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Revising Romanticism by Inscripting Women Playwrights

  • Marjean D. Purinton

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  • Marjean D. Purinton
    Texas Tech University

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Romantic drama has become such a vital force in early nineteenth-century studies that it can no longer be ignored by Romanticists. Studies published during the last decade have opened a number of investigatory avenues for re-thinking the importance of the theatre and drama in the Romantic period. [1] In re-evaluating the importance of drama and through the recovery of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women writers, recent scholarship has increasingly pointed to the contributions made by women playwrights, particularly those around 1800, as a neglected but significant script to be written into contemporary conceptualizations of Romanticism. Women's various theatre/drama activities complicate the role drama in general has come to occupy in Romanticism. When we "inscript" women playwrights, Romanticism as an historical period, characterized by identifiable literary, conceptual, and ideological patterns, requires substantial revision.

While the reconsideration of Romantic drama and the recuperation of women playwrights have not exclusively and independently stimulated conceptual and paradigmatic changes in Romantic-period studies, these new directions of inquiry have complicated and expanded the frameworks of cultural and literary reference in exciting ways. In this essay, I will consider five broadly defined paradigm shifts in our thinking about Romanticism that are occurring due to increased attention to women playwrights:

  1. Revisions of theatrical, Romantic, and women's literary histories

  2. Revisions of theoretical positions and scholarly projects

  3. Revisions of pedagogical strategies

  4. Revisions of canon formation

  5. Revisions of performance and staging possibilities

Many claims that we currently make about Romantic drama (or perhaps even Romanticism) would not be nearly as convincing without the addition of the rich and diverse discursive and participatory contributions made by women playwrights: scripts to be performed and read, theatre/dramatic theories, on-stage performances and theatre attendance, drama criticism/theatre reviews, theatre management and script editing, promotions and censorship, influences and literary inscriptions. If, as some have argued, Romanticism's center stage, its cultural and identificatory nucleus, is its drama, women dramatists and women's theatrical activities play a leading role. [2] The inclusion of women playwrights in our scholarship has helped to expose the pervasive theatricality of the Romantic period and has helped to complicate the binary notions of public and private spheres culturally inscripted during the eighteenth century. (See Tracy C. Davis' article in this issue.)

With the inclusion of women playwrights, our constructions of theatrical, Romantic, and women's literary histories must necessarily undergo revision; these histories are, we have discovered, dialogical and interdependent. (See Nora Nachumi's article in this issue.) The inclusion of women playwrights has forced us to revise theatre history and reconsider Romantic-period drama. In Closet Stages, Catherine B. Burroughs situates Joanna Baillie, for example, as a central figure in women's theatre history, challenging conventional descriptions of Romantic drama's antitheatricality. Burroughs argues that including women playwrights not only affects how we perceive Romanticism, but also how we reconstruct women's literary history. She demonstrates how vital late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century women's theatre contributions are to our revisions of women's literary history. Women playwrights are, Burroughs shows, the foremothers of contemporary performance theory. [3] When our theatrical and women's literary histories include women's performance theory, we are encouraged to rethink the limiting dichotomy assigned by former narratives of theatrical history that has led us to read Romantic drama as written for either "closet" or "stage." (See Tom Crochunis' article in this issue.) Works and activities by female playwrights help to explain the dissolution of a public sphere, especially after 1800, that had been more clearly defined in eighteenth-century discourses about gendered behaviors. Women playwrights' contributions blur dichotomies (closet/stage, public/private, popular/serious drama), opening the performance/closet paradigm to exciting revisionary work on Romantic drama. [4] By reading women playwrights, we have learned to read all Romantic drama differently—a paradigm shift of enormous significance.

