This paper examines the recent fascination the Broadway musical has had with Victorian gothic, focusing both on the transition from opera seria to Disneyesque musical and on one specific cultural product, Paul Gordon and John Caird’s 2000 Broadway production, Jane Eyre: The Musical. The paper claims that this particular hybrid of two notoriously hybrid nineteenth-century forms (the novel and opera) defangs both of its source genres, but nevertheless still allows its middle-class audience to participate in the spectacle of their own self-definition as consumers of “culture.” The production also allows that audience to congratulate itself for having escaped the bourgeois repressions that arguably made the gothic such a viable genre in the Romantic and Victorian periods. The fact is, though, that contemporary viewers of the Broadway gothic musical do still experience the frisson of a repressed terror: the return to a postmodern world that scripts our camp appreciation of such kitsch entertainments.
Love and death: a match made in opera—and in Victorian gothic. And, indeed, if opera and the gothic seem like the star-crossed lovers of the generic world, it is perhaps because their union is overdetermined on so many levels: both forms traffic in excess, reveling in the heightened affect that they not only thematize but produce in their audiences; both forms offer a heady mixture of death and desire, passion and perversity; both forms stage the delicious spectacle of suffering bodies; both forms are intense and theatrical. For the bourgeois audiences who made them popular successes in the nineteenth century, both forms offered an opportunity for self-definition: the gothic afforded the middle-class reader a thrilling taste of depravity, while opera gave the middle classes the thrill of having taste. Beckoning each other from either end of the cultural spectrum, “high” opera and “low” gothic could be said to have a date with destiny.
What are we to make, then, of the strange, public dalliance going on between the gothic and opera’s most illegitimate offspring, the Broadway musical? Has the dark genre of fantasy and terror finally met its match in the bright lights of 47th Street or is this a mismatch of operatic proportions? On the face of it, you might argue that in such recent high-profile productions as Jane Eyre, Jekyll & Hyde, and Dracula (and not-so-recent ones, like Phantom of the Opera) the gothic has found its own musical level: popular fiction meets mass-musical entertainment. For all of this apparent suitability, however, the pairing rankles. The dreadful (and wonderful) canniness of the Broadway musical mutes the terror of the gothic, undoing the uncanny effects by which the gothic works.
We will argue in this essay that the phenomenon of the neo-Victorian gothic musical allows us to understand not only the cultural function of nineteenth-century gothic in the early twenty-first century, but also the cultural position of “high” opera in a world of middlebrow entertainments. Focusing on the 2000 Broadway production of Jane Eyre, we will claim that this particular hybrid of two notoriously hybrid forms (the novel and opera) defangs both of its source genres, but nevertheless still allows its middle-class audience to participate in the spectacle of their own self-definition as consumers of “culture.” What distinguishes neo-Victorian gothic from the Victorian genre is a post-gothic and post-feminist celebration of our own enlightened escape from the repressions that made the gothic necessary for the nineteenth century—the repression in Jane Eyre’s case of the violence hidden within domestic ideology. We congratulate ourselves for no longer needing to repress our dark desires, but what secretly lurks at the heart of audiences’ ecstatic ovations before today’s spectacle is not the return of the repressed but the repression of our return to a postmodern world purportedly emptied of all affect. A terror does lurk at the heart of this gothic but it is one that is disavowed in while mirrored by the very act of self-congratulation before the emptied out uncanny of Victorian pastiche.
Following Garrett Stewart’s lead in “Film’s Victorian Retrofit,” we attempt here to make sense of the “compensatory fantasy for a post-industrial present” (154) made manifest in such cultural productions, as well as the encoded pre-history of post-industrial commodification that one can read in the contemporary musical’s negotiation of retrofitted forms like the gothic and opera. In the triangulation of these forms—opera, literary gothic, and musical theater—we can glimpse the process of kitschification that, in blunting the gothic’s ideological and operatic edge, turns darkness and difficulty into the sunny stuff of contemporary popular culture. Whatever affect remains is delivered by our anticipated—if disavowed because to some extent feared—return to the world outside the theater: the postmodern world of mediated and ironized affect that scripts our self-conscious appreciation of kitsch as already half of the way towards camp.
It would be far too simple—and elitist—to suggest that opera itself is above kitsch and that it has been somehow brought low by the popular spectacles of contemporary musical theater. Indeed, the history of opera suggests that, whatever its aristocratic origins and however dizzyingly high its past or present cultural capital, the form has engaged in a prolonged flirtation with bourgeois kitsch. It seems more than a coincidence that opera, spawned in seventeenth-century court circles, came of age as an art form in late-eighteenth-century Europe—along with the bourgeoisie, with kitsch culture, and (it is worth noting) with the first of many gothic revivals. As popular culture, nineteenth-century opera in fact had many of the same charges made against it that were made against the gothic: it was too sensational, it was escapist, it was artificial, it pandered to the market. Critical fears about opera’s commercialism registered larger anxieties about art’s relationship to an emergent popular market, and we can now recognize those broader anxieties as the first articulations of a theory of kitsch. As we have come to understand it, kitsch culture is indelibly marked by the desires of an emergent bourgeoisie to emulate the consuming habits (and status) of the aristocracy and to escape the dual rigor and boredom of bourgeois life (Calinescu 226-229). The kitsch object is popular and commercial, and while it “always implies the notion of aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu 236) it also implies a striving after aesthetic competence. As Matei Calinescu writes, kitsch “appears at the moment in history when beauty in its various forms is socially distributed like any other commodity subject to the essential market law of supply and demand” (229). Sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic, kitsch goes down easy: while it may copy certain characteristics of avant-garde art (but only after they have lost their power to provoke), kitsch itself does not trouble or disturb. The realm of kitsch is one of pleasure and relaxation achieved through the least possible effort; its “all pervading mediocrity” produces what Calinescu calls the “middle-of-the-road hedonism” of the middle classes (244). As an expression of bourgeois ideals, tastes, and desires, kitsch provides what Theodor Adorno famously terms “a parody of catharsis” (Calinescu 241).
