Five Questions: Susan Valladares on Staging the Peninsular War

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Susan Valladares - Staging the Peninsular War

Susan Valladares is Junior Research Fellow and Lecturer in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford.  Her work focuses on political history, gender, autobiographies, Romantic-period theatre and print culture, and she has published book chapters and articles on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remorse; Wordsworth and the Convention of Cintra; Walter Scott’s Don Roderick; and Anne Lister and the Ladies of Llangollen.  She is also the editor of The BARS Review, the autumn number of which will be published shortly.  Her first monograph, Staging The Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807-1815, which we discuss below, was published by Ashgate last month.

1) How did you first become interested in representations of the Peninsular War?

When I first began researching the Peninsular War, I was often asked whether I was a fan of Sharpe.  But although I knew of the TV series by name, I had yet to watch an episode.  My interest in the war thus resists the memorable answer that Sean Bean and his fellow cast members might otherwise have provided.  I can trace it back, instead, to my time as a Masters student, when I found myself intrigued by the distance between the revolutionary 1790s and later Napoleonic period.  The war in Spain and Portugal – described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817) as the war that ‘made us all once more Englishmen’ – seemed to offer an ideal starting point for my inquiry.  I soon decided, however, that it marked a point of arrival in its own right; that I was eager to delve deeper – to discover, among other things, how Napoleon’s opportunistic invasion of Portugal developed into a major struggle involving entire populations, and to understand why overwhelming public support for Britain’s military intervention in Spain and Portugal dissolved, in less than a year, into dangerous partisanship.

2) What were the principal ways in which the war changed the manners in which Spanish and Portuguese characters were presented on the stage?

For most of the eighteenth century, the stage Spaniard was more often than not a comic don, easily identifiable by his large whiskers and behavioural idiosyncrasies.  He invariably appeared in sixteenth-century dress, as did most Portuguese characters (which made it hard to distinguish the two nations, at least visually).  But the fact that Portugal was England’s oldest ally and Spain its inveterate enemy made a crucial difference.  Watching the Spanish don move across the stage in his breeches and slashed doublet helped ensure that Spain remained the national bugbear, firmly associated, in the popular imagination, with the Armada of 1588.  In May 1808 this image was unexpectedly and dramatically challenged by Napoleon’s attempt to install his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne; a manouevre that resulted in a series of popular uprisings against French rule.  Across the Spanish provinces, civilians took to the streets, often armed with nothing more than makeshift weapons.

Britain responded by entering into an alliance with Spain that would have made the English theatres’ damning portrayal of Spanish characters seem at odds with government policy.  Yet, although attempts were made to revise the anti-Spanish stereotype, any success was, at best, short-lived.  As the war progressed, the Anglo-Spanish alliance, which had been shaky from the outset, received fatal blows from reports of Spanish inefficiency, poor co-operation and political intrigue; reports, in short, that are likely to have convinced the war’s growing party of detractors that the negative depiction of the Spanish nation did not, in fact, need to undergo any significant re-writing.  At the same time, interestingly, the Irish soldier began to acquire a new presence on stage.  Approximately 28% of the British army in the Iberian Peninsula consisted of Irish recruits, which helps explain why so many of the Irish characters in the plays, entertainments and song arrangements of this period are celebrated for their patriotic spirit and physical hardiness.

3) How rigorous were the systems of state and establishment control regulating the different theatres during the war with France?

The Licensing Act of 1737 gave the patent theatres (Covent Garden and Drury Lane; the Haymarket, as of 1766; and the provincial Theatre Royals thereafter) a monopoly on the spoken word.  This resulted in a split between legitimate (i.e. patent) and illegitimate theatrical cultures (the latter being represented by minor theatres, such as Sadler’s Wells, where managers were confined to performances based on song, dance and spectacle).  The office of the Lord Chamberlain was made responsible for licensing all playhouses, and an Examiner of Plays appointed to censor any new or amended play script, which had to be submitted up to two weeks prior to an intended representation.  While politics and religion were deemed taboo subjects, the creativity of playwrights, managers, actors, and audiences ensured that the theatre remained a politically charged public space.

Allegorical readings of the nation’s drama allowed for political commentary to be carefully unpacked by knowing audiences, while plays also frequently took on topical meanings simply by virtue of their performance dates.  There were also advantages to be gained by a geographical distance from the centre of law-making: while a play such as King Lear was excised from the London theatres’ repertoires between 1810 and 1820 (the years of George III’s so-called ‘madness’), it continued to secure packed auditoriums in provincial Theatre Royals, such as that of Bristol, for example, where the role of Lear was performed to acclaim by the star actor John Philip Kemble.

4) To what extent were the advances and reversals of the Peninsular campaign subjects directly addressed on stage, and to what extent did they shape theatrical productions in less obvious ways?

In the Calendar that serves as an appendix to the book, I use bold font to help readers identify the plays and entertainments performed at the patent theatres between 1807 and 1815 that featured Iberian settings or characters.  Coleridge’s Remorse (1813) is a prime example; but even plays that lacked obvious references to Spain or Portugal could be seen to speak to Peninsular politics, as was the case, for instance, with the Shakespearean repertoire.  While censorship exerted undeniable pressure on what was available, the Peninsular War received direct address in several plays and entertainments.  Managers of the minor theatres openly competed to stage spectacular re-enactments of recent military victories.

In 1812 Charles Dibdin the Younger (the writer-manager of Sadler’s Wells) put on an impressive production called The Battle of Salamanca, boasting not only new music and scenery, but a carefully choreographed ‘bayonet charge’, which was performed by soldiers awaiting deployment.  It is important to underline, however, that the programme on offer at the minor theatres was not as straightforwardly triumphalist as this description might suggest.  As I argue in my book, by the early nineteenth century, English theatres provided spaces for military celebration and contestation.  On both the legitimate and illegitimate stages, it was a question of reading between the lines; of understanding how plays, both old and new, came to acquire urgent meanings during the war, as I argue through my detailed reading of Sheridan’s 1799 tragedy, Pizarro.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I continue to explore Anglo-Hispanic relations through my work for the ‘Anglo-Hispanic Horizons, 1780s-1840s’ network, which I helped set up in 2013.  This international, interdisciplinary research group sets itself the target of recovering Britain’s conflicted literary, political and visual constructions of Spain (and its empire) during the long nineteenth century.  We are currently working towards the publication of our first collection of essays, for which I am contributing a chapter that explores how the Peninsular War afforded new opportunities for British female novelists of the time, such as Anna Maria Porter, Susan Fraser, Augusta Amelia Stuart, and Mary Meeke.  I am also writing on James Gillray’s representations of Elizabeth Farren, the actress who was courted by and then married Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby; and working on my next book project, a study of the patent theatres’ eighteenth-century repertoires.