If women playwrights around 1800 prompt revision of theatre history, their impact has been even more important to revisions of Romantic literary history. Romantic drama has come to be seen as diverse, complex, multifaceted, and nonetheless "legitimate" genre framed by the historical period 1780-1830. We have discovered, as Daniel P. Watkins has acknowledged, that the reputed dearth of intellectual drama during the Romantic period was a fiction, [5] a fiction, I would add, exposed, in part, by the recuperation of women playwrights. Jeffrey N. Cox has argued that in order to have a complete and accurate history of Romantic drama, we need to recover plays obscured by a narrow "dramatic ideology." [6] In his conceptualization of Romantic gothic drama, Cox makes Joanna Baillie a central figure. [7] To write the kind of history Cox describes, we must take more women playwrights into account. In his anthology of Gothic drama, Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843, John Franceschina answers Cox's challenge by seeking to rescue from oblivion the work of "lost" women writers who have made significant contributions to Gothic melodrama. [8] To articulate a theoretical framework for Romantic drama, Terence Allan Hoagwood turns to Elizabeth Inchbald, one of the period's most productive contributors, for a statement of general principles about drama's thematic content and its historically determined and politically charged suppression. [9] Hoagwood shows us that it is irresponsible, perhaps even impossible, to theorize Romantic drama without consulting the voice of a woman. It is similarly irresponsible to ignore the centrality of drama and theatre to Romantic literature and culture.

The revisions in theatrical, Romantic, and women's literary histories prompted by the inclusion of women playwrights simultaneously impels revisions of theoretical positions and scholarly projects. We are experiencing a methodological paradigm shift in our approaches to reading and writing about Romantic-period literature, one that has become much more aware of the theatre as a culturally defining metaphor and a structuring device even for ostensibly non-dramatic discourses. Repeatedly, women writers from 1780-1830 conceive identity formation, individual and collective, in terms of performative roles. For example, Mary Robinson's theatre activities and interests have opened up new readings of her poetry. Judith Pascoe has pointed to Robinson's theatricalized "disguises" in the construction of her multivalent poetic selfhood. Pascoe claims that Robinson's sense of herself as a poet was inextricably connected with her capacity to play the role of "performing poet." [10] In her analysis of Anna Margaretta Larpent's diaries, Claire Miller Colombo sees evidence of the diarist's negotiations of private and public worlds in terms of theatrical performances. As wife of England's Examiner of Plays, Anna Larpent replicates the construction and censorship of the public self possible for women of the theatre in the private pages of her diary. [11]

According to John Franceschina, "the heroine in Gothic melodrama, incarcerated by striving to get free, becomes the paradigm for the new spirit of female activity" during the early nineteenth century (Franceschina 4). In Romantic Theatricality, Pascoe points to the material links between female writers and the stage and the theatrical modes of representation associated with women's writing. Pascoe argues that women writers play a constitutive and permanent role in romantic ideation, contending that "Romanticism" is founded on theatrical modes of self-representation. [12] The examination of women playwrights' portrayals of women, their conscious and unconscious complicities with prevailing ideologies, and their manipulation of overtly and covertly transgressive modes, gives us more information on which to base our reassessment of women's place in theatre and in society during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Theatrical strategies also inform and constitute the male Romantic subject and contribute to the spectacular nature of Romantic literature. Deborah Epstein Nord, for example, reconstructs the panoramic views of London in the 1820's and literary representations of isolated urban scenes, noting the theatricality of both; she points specifically to the theatrical elements in Book Seven of William Wordsworth's The Prelude. [13] Although our former critical practices have not necessarily granted women playwrights a central role in the formative stages of what later came to be identified as Romanticism, male literary figures from 1780-1830 certainly recognized the importance of these women to male-specific constructions of Romantic identity. Lord Byron, for example, was ever mindful of Joanna Baillie's dramatic influences. [14] Including women playwrights in our field of study creates a "dramatic" shift in how gendered public and private spaces are perceived, bodied, and performed in diverse literature by male and female authors. Theatrical tropes and theatricalized roles in all genres complicate conventional markers of "masculinity" and "femininity."

