At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’ Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples.
The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies. Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.
The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era. Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century.
The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour. Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship.
Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere.
Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture.
A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’
Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’
Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’ It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?)
Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force. In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.
Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield. Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.
Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin