Collections of British drama from the Medieval to Modern periods have proliferated through the years, but the British Romantic era—a field which has recently seen an explosion of publications that feature noncanonical novels and poems written between 1780 and 1830—has had no anthology to represent its various generic experiments or bridge the gap between “literary” and “theatrical” perspectives. Paul Baines and Edward Burns’s anthology, Five Romantic Plays, 1768-1821 (2000), is organized around the themes of family and history, featuring what the editors call “some of the most radical and unusual examples of Romantic drama” (iii). But The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama is a more comprehensive collection because it demonstrates the range of playscripts produced during the era and thus highlights some of the major strands of Romantic theatre. As a result, The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama promises to change the ways in which British theatre history is taught to undergraduate and graduate students around the world.
Because this is the first anthology to represent Romantic drama as a “version of the period’s restless eclecticism” (Cox and Gamer xvii) with its “proliferating forms and generic hybrids” (xxiv)—“its fundamental strangeness” (x)—scholars will inevitably quibble with the selection of plays. For how could one anthology adequately capture the drama of a theatre that offered “high and low, legitimate and illegitimate, past and present, elite and popular” (xxiv)? And yet The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama does an excellent job of highlighting these oppositions, arguing that “what we now see as disparate pieces—poetic tragedies, successful stage dramas, and staged spectacles—were part of a coherent, if complex, cultural configuration” (xii). As the co-editors, Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer, state in their highly readable and historically rich introduction, “this anthology seeks to restage the fruitful interaction between Romantic writers and the contemporary stage, and between theatrical writers and the cultural movement we call Romanticism. For however, we try to define it, we inevitably can find Romanticism’s counterpart in the theater” (xiv).
This is the first anthology of Romantic drama to show demonstrably why the category of “Romantic drama” can be confounding. For when one reads a commercially successful play like Hannah Cowley’s A Bold Stroke for a Husband (1783) or George Colman’s Blue-Beard; or, Female Curiosity (1798) alongside texts that never made it to the stage until much later in time or not at all—such as Percy Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) or Joanna Baillie’s Orra (1812)—one realizes that the difficulty in characterizing Romantic drama springs from its alternately public and private impulses. On the one hand, in the search for commercial success, playwrights like Baillie and Coleridge mined Renaissance playscripts for dramaturgical models that they subsequently imitated to varying degrees of audience acclaim, and, on the other, playwrights like Byron used Renaissance models (such as the genre of the Senecan closet play) to protest the limits of the popular stage. As Cox and Gamer point out, the fact that so many Romantic writers known for their achievement in the novel or poetry turned, at least once in their careers, to playwrighting, and the fact that “romantic theatricality” helped to structure social, political, and cultural discourse of the period (as Judith Pascoe has argued) indicate the centrality of Romantic drama and theatre to understanding the cultural history of the Romantic era.