Romantic drama, therefore, is the site where class, race, and gender politics were played out. Without considering how women playwrights address these issues, we would have only a partial view of how the culture staged these concerns. Our inclusion of women's drama has, in fact, encouraged us to reassess cultural postures and positions in relation to discursive and social practices. Paula R. Backscheider considers how gothic dramatists adopt sex as an analogous political category. [15] In my own work-in-progress, I am exploring the ways that Romantic drama responds to gothic stylistic and production strategies as it incorporates early nineteenth-century interests in science—a strategy I call "Techno-Gothic." [16] I have come to recognize that for women playwrights, portraying a body scientifically sexed as female and discursively gendered as feminine, or as in Backscheider's study, for women dramatists to incorporate the sex/political categorical analogy, was particularly complicated. Women playwrights frequently disguise their engagement with "public" issues. Watkins analyzes how Baillie's De Monfort replicates in dramatic terms the class conflict which followed the French Revolution; elsewhere, I have examined Count Basil's gender-bending staging of proto-feminist polemics of the kind that, at the end of the eighteenth century, some decried as inappropriately raised by that band of unnatural "unsex'd females." [17] Franceschina notes that Harriet Lee's The Mysterious Marriage recasts domesticity as endorsement of abolition of slavery (Franceschina 6). Recognizing women playwrights' ways of engaging with political and social issues enables us to see similarly employed theatrical strategies in non-dramatic Romantic literature.

The strategies of Romantic drama unmask issues that occupy the subtext of other Romantic genres, showing us how to read the layers of meaning embedded in otherwise seemingly apolitical or gender-neutral discourse. Women playwrights especially have demonstrated how the theatre served as a culturally defining metaphor, crucial for the expression and interrogation of politically or socially sensitive, perhaps even subversive, material. In casting taboo subjects in performative modes, writers could distance themselves safely from responsibility for content and consequences. In The Rights of Man (1791), Thomas Paine accuses Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) of creating "theatrical representation" of political revolution "for the sake of show." [18] In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft concurs with Madame de Staël's criticism of Rousseau's efforts "to prevent women from interfering in public affairs, and acting a brilliant part in the theatre of politics." [19] As late as 1830, Charles Lyell discusses the power of science to overturn preconceived opinions about the earth's development in dramatic terms. Lyell argues in Principles of Geology that the earth's surface has been the subject of slow but never-ending fluctuations, "the theatre of reiterated change." [20] By examining women playwrights, we have come to recognize how notions of performance, performativity, and theatricality are inscribed in Romantic-period discourses, and we have adopted these notions as interpretative and methodological tools, again employing critical space between literal-physical performance and symbolic-conceptual performance of which women playwrights were already making use in the years around 1800. In addition to its metaphoric role, the theatre serves as a structuring device for discourses addressing potentially disturbing and destabilizing issues—the slave trade, female miseducation, scientific inquiries, and commercialized imperialism, for example. Increased theatre attendance at the end of the eighteenth century gave women playwrights a public site where they could advance their socially critical and culturally challenging messages. Some critical perspectives claim that women playwrights stage what Terry Eagleton has termed a "counter-public sphere." [21] Women playwrights have expanded our notions of performance, enabling us to see how broader cultural and political issues were displaced onto theatrical/dramatic structures that would have been familiar to audiences/readers. Gillian Russell, for example, considers the mediation of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in theatricalized forms. Linking patriotism and nationalism with theatricalized structures, Russell claims that "being British could be a theatrical performance, open to a variety of interpretations by its actors." [22] Russell cites the dialogical relationship between the theatre and politics as structuring devices for social behavior: "The formal stage drama interacted with the drama of politics and society in a way which led to the enrichment of the theatre as a metaphor for social relations and, at the same time, intensified the potency of the institutionalized stage"(Russell 22).

