British History in the Long-eighteenth Century
 ‘Love, bitter wrong, freedom, sad pity, and lust of power’: Politics and Performance in 1820
Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds)
21 March 2012 

 

When historians talk about 1820 it is often to discuss the attempts by the new monarch, George IV to divorce his queen, Caroline of Brunswick.  George IV became king on 29 January 1820 after the death of his father George III.  However, due to his father’s lapses into mental illness, he acted as Prince Regent for almost a decade before then.  George IV was not a popular king; leading an extravagant lifestyle; accused of wasteful spending during times of war; and losing public confidence over his divorce attempts.  The Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 was George’s attempt to dissolve his marriage through claiming Caroline to have committed adultery.  The subsequent trial of the queen was heavily followed in the press with a negative response.  Although the bill narrowly passed the House of Lords it was dropped by government before reaching the Commons.

The politics surrounding this royal scandal were, however, far from the only concern in that year, and it is to a wider appraisal of 1820 that Malcolm Chase looks to in his paper.  1820 was also a year of revolutions and assassinations elsewhere in Europe.  Also, in Britain, a plot to assassinate all of the British cabinet was foiled just in time and the revolutionaries executed later in the year.  In the north, various risings in the textile industry, beginning in the West Riding but spilling over into Scotland and the Barnsley/Huddersfield region, caused much disruption and fuelled fears of a revolution in Britain.

Coronation portrait of George IV (1821) by Thomas Lawrence

One of the outlets for political enactment, as is often the case, was through theatre both official and unofficially conceived.  Take, for instance, an example told by Chase from Stockton-On-Tees where a green bag was hung around the neck of an effigy of the devil and ridden around the town on a donkey.   A mock proclamation was made that the devil was guilty of conspiracy against the Queen and was subsequently burnt on a bonfire.  The green bag was a popular symbol in 1820 for the evidence piled up against Queen Caroline and appeared in many anti-establishment performances across the country.

Theatre plays too performed political satire about the events going on in that year.  Take for example performances of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus which was used to discuss issues of tyranny and just resistance.  In particular the play allowed actors to highlight issues of liberty; something which people felt was being corroded by government acts against the press.

With the focus on just one year, Chase provides an interesting insight into the use of theatre production for political satire and issues surrounding the politics of Britain and censorship in the early nineteenth century.

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