“Let’s make it Victorian”

Now and then I hear a director say, “Let’s make it [such-and-such a period]” as part of the initial concept for the show. I think this is great because it gives us a good insight into the director’s vision and tends to put us on the same page right up front. However, a simple statement like that can have so many ramifications–and so many ways to get sidetracked–that I’d like to discuss the subject here.

Let’s take the Victorian period (or era, if you prefer), which tends to be very popular among theatre companies. Many plays can be set–and are often set–in a Victorian house or building, even if the story itself doesn’t take place during the period. However, the Victorian era lasted for over sixty years, which means that “Victorian” is actually a very loose description. So let’s look at it a bit and see how we can narrow it down.

The Victorian period started with Queen Victoria’s accession to the British throne in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. That’s sixty-four years. During those six decades there were many changes in architecture, design, art, fashion, literature, music, technology, and lots of other fields. For instance, although we often think of Victorian fashion as somber, dark, and funereal, that is only part of the story.

The British did have a very formal manner of mourning loved ones, and it involved wearing black or dark colors for anywhere from weeks to over a year, depending on how close the loved one was. The mourning period started with wearing solid black for so many weeks or months, then partial black with specified acceptable colors for a while, and then, later, other acceptable color combinations, until the end. Since we see so much of these somber colors in the movies and on TV, we often think it was all this way, but it wasn’t.

On the other hand, Queen Victoria herself probably did a lot to create this perception. She was so heartbroken when her husband died in December 1861 that she wore only black until the end of her life forty years later, and so we see her only in black in her later years.

Lots of books have been written on aspects of the Victorian period and the development of things like architecture and fashion, and they are invaluable for research. However, in this day and age, we can get a brief overview of many of these aspects, and narrow things down, right here on the internet. For instance, Wikipedia has a number of fine illustrated articles on this period that are worth reading, and I particularly like them because they often include good sources for further research:

There are also lots of sources for Victorian furniture, graphics, music, art, and other fields, which can further help you narrow down a specific year range.

As I mentioned in What period is it? you don’t need to make everything in the production jive with one specific year, even if the director chooses to stage the play in that year. For instance, a play set in 1865 can include elements from before that year; it just can’t include elements from after that year. This can be a great way to say something about the characters: do they have the latest furniture and accessories (or fashions) in their home, or do they have pieces handed down through the family, or are some of the pieces even antiques?

Although I titled this post “Let’s make it Victorian,” the same thoughts apply to many other historical periods. I could have titled it, “Let’s make it Egyptian” or “Let’s make it medieval” or “Let’s make it Greek” and said a lot of the same things. Understanding the basics about some of these historical periods, and knowing where to find information on them (and specifically on narrowing down the longer periods) can go a long way toward creating a physical environment that really ties the story together.