By Dana Amihere
Nearly four years of Dr. Regina Oost’s research culminated in the release of her book, Gilbert and Sullivan: Class and the Savoy Tradition 1875-1896. Last Thursday, the book was presented to students and faculty in a celebration coordinated by the English Society.
In her book, Dr. Oost addresses the overarching question, “What was it like to go to a West End 1880s production?” In a Q and A setting, she explained that the theater experience is much more than the performance itself. She lists what seats you are in, what you are wearing, how you got there, and why you are there in the first place as important queries in determining what patrons’ overall theater-going experience will be like. Ultimately, Dr. Oost described to the group, her research is a question of national identity and redefining what it means to be in the middle class at this time. According to Richard Foulkes, University of Leicester, United Kingdom, Dr. Oost’s book is “scholarly, accessible [and] coherently argued.” He avows that the book “will be an important addition to Gilbert and Sullivan literature and to the wider field of nineteenth-century theatre studies.”
The impetus for Dr. Oost’s research began with a familiar item for anyone who has ever attended a play or a Broadway show, the program. Prior to 1880, theaters used gas lights rather than the electric lights in use today. As a result, the house lights could not be dimmed and patrons were able to follow along with the script during the show. With the introduction of new technology and a shift in the purpose of programs, theater-goers’ experience with the performance itself changed. Her book originally began as a paper on programs and how they fit with the performance. However, in amassing such a font of information after just one trip to London, a book project slowly emerged.
During several more research trips to London Dr. Oost spent most of her time at the famous British Library, frequented by historical greats such as Virginia Woolf and Karl Marx, and the archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The bulk of her research consisted of examining handwritten letters, diaries and accounts of Gilbert and Sullivan to understand what it was they did to make their form of theater so memorable and transcendent above other theaters of the 1880s-1890s. Like many professors, she named deciphering handwriting as one of the hardest parts of her job.
Despite its international component, Dr. Oost’s new book has a Wesleyan connection. “The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan,” a portfolio of collected first night scripts and original programs for premiere Gilbert and Sullivan performances, is housed in Wesleyan’s own Willet Library. Dr. Oost’s says she found the book by happenstance. “First Night” is one of many theater books purchased for the library by Earl Bargainnier, former Fuller E. Callaway Professor of English Language and Literature at Wesleyan. Dr. Oost’s new book will soon have another distinct tie to Wesleyan’s library: a copy of “Class and the Savoy Tradition 1875-1896” will be available to check out.