No wonder the specter of kitsch makes opera fans a little uneasy. In the bare outlines of a definition of kitsch (escapist, romantic, commercial, sentimental, popular, status-seeking, bourgeois) we can see the ample outline of our own beloved form, reflected back to us through the degrading lens of a high-cultural criticism out to defend the boundaries of high art and good taste. Kitsch, in its most simplified articulation, is bad art, and who wants to be caught in the act of loving it? (Plenty of people, as it turns out, but more on that later.) Even opera’s most ardent admirers and educated critics squirm a bit when it comes the question of kitsch. As Herbert Lindenberger has it,
[I]f we feel a certain embarrassment today at the kitsch we see and hear in the purple patches of operas we deem otherwise intellectually respectable, we may ask ourselves if there is not a certain popular element, even a ‘vulgarity’ inherent within the whole of, say, Samson and Salome, indeed, also of Aida. Or, to put it another way, we may ask whether the lines of demarcation we set up to separate ‘high’ from ‘popular’ art must be located elsewhere in opera, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, than they are in other, more intimate and less publicly directed forms of music.Opera in History 190
Making demarcations within (and about) opera is not as easy as it looks, as Lindenberger goes on to suggest, but at least there are always other popular musical forms whose comforting presence beneath opera assures us that the line between artistic and popular is perfectly defensible. Here is Lindenberger again: “The recent phenomena of Viennese operettas and early Broadway musicals making their way into the opera house in no way destroys the generic boundary but simply points out the fact that newer forms of light fare—for example, rock inspired musicals—now come to mark opera’s lower boundary” (Opera in History 130). Kitsch, c’est les autres.
But what apart from the crass and saving presence of Broadway keeps opera from giving in to kitsch? Opera is, after all, the form that Theodor Adorno calls “a bourgeois vacation spot” (“Bourgeois Opera” 36) and about whose nineteenth-century libretti he writes: “One can hardly deny the conventionality, the freakishness, and the manifold silliness of these booklets, nor can one deny their affinity for the marketplace, the commodity character which in fact made them placeholders for the as-yet-unborn cinema” (“Bourgeois Opera” 34). Certainly the fact that opera’s main repertoire has hardly changed since the nineteenth century cannot augur well: even more than in its heyday, opera now relies for its appeal on a certain cultural nostalgia. As Mladen Dolar puts it,
The moment we enter the opera, we start acting as our own aboriginal population. Opera thus retroactively recreates the mythical past that nobody believes in but yet is dearly needed and piously re-created.4
Opera audiences still deliver, in Catherine Clément’s words, “the pomp of a festive bourgeois in search of a forgotten nobility” (4) and they still seek escape in the sweeping romanticism and undisguised sentimentality of opera’s plots and orchestrations. There is also, one must admit, something suspiciously kitschy about the spectacle of well-fleshed men and women in period costume, singing their hearts out with an abandon that might seem ridiculous outside of the artificial conventions of high opera. (As Clément puts it, “Opera is grotesque when one takes the slightest distance on it and sublime when one goes along with identification” .) But perhaps we are onto something. What saves opera from the mediocrity of kitsch culture might very well be its abandon, the sheer exuberance and plenitude that lead Lindenberger to call it “the extravagant art.” Opera likes everything larger than life: its bodies, its voices, its volume, its emotions, and its audience response. Opera demands from its audience what it promises in return: grand and glorious excess—what may in fact (one hopes) be a true hedonism, not the middle-of-the-road variety.
Recent scholars of opera have located in this excess a challenge to the very bourgeois values the traditional plots of opera would seem most clearly to instantiate. In opera’s grand passions, in its refusal to recognize generic and other boundaries, in its extravagant physicality and its worship of the (super)human voice, critics have seen its subversive potential. Many of these critics have focused on opera’s queerness—its crossed-dressed roles, its opportunities for same-sex desire, its erotic largesse—and some have claimed for opera a feminist potential and so would seek to undo what Clément has famously described as opera’s sadism and misogyny. (And to be fair, here, Clément never really claims that opera hates women, merely that it loves them to death: she describes grand opera as a “spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character” .) Still others see in the singular musicality of the operatic voice the form’s most excessive note. Large and loud, the operatic voice exceeds the confines of language as it would seem to exceed the very bodies that produce it: as Paul Robinson succinctly puts it, opera “grows inarticulate just when it seeks to say the most important things” (334). This tendency of the operatic voice to supercede language has of course led to the critical debate over whether opera is a purely musical or also textual and verbal art (to whit: whether it is possible to “read” opera) and it has led some to observe that (here is Robinson again) “opera is unintelligible for musical reasons” (333).  Whatever the truth of this—and surely this special issue of RoN on nineteenth-century literature and opera sheds light on both the difficulty and necessity of “reading” opera—our point here is that the auditory experience of opera, like the visual experience, troubles conceived boundaries. Indeed, we could claim that this most composite of genres (music, drama, voice, painting, costume, dance, etc.) is on some elemental level “about” boundary trouble. And the more a work of art troubles its audience—in every way possible—the less likely it is to slip into the comforting embrace of kitsch, which aims to soothe and relax.
