Érudit - Promouvoir et diffuser la recherche
FrançaisEnglishEspañol
 

Recherche détaillée

.

Année Volume Numéro Page 
>

Institution :

Usager en libre accès

Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 21, février 2001

Romanticism and Science Fictions

Sous la direction de Robert Corbett

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005968ar

ron
< PrécédentSuivant >
Article

Science Fiction and Techno-Gothic Drama: Romantic Playwrights Joanna Baillie and Jane Scott

Marjean D. Purinton

Texas Tech University


1

Early nineteenth-century British drama reflects its linkage with the culture's preoccupations with science and medicine. Science did, in fact, take form in the theatre, where production strategies were shaped by the machinery of staging enhanced and encoded with scientific discoveries. [1] Conversely, theatre was appropriated by science as the actual site for staging experiments and displays. Since the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle's demonstrations for students were staged as anatomical theatres of medicine with formalized and regularized performances. Staged dissections functioned in spectacularly pedagogical ways in science's institutional training. [2] Scientific and pseudo-scientific interests were theatricalized in other public but non-dramatic forms, such as traveling and raree shows, itinerant lectures and demonstrations, extravagant displays and exhibitions, and forums at the Royal College of Surgeons. [3]

2

Romantic drama that took on fantastical and spectacular forms was informed by science, and this interconnectedness between theatre and science may explain the predominance of gothic and melodrama. [4] Staged as gothic, seemingly natural elements associated with science and medicine were technologically designed and manipulated to create a world of illusions and phantasmagoria. Both gothic and science were discursive fields upon which anxieties about social identity and physicality could be displaced, and the gothic conventions of drama were particularly convenient for playwrights' use in negotiating the influences of science upon culture. I use the term "techno-gothic" to describe Romantic drama's performance of science and the supernatural—or technology and gothic. Techno-gothic is an ideologically charged and melodramatic structure in which disturbing issues and forbidden experiences characteristic of gothic are recontextualized by the period's pursuit of science. Techno-gothic drama is, in fact, a product of the Romantic revolution in science. A hybrid genre, techno-gothic drama constitutes an incipient "science fiction"—theatrical, and therefore fictive, representations of science. While we often think of the period's fiction writers as originators of science fiction, and some scholars point specifically to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, [5] I argue that roots of Romantic science fiction are also located in its techno-gothic drama written by women before 1818. The British stage and novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shared speculative fictions. Stories of supernatural fiction were dramatized; similarly, gothic mechanisms, tropes, and characters of fiction became the elements of gothic drama. The theatrical representations of speculative fictions were, however, equally significant to the production, popularization, and commercialization of gothic and science. Reading techno-gothic drama informs our understanding of the eclectic cultural and conceptual pressures that generated "science fiction."

3

In Romantic drama, techno-gothic was expressed in two popular forms—grotesques and ghosts. The techno-gothic grotesque embodied a discursively constructed monster or aberration. On stage, the Bakhtinian body of becoming, process, and change, with its carnivalesque associations, excited pleasure and terror in its horrific physicality. [6] Physicality offered a way of performing preoccupations with the body, its anatomy, its physiology, its potential for disease and deformity, its propensity for physical disabilities and socio-sexual transgressions. The techno-gothic grotesque makes visible the threatening "other," simultaneously disturbing and appealing. The techno-gothic grotesque staged what science could explain, produce, or transform on a fictive, performing body. The techno-gothic ghost, on the other hand, offered a vehicle for performing disembodiment. Technologically designed special effects of the stage stimulated the imagination to contemplate the absence of substance, religious and pagan spirits, metaphysics, inchoate psychology and neurology—areas which science sought to explain. By manipulating the ways light bounced from a polished and curved plane, for example, production managers could create optical effects. Spectators looking into a mirror could be terrified at the appearance floating upon its surface, a phantom signifying fictions generated by both superstition and science. The presence of techno-gothic spirits excited much controversy in their stagings and took on important social implications in their gendered identifications.

4

In this essay, I will consider how the techno-gothic ghosts in Joanna Baillie's drama Orra: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1812) and Jane Scott's comedy The Old Oak Chest or, The Smuggler's Sons and the Robber's Daughter: A Melodramatic Romance in 2 Acts (1816) and the one instance of a techno-gothic grotesque in the latter drama transform the body into a text that could be read and interpreted. Science and staged science facilitated new perceptions of the body, but in general, women's bodies remained objects of scientific scrutiny and commodities in the medical profession. Baillie and Scott, among other women playwrights, wrote drama that engaged these interconnected fields of theatre and science, but they did so in ways that challenged the spectral use of bodies, rendering fictive what appeared to be objective, factual, and authentic science.

