of

ordinary people who enjoyed simple pleasures such as reading, music, and dancing. An amateur

theatrical, a then-common form of diversion among the middle and upper classes, provides the

central conflict in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Her world features local dance halls and ballrooms

as a social necessity where young people meet, socialize and discover potential partners. Tinder

with dance moves …  


Dickens and Wilkie Collins worked together on the 1856 amateur theatrical The Frozen Deep,

and both include references to the stage and opera house in their works. This occurs sometimes

for dramatic effect, as in Collins’s The Woman in White – which he dramatized for the stage in

1871 – where the opera house (a performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia) highlights a

crucial moment in the hunt for the villainous Count Fosco.  


Collins adopts opera again in Armadale: after attending a performance in Naples, a critical scene

shows the designing Lydia Gwilt offering Allan Armadale brandy, who faints (owing to an

extreme aversion to alcohol). In No Name, the heroine Magdalena performs in an amateur

production of Sheridan’s The Rivals, and later adopts an acting career as a means to an end,

using her talents to go undercover in the search for her inheritance.   


Collins’s friend and mentor Dickens also brings the theatre into many of his novels: Little Dorrit,

Pickwick Papers (Alfred Jingle), and Great Expectations. In Nicholas Nickleby, theatre plays a

much larger part, as Nicholas spends a time performing with travelling troupe of actors (the

Crummles); in one scene, the awful Sir Mulberry Hawk pursues Kate at the theatre.  


The depiction of entertainment in literature and art of the era reflects the changing attitudes and

perceptions towards leisure, pleasure, and cultural practices over time. It provides a valuable

insight into the cultural and social history of a particular period and offers a unique perspective

on human creativity and imagination.

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