But, then again, perhaps nothing saves opera from kitsch—because to do so might be to save it from itself. The outrageous extravagance and histrionic excess of opera—the very things that might make opera bigger than kitsch—are also the most easily (and frequently) parodied of opera’s traits. As Adorno has it,
The closer opera gets to a parody of itself, the closer it is to its own most particular element. This might explain why some of the most authentic operas, like Der Freisschütz, but also The Magic Flute and Il Trovatore, have their true place in the children’s matinee and embarrass the adult, who imagines himself too sensible for them.“Bourgeois Opera” 26
Another way to put this, we believe, is to say that opera is most itself when it is on the verge of turning into kitsch. We bring this up not because we think we can decide the matter of opera’s relationship to kitsch once and for all, but because the very undecidability of the question takes us quite close to the artistic and ideological territory of the gothic, recent critics of which have been hard at work trying to sort out whether or not nineteenth-century gothic is or is not a bourgeois vacation spot of its own. Arguments for and against gothic’s subversive potential in fact run along very similar lines to those made about opera. On the one hand, there are those who see the gothic as a cornerstone of the bourgeois culture industry: gothic novels provided the emergent bourgeoisie with a dark mirror of its own identities and practices (domestic and imperial, consuming and producing) and performed a tutorial in these very things even as they appeared to offer a gloomy holiday from them. On the other hand—and we may as well admit immediately that critical practice tends to play both hands at once—there are those who claim for the gothic a tendency to subvert the identities and practices it would put into place. Chief among these have been critics who (as with opera) argue for the inherent queerness of the form and find in it a place where the normative boundaries of gender and sexuality are questioned and undone. The violence and rage of the gothic have been seen to belong to those repressed feelings and figures that return to haunt and to trouble the parameters of normative bourgeois culture. (And it would be well to remember here, as a prelude to the final section of this article, that Jane Eyre has been taken as a prototypical case of this feminist rage.) As with the opera, the bourgeois form that grew up alongside of it, critics of gothic have claimed for their form the ability to exceed boundaries and to resist representation. Indeed, when it comes to the representation of passion, “operatic” and “gothic” are nearly equal—if not precisely synonymous—intensifiers: both suggest an irrational excess.
While there are many points at which we might compare opera and the gothic (here, for example, are two genres that one might feasibly call “spectacle[s] thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character”), irrationality seems key for a discussion of kitsch, because it suggests a point at which the cultural artifact might exceed the easy sentimentality and harmonizing effects of bourgeois kitsch. But here, too, opera and the gothic may be caught up in the workings of the culture industry—as we can see, for example, by noting how easy it is to replace the word “music” with the word “gothic” in the following statement by Adorno:
The very element that raises music above ideology is also what brings it closest to it. As a carefully cultivated preserve of the irrational in the midst of the rationalized universe, music becomes negativity pure and simple, as this is rationally planned, produced, and administered by the Culture Industry. This irrationality has been calculated down to the nth degree, and its sole effect is to ensure that people are kept in line. As such it constitutes a parody of the protest against the dominance of the concept of classification.Sound Figures 6
If, as Adorno elsewhere writes, “It would be appropriate to consider opera as the specifically bourgeois genre which, in the midst and with the means of a world bereft of magic, paradoxically endeavors to preserve the magical element of art” (“Bourgeois Opera” 29), we might say the same for gothic, but this would not be to say that either has the magic (or for that matter the desire) to extricate itself altogether from the most normative articulations of bourgeois kitsch. Indeed, even in their shared focus on death—which should be the point of disruption in any harmonizing representation—it is possible to have what Saul Friedlander has called, in a much different context, “a kitsch of death” (26).
There is, however, a form that not only embraces kitsch without shame but also redeems itself in that embrace. (That said, we imagine that many lovers of American musical theater—or the Broadway musical, as we will refer to it here—would wince at the description, which we offer not as detractors but as fellow aficionados of the form.) While opera tends to hold this younger musical relative at arms length, the two share many fans and, on rare occasions, even performers and venues. What they do not share—and pointedly so—is style. While high opera has remained true to its traditional roots, the Broadway musical draws more fully from the Victorian music hall and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (itself a descendent of high opera’s less lofty sibling, opera buffa) than from the difficult reaches of opera seria. The musical demands less of its voices—and perhaps of its audiences—but then this is all part of the fun: liberated from the need to be serious art, the Broadway musical is content to entertain. Glaringly commercial from its early-twentieth-century outset (which corresponds roughly to the end of opera’s most creative period), the musical became the new bourgeois vacation spot—but more Jersey shore than French Riviera. Lavish costumes and sets, music, dance, song: the Broadway musical has it all. But where high opera transports, the musical is more likely to uplift, and where high opera can unsettle, the musical is more likely to settle down and get comfortable. From the point of view of a cultural mainstream that passed opera by some time ago, the musical is its kitschy replacement: if not less artificial or excessive, at least decidedly more intelligible (from both a vocal and cultural standpoint). Were there any question of the Broadway musical’s affinity for kitsch, its long coupling with the Disney Corporation—which may have had one of its finest moments with the transfer of Beauty and Beast from animated musical to Broadway hit—would seem to clarify matters.
What may save the musical from kitsch is that it refuses to be saved. The Broadway musical revels in its hokiness and sentimentality, its crass exhibitionism and its easy consumability. So much so that when a musical comes along that refuses us these things—the Roundabout production of Cabaret featuring Natasha Richardson, for example—it comes across with all the edge and force of another form altogether. So much so that we return its joy with our own and pay its glorious kitsch the ultimate compliment of recognizing it with the knowing wink of camp. Unlike kitsch, which can parody but never really know itself, camp’s ironic sensibility allows the audience the compensatory pleasures of distance. It may be bad art, we tell ourselves, but our recognition of that allows us to love it anyway. In musical theater, that is, the audience brings its own edge. While the Broadway musical would seem to bind whatever operatic excesses it inherited from opera seria—and whichever of those had not already been bound by opera’s position within the culture industry—it also finds within itself (or we find within it) a playful loosening of ourselves and our own strict standards of taste. In this third form that has about it an incipient queerness—gayer, if possible, than either opera or gothic—we seem most to escape when we are the tightest bound.
