'The Usual Palm Tree': Lovers in the Conservatory on the Late Victorian Stage

Issue: Vol 3, No 2: Winter 2011
Pages: 78-94
Author(s): Anjna Chouhan (School of English, University of Leicester)
Citation: http://www.victoriannetwork.org/index.php/vn/article/view/26

Abstract

In the late nineteenth century, urban gardens, parks and conservatories had become fashionable as well as culturally and socially accessible. Creating pockets of nature within towns fused the spheres of countryside and city into one location.

The escapism inherent in nature is a common theme in literature and art, as well as the theatre. Because the countryside within drama often functions as an escapist location, the late-Victorian penchant for faux or urban nature posed important questions for dramatists of the period. The dramatic paradigm of escape to the pastoral and return to the town, notable in Shakespearean plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, hinges around the idea that identity can be established by the act of travelling.

However, the fascination with urban gardens and conservatories challenged conceptions of territorial shifts as integral to the process of self-discovery. It was, therefore, within the realm of the urban conservatory that the late century playwrights Arthur Wing Pinero and Oscar Wilde subverted the traditional theatrical pastoral escape. In Pinero's farce The Schoolmistress (1886), and Wilde's society comedy An Ideal Husband (1895), rather than retreating to the countryside, characters retire to the palm trees in the conservatory to find escape and, more importantly, lovers.

This paper is an exploration of how these playwrights used the domesticated conservatory to negotiate the concepts of escape and return. By addressing the image of the conservatory as a late Victorian substitute for the pastoral escape, and probing the construct of the off-stage space, this article ultimately argues that romantic escapism, particularly within the parameters of the stage, does not necessarily require travel to a rural or idyllic location. Rather, the whole construct of the dramatic pastoral escape for lovers hinges not so much on 'usual', physical territory as the idea of imaginary experience.



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