5

The phantastic appearances in these plays resist spatial limitations and discernable significations. The corporeality of the techno-gothic ghost is erased, and yet its stage appearance requires a visibility that it seeks to deny. Ghosts were, of course, a gothic convention at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but they were also objects of scientific scrutiny and speculation, and so they, like techno-gothic grotesques, were charged with new significations and science fiction potentialities. For women playwrights especially, techno-gothic ghosts provided a way in which they could participate in the scientific revolution of the early nineteenth century other than as objects themselves. Baillie and Scott, in particular, expose not only the fictive and theatrical nature of science but also the ways in which staged science functioned as science fiction, popular and powerful in its public presentation. Baillie and Scott appropriate staged science as techno-gothic drama, specifically charged with scientific ideology, to challenge the roles and afflictions assigned to women by medical and scientific discourses that sought to keep them subordinate to men.

6

Hypotheses about ghosts, both in scientific and fictive discourses, sought to uncover the seemingly inexplicable and intangible phenomena. In John Herschel's discussion of light and vision in A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), for example, he identifies the optical necessity of something between the eye and the thing seen. What the "thing" is, he explains, has been variously conjectured. Some imagine that "all visible objects are constantly throwing out from them, in all directions, some sort of resemblances or spectral forms of themselves, when received by the eyes, produce an impression of the objects." [7] The Cartesian dichotomy of mind/body here presented in the language of Herschel's optics is expressed philosophically by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria (1817) as he reflects on epistemological debates between Richard Price and Joseph Priestley:

In order to explain thinking as a material phenomenon, it is necessary to refine matter into a mere modification of intelligence, with the two-fold function of Appearing and perceiving. Even so did Priestly in his Controversy with Price! He stript matter of all its Material properties; substituted spiritual powers; and When we expected to find a body, behold! we had nothing But its ghost! The apparition of a defunct substance! [8]

Coleridge's comments capture the surprise and horror performed by stage players who encounter apparitions rather than bodies in techno-gothic drama. Theatregoers, too, were fascinated by the technologically engineered ghosts that caused them to question or doubt the "thing" between the eye and what they saw on stage. Terry Castle points to the ways in which non-dramatic but staged science excited audiences to question the reality of optical illusions in magic lantern shows, which "developed as mock exercises in scientific demystification, complete with preliminary lectures on the fallacy of ghost-belief." [9]

7

Discursive preoccupations with memory, dreams, and nervous disorders are similarly inscribed and enlivened as the spectacle of phantasmagoria on the stage. In the wake of prolific scientific activity, the unknown in spectral form still created terror and fear, and so the techno-gothic ghost was handy for dramatists staging science fiction. Charles Lamb asserts in "Witches and Other Night-Fears" (1823) that the most cruel, tormenting devil to humankind is "the simple idea of a spirit unembodied." [10] Early nineteenth-century science sought to explain and treat psychological and neurological responses to things unseen. Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperament (1800) medicalized sensibility as a cultural disease, a pathology often stimulated by substances such as alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, and opium. Working from George Cyene's notions in The English Malady (1733) that too many luxuries engendered individual and collective degeneration, Trotter gave discursive form to the spectre of hysteria, excessive emotions associated with women. [11] The hypochondriacal fears and excessive stimulates which Trotter attributed to the nineteenth-century middle class had already been theatricalized in hypnotic exhibitions made popular by Franz Anton Mesmer, and they are dramatized on stage through the appearances of techno-gothic ghosts.

8

Medical explanations for gendered diseases are rendered science "fictions" in their staging as techno-gothic ghost in Baillie's tragedy Orra. The title character is imprisoned in an ancient castle in the Suabian forest by the villainous bastard Rudigere until she is rescued by Theobald. The setting of Orra situates it at a time, the fourteenth century, and in a place, the Black Forest of the Swiss canton Basle, when superstitution not science informs interpretations of the unknown. Orra has been pressured into a marriage contract, for Rudigere will grant her freedom only if she agrees to marry Glottenbal. Obstinate Orra refuses, and Rudigere determines to scare her into submission.

9

Rudigere preys upon what he knows to be Orra's predisposition to nervous disorders. Her constitution cannot handle stimuli that excite her imagination. He enlists Cathrina to provoke the superstitious Orra with "stories of the restless dead, / Of specters rising at the midnight watch." [12] For Orra, the visual possibilities of specters are enlivened by their verbal construction, as Alice remarks: "Such stories ever change her cheerful spirits / To gloomy pensiveness" (Orra 2.1.242). In the medical terminology of the early nineteenth century, Orra suffers from somnambulism, a condition in which she can envision scenes not with her eyes but through an involuntary apprehension that resides in her nervous system. [13] In the Introduction to Mesmer's Dissertation, he describes somnambulism as a condition "which brings forth such marvelous apparitions, trances, and inexplicable visions, and which is the source of so many errors and absurd opinions." [14] Baillie's techno-gothic drama portrays the "science fictions" of medical discourses like Mesmer's and Trotter's and theatricalizes the effects of science staged in magic lantern shows and skenographia.

