Popular outdoor theatrical performances at a London fair in the eighteenth century (detail from William Hogarth, Southwark Fair). Courtesy Yale Center for British Art. Enlarge
Long before the opening of its first professional theatre in the 1567, London possessed a rich tradition of theatrical performances. Itinerate companies enacted plays in the yards of inns and other public spaces, while a number of public rituals associated with the Crown and civic corporation incorporated theatrical pageants. As a professional theatre developed from the late sixteenth century, the theatrical pageants associated with events like royal entries and mayoral inaugurations grew more complex, in part because professional playwrights were now used to write them.
Some crowd demonstrations also had theatrical elements, in the sense of symbolic gestures and props used to act out political sentiments. Acts like the drinking of healths and lighting of bonfires were widely used to convey approval of events and personalities welcomed by London crowds. These conventional forms provided a ritual vocabulary that could be elaborated in various ways, as when Crowds mocked the so-called "Rump Parliament" in early 1660 by roasting the rumps of aninals over bonfires. The pope burning processions of the 1670s and early eighties, which also culminated in bonfires but that employed in addition elaborate effigies and large processions, provide a more complex example. Musical performances large and small provided another vehicle for public protest and celebration. Ballads sung in taverns and streets mocked unpopular politicians and institutions or, alternatively, celebrated the triumphs of political heroes. But music also figured prominently in theatrical performances both at court and on the public stage. By the end of the seventeenth century operas with political messages were being written and performed in London, while at the end of our period John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a musical play about highwaymen, provided a scathing commentary on the political corruption of the Walpolean Whigs in the immediate aftermath of the South Sea Bubble. In this play Gay drew upon both operatic music and traditional of popular ballads, while also alluding to well known recent incidents like the execution of the famous thief catcher. In ways like this the politicized theatre of the stage drew nourishment from -- and fed back into --the political culture of London's streets.
Londoners' familiarity with both the stage and theatrical demonstrations in the streets probably influenced visual culture as well. Engravings occasionally recorded street demonstrations and conveyed political messages through imagery that in various ways also took on a theatrical character. Some images, like playing cards illustrating the alleged Popish Plot, depicted a series of action scenes, almost in the manner of a modern comic book, to aid viewers' imaginations. Others showed a single scene in which the actions of various people -- sometimes accompanied by words -- represented political crimes and vices, often in symbolic or allegorical terms reminiscent of acted pageants. This section explores the range of theatrical forms and modes of expression -- from formal drama to brief symbolic enactments -- through which Londoners conveyed political views.