Pursuit of Relevance
Mid-century theatre managers were highly sensitive to the preferences of their audience, staging performances they believed the public would most eagerly consume. Henry Giffard, manager of the Goodman’s Fields theatre, capitalized upon the popularity of a contemporary novel, Pamela by Samuel Richardson. The novel, published in 1740, was the equivalent of a modern day bestseller, sparking a Pamela “craze” which led to the creation of parodies, unofficial continuation novels, an official continuation novel, numerous reprints of the original, as well as art and illustrations of the story.
In 1741, just seven months after the novel’s publication, Giffard adapted the novel and brought Pamela, A Comedy to the stage. At this time, the novel’s popularity was at its peak, and the play became one of the most frequently performed at Goodman’s Fields during the 1741-2 season (Keymer and Sabor 116). Further appealing to the desires of his audience, Giffard cast David Garrick, a recently debuted actor who was rapidly rising in fame and reputation, as Jack Smatter, a rakish character invented for the stage comedy. The sensationalism surrounding Pamela and Garrick’s emerging acting career heavily contributed to the contemporary success of the play.
In 1745, theater managers again recognized an opportunity to capitalize: the Jacobite Rebellion. Theaters immediately responded to the Forty-five with staging of more historical plays. These included Nathaniel Lee's Massacre at Paris at Goodman's Field, Cibber's The Non-Jurur, two anti-Catholic plays by John Dennis, and Ford's Perkin Warbeck.
Though these histories performed the threat of Catholicism--a threat not only to the Church of England and the stability of the crown, but to every Protestant believer, the audience would have none of it. Attendance for plays at this time dropped so dramatically that some seasons had to be extended. For the mid-century audience, war could stay in the fields.
In their pursuit for relevance, theatre managers' gambles didn't alway pay off. Goodman's adaptation of Pamela from novel to stage and Garrick's involvement in the production proved a successful venture, while the restaging of anti-Catholic history plays was poorly received. Relevance didn't always spell success. The audience's taste decided what played and stayed on the London stages, and at mid-century, British audiences seemed to like their stage depoliticized.