In its general meaning entertainment refers to any event that is intended to amuse, i.e. to be enjoyed by people.
However, in a more specific sense it is also a theatrical term, most prominent in the 19th century, used to refer to any form of eclectic presentation containing a range of different forms and styles.
As a theatrical term
In its amateur form, Entertainment (or Entertainments) is often found with reference to a group of theatre-lovers or literary enthusiasts, meet for the purpose of discussing and undertaking dramatised readings or even performances of plays, poems and narratives, either for their members or for the public. In other cases there are more eclectic presentations (including various kinds of literary, dramatic, musical, and performative acts), specifically put on as performances by such (mainly English, or Anglicised) institutions as literary societies, military garrisons, amateur theatrical companies, high schools, some lodges, student associations and the like.
In this latter sense the word occurs in a range of title combinations over the years, to indicate the specific intentions of the events.
Some titles used by the various companies include:
Dramatic Entertainments, Dramatic and Musical Entertainments, Dramatic and Drawing Room Entertainments, Drawing-Room Entertainments, Literary and Dramatic Entertainments, Literary and Musical Entertainment, Literary Entertainments, Musical and Dramatic Entertainment, Saturday Evening Entertainments, Social and Literary Entertainments, Social and Musical Entertainments, Theatrical Entertainments, etc.
The introduction of the general term "Social"
There has long been a South African convention of referring to any socializing event of this kind as a "Social", a practice that F.C.L. Bosman (1980, p.185) suggests probably evolved from the 19th century practice outlined above.
Some other terms associated with this concept:
Dramatic Readings, Playreading Groups, Playreading Clubs, Dramatic Recital Societies. On occasion they consisted of more serious literary fare and were given more suitable names, e.g. Mr Hill's Literary Entertainment of the late 1840s, the Dramatic and Musical Entertainments by Mrs Greig (1851, 1853), events sponsored by the Bloemfontein Literary and Scientific Society, etc.
Though the form was well-known among the English residents of the Cape, there is also is strong evidence that a similar kind of event was also prevalent among Dutch and Afrikaans communities in the 19th century, though possibly slightly more . (See also Debating societies) The Afrikaans programmes initially used the English term in parenthesis - i.e. "Entertainment" , but gradually came to employ an Afrikaans term Konsert - i.e.:"Concert" - for the same idea. In the early 20th century Konserte (in this sense) were very popular and the term was even transferred to English (e.g. the "school concert").
Another example is the bilingual (English and Dutch) Muzikale en Letterkundige Soirée ("Musical and literary soirée") that was held in the Mutual Hall Cape Town, on 27 July and 31 August 1870 by members of the Vrye Protestantse Kerk and the band of the warship Union.
Military and marine versions of the concept:
In the hands of the military or profit-minded semi-professional or professional companies, the programmes styled "entertainments" often tended to be a mixed bag of popular fare, with comic dialogues, short plays, musical turns, comic songs, tableaux, making up a substantial part of such an evening of "entertainment".
In the mid 1860s the Garrison Theatre versions of Dramatic Entertainments (e.g. those put on by the 1st battalion of the 9th Regiment, Cape Town), began to contain gymnastic acts as well, and were thus sometimes styled Dramatic and Gymnastic Entertainments.
A number of professional performers and touring companies also engaged in this kind of entertainment during the latter half of the 19th century. For example, Dramatic Readings are mentioned in relation to such varied performers as W.J.S. Bennee, T. Brazier, Mr St George, J. Spencer - performing as J.S. Marriott - and the charlatan G.T. Ferneyhough, while the theatrical companies of D'Arcy-Read, James Leffler and Le Roy and Duret all offered variations of the basic idea, under the titles noted above. In the 1870s even Disney Roebuck and some of his company members participated in what were specifically referred to as "Dramatic Entertainments", e.g. under the patronage of Commodore Sullivan and in association with officers of the English war ships stationed in Simonstown, on 26 and 27 April, 1878.
P.J. du Toit, 1988
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