Recent scholarship in Romanticism has discovered theatrical/political connections that support understanding of British culture gained through the study of female playwrights. Judith Pascoe demonstrates the conceptual and structural connections between the Treason Trials of 1794 and theatrical performances, especially those pitched at female spectators (Romantic Theatricality 33-67). Marc Baer seeks to place the Old Price riots within an integrated theatrical, political, and social study, showing the importance of theatre in high and low culture as well as in national life. [23] Elaine Hadley traces the "melodramatic mode" manifest in various social contexts and manipulated by the marketplace in the nineteenth century. She appropriates "melodramatic" from its stage use to describe behavioral patterns, emphasizing the adherence to theatrical representation and the cultural values of publicity and visibility formerly attached to such representations. [24] Iain McCalman conceptualizes plebeian radicalism in London from 1795-1840 in terms of theatricality. [25]

Although his study of closet drama slights women playwrights, William Jewett does explore drama's influence on moral agency—what he terms "fatal autonomy." [26] However, women's literary projects at the end of the eighteenth century, including drama, address issues of education, morality, and manners that were a part of the cultural milieu inscribed in the type of drama that Jewett implicitly genders male. Women's engagement with the nation's political and commercial interests are also reflected dramatically in their own work, which functions dialogically with drama written by men. In my own project on Romantic drama, I am considering the ways in which drama serves as a structuring device for imperialism, displacing critical assessments of imperialism onto dramatic/theatrical structures. Baillie's Constantine Paleologus; or the Last of the Caesars (1805) is, for example, structured by history, and Felicia Hemans's The Siege of Valencia (1823) is built upon legend. [27] Daniel O'Quinn has looked at the theatrical structuring of the colonial enterprise and the complex reconstruction of the bourgeois family in Elizabeth Inchbald's satire The Mogul Tale; or the Descent of the Balloon (1797). [28] At times, women playwrights' contributions to the politics of their day are overt, but often, their influence is less clearly identifiable, for the issues with which their dramas are engaged also influence the topoi of male playwrights. As a result the investigation of women playwrights helps us to read drama written by men with attention to women's roles in the theatrical/political dialectic.

Women playwrights' presence in public politics (actual, staged, conceptual, or structural) extended and subverted a domestic ideology that sought to contain women in private spaces. They therefore demonstrated that politicized space can be public and private. The collapse of the public/private dichotomy is further politicized in theatrical/dramatic spaces. Frequently, political issues are debated in the domestic spaces of a play and staged as meta-theatrics or meta-dramatics. The signifying and performative practices of representational women on the stage constitute, in essence, signifying and performative practices of actual women. The negotiation of private/public spaces was, for women playwrights, not merely conceptual (as in the genres of novels, poetry, and polemics written by women) but frequently actual, concrete, and lived by women of the theatre. Women of the theatre had indelible historic connections with prostitution, associations with women of the night. Women's public/theatrical presence was, therefore, sexualized and illegitimate. Through meta-theatrics, the risky public nature of women's presence could be safely enclosed within the structure of a drama in which women perform socially accepted domestic roles. Therefore, private/public postures rendered meta-dramatically function quite differently for women playwrights than for men playwrights; for women, the potential violation of social structures and cultural customs is exposed by their gender and by the genre of drama itself. As a strategy with gender-specific ideological implications, meta-theatrics enable women playwrights to stage subversive public-sphere performances. The core drama is disguised as fictive role-playing within the play, opening an artificial but safe space in which women could operate. Mariana Starke's 1788 comedy The Sword of Peace; or A Voyage of Love, Joanna Baillie's 1798 comedy The Tryal, and Lady Olivia Clarke's 1819 comedy The Irishwoman feature dramatic conflicts in which strong-willed female characters stage their own theatricals. [29] The meta-theatrics of these plays suggest something about the social and political strategies which women "performed" in their actual lives. For female dramatists and performers whose public presence was complicated by separate-sphere ideology, meta-dramatics offered a conceptual disguise for their engagements with public (masculinist) issues, a framework within which they could stage transgressions and subversions (or compliances with and endorsements of) dominant cultural practices.

