19th-Century Theatre

Cup and saucer drama

Marie Wilton introduced a new young playwright, Tom Robertson. He had devised a new kind of play which became known as 'problem play' because it dealt seriously and sensitively with issues of the day.

Robertson's work was considered so revolutionary in style and subject that no established management would touch him. 'Danger' said Mrs Bancroft 'is better than dullness' and she went on to produce a string of successful and profitable hits by Robertson, such as 'Society', 'Ours', 'Caste', 'Play' and 'School'.

Caste was about marriage across the class barrier and explored prejudices towards social climbing. People talked in normal language and dealt with 'ordinary' situations and the performers didn't 'act' but 'behaved' like their audience - they spoke, they didn't declaim. In Ours a roly poly pudding was made on stage and this caused a major furore as people were not used to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. In The Vicarage the characters shocked the audience by making tea (hence the reference to 'cup and saucer dramas').

The Bancrofts were also responsible for making fashionable the 'box set' which Eliza Vestris had first used at the Olympic in the 1830s. They constructed rooms on stage which they dressed with the care of an interior decorator with sofas, curtains, chairs, carpets on their stage floors. Instead of painted flats they had real doors with real door handles and the actors wore well-made fashionable dress not the trappings of a dusty theatre wardrobe.

The drawing-room drama became much loved by the Victorian educated middle classes and the Bancrofts redesigned the theatre to suit their audience. The cheap benches near the stage, where the rowdiest elements of the audience used to sit, were replaced by comfortable padded seats, carpets were laid in the aisles and the pit was renamed the stalls.

The Bancrofts encouraged ensemble acting. Though they were the stars they employed talented actors realising that their own talents would shine better in a strong cast. They paid their actors well and took the wages to the actors rather than have them queue up like factory workers. They lavished considerable funds on their productions, risked new plays, and yet in 1885, after only 20 years in management, they retired with a fortune.

While the Bancroft's revolutionised the style of presenting social dramas, Robertson's plays ultimately affirmed the social order. It was left to writers such as George Bernard Shaw to challenge it.