10

The conditions that facilitate the actual appearance of Baillie's techno-gothic ghost are discursively constructed in the story of Count Hugo, Orra's ancestor who murdered a noble knight, frequently found hunting in the Black Forest. On Michael's Eve, the spectre of the slain huntsman, his spectre steed, and his spectre hounds are reportedly seen. According to the tale, the spectre huntsman enters the castle, the very place where Orra is being held prisoner, and implores his murderer's descendants to loose his spirit from its purgatory torment. The discursive production of this spectre is further enhanced by the physical presence of a band of forest outlaws, led by Theobald, committed to "uphold the terrors of the place" with their "midnight rouse" to maintain "the ghostly legend" (Orra 3.1.246). Baillie has set the stage for the phantom Orra must interpret with gothicized special effects which the audience knows to be human activity (outlaw merry-making) and fantasy making (legendary ghost stories) but which Orra will perceive differently.

11

By 1812, even seemingly ghostly sightings and glowing nightly phantoms had, in fact, been explained by science. In Jane Marcet's 1806 Conversations on Chemistry, in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained and illustrated by experiments, Mrs. B explains to her pupils Emily and Caroline how phosphorated hydrogen gas spontaneously ignites in the atmosphere at any temperature, thereby rendering an optical illusion of dancing specters: "It is thus that are produced those transient flames, or flashes of light, called by the vulgar Will-of-the-Wisp, or more properly Ignes-fatui, which are often seen in church-yards, and places where the putrefaction of animal matter exhales phosphorus and hydrogen gas." [15] For the fourteenth-century Orra, however, there are no scientific explanations that might dissolve her fear of chemical operations that she perceives as ghosts. In Marcet's Conversations, Caroline remarks: "Country people, who are so much frightened by those appearances, would soon be reconciled to them, if they know from what a simple cause they proceed" (1.99). Like the "country people" of Caroline's remark, Orra remains unenlightened about the visual sensations created by combustible phosphorated hydrogen gas, and her mind is predisposed to explanations far less scientifically grounded than those available to Baillie's nineteenth-century audience. Consequently, even though the stage ghost is actually embodied, a form the audience recognizes as human, Orra's superstitious mind has been conditioned to see phosphorated hydrogen gas as "Will-of-the-Wisp" and Theobald as the spectre-huntsman, a science fiction with tragic consequences.

12

Devising a plan to rescue Orra, Theobald manipulates deceptions, play-acting with the forest's riotous band so that he can gain unnoticed access to the imprisoned Orra. With the aid of his friend Franko, Theobald impersonates the spectre-huntsman. As ghosts, they are less likely to be hindered or pursued. As embodiments of that which Orra fears, however, they encounter the toughest resistance from the object they seek to liberate. When Orra is awakened by sounds, she interprets them as a hunting horn and hounds' cries. According to Mary Sommerville, whose study The Connection of the Physical Sciences would be published in 1834, the ear "requires long and perfect repose to attain its utmost sensibility." [16] Far from experiencing repose, Orra's physical and psychological states contribute to her agitation, and for a somnambulist, Barbara Stafford explains, sleep is a clairvoyant and nervy state in which the faculties are most keenly alert. [17] Orra hears a voice proclaiming: "There is around us, in this midnight air, / A power surpassing nature" (Orra 3.3.249). In the night clouds, Orra sees a figure, one in the "semblance of a warrior plumed head, / While from its half-shaped arm a streamy dart / Shoots angrily" (Orra 4.1.251). Orra's preconceived phantoms, discursively created and emotionally enlivened, guide what she hears and what she sees. She has lost all scientific objectivity and empiricism, her interpretations instead informed by the excesses of her nervous disorder, her hysteria. While Orra's responses are shaped by fictive explanations for the optical illusions she takes to be real, her responses also exhibit the science "fictions" that purportedly explain her condition and temperament.

13

When the techno-gothic ghost emerges from the trap door in the floor, it is actually Theobald disguised as the spectre of the legendary dead huntsman. At the sight of the body/phantom before her, Orra shrieks and faints. Her condition worsens, and by the end of the play, she is seen suffering from "heaven's infliction" (Orra 5.2.257), a madness that leaves her disordered and distracted, periodically screaming and never recognizing anyone. Orra's spectral vision has rendered her insane, making her reality only that which is inside herself, "her mind within itself holds a dark world / Of dismal phantasies and horrid forms" (Orra 5.2.259). Dr. Mesmer might include Orra among those deemed by society as incurable when he remarks in his Dissertation: "I am certain that the most dreadful states, such as madness, epilepsy, and most convulsions, are most often the disastrous consequences of ignorance of the phenomena of which I speak and of the impotency of the methods used by medicine." [18] Orra's affliction exceeds what conventional science in the early nineteenth century could understand or alleviate, and most medical accounts attribute hysteria to general constitutional weaknesses and overexcitation. [19]

14

Despite the scientific revolution of the late eighteenth-century, there was in 1812 still no psychology that could bring light to minds darkened with various disorders like that which Orra experiences, but gothic and science fiction provided spaces for Baillie to explore the issues of women's mental health. The play is less concerned with the spectacle of the techno-gothic ghost and more committed to examining the effects of the phantom on Orra. Orra's responses to things seen and unseen reify early nineteenth-century gender expectations for women's constitutions, a response that contradicts her defiant, "masculinized" strength against Rudigere's many efforts to force her into a marriage that she does not want. Throughout the play, Orra resists the delimiting definition of female sex and its gendered role. To Hartman, for example, she satrirically remarks:

And so, since fate has made me, who the day!