Jane Eyre: The Musical
All of this is to offer an extended overture to a reading of Jane Eyre: The Musical, which brings the Victorian gothic to Broadway and brings together the various strands of our discussion so far. Of course, the gothic would seem as perfect a match for the Broadway musical as it might a difficult one. Both forms are easily given to camp—and indeed we wouldn’t have to go all the way to Rocky Horror for an example, since the classics of the gothic genre are so beautifully campy on their own—and both have a taste for spectacle. But terror is not what the musical does best, if at all: the musical can sentimentalize its villains (Phantom of the Opera), camp up what should be genuinely scary (Jekyll and Hyde), and make murder something to sing about (Sweeney Todd). Overblown anguish, however, the musical can manage nicely, and since Jane Eyre’s version of domestic gothic runs mainly on anguish—with periodic flashes of rage and the rare lunatic laugh of Jane’s incarcerated double—it would seem an ideal source text, if in its novelistic realism far less tolerant of camp and extravagance than most Victorian gothic would seem to be.
Indeed, so ideal would Jane Eyre seem for adaptation that in the first year of the twenty-first century, when Paul Gordon and John Caird’s Jane Eyre: The Musical opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, it would have been possible, not to mention nicely excessive, to see not just one but three musical versions of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel of gothic—which is perhaps to say operatic—passions. In addition to the Gordon/Caird production in New York, a smaller and entirely separate production, also entitled Jane Eyre: The Musical, opened in California, and in England a new chamber opera by British composer Michael Berkeley with a libretto from Australian novelist David Malouf debuted at the Cheltenham Music Festival. (It is, we believe, a good indication of opera’s higher cultural capital and more diffident relation to its commodity status that Berkely and Manouf called their production by the simple title Jane Eyre. No one could have dreamt of calling it Jane Eyre: The Opera.) Nor were any of these the first time that Brontë’s novel had been set to music: Monty Stevens scored his version of Jane Eyre: The Musical in 1961, and it was revived in a London production in 1973.
On the simplest level, we have chosen to write about the Gordon/Caird version of Jane Eyre because it is the only production that, among a flurry of Jane Eyres, we attended in person. But we have also chosen it because it displays the connections between the Victorian gothic novel and the contemporary musical while encoding a commentary on both opera seria and on the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas that bridge the historical and cultural gap between opera and the Broadway musical. Encoded within the musical are references not only to the Victorian gothic but also to musical history, illustrating our recently published arguments about the self-allegory and performativity inherent in generic form. Our argument in this paper thus also corresponds to “Film’s Victorian Retrofit,” where Stewart argues that three axes of retrofit—“the social, the aesthetic, and the technological” (158)—are bound up in popular film’s turn to neo-Victorian subjects. We too will explore, in the order we will discuss them, an analogous aesthetic, technological, and sociological retrofit in Jane Eyre: The Musical.
First of all, on the aesthetic or generic level, we find encoded Gilbert & Sullivan musical theater through the musical type of the dotty Mrs. Fairfax. Sung by Mary Stout with a warbly air, Mrs. Fairfax is either the kitschiest or the campiest character in the production—we would argue for the latter, given that she has the one knowing reference to the musical’s queer constituency in her description of flamboyant footman, Robert (“He’s really a dear/Though a tiny bit queer”). Either way, she lightens the brooding atmosphere of the production and suggests, we think, another Victorian antecedent for the show—not gothic walls but music halls, the lighthearted Victorian antidote for grim realism and dark romanticism. If Mrs. Fairfax offers one nineteenth-century musical counterfoil for Jane (Marla Schaffel, in a Drama-Desk winning performance), the more glaring contrast comes from Blanche Ingram, who embodies not only high culture but also high opera. Sung in a semi-operatic soprano by Elizabeth DeGrazia—who had sung at Glimmerglass Opera before coming to Broadway—Blanche Ingram represents everything that Jane is not: shallow, conniving, mercantile. Indeed, in Blanche’s vocal and social climbing we have a parodic version of everything opera’s detractors (and some of its fans) have claimed for it: artificiality, pseudo-aristocratic presumption, and conspicuous consumption. Blanche is the only character in the production to sing about music, and she does so as a cultural capitalist par excellence: “We’re lucky to live/In the great age of elegance/Poetry, opera and art/Sparing no expense.” As she vocalizes wordlessly between lines in a parody of operatic embellishment, we realize that here is bourgeois self-approbation on a literally grand scale. Her aesthetic capital, which she claims through her citation and association with classical music (“Mozart and Schumann and Bach/Wrote the finest notes/Every cadenza delights/Every cadence floats”), is of course perfectly worthless in this popular musical about the value of love. Nothing could be clearer than this when Blanche shares a duet with Jane as the two walk through the grounds of Thornfield—the one sizing it up for market value, the other bidding it a sad goodbye. The striking contrast in their vocal styles and ranges signals Jane’s depth—in every sense. Jane gives us pure emotion, with no frills and certainly no trills, while Blanche gives us the operatic style we have come to see as the vocal mark of her emotional inadequacy.
