‘What a theatre is the House of Commons!’

In today’s blog we hear from the History of Parliament’s director Dr Paul Seaward, continuing our recent theme of Parliament and theatre. However, as Dr Seaward explains, sometimes Parliament is a theatre all of its own..

Although the English parliament had existed for centuries already, the first descriptions we have of either chamber come after the sittings of the house of commons were relocated to the now redundant St Stephen’s Chapel within the palace of Westminster in the late 1540s. The lower house of parliament, wrote the Venetian ambassador in 1559 to his bosses, the Senate, back at home, is ‘like a theatre’. The comparison was repeated by the Elizabethan historian and member of parliament John Hooker, in his 1572 description of parliament. ‘It is made like a theatre’, he wrote of the seating arrangements in the House of Commons, ‘having four rows of seats one above another round about the same’. There is no evidence that either of them meant anything else than to comment on the raked seating, though it is striking that neither compared the arrangement to that of a chapel, since the building had been previously occupied by one. There were no purpose-built theatres close to Venice before Palladio’s in Vicenza in the 1560s, and none in England before the mid-1570s: both the ambassador and Hooker would have been more familiar with informal spaces set up for entertainments from elaborate courtly performances to dog-fights and bear-baiting. But soon enough, theatre would become a ubiquitous metaphor for parliament and the goings-on of its inhabitants.

The House of Commons in Session; Peter Tillemans, Parliamentary Art Collection via Art UK

Why? The metaphor can be traced in some sense to antiquity and the idea that all the world’s a stage and everyone is playing a role. But as applied to parliaments it has many components. There is the basic idea that the essence of parliaments lies in performance on a stage in front of an audience, and that it’s the best performers, rather than necessarily the cleverest, who are the most successful politicians (though the two can go together). Then there is the complex idea of representation, and the fact that that term can be applied both to the parliamentary process and to the profession of acting. There is the related notion that there is an unreality and insincerity to the things said and acts performed – that the same actors could just as easily play entirely different roles if required, that confrontations are not genuine but staged (‘What a theatre is the House of Commons; what wretched parts they play!’ wrote the actor, William Macready, in his diary, disgusted at what he saw as the hypocrisy of Thomas Babington Macaulay in early 1833). And there is a feeling that parliamentary politics is or should be inherently entertaining, that there is a naturally compelling drama to what goes on that makes it into an ideal spectator activity, as Charles II discovered when he took to attending the House of Lords in the 1670s: it was, he is supposed to have said, a ‘pleasant diversion’ and ‘better than going to a play’.

The latter idea depends, of course, on an audience: and the pre-modern parliament did not welcome an audience; indeed, formally at least, it claimed to want to exclude it. But by the late seventeenth century the commons had largely given up trying to prevent the public getting in, and if some members thought this was manifestly improper, many others were busily smuggling their friends, relations and business associates into the galleries. In the eighteenth century it became a popular destination for a wide variety of Londoners and visitors, who would be introduced by a friendly member, or else would pay the half-a-crown or more fee the doorkeepers demanded (and to which members gave a blind eye). Many were there for business; but there were plenty who went for the entertainment, including the aristocratic female beau monde of London in the 1760s and 1770s until they were excluded in 1778. But separate galleries for both men and women were provided when the new House of Commons was built following the fire of 1834, and both continued to be popular and crowded.

Prime Minister William Pitt and Richard B. Sheridan arguing while seated at a table, British Cartoon Prints Collection, Library of Congress

In the entangled worlds of politics and theatre in the eighteenth century parliamentary politicians were heavily involved in the playhouses, among them the dramatist Richard Steele, an MP between 1713 and 1727. But from the 1780s a series of Whig politicians were so deeply involved with the stage that the boundaries between the one and the other seemed often to become blurred: the most obvious of them was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, theatrical impresario and the most successful British dramatist of the eighteenth century, as well as being the greatest parliamentary orator and a lynchpin of the whig party. As the Foxite whigs became associated with support for the revolution in France, conservatives grew increasingly suspicious of Sheridan’s theatrical spin to politics. They were horrified by the extraordinary way in which the public became a closely engaged and highly disruptive audience of the proceedings of the revolutionary National Assembly. Sheridan’s talent for entertaining a crowd seemed to show how British politics could go the same way. The journalist and anti-Jacobin William Cobbett was one of those infuriated by Sheridan and the way in which he used his theatrical activities to cultivate a relationship with the press. Cobbett thought that it was ‘a sort of family compact’ between the theatre and the press that was the key to Sheridan’s success: the reporters in the gallery, he complained, seized with glee on their favourite’s ‘low-banter’ because it sold newspapers, ignoring the serious arguments of his adversaries.

This populism of politics-as-entertainment and the way the press picked up and amplified the more theatrical moments of parliament, would grow in the nineteenth century, as the sketchwriters and illustrated magazines brought out the little bits of melodrama, the characters and twisting plotlines of political life, and as politicians like Disraeli or Randolph Churchill played up to their images in the newspapers. And while it is common to believe that parliament these days is far less interesting and engaging than it was in those great days of parliamentary government, we still focus on those histrionic parliamentary performances – the ‘Punch and Judy’ of prime minister’s questions or the ‘pantomime’ of the budget – as great theatrical events; and many, like Cobbett, still disapprove of the subordination of serious debate to melodrama and point-scoring.

P.S

Further readings:

David Francis Taylor, Theatres of Opposition: Empire, Revolution & Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Oxford, 2012)

Henk te Velde, ‘Parliamentary “Theatre”, Dignity and the Public Side of Parliaments’ in Redescriptions: Political Thought, Conceptual History and Feminist Theory 22 (2019).

Follow Dr Seaward’s project, ‘Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament.

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