That poor and good-for-nothing, helpless being,

Women yclept, I must consign myself

With all my lands and rights into the hands

Of some proud man, and say, "Take all, I pray,

And do me in return the grace and favour

To be my master".

Orra 2.1.240

How can Orra maintain a strongly independent position that withstands actual bodily harm and resists culturally dictated gender behaviors, a position that Richard Powhele would have attributed to the band of "unsexed females," [20] and yet act so totally "feminized" in the presence of spectral possibilities? Why does she stand fearlessly in the face of Rudigere's realizable promises of death and yet turn pale and shudder from ghost stories and imaginary sounds?

15

Orra performs the fate of women whose access to the scientific disources and participation in the scientific discoveries of Baillie's day were limited. Works like those by Jane Marcet and Mary Sommerville were exceptional efforts to bring women into the scientific revolution of the early nineteenth century. If Orra, however, had remained a strong, independently minded woman, she risked becoming a techno-gothic grotesque—a woman who transgressed the biological categories of sex and socially constructed femininity. Her mentality and behavior, typically within the boundaries of her sex, her biological destiny, however, contribute to her demise. Baillie's techno-gothic drama, therefore, critiques scientific methods, discourses, and knowledge as science fictions about and for women. For all her character strengths, Orra is, as Baillie remarks in the preface to the Third Volume of Plays on the Passions, "under the dominion of Superstitious Fear," a fear that is "so universal and inherent in our nature, that it can never be eradicated from the mind, let the progress of reason and philosophy be what it may." [21] Superstitious fear can never be eradicated as long as women are inculcated with sensibility and as long as their education limits their abilities to discover a self-realization beyond the limits they have been told constitute the "weaker sex."

16

The pedagogical implications of Baillie's tragedy, especially for female reader, expose the fictionality and performativity of scientific or medical "truths" that would connect bodily and mental excesses with femaleness. Baillie's tragedy not only interrogates the discourses and practices of science, it furthermore criticizes, at the metadramatic level, staged science, in its various forms, that passes itself off as value-neutral while objectifying women for study and portraying cultural norms as "natural." Techno-gothic drama, for Baillie, offered a strategy for staging the fiction of staged science and suggesting an alternative "science" in which women could participate as critical readers. Like the conversations in Marcet's scientific discourse, Baillie's drama invites readers to redress the deficiencies of ignorance, something her brother, surgeon and respected anatomist, Matthew Baillie had noted in the Preface of The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body (1793): "The human mind is prone to form opinions upon every subject which is presented to it, but from a natural indolence is frequently averse to inquire into the circumstances which can alone form a sufficient ground for them. This is the most general cause of false opinions, which have not only pervaded medicine, but almost every other branch of knowledge." [22] Readers of Baillie's tragedy are impelled to confront their false opinions, for within the world of the play, the spectre huntsman is revealed as mere lore, and metadramatically, Orra unmasks medical accounts of female hysteria as fictive. Like the legendary huntsman, science too is exposed as a shadow, a techno-gothic ghost of human creation, factual and veritable only in its theatricalized presence.

17

Both Orra and The Old Oak Chest excited interest and approbation. Orra was never staged, but in a letter addressed to Walter Scott in 1812, Baillie acknowledges his opinion that it should be performed: "So you think my Play of Orra is likely to have a good effect on the stage. I am glad you think so; for if this be the case it may some time or other, in some place or other be produced up on it." [23] Baillie reveals in this letter that the volume of plays, including Orra, is nonetheless selling better than her previous volumes. Scott's comedy The Old Oak Chest was as compelling to audiences as itinerant scientific lectures and traveling freak shows. The most popular melodrama written before 1843, The Old Oak Chest was performed 96 times at the Sans Pareil Theatre between 1816 and 1819, with Scott playing the role of Roda. [24]

18

Like Baillie's tragedy, Scott's comedy takes place in a foreign setting, the rustic mountains of Spain, probably sometime during the Reconquest, perhaps between 1248 and 1492, a time when superstition not science provides explanations for spirits. The plot is wrought with political intrigue, romantic love, and disguises. The governor of Andalusia, Count Lanfranco intends revenge on the alleged traitor General Almanza, and when he determines that Nicholas de Lasso, the captain of a notorious band of smugglers, is harboring the proscribed general, he devises a scheme in which he and his men will pretend to be forest specters, the very disguise employed by another band of robbers lead by Rodolph and Shabrico, whom they inscript into their service. As Lanfranco and his men don "terrific disguises," presumably, black cloaks with skeleton designs, Shabrico says: "This eve, my Lord, you shall be one of us and play a forest spectre." [25]