Or so the contrast functions in the novel that this musical so cannily doubles. These are precisely the sorts of maneuvers that helped the Victorian bourgeois subject establish its moral legitimacy—its character—against both the imagined vulgar materiality of the lower classes and the equally phantastical conspicuous display of the superceded because artificial aristocracy. But, of course, in Jane Eyre: The Musical we are by no means given a lesson either in character verisimilitude or readerly interpellation. This fact becomes clear in one of the most popular numbers, “Painting Her Portrait.” The scene represents not some mimetic referent but the ur-novel’s very desire for mimesis, for a principle that approaches the perfected visual verisimilitude of ut pictura poesis. As Jane sings,
I’m painting my portrait
An absolute likeness
Faithful to illustrate
Every fine line
I’m mastering detail
Making a permanent mirror to see
All of the faults that lie hidden in me
I’m painting my portrait
It’s plain and uneven
Reminding me what I am
What I must be
I’m leaving out nothing
No matter how painful
All of my flaws on display to be seen
Now my painting is done
I’ll start another
This one of her
And when I close my eyes
I clearly see her face
Capture her grace and poise
Fight back the tears and I’m
Painting her portrait
An absolute likeness
The second portrait is of the perfect Blanche Ingram but, as with the other thoroughly canny doubles throughout this production, what is being reflected is not, in fact, “an absolute likeness” of these bourgeois subjects nor a realism in which nothing is left out. In other words, we are not being reflected the self, we are self-reflexively reminded, again and again, that we are watching and hearing a musical in all its kitschy, artificial, overblown, and unrealistic good fun; hence the equally self-reflexive juxtaposition to the opera. No operatic sublimity here, this musical reminds us, for we are asked not to take the figure of Blanche seriously, only parodically, which could even be said for Jane herself. Jane may not be in the same camp as Blanche but camp to some extent she cannot help being. The ease with which opera has here been emptied out of its most cherished contents—passion, power, distinction—suggests how fully Jane Eyre: The Musical would like to recast this part of its nineteenth-century heritage. In the musical Jane Eyre, we are given neither the sublime nor the ridiculous, neither the terrible unheimlich nor merely the heimlich too-familiar, but the canny recognition of our post-modern, post-feminist, post-realist distance from such (un)heimlich maneuvers, be they operatically sublime or gothically abject.
Gordon and Caird’s Jane Eyre, in other words, offers a musical history lesson as well as a literary one. And it also offers, if not a lesson, an elision of a truth that awaits us outside the doors of the theater: a frightening postmodern world that at once gives us lessons in our camp enjoyment of kitsch and in no way lessens but rather drives our surreptitious, affective response to such kitschy entertainments. Before Jane Eyre moves into kitschiest mode, however, it begins as a nicely gloomy, if never properly uncanny, entertainment. The curtain rises on a spare, dark stage; a woman dressed in a black, Victorian dress greets us: “My story begins, gentle audience, a long age ago.” This opening moment could clearly misfire: the quaint archaism of direct address is rather jolting but, once recognized as a common maneuver of the nineteenth-century novel, also slightly joking. In its very weirdness, this opening takes us back, quite cannily, to the first-person narration of the novel and to our position in it as readers, not spectators. Here is our own, beloved, plain Jane speaking directly to us, as she has always done, but made at once strange and familiar in her embodiment. If this bold opening conscription does not give us a “gothic of reading,” as Garrett Stewart terms the haunting experience of invasive, ghostly textuality that the Late-Victorian gothic novel so frequently thematizes, it gives us instead a feeling of dispossessed audition. We at once recognize the possession of the Victorian novel’s textual power over an earlier, more easily duped silent and dear reader and we begin to glory in all the loud, campy fun of our new post-modern queer reader, one that can at once identify and disidentify with the object—and the subject—of representation.
An admirable thing about this opening scene is how quickly and economically it undermines the domestic sphere. The musical has no “red room” scene, but hardly needs it: this world comes pre-gothicized and, with its main character literally split into a duet between child and adult Jane, pre-hystericized, too. The Lowood scenes are particularly suited to this gothic aura. If the show’s creators seem to have absorbed The Madwoman in the Attic (The New York Times headline for this show’s review was “An Arsonist in the Attic; A Feminist in the Making”), they have also soaked up enough Michel Foucault to make Lowood School into a nightmare of carceral tuition and religion. No dancing orphans here, just the disciplinary spectacle of docile bodies going through the motions: “We are the children of God/And we praise His word. . . /We are blind in His love/In His love we will trust. . . /For we are taught that we must.” The full-out panopticism of this section feels nicely gothic and even yields a slight shiver of paranoia when Mrs. Reed sings “All eyes will be watching. . . /Watching a shameful child!” and we realize that she is, in fact, exactly right: we are watching, all of us. But then, that too is the point: what supposedly distinguishes this carceral from the panoptic spaces of the realist novel is precisely its lack of realism, for we are also reminded of the fact that we are watching (and enjoying) the untrammeled kitsch of a Disneyesque music hall. Indeed, therein is the point of Jane’s opening “gentle audience”: whereas the Victorian novel’s “dear reader” seeks to enlist its consumers in the act of subjectification, as many critics of the novel have argued, this Victoriana music-hall’s “gentle audience” is designed to convince the audience that they are participating in an act of de-subjectification—a knowing wink that supposedly resists the panoptic gaze. This kitsch, in other words, is always to some extent camp.
The production leans closest towards pure kitsch when it begins to recuperate the claustrophobic gothic carceral of its opening sections for a benign version of disciplinary Christianity: God watches all, judges all, and forgives all. As young Jane (Lisa Musser) and her adult self sing in concert over the grave of saintly Helen Burns, “There is another world that watches us/I’m not afraid/The angels know when we have sinned/Or we have been betrayed.” Of course, this could still be creepy enough—and is, certainly, in the novel’s St. John Rivers episode, when we feel the full sacrificial recoil of this brand of religion—but Jane Eyre: The Musical is determined to undercut its gothic effects with a compensatory promise of a benevolent patriarchy (call it God, call it Love) that looks for all the world like the freedom Jane seeks.
