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Election plays and the culture of elections and electioneering in the days of Dunny-on-the-Wold

England’s pre-Reform elections are memorably satirized in the historical sitcom, Blackadder the Third. Also glancing at late 1980s politics, the series begins with the rigged by-election for a fictional rotten borough—Dunny-on-the-Wold—taking centre stage. The first episode of the TV series based on the Horrible Histories books by Terry Deary contributes to the same satirical and comedic tradition: the sketch ‘How to Vote in a Georgian Election’ mocks the corrupt aspects, inequalities, and elite control of pre-democratic politics, for example, by stressing the importance of voting for the lord of the manor’s son: ‘You have to, there are no other candidates’.

In fact, these satirical takes on the long eighteenth century on the small screen have much in common with the drama of the period itself—as well as with related forms, such as Hogarth’s famous series of paintings, and associated prints, on the ‘humours’ of an election. Across the eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries, and across the country, a rich and varied genre of election plays—that is, plays about contemporary elections and electioneering—presented society with images of itself, displaying key aspects of the political process, corrupt practices, abuses endemic to the electoral system, and acts of principled resistance, through the entertaining lens of particular dramatic performances and conventions.

Although potentially subject to forms of censorship, these daringly topical plays nevertheless circulated in print and manuscript, and were staged, in different parts of the country, before and after the Licensing Act of 1737 (which stipulated that new plays, and new material added to old plays, should be submitted for official examination in advance of performance). Election plays were also adapted—for instance, as printed plates for a toy theatre—and disseminated as extracts: for example, ballads featured in these plays circulated separately and in song books. The genre includes the work of canonical authors such as Shakespeare, as well as lesser-known playwrights and anonymous and now lost pieces.

One example is Henry Fielding’s self-consciously ‘libellous’, commercially canny ‘rehearsal play’, Pasquin, A Dramatick Satire on the Times (1736). The play presents an eighteenth-century precursor to the metatheatrical The Play That Goes Wrong plays of today, a kind of Election Play That Goes Wrong. Set in the theatre itself, it features the rehearsal of a ludicrously bad comedy about an election, with commentary provided by the playwright, Trapwit, and rival dramatist, Fustian, as well as the critic Sneer-well and other stage personnel.

Through the farcical dramatization of electoral bribery in Trapwit’s ‘senseless’ comedy—at one point, Trapwit directs the actors playing the voters to ‘range your selves in a Line’, and those playing the candidates to ‘come to one End, and Bribe away with Right and Left’—Fielding satirically suggests the similarities, as well as differences, between this parodic, exaggerated representation and real life. Fustian asks, ‘Is this Wit, Mr. Trapwit?’, to which Trapwit responds: ‘Yes, Sir, it is Wit; and such Wit as will run all over the Kingdom’. The play was a hit at the Haymarket in the spring of 1736, due, in no small part, to the appeal of its electoral comedy.

Fielding’s play also circulated widely in print. In 1737, there appeared what claimed to be a tenth edition, printed by Edmund Cook. The edition had a smaller, more portable duodecimo format than previous Pasquin editions. It also attracted purchasers by prefacing Fielding’s play-text with a frontispiece portraying a scene from the rehearsal of Trapwit’s election comedy, further underscoring the popularity of this part of the play.

Pasquin. A Dramatick Satire on the Times.

Although it is not a straightforwardly accurate representation, the frontispiece brings into focus some of the ways that election plays afforded voters and non-voters opportunities for political engagement and expression, at a time when the ability to vote was restricted. For example, as the copy in the Senate House Library Malcolm Morley Collection shows, the illustration highlights the presence of unenfranchised women in Fielding’s theatre audiences (members of whom have a prominent place on the left-hand side of the frontispiece); women could also read, hear readings from, and view the frontispiece to, the printed edition itself. (In writing his election plays Pasquin and Don Quixote in England (1734), Fielding was, moreover, following the example of Susanna Centlivre, whose influential works include the seminal election farce, The Gotham Election (1715).)

Again, the frontispiece comments on the role of actresses as active agents in shaping Fielding’s electoral comedy; the illustration represents the satirical onstage encounter between Miss Mayoress, a government supporter, and Miss Stitch, a supporter of the opposition, who, in Trapwit’s comedy, is susceptible to the bribe of a hand fan. In addition, the frontispiece points to the dynamic interplay between literary and visual satire key to the era’s electoral culture, apparent in the fruitful exchanges between numerous writers and artists, including Fielding, Hogarth, and Frederick Pilon. 

Election plays like Pasquin had both immediate and wider, long-lasting implications for literature and political culture. Such plays reveal important interconnections between commercial theatre, the market for entertaining print, and the expansion of an audience for representations of contemporary political life in the long eighteenth century. This is also suggested by the way that other forms of electoral culture tapped into the popularity and appeal of dramatic forms (including election plays). These forms include partisan electioneering materials, such as mock playbills attacking particular candidates, which could also be sold as part of printed election miscellanies—collections of texts generated by particular contests—further highlighting connections between the commercialization of literature and politics.

At the same time as election plays energized contemporary drama, they also had an impact on political life. In a period when many seats were not contested (that is, the candidate(s) for a particular constituency faced no formal opposition) and many could not vote, election plays fuelled political engagement and the formation of opinion about elections across the social spectrum and across the country in terms of their diverse authors, audiences, and performers. These plays had the potential to popularize ‘libellous’ views, promote electoral partisanship, and encourage calls for reform. Interacting and overlapping with other forms—including ballads, prints, and novels—election plays helped to create an active culture of elections and electioneering in the age of ‘Dunny-on-the-Wold’ itself.

Today, political culture continues to draw upon and rework well-known cultural forms, including entertaining dramatic forms, at a time when many people also engage with elections and electioneering without voting, for example, by sharing parodic online memes. Campaigning for the UK general election held in December 2019 saw the Labour and Conservative parties circulate adaptations of the well-known seasonal romcom Love Actually (2003) on social media, reimagining the romantic declaration made by Andrew Lincoln’s character Mark to Keira Knightley’s Juliet via cue cards as an act of doorstep canvassing.

As forms of political communication continue to draw upon dramatic culture, elections remain occasions for satirical and comedic creativity. During campaigning for the 2015 general election, the comedy series Ballot Monkeys reworked the classic satirical theme of ‘canvassing for votes’ by focusing on rival party ‘battle’ buses. The election play itself remains alive, and ready for reinvention. December 2019 also saw the topical updating of James Graham’s election play, The Vote, previously staged and televised on election night in 2015. The next UK general election, currently expected to take place in 2024, may well see Graham’s play revived and adapted to the times once again, as earlier election plays were revived, adapted, and repurposed to suit different political and cultural occasions. If a variety of dramatic forms still feature in today’s political and cultural landscape, election plays of the long eighteenth century offer us a window onto the drama and political life of the past, and the vital exchanges between them.  

Featured image credit: Frontispiece to Henry Fielding, Pasquin. A Dramatick Satire on the Times, ‘Tenth Edition’ (London, 1737) © University of London, Senate House Library, Malcolm Morley Collection, M.M.C. 2841

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