I am currently completing a book project titled Speculative Enterprise: The Theater and Financial Markets in London, 1688-1763. This project grows out of my dissertation, which was awarded a Mellon-ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship in 2015. Additional archival research was recently supported by a grant from the Center for Women and Gender at Utah State University.
This book project reveals a hidden history of the London public theaters’ active participation in debates about England’s transition to financial capitalism, and it contends that the conceptual nexus of theater and finance was vital to eighteenth-century economic and political thought. The decades following the 1688 Revolution Settlement witnessed the widespread adoption of phenomena like derivative securities, speculative manias, lotteries, and a national debt. In London’s public playhouses, performances engaged with these developments at the level of plot, characterization, and language, addressing audience members as economic subjects within complex webs of interdependence and conflict. At the same time, the economics of theater itself was reshaped as the public playhouses struggled to accommodate the changing tastes of audiences, which were reconfigured by larger changes in class structures and gender roles. In this fluid and competitive environment, theaters repeatedly merged and split, testing out innovations from the worlds of trade and finance as they attempted to survive. Observers recognized these shifts and articulated a nascent sense of the theater as a form of mass culture that operated according to the rules of the market, increasingly speculative and dependent on public opinion.
Examining theatrical offerings, advertisements, and criticism from key moments of economic instability, such as the currency depreciation crisis of the 1690s and the South Sea Bubble in 1720, I trace the material and figurative links Londoners articulated between Drury Lane and Exchange Alley. I find that the conceptual relay between financial and theatrical market zones produced a discursive space for debating the operations of speculative investment, the power of the rising middle classes, and the growing ability of public opinion to affect commodity values and shape institutions. I argue that this discursive space, which I call the “theater-finance nexus,” was central to contemporary theorizations of London’s emergent public spheres and to debates about their possibilities and risks. Furthermore, as a site of cultural recycling, the repertory theater adapted, revived, and reformed plays from previous generations, inviting audiences to connect past and present experiences of markets. In doing so, it challenged pervasive narratives of rupture, which included both nostalgic visions of England’s past and uncritical celebrations of its fiscal modernity.
This study offers a history of the entertainment industry that reaches beyond eighteenth-century studies to address current concerns about the social, political, and economic conditions of performance and the ability of the arts not only to respond to, but also shape public life.