The point to be made, however, is that this kitsch is most effective when most conscious of itself as such. Consider, for example, the ghostly choral device that begins the show with uncanny menace and ends it with all the canny force of the Disney film it has come by then most thoroughly to resemble. When Jane crosses the threshold of Thornfield, the brooding house where she has accepted a position as governess, a choral ensemble shadows her movements from behind one of the ethereal skrims that the production uses to great but never properly gothic effect. In this scene, both the chorus and the skrim are designed to remind the viewer of his or her position as viewer, reminding us also of the technology of stagecraft (and of the cinema that replaced it). The generic/aesthetic self-allegory we have been exploring is thus matched by a technological retrofit that once again encodes the history not of the form but of that form’s material embodiment. The fact that the production lacks a traditional set but rather projects its “scenes” onto these moving skrims nicely literalizes the gothic’s dependence on psychoanalytic “projection” while making visible our recognition of these sets as mere projections. Bertolt Brecht, this may not be, but an alienation effect is at work here, albeit one trained to the logic of this postmodern because to some extent self-conscious kitsch. In this antiseptic rather than epic theater, our recognition of our distance from both the affect and reality effect of the production allows us to enjoy the musical only insofar as we recognize that we are in the realm of kitsch. Indeed, it is worth noting that Caird is quite conscious of such effects: he says of the choral ensemble that “the ensemble and the audience are in a conspiracy to tell the story of Jane Eyre. . . . This process, the muli-layering of narrative and the demands you make on an audience, is very Brechtian” (Winsor 2). Unlike Brecht, however, the effect is not political action but feckless inaction and self-congratulation. When asked “What is it you want people to get out of Jane Eyre once they’ve experienced it?” Paul Gordon replies: “Whatever they like. One would hope they would feel uplifted. Hopeful. Maybe even decide to forgive somebody” (Pagalilauan). If this is Brecht, it is a Brecht without the schlecht: no ressentiment only kitschy sentiment. What must be noted, however, is that some sort of alienation effect is a necessary ingredient in the process of happy consumption. The production may not take us all the way to camp but without some self-consciousness, we would be reduced to the stereotypical out-of-towner who takes his Hollywood sojourn a little too earnestly.
As an example of how this process of alienation functions, let us return to the ghostly albeit never properly scary choral ensemble. We hear sung that
The secrets of the house
Are just beyond these walls
They hide in long-forgotten shadows
Fragments of memories waken and stirred
By a call my heart has heard.
In their somber clothing and with their ghostly voices, these unnamed “spirits” exist, as Jane puts it, “just beyond the edge of my mind.” They seem to represent both some aspect of Jane—for whom they sometimes speak in the first person in the musical’s most thoroughly uncanny moments—and the “secrets of the house” themselves, given form. But then they also seem to represent the house, in its panoptic watch on Jane—and not just Thornfield, but the theatrical house, as well. They are Jane’s “gentle audience,” as we are, which is to say that we are thus offered yet another canny doubling stripped of any uncanny doppelgänger effects. Later, in the opening moments of the second act, the ghostly ensemble sings of “Things Beyond This Earth,” claiming that
Presentiments and signs
That baffle our mortal comprehension
To dream or to see or to feel or to hear
What seems not to be there
But such things exist
Things beyond this earth
Things beyond our sacred
Thoughts of heaven
These are the things that reason defies
But reason sometimes lies.
Here we are, then, in the very heart of gothic territory: the inexplicable, the extrasensory, the transcendent, and the irrational. But Jane Eyre: The Musical is committed to none of this; indeed, the scene turns out to be something of a gothic feint: there are no secrets in this house. As Jane sings to Rochester (James Barbour, fresh from his role as “the Beast” in Beauty and the Beast) in the show’s closing number, “The secrets of your heart/Are like the secrets of the house/They have finally been revealed.” But what were they? Apparently not Rochester’s intended bigamy, nor the metaphorical imprisonment of marriage (no Bridewell pantomime scene for this production), nor even the actual imprisonment of Rochester’s first wife, but rather the preternatural love that transcends all things. And to prove it, the ghostly chorus turns into a cheeky family tableau as they crowd around Jane, Rochester, and the new baby that is virtually chucked on stage near the end of the closing number, “Brave Enough for Love.” Love, it appears, recuperates all, and is nowhere near so terrifying as the gothic would have us believe. Indeed, that is precisely the point: the final scene is so over-the-top Disneyesque that the audience cannot help but recognize it as such.
We could say that our suspension of disbelief is here taken one more step: we are expected, finally, to hold in suspension that very suspension; we never cease to be conscious of the fact that what we are seeing is nothing but hyper-stylized nostalgic pastiche. We at once suspend our disbelief and refuse to believe that very suspension, for the production’s kitschy overkill is precisely what saves us: from being merely duped by the commodified thrill of pop; from subscribing to the Victorian ideologies that we can congratulate ourselves for having superceded; even from the charge of sentimental nostalgia. Yet there must be more to it than simply self-conscious play, for something still stirs even through all the style. This gothic is emptied of all terror yet our attention is, nonetheless, transfixed. To phrase this problem as a related question: how do we make sense of the wild standing ovation that these spectators witnessed at an early performance of Jane Eyre on December 2, 2000? If the uncanny is emptied of all affect in these productions, what precisely is the origin of the emotional frisson one feels even despite the complex maneuvers of simultaneous identification and disidentification? If not the return of the repressed, as we have suggested, the new transformed uncanny that drives our emotional response is the repressed of our return to the world outside the theater-space: the very world for which we congratulate ourselves—but also fear—in watching a production like Jane Eyre, a world unmoored from all grand narratives of value, a postmodern world of performativity and campy self-reflexiveness; in short, a world that, in fact, terrifies us precisely because it has been supposedly emptied out of affect, community, and faith. In this sense, the musical Jane Eyre’s resemblance to Disney is all too perfect, recalling for us Jean Baudrillard’s famous dictum in “The Precession of Simulacra”:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.12-13
In this post-ideological world of simulation, it is no longer a question of false consciousness, for the point here is that we must recognize that consciousness as false in order to prepare for our return back to a postmodern world outside the theater that we can now take for the real thing.