19

Henrico de Rosalva, a courier from the King who bears Almanza's pardon, loses his way through the mountain mazes, and vexed by darkness and an impending storm, he perceives "a figure wrap'd in black which bears a lamp" (Chest 1.2.148). Henrico has unknowingly come upon the disguised Lanfranco carrying a lamp. When Lanfranco realizes that he is being followed, he blows out the lamp, giving Henrico the impression that he has evaporated. Henrico proclaims: "Gone, vanished, melted into Air. I am the victim of some magical delusion—sure 'twas no human form I follow'd. Nay! Nay! I must not now give way to thoughts of so much horror, for they would quite unman me" (Chest 1.3.148). It would seem that the spectral can "unsex" Hernico as easily as it reified Orra's sex in Baillie's tragedy. Despite Trotter's insistence that it is the female body that rapidly succumbs to the multiform disabilities of the nerves, it is Henrico who displays nervous temperament and who is unable to read the mysterious presence. This techno-gothic ghost would appeal to a culture diagnosed with associative and therefore contagious, "nervous disorders."

20

Like Orra, Henrico lacks the scientific explanation for his optical perceptions. In The Connection of the Physical Sciences, Sommerville points out that bodies are only visible by the rays that proceed from them, with refraction often distorting images. She offers a scientific explanation for what Henrico believes he sees in the darkness broken only by the white lantern: "When the image of an object is impressed on the retina only for a few moments, the picture left is exactly of the same color with the object, but in an extremely short time the picture is succeeded by the accidental image. . . . The imagination has a powerful influence on our optical impressions." [26] Like Orra's phantom that might be explained as Ignes-fatui, Henrico's imagination has conjured a phantom that might be explained by optical refraction, and he, like Orra, comes to believe science fiction rather than science. One of the definitions of "spectral," Anne Williams remind us, is "produced merely by the action of light on the eye or on a sensitive medium." [27]

21

Henrico is not alone in his application of science fiction to unnatural phenomena. Henrico stumbles upon Rodolph's cottage where he seeks refuge from the storm and things unseen and where Rodolph's daughter Roda is the object of a kidnapping plot instigated by Shabrico and the robbers who are in league with Lanfranco. They will enter the cottage through a subterranean passageway running between Lanfranco's castle and Rodolph's cottage, its secret opening to the cottage made through a large, old oak chest. Consequently, both Henrico and Roda have reason to be nervous, and when they hear a noise outside, Henrico asks Roda why she trembles, for what does she have to fear? Rodolph answers for his daughter: "Nothing but her own shadow—" (Chest 1.4.151). Roda's physiological reactions are based on something more substantial than "shadows" conjured by the excesses of feminine imagination. According to Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, nerves are the vehicles of sensation, and that "it is most probably through them that the communication is carried on between the mind and the other parts of the body; but in what manner they are acted on by the mind, and to react on the body, is still a profound secret . . ." (2.234 [emphasis mine]). Henrico and Roda enact the mind/body communication that science, at least in 1806, is still at a loss to explain and that, at least in their experiences, does not seem to be gender specific.

22

Like Orra of Baillie's play, Roda is preconditioned to perceive natural phenomena as supernatural presence, for her superstitious mind has been stimulated by recurring dreams of the dead. As Roda and Henrico retire, Roda muses about her dreams of the dead and the antique oak chest: "Last night methought I had raised the lid, when from a yawning gulf beneath, a skeleton arose and cried 'Avenge my murder!'—Oh dear! I do not like to be alone at this dreer hour. The oaken chest is just at hand, and I could almost fancy I heard a noise within it" (Chest 1.4.151). As Roda turns to the chest, she sees a robber disguised as ghost emerging, and her imagination identifies its as a techno-gothic ghost: "Save me, a spectre—just so! I saw it in my dream.—Save me. Father, save me" (Chest 1.4.151). Her eyes confirm what has been in her mind's eye, what her nervous disorder has conjured in her dreams, and the form that she defines as phantom abducts her, forcing her through the old oak chest and carrying her through the secret passageway to Lanfranco's castle.

