Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive
This is a guest post from Susan Valladares, author of Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807-1815.
The year 2015 marks the bicentenary of the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This summer, the Battle of Waterloo has been remembered through Europe-wide celebrations ranging from heritage open days to themed balls, musical concerts, art exhibitions, lectures and even a large-scale re-enactment in Belgium featuring thousands of actors and hundreds of horses. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that between 1808 and 1814, Britain’s major contribution to the war effort took place in the Iberian Peninsula.
Napoleon’s opportunistic attempt to invade Portugal and Spain rapidly expanded into a struggle characterised by popular resistance and violent guerrilla warfare, resulting in one of Britain’s largest land campaigns and an Anglo-Spanish alliance that put pressure on hereditary images of Spain as the national bugbear. The Peninsular War, as it came to be known in Britain, saw Arthur Wellesley’s promotion to the Duke of Wellington, a national hero, and constituted an early example of what historians have labelled ‘the total war experience’ – the kind of unrestrained warfare that we generally associate with the First World War.
My book, Staging the Peninsular War, offers the first in-depth study of theatre-going during this period; exploring how English theatres helped mediate the conflict to the nation at large. It draws on archival research conducted in London, Bristol and Lisbon in order to recover a period considered something of a ‘black hole’ in British theatre history. To this end, the book presents a fully-indexed, and hitherto unpublished Calendar of Plays for Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and Bristol Theatre Royal spanning 1807 to 1815.
Archival research also resulted in the discovery of the book’s colourful cover image, Embotadas de las Siguidillas Boleras. This hand-coloured etching by Marcos Téllez Villar was brought back from Spain for the celebrity actor’s John Philip Kemble’s Madrid Album. Not only does it invite us to interrogate the value of cultural signifiers – such as the Spanish guitar, traditional dress and religion (the female dancer wears a crucifix) – but it also invites us to think about the transmission of objects and narratives more generally. The cover image gestures towards some of my book’s main research questions: Did the theatre offer a platform for cultural redress? How was the Peninsular War depicted on stage? Did representations of Spain and Portugal undergo any significant change as a result of Britain’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula?
For the answers to these (and many other) questions, I invite you to join me in the recovery of the visually spectacular, politically engaged and pointed wartime plays and entertainments that captured the imagination of contemporary audiences, and can still instruct and entertain us today.
Staging the Peninsular War is Susan Valladares’ first book. Susan is a Junior Research Fellow and Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, and is Editor of The BARS Review.