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Jewishness and the Covent Garden OP War

Published in the latest edition of 19th Century Theatre and Film is an article entitled ‘Jewishness and the Covent Garden OP War: Satiric Perceptions of John Philip Kemble‘. I wrote this, and I just wanted to say a little about it by way of context, summary, promotion (forgive me, but if I don’t then who else will?)

Though this article is new, it represents one of those projects I’m sure we researchers all have: something that’s been on and off the back-burner for some time. Indeed research into how graphic satires presented John Philip Kemble – actor-manager of Covent Garden at the time of the infamous Old Price riots (something I’ve written on before, and am still working on) – as ‘Jewish’ begun during my doctoral research, though not quite making the cut for the thesis as I went through the tortuous process of reduction and selection (of course, it failed to make the cut not because I thought the research didn’t have legs, but because it didn’t fit the theme quite as well as other topics).

Anyway, the article – in sum – explores the ramifications of a nine-day period during which, it was alleged, Kemble hired Jewish boxers to suppress the nightly riots which had turned the theatre into a counter-spectacle since it had reopened on 18 September 1809. The rioters main quarrel was over an increase in admission prices, hence their cry of ‘Old Prices’ – commonly shortened to OP. This ‘Jewish’ phase of the riots might have been brief (on October 14th the boxers disappeared, withdrawn it seems by the management as a failed tactic) but such was the indignation of the OPs that underhand means had been used in an attempt to expel them from the theatre (note: they had all paid to enter what was a patent theatre, and hence – in the eyes of many – a public space), the association of Kemble with a particular construction of Jewishness – malleable, xenophobic, centring around dishonesty and profiteering – stuck. This connection of the OP war with wider, longer and deeper narratives of racial conspiracy (which, as we all should know, have a habit of rearing their ugly head and make for easy targets during times of strife…) demonstrates how contemporaries sought to extend the riots beyond physical boundaries of theatric space (in the case of the satirical printsellers, for one expects commercial gain), and how easy history – in this case the history of Kemble, Covent Garden, and the OP conflict – could be rewritten to suit the needs of the here and now.

So, I cover quite a lot of ground – protest, space, race, printing. Whether I’ve managed to make a coherent narrative and successful argument out of it all is up to you really, so thoughts, feedback are welcome.

As a side note, research into the OP War has drawn me further into the world of the periodical press than I would normally. Whilst I would not lay claim to expertise in this area, I was delighted to attend, and speak, today at a 19th century Periodicals Research Day held at Liverpool John Moores University. On the invitation of Brian Maidment I spoke on research in the digital age, associated challenges and opportunities, and the tensions between Digital Humanities (big D, big H) and humanities research which uses digital tools and methods where appropriate, as part of a wider toolkit. Please use my slides, script and notes from the day at your leisure.

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