To put this another way, what we have in Jane Eyre: The Musical is something along the lines of post-feminist as well as post-modern kitsch. To the extent that the production is ever truly gothic, it is, we think, a return of gothic form emptied out of its traditional content: passion, perversion, violence, and secrets. This looks something like gothic, and in the beginning it sounds and acts like it, too, but it is never terrifying or even unsettling. What we find deep in the “secret soul” of this musical is that there is no secret at all; as Rochester sums things up, “The secret of the flame/Is that there is no more to hide.” All of that carefully planned surveillance, in other words, comes to naught, since it is never very serious about producing the secret subjects it would then be called upon to police. And why bother? This musical about the gothic carceral is not actually invested in the motif, or the psychology, or even the fact of incarceration—only in the musical’s inevitable “release” and, yet more importantly, our eventual release into a world that we are now supposedly free to believe. So much so that the final tableau feels only flat and formulaic, never hard-won or well deserved—or all that attractive. This truly is, to echo Theodor Adorno’s definition of kitsch, a parody of catharsis. And it may also be a parody of gothic, returned as a generic remnant from a time when audiences might be properly terrorized (or moved, or angered, or enraptured) by Jane’s story. As a postmodern revenant, Victorian gothic is turned into family-friendly mass entertainment in order to negotiate not the dark underbelly of bourgeois middle-class Victorian ideology but rather the equally unsettling, depthless surfaces of the postmodern condition. In our celebration of kitschy depthlessness on the Broadway stage, we recast and de-tooth the Victorian gothic, celebrating our distance from the repressions of the Victorian period, but in no way do we escape our own psychoses, which secretly drive our return to the Victorian gothic and derive from our uncertain relation to self-reflexivity itself. This contemporary adaptation of Jane Eyre, in other words, allows us to sound not the depths but the depthlessness of our own postmodern condition.
All of which, finally, brings us back to our title, which refers not only to the evanescent returns of an everlasting gothic, emptied of and filled with the cultural contents of successive generations, but also the longed-for immortality of the ultimate commodity entertainment—an immortality nearly secured because predicted by that most famous advertising campaign for Broadway’s longest-running musical, Cats. Perhaps Paul Gordon had something of this “timeless” appeal in mind when he went searching for a “classic” novel to bring to the stage (Pagalilauan 2). As a Victorian classic, the text of Jane Eyre is already embalmed in our cultural museum, already indicative of the cultural capital one only wants to earn more easily—more easily than reading, certainly, and much more easily than the sonic and emotional difficulties of opera. This would-be pop classic, gone after only a season on the Great White Way, comes to us now as the ghost of a ghost, with the effortless lightness of a kitsch floating from across the wide and echoing moors of Broadway. Jane Eyre: Now and Forever.
To be more precise, it is not that emotion does not exist in the postmodern world; rather, contemporary pop cultural representations designed to elicit strong emotions like terror tend to employ the distancing effects of camp, irony, intertextuality, and hyper-stylization as a way to make acceptable an audience’s subsequent outpouring of feeling. Good examples are the many horror films, like Scream, that approach terror only through postmodern self-consciousness. The effect often is to increase the affective reaction of the audience, who are now free to feel fully because they can believe themselves not to have been duped into that feeling. A similar maneuver is at work in the Broadway neo-gothic musical.
Even in its earliest forms, opera was uneasily divided between serious art and popular entertainment. Herbert Lindenberger, for example, observes that “Monteverdian music-drama. . .assumes its ‘high’ and its popular form through the circumstances of the distinct venues—court performance and commercial theater—for which individual works were commissioned” (Opera in History 7). “Throughout its history,” Lindenberger writes, “opera has seen shifts in its relationships to the various spheres within which it participates—aesthetic, commercial, and sometimes both at once” (Opera in History 110). On opera’s rising and falling aesthetic capital, see especially Lindenberger, Opera in History, 107-133.
For this critique of opera, see Opera in History, 108. For an extended discussion of gothicism’s relation to a new commercial market in artistic products, see E. J. Clery’s The Rise of Supernatural Fiction.
Although the term “kitsch” was first used in Berlin during the 1860’s and 1870’s, Matei Calinescu argues that the phenomenon itself appeared at the close of the eighteenth century: “kitsch seems to be, historically, a result of romanticism” (237).
Both amount to the same thing, as Calinescu has it: “Whether we accept the ‘status-seeking’ theory or whether we prefer to see kitsch as a pleasurable escape from the drabness of modern quotidian life, the whole concept of kitsch clearly centers around such questions as imitation, forgery, counterfeit, and what we may call the aesthetics of deception and self-deception” (229).
The arrest of the operatic repertoire has been lamented for half a century, at least. As Susan McClary puts it, “Opera was one of the principle media through which the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie developed and disseminated its new moral codes, values, and normative behaviors: that central ideological function was responsible for opera’s vitality in the past, but it also marks the historical limits of its effectiveness” (xviii). Theodor Adorno writes that “Opera has been in a precarious situation since the moment when the high bourgeois which supported it in its fully developed form ceased to exist. . . . Opera was founded on so many conventions that it resounds in a vast emptiness as soon as those conventions are no longer vouchsafed to the audience through tradition” (“Bourgeois Opera” 40). As Mladen Dolar puts it, “Opera remains a huge relic, an enormous anachronism, a persistent revival of a lost past, a reflection of the lost aura, a true postmodern subject par excellence” (3).
For a reading of embodiment in opera (both on stage and in the audience), see especially Hutcheon and Hutcheon’s Bodily Charm.
Queer readings, especially, have done much to celebrate the subversive potential of opera. See, for example, Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, Leonardi and Pope’s The Diva’s Mouth, and the essays in Blackmer and Smith’s collection, En Travesti.
Robinson explains that the enormous sound produced by the operatic voice “stands as a mighty bulwark against intelligibility” (334) and is necessarily less understandable than the spoken or light singing voice. Similarly, the high registers and wide octave range of the operatic voice (particularly the soprano) make intelligibility more difficult, as does the sustained vocal tone, or “legato” (334-5).
