The OED defines “theatricality” in essentially negative terms, as the degraded cultural progeny of the theatre itself, and in the process associates it with spectacle. Assuming cultic proportions in late-Regency London, theatricality, I argue, comes full circle to engulf theatre itself. Epitomized by the mesmeric Kean and an increasing reliance on spectacular effects, this is the point at which Lamb enters the argument. A combined study of theatrical culture and periodical writing in the Romantic period, I demonstrate how such a spectacularization of theatre informs Lamb’s performance with Elia of an “essayistic figure”.
Through Elia’s ludic, phantasmal ontology in the London Magazine - in which the illusion of autobiography is enacted and the essay form transcended with assertions of fictive liberty - Lamb’s use of a persona is, like theatricality itself, derivative of theatre. Yet the frequent readjustment of expectations that Elia’s playfulness demands of the reader clearly designates Lamb’s as a readerly mode of theatricality that diametrically opposes the dominant model of ritualistic spectatorship.
Indeed, Lamb’s career seemingly embodies the Romantic ambivalence over theatre identified by Mary Jacobus. Both failed playwright and avid theatre-goer, Lamb famously priveliges the reader’s over the audience’s experience of Shakesperare’s tragedies, then later - as Elia - celebrates artificial comedy for the escape it affords from the “diocese of strict conscience”. Elia can perhaps, therefore, be read as Lamb’s attempt at managing theatre on his own terms: an appropriation of its illusory, emancipative qualities to the unspectacular format of the familiar essay.
If these Regency [architectural] improvements accentuated the beauty and grandeur of London, they also enhanced, to some degree, its quality of theatricality and sheer spectacle. London took on a new aura of artifice and became not only a more navigable city but one more readily viewed as an enormous stage set.Epstein Nord 26
In the above description of Regency London, the positive values of the city’s “beauty and grandeur” are counterbalanced by the more dubious ones of “theatricality and sheer spectacle.” This conforms to the Oxford English Dictionary’s designation of theatricality as both essentially negative, and closely – damningly - related to spectacle. The definition of “theatrical” as a behavioral and stylistic entity reads thus: “having the style of dramatic performance: extravagantly or irrelevantly histrionic; ‘stagy’; calculated for display, showy, spectacular” (883). An occurrence (or display) of theatricality presupposes spectatorship, or at least the consciousness of it on the part of the theatrical subject. The OED definition implies that theatre belongs in the playhouse, and that when taken outside into real life it becomes theatricality - grotesque, inane, and gratuitously spectacular. Theatricality therefore emerges as the degraded and vacuous, unfortunate cultural progeny of the relatively profound and sophisticated “high” art of theatre itself.
Recent studies of theatrical culture in the Regency period have sought to establish theatricality in more neutral terms, as social behaviour derived from the model of the stage and its audience. Yet by defining theatricality as an ideological, and therefore unconscious phenomenon, it might be argued that in these studies the term still carries negative connotations: namely, the loss of individuality and free will to the crowd. In which case, theatricality would appear to be inherently negative, being both excessive and/or ritualistic. In the present paper, theatricality’s negative manifestation in Regency London provides the context to a reading of Elia in terms of an antithetical response. Through his essayistic figure, Lamb too takes theatre out of the playhouse, but attaches to it an emancipative and self-affirming role within the metropolitan environment. Elia thus embodies a positive, readerly mode of theatricality that challenges the dominant cultural one of vacuous, crowd-pulling spectacle.
I. Theatricality and Theatre
The proliferation of closet drama written in the early nineteenth century has been seen as indicative of a Romantic aversion to, or at least problem with, theatre. Although of relevance, the focus of my paper is on how this anti-theatre aesthetic is articulated through the figure of the prose essayist. Through the essayist’s simultaneously objective and subjective discourse, of criticism and self-representation, a response to theatre’s unwelcome invasion by theatricality is expressed.
In ascribing to “a Romantic prejudice against theatre” post-Revolution anxiety over social stability, Mary Jacobus identifies a concurrent notion of genius:
The metaphysics of presence might be said to constitute a distinct element in Romantic prejudice against theatre. As the unveiling of a hidden truth, or prior text, dramatic representation must always lack self-sufficiency, like commanding genius. The more the poet is credited with a self-sufficing inner world, the more this will tend to be the case. Not surprisingly, then, romantic criticism of Shakespeare – the type of the myriad-minded, negatively-capable, and God-like creator – tends to subordinate stage to page and actors to text. The price of Shakespearian integrity and inwardness of imagination will be a corresponding denigration of the theatre. The metaphysical pressure to maintain the priority of what is represented over its representation helps to retire Shakespeare into the closet; and if not Shakespeare, then at least action, acting, and actors. Hence the romantic appropriation of Shakespeare as above all a soliloquist, and the emergence of the monodrama as the characteristic form of high romantic theatre – a verse-form never intended for the stage.375
The historical source for a critical and dramatic denigration of theatre, however, might be rather more immediate than that proposed here. Analysing the significance of Macbeth in various Romantic writings, Jacobus observes that the disturbing “metaphysics of presence” never enters into the comparatively safe experience of reading a book. This is unlike theatre, where such a presence causes a “tension between control and excess, limitation and the limitlessness of the sublime, [that] conforms to the tension between constitutionality and revolution” in the political arena (Jacobus 375). I would like to suggest of Lamb’s writing, however, that a literally bookish anxiety over theatre derives less from residual anxieties over the Revolution, than from the cultic nature of Regency theatre itself, as plebeian, spectacular entertainment.
