Nineteenth Century Theatre
Comedy of Two Housemaids
England, circa 1880. Seven (7) albumen photographs of a Victorian comedic theatrical production, from the era of prolific literature and theatre, this play evidently highlighting social class issues through the lens of two housemaids. Photographs measure approximately 10,5 x 13,5 cm. Some creasing, otherwise in very good condition, vibrant images from a “cup and saucer drama”.Theatre and literature flourished during the Victorian era. Social plays, then known as “cup and saucer dramas”, set in the characters’ living rooms, became very popular. Political reforms had come into practice, which led to the openness of theatre and literature, and many new establishments were built, including entertaining venues and theatre schools. It was a period which brought prosperity to the middle class of England, and simultaneously started to challenge the old hierarchical order of the country. Theatres openly displayed and played dramas relating to social problems. Pantomime, Vaudeville, melodramas and light operas (such as those written by Gilbert and Sullivan) were popular. The works of dramatists George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde were widely respected. Technological breakthroughs of the industrial revolution also had an impact on theatre in the form of electric lighting and the use of machinery to create visual and audio spectacles.
The playwright’s comedy presents an entertaining drama of two Victorian house maids or servants performing their duties, while surely poking fun at the mundane and painstaking tasks. The characters seem to be opposite in personality, one with a more serious disposition earnestly working along, the other more light-hearted and a bit of a prankster. In two scenes, the entertainer type is motioning the thought of pouring water or perfume over her unsuspecting partner. The photographs seem to suggest that this would be a musical play.This set of photographs appear to be from the making of promotional material prior to the release of the live theatrical performance, evident by the varied set elements within what is obviously the same scene. Possibly captured during rehearsals, four images show the two women scrubbing the wood floor of a home. In two of these images, a side table covered with a cloth and holding delicate porcelaine decorations from abroad, stands behind the ladies to the left, and a screen is visible in the background to their right. In the other two images, there is no table and no screen, however one can see chair legs to the right of them.The women hand-scrubbing floors with a brush and a wet rag and bucket of soapy water, are in the home of an affluent individual who has evidently travelled to the “Far East”. This is apparent by the silk wall drapery bearing a Chinese motif of three traditionally dressed men and the ever-symbolic tiger.Set with table and screen in background:Set without furniture in background:Using the screen to create a different scene:In this scene, the stage entrance is visible on the right:
1880s women’s dress featured tightly fitting bodices with very narrow sleeves and high necklines, often trimmed at the wrists with white frills or lace. At the beginning of the decade the emphasis was at the back of the skirt, featuring ruching, flouncing, and embellishments such as bows and thick, rich fabrics and trims. The middle of the decade saw a brief revival of the bustle, which was so exaggerated that the derriere protruded horizontally from the small of the back. By the end of the decade the bustle disappeared. Hair was worn in tight, close curls on the top of the head. Hats and caps were correspondingly small and neat, to fit on top of the hairstyle.
By the last quarter of the 19th century, Hong Kong had developed as a British Crown Colony. The 1880s and 1890s were the heyday of colonialism in Asia. During this period, Hong Kong became an increasingly popular destination for western travelers in Asia. One of the key developments of the 1890s was the construction of the Peak Tramway, an inclined-rail carrier that provided easy access to the top of Victoria Peak, the hill that dominates Hong Kong Island.