London theatre managers must have been thrilled when they learned, in 1849, that the capital would host a "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" in two years' time. They eagerly anticipated a steep rise in attendance (and box office receipts) as visitors from all over the world poured into London.
Yet almost without exception, theatres lost business during the first few months the Exhibition was open. They simply couldn't compete with the riches on offer at Hyde Park. From May to July 1851, as theatre historian Richard Foulkes has noted, the Exhibition emerged as the clear victor in this battle, "absorbing [both] the public's appetite and its financial capacity." Things turned around in mid-July, however, as the steady stream of tourists from the English provinces turned into a torrent; all places of public amusement benefited from the increased traffic on city streets, including the theatres.
To capitalize on the Exhibition's popularity, some managers offered plays, revues, and burlesque-extravaganzas on Exhibition themes or short pieces set at its magnificent purpose-built home, the Crystal Palace. The texts of many of these ephemeral works are now accessible online thanks to The Victorian Plays Project at the University of Worcester, which has produced a digital archive of selected plays from T.H. Lacy's Acting Edition of Victorian Plays (1848-1873).
Among the treasures available in PDF:
Novelty Fair; or, Hints for 1851 (anonymous, probably Tom Taylor and Albert Smith, 1850), in which a character called "1851" (who exclaims "never was known such a wonderful year!") presents tableaux of previous historical events and explains why the Great Exhibition will trump them all: "The Brighton Pavilion was famous of old / But twenty of it, our Pavilion will hold / With its square miles of canvas, its acres of ground / 'Twill take one hard walking, a month to get round." The figure of Britannia ("With useful arts henceforth our fight shall be / And not with troops on shore, or ships at sea") and the British Lion take center stage.
Apartments, "Visitors to the Exhibition May Be Accommodated" (William Brough, 1851), which premiered at the Princess's Theatre two weeks after the Exhibition opened; a travelling salesman returns home to find that every nook and cranny of his house has been let to unusual visitors from all over the world (a theme often taken up by the comic serials, including Punch; click here for John Leech's classic "No. 1, Crowded State of Lodging-Houses").
The Exposition: A Scandinavian Sketch (Shirley Brooks, 1851) in which Odin, Thor, Freya, and other assorted mythological worthies, led by a character called "The Spirit of the Age," visit the Exhibition and promptly find much to amuse (and annoy) them.
The Mandarin's Daughter! Being the Simple Story of The Willow-Pattern Plate (anonymous, probably Thomas Talfourd, 1851) reflected the high level of public interest in the Exhibition's China Court; household items imported from the Far East were widely available -- and wildly popular -- in London.
A Shilling Day at the Great Exhibition (William Brough and Andrew Halliday, 1862), a one-act farce of mistaken identities that takes place at the Crystal Palace.
Racial, ethnic, and national stereotypes are on full display in these works, giving the reader an uncensored taste of the times in which they were created. Puns and topical allusions to contemporary events and personalities fly thick and fast.
Shown above: John Absolon (1815-95), "Part of the China Court" (1851), watercolour and gouache over pencil on paper, Victoria & Albert Museum. Because China did not respond to the invitation to submit work to the Exhibition, the China Court comprised samples from the stock of a number of importers of Chinese goods, including Hewett & Co. of Fenchurch Street.
Richard Foulkes, "Charles Kean and the Great Exhibition," Theatre Notebook, Vol. 58, No. 3 (2004): 141-153. Foulkes argues that the theatre successfully harnessed the English public's fascination with the past to an educational role for itself, thereby attracting new audiences and enhancing its respectability and status within Victorian society.
The Great Exhibition Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Watercolours of the Great Exhibition, Victoria & Albert Museum, London