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Teaching the Theory and Practice of Women's Dramaturgy

  • Catherine Burroughs

…plus d’informations

  • Catherine Burroughs
    Cornell University

At the 1997 MLA session on "Women Playwrights Around 1800," my contribution to the panel was to share some of the discoveries I have made—and problems I have encountered—when teaching British women playwrights who wrote for the London theatre at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the context of a course I taught at Cornell University in 1996 called "Theoretical Approaches to Romantic Theatre and Drama, 1790-1840" (the syllabus is reprinted below), I found that reading plays by writers such as Sophia Lee, Elizabeth Inchbald, Joanna Baillie, and Mary Russell Mitford helped me and my students address with particular urgency a series of topics that a study of Romantic theatre and drama inevitably raises:

  • antitheatricalism

  • generic experimentation (the rise of monodramas, melodramas, nautical burlettas, and opera)

  • the cultural significance of the gothic play

  • translations and adaptations of Continental dramaturgy

  • the revival of closet drama

  • the position of the actress in London theatres

  • the categorization of plays into "legitimate" and "illegitimate," and the separation of theatres into "major" and "minor"

  • the private theatrical

But why would a study of Romantic women dramatists in particular have the effect of bringing these topics into focus?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that teaching the theory and practice of women's dramaturgy around 1800 requires one to theorize about the topic simultaneously with studying it. To varying degrees, one theorizes about the teaching of all courses in the process of creating a syllabus, but it is unavoidable in the case of presenting materials on British Romantic women playwrights, since there are a number of practical problems endemic to the enterprise.

First, one needs to determine how to provide an historical overview of the period—one that judiciously represents the significant contributions of women in acting, playwrighting, criticism, and theory—and one that addresses how a focus on women theatre artists challenges those representations of the period currently available. Although Joseph Donohue's two hardback texts from the 1970s—Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age and Theatre in the Age of Kean—are still suberb, women receive little attention in them. Ellen Donkin's Getting into the Act provides a helpful analysis of the conditions women playwrights encountered in what she calls the "post-Garrick era," and Kristina Straub's Sexual Suspects is a tour de force of scholarship that admirably refuses to discuss the construction of masculinity and femininity on the eighteenth-century stage except by attending to the complicated interface of sexuality, gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Still, we need a paperback text that revises representations of British theatre and drama between 1790 and 1840, one that discusses women's contributions through references to male writers and artists who worked within, and outside of, the London theatre scene.

Next, one must decide how to present a variety of dramatic genres by women. Because there is no paperback anthology of Romantic women playwrights—not even of Inchbald's or Baillie's plays—it is necessary to create an anthology that can effectively demonstrate how women's dramaturgy developed between 1790 and 1840. Jeffrey Cox's excellent paperback edition of Seven Gothic Dramas includes Joanna Baillie's De Monfort, John Franceschina's hardback Sisters of Gore supplements this text by presenting gothic plays by women, and Adrienne Scullion's paperback collection Female Playwrights of the Nineteenth-Century contains three plays written before 1840 (Baillie's The Family Legend, Marie Therese DeCamp's Smiles and Tears, and Frances Anne Kemble's Francis the First). But there is no collection—not to mention an affordable text—that gives us a sense of women's varied dramaturgical experiments between 1790 and 1840.

Third, if one wants to provide a context for these writers' discussion of their navigation of domestic and social arenas—a situation that adds significant information to our understanding of the era's preoccupation with the dichotomy we have come to identify with the terms "closet" and "stage"—a text collecting together the range of critical writings about the stage by women from the Romantic period is an important resource. This theatre theory dramatically demonstrates to students the seriousness and care that lay behind the fictional writing projects produced by women during the period. Women Critics, 1660-1820, edited by the Folger Collective on Early Women Critics, is a good text with which to start, since it provides important documents from the Romantic period, and is available in paper.

Because one will have to spend time confronting the problematic omissions in the field when planning a course on British women playwrights around 1800, I think it makes sense to foreground this situation in one's course right from the start. This strategy can help students become more engaged in a discussion about the theoretical and practical problems that have made the Romantic era particularly fraught and challenging for theatre historians. Indeed, one of the aims of the course that I taught at Cornell was to teach students to become more reflective about how theory, history, and dramaturgical analysis are intricately connected and unavoidably interdependent.

A second aim was to demonstrate how a study of Romantic women playwrights focuses current debates about the degree to which any "reading" of a play can serve the needs of theatre practitioners, and conversely, the degree to which any "performance" can be isolated and then studied as a site for cultural information. This demonstration logically emerges from studying the historical fact that the Romantic period was—in its theoretical discourse—particularly concerned with the differences between reading and performing a playscript. Thus, in addition to plays by Romantic women writers, the syllabus below has us look at different critical perspectives—from phenomenology to new historicism to post colonialism and that amorphous field "performance studies"—in order to appreciate how certain approaches bring into relief certain aspects of a theatre period. My experience of teaching British women playwrights has taught me that perspectives which privilege the study of what Carol Simpson Stern and Bruce Henderson call "performative behaviors" reveal the potential of Romantic drama by women to help us revise traditional narratives of theatre history. But why would this be the case?

