A Lecture on Heads

There were a lot of theatrical companies in London and the provinces, but when I heard of The Lecture on Heads I was intrigued and confused. What heads? And why? Gerald Kahan in his book George Alexander Stevens & The Lecture on Heads has done a great job researching the show in its many forms from its debut in London 1764 till 1820. It  was devised by a minor comedian George Alexander Stephens who was surprisingly on good terms with the great Garrick.

Stephens performed for about 2 hours non stop, with a range of props such as puppet heads, and wigs worn by himself or placed on a block, some also included paintings and sculpture, suggesting they utilised stage props, in which he satirised a wide range of characters, such as a judge, a methodist preacher, macaroni, old maid, young mother, quack doctor and many more. It was performed across the English speaking world, i.e. England, Ireland, North America and the Caribbean, and adapted to include local characters and accents. Sometimes poetry and singing was involved, at other times it was part of a variety show, or had musical interludes. A few instances it was a two hander, with one person singing while the other lectured, or performed. Young ladies were recorded and a few child prodigies, so could provide work for a wide range of people, possibly to keep them out of the poor house. 

Kahan claims the show made a fortune for its originator, though he frequently complained of people copying his show, both in print and live. I’m surprised he couldn’t stop the print versions, as the copyright act had been passed, but I guess you needed to employ a lawyer, and possibly the versions were not close enough to be illegal.

It was important as it could be a single person show, so cheap to stage, and it flourished in the early years of the Chamberlain’s Act and various other forms of local censorship, as the show allowed types of people to be mocked, rather than specific individuals. There was an instance in North America where a theatre group got into debt, but were allowed to move on while one of the cast remained to do the show and try to write off the debts. 

But it seems to have been quite exhausting, as it often showed on alternate days – the strain on the performer’s voice must have been huge, having to fill a theatre with his sound, so effectively 2 hours or more of scripted shouting.

There’s no mention of it being in other colonies – i.e. Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand. Would love to hear if anyone there has any record of it. I’d be surprised if such a popular show did not go there.

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