The critical literature on gothic is rich and extensive—too rich and extensive to give a proper overview of it here. However, much recent criticism shares the idea that, as Judith Halberstam puts it, “Gothic fiction is a technology of subjectivity, one that produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy, and the pure can be known” (2). Some critics put their emphasis on the process of normalization, while others emphasize the process of disruption. For a recent overview of scholarly criticism of the gothic—an overview that in fact takes exception with most recent studies on the grounds of their “assumption that cultural ‘anxiety’ is reflected or articulated in Gothic fiction” (221)—see Chris Baldrick and Robert Mighall.
Here, again, the list of critics and critical studies is far too extensive to do more than list a few of the many examples. Feminist readings of gothic’s gender subversions include, for example, Kate Ferguson Ellis and Anne Williams. Important queer readings of gothic include the work of Stephen Arata, Christopher Craft, and Eve Sedgwick, to name but a few.
Halberstam considers this resistance to be constitutive to a definition of gothic, which, she argues, “is the breakdown of genre and the crisis occasioned by the inability to ‘tell,’ meaning both the inability to narrate and the inability to categorize” (23).
Friedlander writes that “faced with a kitsch representation of death, everyone knows that here two contradictory elements are amalgamated: on the one hand, an appeal to harmony, to the emotional communion at the simplest and the most immediate level; on the other, solitude and terror. It has often been said that one of the characteristics of kitsch is precisely the neutralization of ‘extreme situations,’ particularly death, by turning them into some sentimental idyll. This is undoubtedly true at the level of kitsch production, hardly so at the level of individual experience, when one has to imagine or face death” (27). On the opera’s representation of death, see in particular Hutcheon and Hutcheon’s Opera: Disease, Desire, Death.
On the history of the Broadway musical, see for example Geoffrey Block and Joseph P. Swain.
On the queerness of the Broadway musical, see particularly D. A. Miller’s Place for Us.
Sweeney Todd is, of course, the rule-proving exception on this list; legitimately terrifying in its emotional scope, it is the most gothic of musicals. It might also be the most truly operatic of musicals, as the Chicago Lyric Opera’s 2002 production, with acclaimed bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the lead role, proved.
Paul Gordon and John Caird’s Jane Eyre: The Musical opened on Broadway in December 2000 and struggled its way through the Tony awards, for which it received five nominations, including best book of a musical (John Caird); best score (Paul Gordon/John Caird; best actress (Marla Schaffel); and best musical. It closed in 2001. Before coming to Broadway, the production had successful runs in Toronto and California (with an early preview in Kansas).
See Allen’s Theater Figures and Felluga’s “Novel Poetry.”
For Stewart’s discussion of a “gothic of reading” in late-Victorian gothic thrillers (including that other famous music-hall revenant, Jekyll and Hyde), see Dear Reader. For Stewart’s own discussion of the phenomenon of the neo-Victorian remake (in his case, cinematic), see his article, “Film’s Victorian Retrofit.”
For the disciplinary function of the Victorian novel’s address to the reader, see, in particular, Stewart’s Dear Reader.
As Caird puts it when asked why Victor Hugo and Charlotte Brontë are important today, “The late 20th century is for many people an extremely morally confusing age, because nothing is fundamentally disallowed. You have to invent your own moral landscape now, which is why novels like Jane Eyre are fascinating, because the landscape is so clear” (Winsor 2).
On the creation of bourgeois subjectivity through (and against) surveillance, see especially D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police. On surveillance (and the theatricality of surveillance) in Jane Eyre, see Joseph Litvak.
- Adorno, Theodor W. “Bourgeois Opera.” Opera Through Other Eyes. Ed. David J. Levin. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.
- _____. Sound Figures. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
- Allen, Emily. Theater Figures: the Production of the Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2003.
- Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
- Baldick, Chris and Robert Mighall. “Gothic Criticism.” A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Inc., 2000.
- Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.
- Blackmer, Corinne and Patricia Juliana Smith, eds. En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.
- Block, Geoffrey. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
- Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Dunn. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971.
- Caird, John and Paul Gordon. Jane Eyre: The Musical. Original Broadway Cast Recording, 2000.
- Calinescu, Matei. Faces of Modernity: Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.
- Clément, Catherine. Opera: The Undoing of Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
- Clery, E. J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1995.
- Craft, Christopher. “’Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Speaking of Gender. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Routledge, 1989.
- Dolar, Mladen. “If Music Be the Food of Love.” Opera’s Second Death. By Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Gender Ideology. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1989.
- Felluga, Dino Franco. “Novel Poetry: Transgressing the Law of Genre.” Victorian Poetry 41 (2003): 490-99.
- Friedlander, Saul. Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch & Death. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
- Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
- Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, N. C.: Duke UP, 1995.
- Hutcheon, Linda and Michael Hutcheon. Bodily Charm: Living Opera. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000.
- _____. Opera: Desire, Disease, Death. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996.
- Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Vintage Books: 1993.
- Leonardi, Susan J. and Rebecca A. Pope. The Diva’s Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996.
- Lindenberger, Herbert. Opera: The Extravagant Art. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
- _____. Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
- Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
- McClary, Susan. “The Undoing of Opera: Toward a Feminist Criticism of Music.” Forward to Catherine Clément, Opera: The Undoing of Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
- Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
- _____. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.
- Pagalilauan, Bettina. “An Interview with Paul Gordon.” 20 April 2002 <http://members.aol.com/bpsprtfan3/jeyreint.htm>.
- Robinson, Paul. “A Deconstructive Postscript: Reading Libretti and Misreading Opera.” Reading Opera. Eds. Arthur Groos and Roger Parker. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton, UP, 1988.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
- _____. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen, 1986.
- Stewart, Garrett. Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
- _____. “Film’s Victorian Retrofit.” Victorian Studies 38 (Winter 1995): 153-198.
- Swain, Joseph. P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
- Weber, Bruce. “Theater Review: An Arsonist in the Attic; A Feminist in the Making.” The New York Times 11 December, 2000.
- Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
- Winsor, Christopher. “Buying into Bronte” (21 November 1996), 20 March 2002 <http:www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_11.21.96/theatre/backstage/html>.
- Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.