I will use this anthology immediately in the classroom. Not only does it offer playscripts that work collectively to showcase the dramatic variety of the Romantic stage, but it also helps to lay to rest many of the critical objections that have been promulgated through the years and misrepresented Romantic drama. As Cox and Gamer write, drama “between Sheridan and Shaw” has often been portrayed and regarded as a “dismembered corpse, its poetic head in one place and its theatrical body residing in appropriately corrupted state elsewhere” (x). The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama counters the tradition in narratives of theatre history and literary criticism that the Romantic stage was being woefully overtaken by the “low” forms of melodrama and pantomime. Introducing European Romantic Review’s special issue on Romantic drama (14.1 ), Diane Long Hoeveler cites French dramatist Charles Nodier to remind us that “the conventions of melodrama pervaded Romantic drama in Britain, as well as Germany and France, throughout the high romantic period” (1), and three anthologies appearing in the 1990s—Jeffrey Cox’s Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825 (1992); John Franceschina’s Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843 (1997); and Adrienne Scullion’s Female Playwrights of the Nineteenth Century (1996)—have done much to make early melodrama available for teaching. And certainly melodrama is represented in The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama by George Colman the Younger’s Blue-Beard; or, Female Curiosity. But other forms that Cox and Gamer note were becoming increasingly dominant in the latter quarter of the eighteenth century are featured as well. There are Hannah Cowley’s comedy of manners, A Bold Stroke for a Husband, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s domestic comedy, Every One Has His Fault (1793), which point to the tradition of commercially successful women playwrights writing throughout the long eighteenth century—beginning with Aphra Behn. The era’s most important playwright, Joanna Baillie, is represented by one of her weaker plays, Orra—the tragedy on fear—but its selection is justified by the influence of this playscript on a wide range of writers and genres of the Gothic; moreover, as the editors note, Orra was “the first of Baillie’s tragedies to feature a female lead character” (133). Additionally, Cox and Gamer explain, the inclusion of a tragedy by Baillie along with tragic dramas by Coleridge (Remorse), Shelley (The Cenci) and Byron (Sardanapalus, 1821), serves to highlight the fact that Baillie’s first volume of Plays on the Passions (1798) seems to “have initiated a vogue for tragedy both on stage and in print, one that accelerated in the second decade of the nineteenth century” (xix). This is another challenge that The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama poses to prevailing critical misrepresentations of the Romantic theatre—in this case, that the Romantic period presided over tragedy’s demise. On the contrary, Cox and Gamer argue, “we believe that there was a vital Romantic tragic tradition that continued to bear fruit in Ibsen [. . .] through Strindberg [. . .] and beyond to Shaw [. . .] and Eliot, whose Cocktail Party (1949) appropriates an entire passage from Prometheus Unbound” (xxi).
One could argue that the inclusion of plays by Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley—frequently anthologized in collections of Romantic writing and readily available in many other editions—takes up valuable space that might have been given to lesser-known works and writers or to a popular adaptation of one of the German or French plays that were influential elements on the Romantic stage. But if The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama is adequately to introduce students to major trends and approaches of the period, then Coleridge’s popular hit, Remorse—a play historically important for reminding us of the degree to which the most famous male poets of the day sought stage success—Byron’s orientalist, neoclassical tragedy, Sardanapalus, and Shelley’s The Cenci, which has alone stood for “Romantic drama” through the years, are central. This becomes even clearer when one confronts the fact that the period placed a high value on poetic dramas that might revive a tradition of British drama inaugurated by Shakespeare and created a rich body of theoretical material structured by the following kinds of questions: Is a play better realized when read or acted? If performed, how should it be done? How to reform the stage to allow for the dramatization of the unperformable?
Indeed, the editors’ selection of plays encourages intertextual analysis by pointing to the kinds of oppositions that structured the theoretical and critical debates of the Romantic period about theatre and drama. While the Gothic is evidently privileged because of the editors’ research—Michael Gamer is the author of Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation (2000)—the inclusion of Matthew Lewis’s afterpiece, Timour the Tartar (1811), makes good sense when Cox and Gamer draw attention to its impact on other writers and trends: Lewis was urged to “write a spectacular afterpiece to succeed Covent Garden’s recent revival of Blue-Beard,” also anthologized as an example of one of the most popular plays by “one of the key men of the theater for the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (75); George Colman the Younger was both a hugely successful dramatist and the Examiner of Plays in the 1820s. That this “unit” of the anthology is rounded out by Colman’s parody of Timour the Tartar —The Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh; Or, The Rovers of Weimar (1811)—makes the point that, even on the legitimate stage, the competition for audiences fostered spectacular effects, which, in turn, led to one of the more quirky trends in theatre history: plays that featured live animals. The emergence of equestrian dramas, testing the boundaries between “illegitimate” and “legitimate” theatre, along with melodrama and gothic plays, reflect a popular taste in defiance of the critical aesthetic. By featuring this kind of popular stagefare, The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama will enable teachers of drama to present a clearer picture to students of what Romantic playgoers actually saw in the theatre.
In his introductory notes to Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825, published in 1992, Jeffrey Cox wrote about the challenges that anthologists of drama face. The first, of course, is which plays to include; the second is “the dual existence of any dramatic text: its life on stage and its life as a printed book” (80). The fact that plays are “complex social products” (80) requires the anthologist, Cox argued, to select a version of a play that best reflects the play’s journey between page and stage, and thus the versions of the plays that Cox chose for Seven Gothic Dramas were selected to offer “an easily read text that provides the fullest account of the play’s historical life as a both a printed work and a performed theatrical piece” (83).
This approach informs the selection of the editions for The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. In the case of most of the playscripts, Cox and Gamer present the first edition of the play and then note the “significant differences between this text and the Larpent licensing manuscript, since the latter reflects what the theater told the Examiner of Plays would be put on stage” (vi). An especially fine contribution to furthering our understanding of the kinds of plays that captured Romantic audiences is the sketch of “the New Melo-Dramatick Comick Pantomime” by Thomas John Dibdin called Harlequin and Humpo; or Columbine by Candlelight! (1812)—often paired with Coleridge’s Remorse when that play was performed on stage. Cox’s and Gamer’s introduction to Harlequin and Humpo charts the difficulties of anthologizing a script that was “merely an outline, providing fairly full descriptions of the action that frames the play but merely listing the scenes of the harlequinade proper” (206). Thus, the editors drew “most heavily upon the Larpent manuscript” at The Huntington Library and “supplemented this with material from the printed text where it adds to our sense of what the performance would have offered. In addition, we have attempted to transcribe the (sometimes undecipherable) musical cues scrawled in the Larpent copy, since they provide a sense of how music functioned in the pantomime” (206). The result is a fascinating glimpse into a form—the pantomime—that has often been written about but not so well described. This “new” text of Harlequin and Humpo is a big step toward encouraging a fuller appreciation for the pantomime in performance and offers a model for future excavatory work on performed pieces for which there exists a less-than-detailed script.
Another reason that The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama is so clearly suitable for the classroom lies in Cox’s and Gamer’s evident desire to excite student readers about the subject of Romantic drama and theatre. Reprinting in their introduction the fascinating illustration from The Satirist “the Monster Melodrama” (1807) to encapsulate the state of British theatre as “divided, monstrous” (x) during the Romantic period is but one of the ways in which The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama is designed to garner reader interest. Most striking is the rhetorical style of the introduction’s first few pages, which invites readers to “Imagine yourself heading on foot through the largely dark streets of London on January 25th, 1813” (vii). Bringing together an impressive amount of research and information that captures the specific details of how Romantic theatre differs from our own, Cox and Gamer’s introductory pages pay homage to one of the early scholars of Romantic drama—Ernest Bradlee Watson (Sheridan to Robertson ), whose work has been more recently continued by Ellen Donkin (Getting into the Act )—in order to make vivid the thrilling and strange features of the early-nineteenth-century Romantic stage. The narrative unfolds to help us picture what it might have been like to have witnessed the opening of Coleridge’s stage hit, Remorse. Cox and Gamer write:
The space [. . .] is dazzling. Its gold, green, and crimson interior illuminated by what seems a thousand candles set in burners and chandeliers throughout the theater, Drury Lane seats over 3100 people. Tonight it is quite full, both with those interested in Coleridge’s play and those there to see the pantomime that will follow. Although some seats in the boxes are held by servants while masters and mistresses continue dining, and other patrons will enter later in the evening when half-price tickets become available, you are pleased to see that so many have come to see tonight’s tragedy. Hopeful for the new playwright and for a new golden age of legitimate drama, you purchase a playbill. Aside from listing the evening’s plays and performers, it advertises that Mrs. Bland will perform an Invocation during Act III of Remorse accompanied by music composed by Mr. Kelly. Copies of Coleridge’s play are for sale for those wishing to follow the text during the performance. You notice, however, that more patrons are buying the book sketching out the action of the play of the evening, this year’s Christmas pantomime, Harlequin and Humpo. With the cheap ink of the playbill coming off on your hands, you motion to one of the hawkers selling beer, cider, and fruit to fortify yourself for the evening’s performance.vii
A lot of research went into the passage above, but it is couched in an appeal to the reader to share in the history rather than resist or ignore it.
In addition to the rich introduction, the head-notes to the plays themselves encapsulate the most important facts about a playwright and his or her body of work, and the helpful annotations ensure that both generalists and specialists will find The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama a very teachable text. Like the hypertext editions planned for the British Women Playwrights around 1800 website, in order to provide students with a more precise understanding of the ways in which Romantic theatre and its drama were produced, The Broadview Anthology appends historical documents—reviews from the period and commentary on the theatre (from prefaces, memoirs, letters) as well as a glossary of actors and actresses who performed in these plays and suggestions for further reading about the theatre of the time.
Cox and Gamer conclude their introduction with an important reminder of the thesis that has governed their construction of The Broadview Anthology: “When we overcome the division between the ‘literary’ and the ‘theatrical’ that has dominated discussions of the Romantic period, we begin to see the rich dramatic scene that constitutes the theater of Romanticism” (xxiv). This commitment to explore Romantic playscripts from both literary and theatrical perspectives is one of the hallmarks of the recent scholarship on Romantic drama and theatre—in recognition of the Romantic period’s acute preoccupation in its theory with what a play could and should be—both on and off the stage. But beyond bringing together English and Theatre departments in order to share methodological approaches, the field of Romantic drama has benefited greatly from the work of scholars such as Thomas Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra—founders of the British Women Playwrights around 1800 website—who argue that, because “play texts [are] complexly linked sources of data” the study of which “requires a versatile methodology of inquiry” (“Putting Plays [And More] in Cyberspace” 119), the “hypertext environment of the Internet” (125) can facilitate a cross-disciplinary approach to new knowledge in Romantic drama and theatre that is truly collaborative and democratic. Acknowledging, like Cox, that a play “as theater text can never be fully recovered [or represented fully in print or electronically] because of the ephemeral nature of theatrical process and public performance,” Crochunis and Eberle-Sinatra argue that a hypertext edition of a play—such as the one they plan to present on their website (Baillie’s De Monfort, 1798)—allows “the reader access to various elements that provoke acts of historical interpretations of the many facets of the performed play” (126).
It is fitting that, at the very moment that electronic editing is rapidly advancing the recovery and study of Romantic women playwrights, Cox and Gamer’s anthology places in our hands an actual book to carry from place to place. For, while websites like BWP1800 are accelerating the pace of scholarship on Romantic (women) playwrights and establishing virtual conferencing as a way to provide alternatives to the traditional scholarly enterprise that has privileged print publication and on-site presentations, we still need tactile material to take into our beds, parks, classrooms, rehearsal studios. With Cox’s and Gamer’s anthology, professors of drama and theatre—and, of course, of British Romanticism—now have an affordable and user-friendly collection of plays that suggests the rich terrain of the British commercial stage between 1780 and 1830.
- Baines, Paul, and Edward Burns, eds. Five Romantic Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
- Cox, Jeffrey N. Introduction. Seven Gothic Dramas, 1789-1825. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1992, 1-84.
- Crochunis, Thomas, and Michael Eberle-Sinatra. “Putting Plays (and More) in Cyberspace: An Overview of the British Women Playwrights around 1800 Project.” European Romantic Review 14.1 (2003): 113-25.
- Donkin, Ellen. Getting into the Act. New York: Routledge, 1995. Franceschina, John, ed. Sisters of Gore: Seven Gothic Melodramas by British Women, 1790-1843. New York: Garland, 1997.
- Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
- Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Introduction: ‘Humanizing the Heart,’ or Romantic Drama and the Civilizing Process.” Romantic Drama: Origins, Permutations, and Legacies. Ed. Diane Long Hoeveler. Spec. issue of European Romantic Review 14.1 (2003): 1-5.
- Pascoe, Judith. Romantic theatricality : gender, poetry, and spectatorship. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
- Scullion, Adrienne, ed. Female Playwrights of the Nineteenth Century. London: J.M. Dent, 1996.
- Watson, Ernest Bradlee. Sheridan to Robertson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1926.