As with political issues reflected in Romantic drama, the destabilizations of private and public spaces found in women playwrights' works can also be discovered in drama written by men. Although his study excludes women playwrights, Michael Simpson asserts that Romantic-period dramas mobilize internalized alternative versions of themselves (mental/staged) as assertions for political action. The plays are attempts to reconstruct political discourse (which was silenced by state censorship following 1794) and patriotic consensus (during the counter-revolutionary Napoleonic wars). Simpson argues: "The very denial of theatrical production seems to invest the texts themselves with a paradoxical insistence that they be performed, and the political plots of many of the dramas can be read to recommend a directly political materialization of their texts' imperatives." [30] The possibility that Byron's and P.B. Shelley's dramas operate dialogically with those by women is revealed in Simpson's observation that Byron's Sardanapalus can be seen as a rewriting of Baillie's tragedy Count Basil (Simpson 431, n. 16). Julie Carlson has also suggested that Romantic drama, particularly that of Coleridge, provides evidence of the complex relationship between Romantic notions of power and of female leadership (especially as expressed in female performance). [31]

Besides drama's disruption of gendered spaces through its internal meta-theatrics, meta-dramatic treatments of private/public spaces affect an individual play's influences on literary, political, and social matters seemingly external to that play. Jeffrey Cox, for example, suggests the meta-dramatic function of Baillie's De Monfort when he claims that Baillie turns a self-reflective gaze on the Gothic, "her plays offer[ing] a self-conscious examination of some of the fundamental conventions of the Gothic" (Seven Gothic Dramas 51). Women playwrights' meta-theatrical dramas have significantly exposed late eighteenth-century notions of public and private spaces, domestic and political performances, and consequently, we have come to see disruptions in the private/public dichotomy in diverse Romantic-period literature. Women writing a genre to be performed publicly, whether actually staged or not, simply enter the public sphere and question the ways in which private and public spaces had come to be gendered. Their intrusion into theatricalized and politicized spaces has, in turn, offered us an interpretative tool for analyzing the public/private dichotomy in the literature, by men and women, intended for private consumption.

Meta-theatrically, women playwrights could entertain anxieties about women's complicated and often conflicted public and private roles, their on-stage and off-stage performances. The recognition of meta-dramatic engagements with public spaces has prompted critical inquiries into the actual lives of diverse women of the theatre, their contributions to playwriting, acting, editing/selecting, theory, and criticism. The current interest in the historical role of women in the theatre is reflected in studies by Ellen Donkin, Tracy C. Davis, Sandra Richards, Kristina Straub, Hanna Scolnicov, Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. [32] In acknowledging the multi-faceted performances of theatrical women, we have exploded antitheatrical notions associated with the Romantic period. And yet the most relevant commentary about theatricality may come from the drama itself. For example, in her examination of competing styles of acting embodied in the title characters of Baillie's De Monfort, Catherine Burroughs has demonstrated the dramaturgy's preoccupation with the performativity of identity. [33] Women playwrights' voices become embodied by the characters in their plays. Their women characters tell the stories of female bodies' negotiations of culture's sexualization and objectification of the female body within an arena that invites the audience's gaze upon that body. Women playwrights' actual and vicarious experiences as "other" by gender in a culture that privileges men are written on the bodies of the dramatis personae. As meta-dramatics enable women playwrights to interrogate the private/public dichotomy, the body offers them theatricalized space for gender-bending, for testing the absolute, rigidly defined markers and categories of gender/sex. Mary Shelley negotiates the socio-sexual structures of separate sphere ideology in her 1820 dramas Midas and Proserpine. On the imagined mythological bodies, Shelley constructs conceptual cross-dressings; in other words, attributes usually associated with bodies sexualized as female are given to mythological male characters, and attributes usually associated with bodies sexualized as male are exhibited by mythological women. Shelley's dramas play with the very terms of dual construction in order to demonstrate their limitations. As cross-dressed dramaturgy, then, Midas is a comedy about women's issues played out on male bodies; Proserpine is a drama in which imaginary women enact a "masque of anarchy" in which masculinist power subsumes female autonomy. [34] As Tom Crochunis has argued, "closet dramas," particularly those of Romantic writers like Byron, Baillie and the Shelleys, play with bodily representation and desire in ways parallel to polysexual orientations, revealing how the act of writing drama is an act of writing unavailable bodies. [35]