As the nation’s socio-economic and cultural centre, Regency London was naturally the source of, and focus for, theatricality. Aided by a population explosion in the rapidly expanding capital, theatre had never been more popular than in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Not only did theatre arguably spawn the prototype for modern celebrity in the shape of Edmund Kean – a larger-than-life actor whose fame (and infamy) rivaled that of those other subjects of the town’s talk, Beau Brummel and Lord Byron - but it seems to have permeated metropolitan society as cultural discourse. As Baer et al have variously argued, the popularity and conventions, or apparatus, of the theatre itself inculcated a ritualized mode of behaviour, or theatricality, in the city at large. According to Baer, in his study of the “O.P.” (Old Price) Riots, theatricality describes both “instinctual” and self-conscious conduct that represents “appropriation from the stage and…from audience behaviour as well” (11). Baer’s study of the OP Riots shows that even riotous behaviour by the crowd - against a threat to theatre’s plebeian basis - could be paradoxically ordered by the “ideology of drama and melodrama” (11).
Such behaviour suggests a blurring of the very distinction between city and theatre: as a correlative to theatricality on the streets, Moody observes, the hugely popular new pantomime “dramatised the city as an unstable, contingent, spectacular world, as a place of metamorphosis, innovation and relentless self-fashioning” (218). Differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate theatre, or theatre and theatricality, becomes equally difficult amid the range of performance covered by the patent and minor theatres, fair and pleasure-garden shows, penny gaffs, toy theatre, Methodist sermons, parliamentary oration, mountebanks, and even the imposture of the fake beggars identified by Tom and Jerry in Pierce Egan’s Life in London. Egan’s text - itself a prime “city as theatre” representation of metropolitan life, according to Epstein Nord - was adapted for the stage by Moncrieff at the Adelphi in 1821. Here, to demonstrate the meta-narrative extent of this culture, the city’s theatricality itself becomes the subject of the theatre.
Concurrent with a literary hostility to theatre, then, is theatricality in the social sphere. The two are surely linked, producing an elitist sense of alarm over theatre’s dissolution as high art amidst popular culture. Theatricality becomes a manifestation of that still new and threatening urban phenomenon, the crowd. Whether a politically impelled faction or a more mundane, cultic trend, the crowd is threatening because it is ungovernable yet highly suggestible, and involves the apparent subjection of the individual to the mass. It thus looms suggestively against Coleridge’s idealized notion of cultural transaction based on the image of an intimate and sympathetic reader. The very concept of the conversation poems - by Coleridge, the writer and friend whom Lamb most admired – bespeak this image. So too does the “dear friend” addressee (Coleridge again), in The Prelude, an autobiographical poem that includes, moreover, Wordsworth’s famously perplexing experience of the theatricalized crowd at St Bartholemew’s Fair. Such is the model of reader and reading act implicit in Lamb’s disparagement of the theatre audience’s experience in his essay on Shakespeare. Yet fourteen years later, in the 1825 “Lepus” essay, “Readers Against the Grain,” Lamb laments the rise of an insatiable, monstrous crowd of hypercritical readers, nurtured by the periodical press. To the Lamb of Elia’s time, then, the rise of the magazine reader is as evident of a cultural malaise as the theatricalised crowd. Elia can therefore be seen to represent a re-interpretive amalgam of perhaps Lamb’s two greatest bugbears, the periodical press and the theatre.