23

The play's gothic technology imbues the body of the spectre-robber with significations and identifications that connect ghost-seers on stage with ghost-seers in the audience. The spectral vision seen by both groups of spectators is mediated by the bodily presence of that which is disembodied. What Roda thinks she witnesses in techno-gothic performance is, as E.J. Clery explains, "the supersession of the ghost as an autonomous object, and its internatilization by the expressive sensorium of the perceiving actor." [28] In other word, the audience "sees" the robber as techno-gothic ghost through the eyes of characters onstage who respond to the magic of stage machinery and science fiction. Staging ghosts, even with actors who embody spirits, was not without controversy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In response to critical objections to the spectre of Evelina in his 1797 melodrama The Castle Spectre, Matthew Lewis found curious the prevailing opinion that she ought not to appear on stage because, as he argues, "the belief in Ghosts no long exists." [29] Science had, it would seem, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, superseded theology in its explanations of unnatural phenomenon, rendering ghosts mere science fictions. "That is the very reason she may be produced without danger," explains Lewis, "for there is now no fear of increasing the influence of superstition, or strengthening the prejudices of the weakminded." [30] A year after The Old Oak Chest was first performed, Coleridge would muse in Biographia Literaria about the human pursuit of what he call notional phantoms, "the mere refractions from unseen and distant truths through the distorting medium of [humankind's] own unenlivened and stagnant understanding." [31] The robber-spectre of Scott's play functions much like Coleridge's "notional phantom," the refraction of unseen truth for Roda, but dramatically made visible and enlivened for theatergoers by techno-gothic staging.

24

Scott's techno-gothic ghosts may not have terrorized the audience, but the phantom costumes create effective optical illusions for onstage characters, enlivening and deceiving not only Roda and Henrico, but also Tinoco, one of de Lasso's sons. In the plot to rescue Henrico and Roda, Tinoco, disguises himself as an old shrew Jugget. He is taken to Lanfranco's castle as the robbers' cook. But when Tinoco comes upon one of the spectre-robbers, he is skeptical about its corporeality; he is rendered deaf to orders barked by the robber Rufus because he so intent at studying his physicality. The techno-gothic ghost is quickly explained. Taking off his disguise, the robber reassures Jugget: "O belike you are swayed at my appearance, but heed it not. We travel in these masks at night to scare away intruders" (Chest 2.3.165). Tinoco now knows the trick of the robbers' science fiction—how they prey upon superstition and fear in order to overpower those whom they rob. Tinoco appropriates the gothic properties at hand—the subterranean passage, the old oak chest, the terror of ghosts and robbers—and he redesigns them for his rescue scheme. In the comic restoration at the end of the play, alleged phantoms are replaced with actual bodies as de Lassso's men (smugglers-turned-police officers) pop out of the antique chest, seize Lafranco, and reclaim Almanzo. The entire play has been a reconquest of political order and social stability in which phantasmagoria is revealed to be merely "tricks," the chicanery of robbers and traitors. The techno-gothic ghosts have nonetheless a hypnotic effect on the audience similar to that achieved by the staged science shows of Mesmer's magnetism, exhibitions of galvanized torpedo fish, and demonstrations of nitrous oxide intoxications, what Mary Wollstonecraft decried as "hocus pocus tricks" staged by "priests of quackery" for money. [32]

25

Scott also successfully hypnotizes her audience with the techno-gothic grotesque that Tinoco comes to represent in the cross-dressed characterization of Jugget. Scientific discourse and the theatre had crucial roles in conceptualizations of the body, the societal functions of bodies marked by sex and race in anatomical features. Science and stage engendered new perceptions of the body, transforming the body into a text that could be read and interpreted by both the trained medical gaze and the curious theatergoer. Physiognomy and phrenology comprised scientific disciplines intent on reading the body, but reading a performing body was especially tricky as it was legitimately artificial and fictive, disguised and costumed. [33] In The Old Oak Chest, scientific concerns with corporeality and sexuality are played out in popularized dramaturgy, relying on stock theatrical conventions. Cross-dressing, a standard stage convention, demonstrated how bodies could masquerade sex as well as reveal sex, confounding interpretations based on clearly discernable, dichotomous, and essentialized categories. Cross-dressing, as Marjorie Garber points out, puts in question the idea of identity, creating a "category crisis." [34] Cross-dressing makes visible medical notions of gendered diseases advanced by Mesmer, Trotter, and others by drawing attention to the artificiality of sexology and the performative nature of science.

26

In a way, Scott's comedy first achieves a kind of conceptual cross-dressing in its depiction of Henrico's and Tinoco's "nervous" responses to what they perceived as ghosts. Having dislodged the psychological categories medicalized as male and female temperament, the play next makes that cross-dressing material and literal. Tinoco's dissembling, his playacting as Jugget, exposes the fraud of the robber-spectres. His disguise, a body sexed as female, ironically unmasks a sensible explanation for what seemed incredible. The sexual transgression figured in his cross-dressing was a comic stage convention, but it is also a signification of the cultural preoccupation with sexology. [35] Scott's play transforms the theatrical cross-dressing prop into a techno-gothic grotesque with comic dimensions so to confound characters' abilities to read the body of Tinoco, a misreading similar to Tinoco's inability to read the robbers' skeleton costumes or to discern Rufus's presence as corporeality. The farcical confusions of the play point to the ways in which performance can construct aberrant bodies or seeming phantoms, illusions suggesting how staged science too is relative and interpretative. Metadramatically, The Old Oak Chest draws attention to the artificial and deceptive nature of staged bodies. The performing body, whether in the theatre or for scientific study/show, is somehow affected and fictive. The reading of a performing or staged body is, the play suggests, an act of science fiction.

