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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 12, novembre 1998

British Women Playwrights around 1800: New Paradigms and Recoveries

Sous la direction de Thomas C. Crochunis

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005820ar

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Article

The Function of the Dramatic Closet at the Present Time

Thomas C. Crochunis

The LAB at Brown University


1

Might "closet drama" be at the center, rather than the margins, of British dramaturgical and scholarly history? No idea about dramatic writing is more closely associated with the Romantic period in Britain or more revealing of the interaction between American scholarship and theatre practice than the idea of "closet drama." Although plays written to be read had been around for some time before the Romantic period—and continue to be written to the present day—still we associate the term with the Romantic period in Britain. Furthermore, the term "closet drama" has played an especially important role in marking the boundaries between literary and theatrical culture and male and female authors. Because the idea of "closet drama" continues to influence our historiographic and pedagogical discourse about women's writing, theatre history, and literary history in the years around 1800 in Britain, I want to suggest a conceptual framework for thinking about what we do when we write about closet drama. [1] As a case in point, I will look at the effect of "closet drama" on contemporary thinking about British women's playwriting in the years just after the French Revolution. The effect of this concept can be seen by looking from several different perspectives at the simple statement "Women around 1800 wrote closet dramas."

2

From one perspective, when scholars make this statement—"Women around 1800 wrote closet dramas"—they are emphasizing the significance of decisions by some women writers to use certain dramaturgic forms and venues of publication. Drama written to be read rather than performed—or whose performance was not its author's main measure of her work's successful delivery to the public—came to matter in new ways around 1800 in Britain, perhaps particularly to women writers and readers. Although the historical record shows that many women did in fact write dramatic pieces for public performance, the story of the closeted female dramatist is one that, under the influence of a high literary feminist historiography, has a stronghold on scholarly imaginations. However, to make the assertion that women wrote closet dramas is not to end all inquiry. A woman playwright may have written dramas to be read for many reasons. She may have sought to reach the public in new ways, to avoid the aesthetic interference of theatrical practitioners, or to exploit the formal, aesthetic, and psychological potentials of writing drama for readers. Typically, however, scholars do not identify the differences between the closets for which various writers—both women and men—wrote, nor how writers like Joanna Baillie and Lord Byron, for example, inhabited their particular closets. (For Byron the idea of "mental theatre" provides an aggressive defense against the public's judgment; for Baillie the closet enables a strategic humility and flexibility in the face of theatrical pragmatics while guaranteeing a public for her plays.) The "Introductory Discourse" to Baillie's A Series of Plays (1798—volume 1 of the multi-volume project referred to as the "Plays on the Passions") states Baillie's interest in publicly staging private passions. Not surprisingly, Baillie's plays confound any neat distinction between writing for the closet and for the stage. Furthermore, how critics and readers received a writer's plays was influenced by public discourse about that writer's relationship to both the stage and the closet. So, by implying that "closet drama" was a distinct historical phenomenon, rather than an array of strategic maneuvers, the statement "Women around 1800 wrote closet dramas" imprecisely blurs the nuances of how the concept of "closet drama" was used by authors—particularly women—and by their publics.

3

In addition to being a description of an historical phenomenon, the statement that women around 1800 wrote closet dramas is also an historiographic utterance, a positioning of the period in question through a statement about it. Closet drama—when identified as a set of historical phenomena, blurred as those phenomena may be—becomes a literary historiographic concept that critics use to categorize certain writing. Having identified several of an author's works as closet dramas, historians can then base their analysis of an author's dramaturgy on that "fact." They can then make assessments of the conditions under which a writer created her work, of the writer's aesthetic concerns, of the ideologies implicitly or explicitly addressed by the works themselves, and even of the ideologies that informed theatrical institutions that rejected the "closet plays" in question. Categorizing works as "closet dramas" enables further historiographic utterances.

4

However, the assertion that a play is a closet drama depends on accepting either statements by authors about their intentions or assessments by historians of theatrical conditions and their effects on writers. Defining a work as a closet drama seems to immobilize it, but, as seemingly self-contradictory statements like "theatre company X performed one of a writer's closet dramas" show, the gesture that identifies a work as a closet drama must always be understood as provisional even though its rhetoric seems one of permanent classification. Just as the category "dramas for reading" has many uses for authors, so too does the construction and employment of the dramatic closet by literary historiographers. While feminist critics use the closet to highlight a writer's employment of alternatives to public bodily enactments, other critics use "closet drama" to show how writers responded to censorship or to the split between theatrical and literary culture and audiences. Scholars have used "closet drama" to demonstrate the gaps between literary and theatrical culture, denaturalize the rough and ready economic, aesthetic, and social practices of the theatrical industry, and preserve the idea that certain writers were dramaturgically "ahead of their time." Because it has been used in these ways, closet drama provides a key to the concept of literariness that lies beneath many of the publishing, scholarly, theatrical, and pedagogical practices in the humanities in colleges and universities today. [2]

