“Figuring out the Theater”: Emily Allen. Theater Figures: The Production of the Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0814251102. Price: US$22.95.[Record]

  • Marcie Frank

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  • Marcie Frank
    Concordia University

A brief survey of recent publications in Romanticism suggests that there has been a dramatic upsurge of interest over the past five years in the drama of the period. New biographies of Elizabeth Inchbald by Annibel Jenkins, and critical studies of Joanna Baillie by Thomas Crochunis, Judith Slagle and others, attest to the impact the recovery of women writers is having on the history of the drama. The 2003 publication of Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer‘s Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama makes it possible to teach this material. A longer view that takes in recent scholarship in eighteenth-century studies reveals a similar tendency. Julie Stone Peters’s Theater of the Book mines recent work in the history of the book to situate the development of drama in relation to emergent print culture. Lisa Freeman’s Characters’ Theater locates the development of character in the theater. At a more abstract level, William Warner’s Licensing Entertainment invites us to reconsider the novels of the mid-18th century as media events. Taken together, this body of work suggests that the segregation of theater history from the history of the other writing of the period may be coming to an end. Cross-media researches will continue to enrich our sense of the literary history of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Emily Allen’s beautifully written and cogently argued Theater Figures belongs in this group and makes an important contribution to it, for it tracks the figure of the theater over the course of the nineteenth century as it functions variously in the consolidation of the modern literary hierarchy. Allen is utterly persuasive in making the case that novelists from Frances Burney, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, to Charles Dickens, Mary Braddon and George Moore, use the theater to define the domestic novel, partly because she has selected her figures and texts with an unerring eye. A sensitive reader and a stylish writer, Allen’s book is a pleasure to read as it tracks the complicated reversals of fortune that the theater undergoes. In her account, the theater figures exhibit a changing representational density: whereas characters in Burney and Austen experience the theater when they attend or participate in performances so that they are theatricalized at a distance, in Dickens, Braddon and Moore, they are both more fully and more allegorically associated with the theater because they are actors -- literally, figuratively or both. Scott is the intermediary figure between these two modes. As Allen argues, in Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s Mansfield Park, the theater is figured as the opposite of novelistic domesticity, which is gendered female. In Redgauntlet, by contrast, it aids in the consolidation of the historical novel as the masculine subsumption of romance when Scott uses the courtroom drama to locate domesticity in a national arena. In the book’s second half, Allen turns her attention to novelists’ attitudes towards mass consumption, but partly because gender remains an important term of analysis, she makes a smooth transition. One of the major strengths of this book is its skillful intertwining of the narrative of Bourdieuian processes of distinction with gender, status, and literacy. Allen points out that the use of theater figures to map the status of the domestic novel had become so familiar by the mid-nineteenth century that both Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters could treat home and stage as uncanny doubles for one another. With characteristic flair, Allen pairs this unlikely couple of novels to display their shared fascination with twins, sisters and look-a-likes. Both Dickens and Jewsbury use these doubles to disentangle the feminine ideal from her theatrical …