In many respects, study of women playwrights has revolutionized the ways we read Romantic-period literature. How we read Romantic literature necessarily affects how we teach Romantic literature, creating the third paradigm shift effected by the inclusion of women playwrights. Our classroom presentations, like our scholarly projects, are likely to situate specific texts within a cultural and discursive context that has been enriched by the inclusion of drama and women playwrights. Dramas by women have directed our attention to the connections, actual and conceptual, between the stage and other Romantic genres as well as between the theatre and cultural activities. We can no longer skip over Romantic drama as "inferior" to the period's poetry or as "unteachable" as its prose. In teaching drama, it is important to re-present the complex theatre of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such re-presentation entails reading and understanding more than token dramatic texts. It is important for students to read diverse dramas by male and female playwrights, for dramas written by men "mean" differently when read dialogically with plays written by women. In her article in this issue, Catherine Burroughs explains how the theory and practice of women's dramaturgy, especially that of Sophia Lee, Joanna Baillie, and Elizabeth Inchbald, has informed her own classroom pedagogy. In my own classes, I have found that staging scenes from women's plays is an enlightening activity for students. Besides having fun with Romantic-period literature, students become more sensitive to the ironic disguises and the latent messages in women's plays. [36] We now see, in general, more women playwrights included on Romantic-period courses' syllabi and reading lists. Because women playwrights have profoundly affected the ways I teach non-dramatic literature, I offer a graduate course entitled "The Theatre and Theatricality in Romantic-Period Literature"; we read and discuss literature (dramatic and non-dramatic) from 1780-1830 with attention to the ways in which theatricality repeatedly and consistently cut across the cultural matrices constituting Romantic-period identity formation. Women playwrights around 1800 have also influenced our critical thinking about late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century women's roles, functions, behaviors, and cultural contributions in general, informing our teaching of women writers and discursive portrayals of women.

Women playwrights are beginning to be available for classroom use, but we need to see more teaching texts and more women playwrights included on course syllabi before women playwrights will effect, the fourth paradigm shift, canon revisions. The Romantic-period canon has been undergoing radical revision in the last decade, revision that has given us access to a few women playwrights. The 1996 Mellor and Matlak edition of British Literature 1780-1830 includes six plays, two by women, [37] and Jeffrey Cox's anthology Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825, includes Baillie's De Monfort. John Franceschina's collection Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843 exclusively presents women playwrights. [38] Other editions give us limited access to women's drama because they are not widely available or easily affordable. [39] For 2000, Broadview Press has scheduled an edition of Baillie's 1798 Plays on the Passions, and I predict that we will see, within the next few years, additional editions and anthologies of Romantic drama, including works by women playwrights, suitable for classroom use. [40] Electronic editing (being discussed at the "British Women Playwrights around 1800" web site <wp1800/>) and on-line publications like Romanticism on the Net will offer students and scholars opportunities to work with women playwrights, expanding the offerings of drama and our understandings of Romantic literature.

Critical decisions similar to those made by theatre managers and performers around 1800 are made today in stagings of Romantic drama. Contemporary theatrical productions of women playwrights are feasible for universities, and particularly entertaining and instructive at Romanticists' meetings. [41] At the 1997 MLA, Thomas Crochunis suggested that scholars should consider staging a drama by Joanna Baillie, a playwright who permitted her published plays to be altered for performance. [42] The ways that contemporary performances adopt and adapt Romantic-period playwrights' text(s) and staging specifications foreground our methodologies of literary/dramatic recuperation, recovery, and interpretation. Additional paradigm shifts in Romantic studies might indeed be stimulated by our attention to the actual performing of women's drama as well as to their published plays and performance scripts. It is in the performance of a play, we recall, that a woman playwright might speak publicly and about issues, even as latent or disguised content, conventionally attributed to the masculine sphere. In relation to the performed play, it is important for us to locate ourselves as spectator as well as in our familiar roles as readers, scholars, critics, and pedagogues. Additionally, we may gain valuable insights from acting in the dramas by women about which we read, write, and teach. Women playwrights have taught us to be open and receptive to possibilities, and the possibilities for continual "inscripting" of women playwrights, their dramas, and their theatre activities into Romantic studies can only enrich our scholarly and pedagogical performances.