5

From one final perspective, the statement "Women around 1800 wrote closet dramas," points to where academia places dramatic texts; the statement is spoken in the voice of the scholar/teacher from the literary study. For the most part, plays written for theatrical production and those written to be read are closeted together in universities today. Scholars may study plays in their classrooms, but they and their students read them more frequently in private than aloud in class. Dramatic texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have in fact become a private cache of closet dramas for scholars and their students. The size of the dramatic closet increases to include all the classrooms reading and studying plays from any period because historians of dramaturgy feel a complex familiarity with the shape of the dramatic closet. Scholars build closet classrooms. It's not just that closet drama existed, not just that historians use the idea of "closet drama" to construct theories about the periods they study, but that teachers enact the ideologies underlying the closeting of drama when they teach. Of course, professors themselves perform, in some sense, all the dramatic and non-dramatic texts they teach, but their performances are professional, scholarly, readerly, and resistant to a more unsettling amateur theatricality. Performing within the confines of literary studies has come to feel natural to academics, not peculiar and embarrassing; therefore, the ways scholars feel as they hover between coaching their students in reading plays in private and seducing them towards amateur bodily enactment of dramatic texts—the very forms of subjectivity that scholars employ as they play with the canon of closeted dramatic texts—are crucial evidence about the function of the dramatic closet in literary studies

6

Scholarship on closet drama has asserted that the closet is always in relationship to the stage: a performer may go to the closet to study a text before performance or a member of the public may go there to read a play either after seeing it or in place of seeing it. Where are literature studies classrooms in relation to the theatre? Are scholars today maintaining closet classrooms in preparation for a performance whose venue has yet to be determined? Or is the closet where those whose theatrical hopes have been thwarted have gone to play out again and again the roles they might have played on other public stages? Why have scholars continued to maintain—with periodic renovations of course—the closet that was built within the Romantic house of literariness? Why has the closet and not the stage, become the model for academic classrooms?

7

To understand "why," we must all look more closely at the complex social and professional structures that "closet" the bodily performances of scholars. The study of literature is built close to the dramatic closet, and in both of these rooms, theatrical bodies seem peculiar and excessive. We might consider our predecessors to be the women playwrights in Britain around 1800 who, to be at home in literary and scholarly professions, often drew upon past experiences of mastering display in professional and social theatres in order to learn new forms of professional conduct that could play in the study. However, once positioned as "professionals," these women writers continued to "play" through the performative gestures that their texts called into being. To understand the bodily theatre of scholars today in all its professional decorum, we can look first to the metamorphosis of British women whose skills as performers and performance theorists helped them become literary professionals. These women held open the doors as the study of literary scholarship was being built so that formerly theatrical women could retire to professional closets.

8

An author speaks of her dramatic writing in relation to the closet. A scholar employs the term closet drama within a larger historical narrative. A teacher creates a closet classroom and encourages students to read drama themselves. These three positions constitute significant gestures in the history of literariness. If their relationship can be understood, we will begin to understand the function of the dramatic closet at the present time and to write a fully interwoven cultural history of the following, noting complex continuities and significant transformations of structures:

  • the economics of theatrical, literary, and scholarly industries and their production

  • the aesthetics of reading, performance, and pedagogy

  • the cultural practices of gendered actors, writers, and professors

  • the uses of writing, reading, and performance as cultural and scholarly methods

  • the impacts of published writing, theatre performance, and college teaching on literacies

The closet holds the key to these portions of the historiography of literary studies.

9

Our professorial performances need to be read alongside texts that display Romantic anti-theatricality. Bad performances—according to our institutional aesthetics—create somatic dissonance that historicizes the Romantic period, providing us with an uneasy—and thus finally more Romantic—irony and positioning in relation to Romanticism and post-Romantic literariness. We need performance as a critical method to unwrite our ideological dependence on closeted texts, a dependence that blocks our awareness of how our own profession has been disciplined. To struggle against the resistance to theatre, we must first feel the numbness that characterizes our institutionalized performances and then notice how our unfeeling hands fail to grasp long-buried plays and forgotten theatrical and social performances. Instead of exhibiting a numb professionalism, we must engage in amateur performance inquiries and let ourselves feel pleasure and unease at what we do with texts—pleasure and unease in reading, in declaiming, in gesturing. And we must call this peculiar pleasure and unease Romanticism, Romantic studies, and the performance of historiography.


 

Notes

[1]

In Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), Catherine Burroughs, by detailing the meaning of "the closet," has shown how the term's opposition to "the stage" collapses when one studies the history of women's dramaturgy and theatre theory. See especially pp. 8-12, 16.

[2]

R. W. Vince, in "Theatre History as an Academic Discipline," in Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, ed. Thomas Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), outlines how studying drama as literature has limited other inquiry into theatre history. His discussion indirectly suggests that one important reason for treating drama as literature to be read is that doing so identifies a key piece of historical evidence as stable and intention-bound.

Auteur : Thomas C. Crochunis
Titre : The Function of the Dramatic Closet at the Present Time
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 12, novembre 1998
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005820ar
DOI : 10.7202/005820ar

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