When we consider the centrality to Romantic women's dramaturgy of the performance of gender on social stages—in plays such as Sophia Lee's The Chapter of Accidents, Joanna Baillie's De Monfort, Elizabeth Inchbald's adaptation of Kotzebue called Lovers' Vows, and her own Wives as They Are, Maids as They Were—we can begin to see that approaches associated with performance studies help us view dramaturgy as another form of theory and therefore as a source of information about how the navigation by historical female theatre artists of a variety of performance venues indelibly marked their fictional writing. Emphasizing the importance of live bodies onstage and the idea that the concept of "performance" creates a spectrum encompassing the rituals of daily life as well as those of formal theatres, performance studies instructs us how to read Romantic drama in ways that highlight its theatricality, in contrast to scholarship that has all too often sacrificed performance history and theatrical contexts to close readings.

Indeed, those of us who study women playwrights around 1800 need to consider how the scholarship on these writers by literary critics in Romantic studies has affected—and will continue to affect—the presentation and reception of this material. Why, for instance, does the "literary" over "the theatrical" content of Romantic playwrights' dramaturgy continue to be emphasized in scholarship to the point where—for instance—closet drama by women gets more attention than the actual performances of women's plays on London and provincial stages? While literary critics and theatre historians are supposed to resemble each other these days—since each supposedly teaches playscripts in the context of theatrical culture and history—there are still enough significant differences between the approaches each group of scholars uses to require those of us who teach British women playwrights to theorize our pedagogical position. (It would be interesting to have statistics about which universities and colleges are teaching Romantic women playwrights and about which students are currently receiving information about these writers. Are there more graduate students in English or Theatre encountering this period of theatre history? Which critical perspectives, theoretical positions, and methodological approaches are being employed? Are the jobs in this period of theatre going primarily to literary critics or to theatre historians?).

At a recent meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, Thomas Crochunis challenged the membership to think more deeply about why—in spite of a spate of recent studies of Romantic drama and theatre—"institutional structures continue to sidestep the implications of how epistemologies, theoretical concerns, and textual canons might be altered if performance becomes more than a metaphor in romantic studies." Raising "the possibility of a performance-influenced romanticism," Crochunis reminded listeners that "performance, too, is a form of theater theory, and a form that, contrary to a positivist historicist model, is not lost in the mists of history." I do not have time here to summarize Crochunis's intriguing analysis of the reasons that institutions resist "performance as a critical method to unwrite our ideological dependence on the text," or to encapsulate his suggestions for how this "performance-influenced romanticism" might be implemented. His essay in this issue of Romanticism on the Net points to some of the structures of thought that block new performance-based approaches. Here is what I hope will happen in the future when we teach Romantic theatre and drama.

I believe it is absolutely vital for students of both theatre history and literary history to focus on Romantic drama not only to understand how the generic experimentation of the period helped prepare the way for modernist theatre but also to teach students to recognize how their own ways of reading drama may prejudice them against performance and align them with the closet against the stage. A period particularly preoccupied with this dichotomy provides students of theatre and literature with the opportunity to contemplate their interpretive methods. And because current anthologies tend to skip from Sheridan to Wilde—with an occasional gesture toward Shelley's The Cenci or Buchner's Woycek—students' understanding of theatre and literary history could be enormously improved by including several playscripts by Romantic women, a move that would remind students of the fact that the British female tradition established by Aphra Behn and flourishing in the eighteenth century with Susannah Centlivre, Hannah Cowley, and Hannah More continued to develop before 1836 through the forty-odd plays composed by Elizabeth Inchbald and Joanna Baillie alone. But not just that it continued—was there—but that the era elicited a number of theoretical discussions from women writers, appearing in a range of fictional and nonfictional texts (in informal and formal writing), which propel us—by prompting us to consider some of the ways in which these women turned to theatre as a medium for recording their responses to their experiences as women on both cultural and theatrical stages—to theorize about the choices we in the 1990s make in relation to curricular and theatrical contexts. This realization that the impetus for our own theoretical discussions can be traced back to the subject of our study should prompt us to look with greater scrutiny at the specific information Romantic women playwrights imparted about their cultural position as the means for developing an approach for recuperating the discourse women have historically produced when discussing performance in general. In other words, dramas by Romantic women playwrights provide but one of the textual sites for locating this discussion. Because the teaching of women playwrights around 1800 encourages us to embrace an approach to reading their plays that will begin to close the wound inflicted on the Romantic period by the closet/stage dichotomy, we find ourselves indebted to their work and encouraged to keep promoting the teaching of this vastly neglected period of theatrical production.

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