27

Baillie's tragedy Orra and Scott's comedy The Old Oak Chest bring science and superstition together in simultaneously conflicting and complementary ways in the spaces opened by techno-gothic drama. By contributing to the fictionalizing of science with a "staging of their own," women playwrights could negotiate the roles of the body, gendered diseases, and medicalized temperaments marked by the new scientific discourses. These two plays not only demonstrate that the roots of science fiction are located in Romantic drama, but that the science fiction they enact as techno-drama open onto new interpretative frameworks for reading women playwrights in the early nineteenth century—a way that recognizes their interrogation and resistance to the scientific and medical oppression and exploitation of women's bodies. Both early nineteenth-century science and staged science made women's self-representation difficult, but with the theatrical strategies of techno-gothic drama, Baillie and Scott discover a powerful critique of androcentric science, unmasking the fictions, disguised as science, that colonized women.


 

Notes

[1]

Barbara Marie Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991) pp. 366-75, and Paul Ranger, "Terror and Pity Reign in Every Breast": Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1991) pp. 70-119, delineate various scientific and stage devices.

[2]

See Roy S. Porter, "Medical Science and Human Science in the Enlightenment" in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, eds. Christopher Fox, Roy S. Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 64-66 for a discussion of Thomas Beddoes's and Humphry Davy's experiments in pneumatic medicine and their lectures on chemistry in theatres built specifically for scientific studies.

[3]

See Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite, Creations of Fire: Chemistry's Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age (New York: Plenum Press, 1995) pp. 151-211; Edwin Clarke and L.S. Jacyna, Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) pp. 160-211; Gloria Flaherty, "The Non-Normal Sciences: Survivals of Renaissance Thought in the Eighteenth Century" in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, eds. Christopher Fox, Roy S. Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 71-91; Lindsay Wilson, Woman and Medicine in the French Enlightenment: The Debate over "Maladies des Femmes" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) pp. 104-24; Ludmilla Jordanova, "Gender, Generation and Science: William Hunter's Obstetrical Atlas" in William Hunter and the 18th Century Medical World, eds. William F. Bynum and Roy S. Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) pp. 385-412; Christopher Fox, "Introduction: How to Prepare a Noble Savage: The Spectacle of Human Science" in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, ed. Christopher Fox, Roy S. Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 11-12; Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) pp. 106-111.

[4]

David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1980) p. 111, argues that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, gothic was in part a limited but genuine substitute for the sciences of history and psychology, a way of gaining access to understanding areas where knowledge was not quite clear and complete. Through the distorting and magnifying lens of gothic, Punter explains, we see shapes, a kind of reality, which we could not apprehend in any other way.

[5]

Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 3 and 18, asserts that science fiction was born from the Gothic mode in Frankenstein. Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) p. 6, cite Frankenstein as the "first work of fiction that has all the characteristics of the science fiction genre." According to Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London: The Women's Press, 1978) p. 91, Frankenstein "made the Gothic novel into what today we call science fiction." Paul K. Alkon, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination, Discovers Technology (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994) p. 1, claims "Science fiction starts with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Joann Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) p. 126, credits Frankenstein as the first, definite, unmistakable, science fiction novel. Johanna M. Smith, Mary Shelley Revisited (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996) p. 33, identifies the science fiction tendency of Frankenstein and The Last Man.

[6]

Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986) pp. 126-27, points out that Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque suggests a process of generic destabilization and the insertion of "polyphonic" form, a concept that I see materialized by the techno-gothic body. See also Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1994) pp. 61-65, for a discussion of the carnivalesque body as female grotesque, and Lucie Armitt, Theorising the Fantastic (London: Arnold, 1996) pp. 68-70 for the distinction between grotesque and caricature.

[7]

John Frederick William Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830; New York: Johnson Reprint, 1996) pp. 249-50.

[8]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, eds. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (1817; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 135-36.

[9]

Terry Castle, "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie," Critical Inquiry 15.1 (1988) p. 30.

[10]

Charles Lamb, "Witches, and Other Night-Fears," in Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia (1823; New York: Dutton, 1978) p. 80.

[11]

See Peter Melville Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) pp. 15-42 for a discussion of Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperament. Nancy Tuana, The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious, and Philosophical Conceptions of Women's Nature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) pp. 93-107, discusses the transition of female hysteria from aphysical to a psychological ailment.

[12]

Joanna Baillie, Orra: A Tragedy in Five Acts in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie, 2nd ed. (1812; London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1851), Act 1, scene 2, p. 237. Hereafter abbreviated Orra with citation of act, scene, and page numbers in the body of the text.

[13]

Stafford, Body Criticism, p. 449.

[14]

Franz Anton Mesmer, "Dissertation by F.A. Mesmer, Doctor of Medicine, on His Discoveries" in Mesmerism: A Translation of the Original Scientific and Medical Writings of F.A. Mesmer, trans. and complied by George Bloch (1799; Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann, 1980) p. 90.

[15]

Mrs. Jane [Haldimand] Mercet, Conversations on Chemistry, in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained and illustrated by experiments (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806) vol. 1, p. 99. Hereafter cited by volume and page number in the body of the text.

[16]

Mrs. [Mary] Sommerville, The Connection of the Physical Sciences (Philadelphia: Kay and Biddle, 1834) p. 118.

[17]

Stafford, Body Criticism, p. 450.

[18]

Messmer, "Dissertation," p. 90.

[19]

See Roy S. Porter, "Love, Sex and Madness in Eighteenth-Century England," Social Research 53 (1986) p. 231.

[20]

Richard Powhele's poem The Unsex'd Females (London: Cadell & Davies, 1798) refers to Mary Wollstonecraft as the leader of a band of unruly and unnatural women. His pejorative term came to be applied to women who resisted the biological determinants of sex or the social restraints of femininity.

[21]

Joanna Baillie, "To the Reader," Third Volume of Plays on the Passions in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie, 2nd ed. (1812; London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1851) p. 228.

[22]

Matthew Baillie, M.D., FRS, The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body, The Second American, from the 3rd London edition, corrected (1793; Walpole, NH: G.W. Nicholas, 1808) n.p.[2].

[23]

Joanna Baillie, The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie, vol. 1, ed. Judith Bailey Slagle (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999) p. 297.

[24]

For performance information about The Old Oak Chest, see John Franceschina , "[Introduction to] The Old Oak Chest" in Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843, ed. John Franceschina (New York: Garland, 1997) pp. 126-27 and Jacky Bratton, "Jane Scott the Writer-Manager" in Women and Playwrighting in Nineteenth-Century Britain, eds. Tracy C. Davis and Ellen Donkin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999) pp. 88-90.

[25]

Jane Scott, The Old Oak Chest or, The Smuggler's Sons and the Robber's Daughter: A Melodramatic Romance in 2 Acts in Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843, ed. John Franceschina (1816; New York: Garland, 1997) Act 1. scene 2, page 147. Hereafter abbreviated as Chest and cited by act, scene, and page numbers in the body of the text.

[26]

Sommerville, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, p. 142.

[27]

Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 114.

[28]

E.J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 42.

[29]

Matthew G. Lewis, "To the Reader," The Castle Spectre in Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (1797; Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992) p. 223.

[30]

Matthew G. Lewis, "To the Reader," p. 223.

[31]

Samual Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, p. 244.

[32]

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in The Vindications: The Rights of Men and The Rights of Woman, eds. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (1792; Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1997) p. 327.

[33]

Deidre Lynch, "Overloaded Portraits: The Excess of Character and Countenance" in Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Veronica Kelly and Dorothea Von Mucke (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) p. 137, points out that a performer's face provided spectacular evidence of how passions "stamped" the muscles of the face. Spectators were expected to look at the sentiment written across the performer's body. According to E.J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762-1800, pp. 42-49, David Garrick's technique of acting was dependent on the audience's knowledge of the body, a taxonomy of the passions registered by facial expressions and bodily gestures (42-49). Freddie Rokem, "Slapping Women: Ibsen's Nora, Strindberg's Julie, and Freud's Dora" in Textual Bodies: Changing Boundaries of Literary Representation, ed. Lori Hope Lefkovitz (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997) p. 222, acknowledges that a staged body functioned as a "sign" of "cultural and aesthetic codes of bodily behavior" for audiences. Veronica Kelly and Dorothea von Mucke, "Introduction: Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century" in Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Veronica Kelly and Dorothy von Mucke (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) p. 9, remind us that the body stands in a multiple and complex relation to culturally produced meanings.

[34]

Marjorie Gaber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992) p. 117.

[35]

Sexuality and sexology were important topics of scientific inquiry at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the public was also fascinated with sexual anatomy and the nature of femininity and masculinity. See Roy S. Porter "Love, Sex and Madness in Eighteenth-Century England," pp. 211-42, "Medical Science and Human Sciences in the Enlightenment," pp. 53-87, and Ludanova Jordanova, "Sex and Gender" in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, eds. Christopher Fox, Roy S. Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 158. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a fundamental shift in the definition of sex emerged, and the study of woman, her nature and her body, became the focus of scientific research and public reinterpretation; see Thomas Laqueur, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology" in The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality in Society in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) pp. 2-3 and Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990) p. 154.

Auteur : Marjean D. Purinton
Titre : Science Fiction and Techno-Gothic Drama: Romantic Playwrights Joanna Baillie and Jane Scott
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 21, février 2001
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005968ar
DOI : 10.7202/005968ar

Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2002 — All rights reserved

À propos d'Érudit | Abonnements | RSS | Conditions d’utilisation | Pour nous joindre | Aide

Consortium Érudit ©  2014