It should be added, of course, that the Romantic response to theatre must derive to a degree from conditions at the theatre, that are specific to that period. It seems likely that, in response to changes in the nature of the audience, theatre really had become less conducive to the transmission of the more complex and subtle nuances of drama. Contemporary comment certainly verifies the argument that theatre had changed in order to meet a growing demand for the spectacular. A typical account in 1816, by “Dramaticus,” claims that:
…at theatres where [the public] can neither hear nor see, they must have the stimulus of perpetual and expensive variety to make them come at all, and to keep them in tolerable good humour when they are there; their sense of hearing is only to be gratified by noise, and their sense of seeing by glare.qtd. in Booth et al. VI: 7
The reverse may also be true, that a different type of audience was created out of changes in the organization and physical structure of theatre in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Covent Garden and Drury Lane were enlarged and rebuilt in this period and the minor theatres began to challenge their monopoly, changes that perhaps “necessitated spectacle, performing animals and coarsened acting styles in order that spectators distant from the stage could see and hear properly” (Booth et al. VI: 7). Whatever the reasons, the relatively decorous, classical tradition of theatre epitomised by the elevated style of Charles Kemble, was being eclipsed at this time by a trend for more energetic performance and spectacular entertainment, a trend seemingly reflected in the success of Kean. Theatricality seems to have absorbed the theatre itself, and from such satiety of spectacle, the very act of reading becomes a reaction.
II. Reading versus Spectacle
The arrival of Lamb’s most successful incarnation in the London Magazine in 1820, marks the point at which the author’s attitude to theatre and approach to the essay simultaneously alter. This aesthetic shift is traced through a reading of Lamb’s famously “anti-theatre” essay from 1811, on the performance of Shakespeare’s tragedies, against the presence of a theatrical motif in Elia that extends beyond the content of the essays themselves to the figure’s ontology as periodical text. Lamb’s relatively subdued handling of the essay form in the 1811 text appropriately restricts the essayist’s own egoistic performance, but changes with Elia to a model of self-representation that utilizes elements of theatre previously dismissed as low culture in the essay on Shakespeare.
Four years prior to the essay on Shakespeare, a bias against theatre is implicit in Charles and Mary’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807), a project designed to introduce children to the greatest ever playwright through the erasure of theatre. Equally suggestive is the fact that Lamb himself was a failed playwright, with only one of his four attempts making it onto the stage, a farce called “Mr H-----” which “ran” (at least in Britain) for just the one famously disrupted performance at Drury Lane in December 1806. Perhaps this personal disappointment informs to some degree the stance taken in Lamb’s essay in 1812 for Leigh Hunt’s short-lived magazine The Reflector: “On the Acting of Garrick, and the Plays of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation.” In this essay Lamb famously proposes that the psychological depth and subtlety of tragic characters such as Hamlet and Lear cannot be adequately conveyed by the crude contrivance of theatre. The essay’s negative attitude to the actor’s role is emphasized by a change to the title for the revised Works edition of 1818: the first part of the title-proper, “On Garrick, and Acting,” is removed, to leave a new title that reads “On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, Considered with Reference To Their Fitness for Stage Representation.” Whilst walking in Westminster Abbey, Lamb is struck by the inappropriateness of the “harlequin figure” of the monument to Garrick: “I was not a little scandalized,” Lamb complains, “at the introduction of theatrical airs and gestures into a place set apart to remind us of the saddest realities” (Works 97). The “farrago of false thoughts and nonsense” of the inscription puffs the actor up to the same level of genius as the poet, Garrick being credited with breathing new life into what had become the dead “forms of Shakespeare” (97). This leads Lamb to condemn a metropolitan misappropriation of Shakespeare from Garrick’s day onwards, whereby “every performer in his turn, that has had the luck to please the town in any of the great characters of Shakespeare” is eulogized as “possessing a mind congenial with the poet’s” (Works 97).
Lamb then associates theatre with theatricality, by implying that the former represents little more than an extension of the city’s inane propensity for spectacle. The “juvenile pleasure” Lamb recalls from first seeing Shakespearian tragedy performed by Kemble and Siddons ultimately proves costly, as the experience of the actors’ performance terminally disables his imagination. Like the superficial pleasures of the spectacular city, theatre is a cheap trick that satisfies only temporarily and leaves behind a jaded spectator:
When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in the quest of an unattainable substance.
How cruelly this operates upon the mind, to have its free conceptions thus crampt and pressed down to the measure of a strait-lacing actuality, may be judged from that delightful sensation of freshness, with which we turn to those plays of Shakspeare which have escaped being performed, and to those passages in the acting of the same writer which have happily been left out in the performance.Works 98-9
Hence to Lamb’s famous verdict that “the plays of Shakspeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than almost any other dramatist whatever” (Works 99). Hamlet’s complexity in particular prescribes a sanctified, homogenous relationship between the reader and the anti-theatre text. Almost all of Hamlet’s character, Lamb claims, involves dialogue with himself. If this reduces Hamlet merely “to words for the sake of the reader,” Lamb reasons, then it must be impossible for an actor to project that introspective self to an audience (Works 100). Just as Hamlet’s most profound moments arise from “the effusions of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners, and the most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth,” so the most meaningful engagement with the play, the essay suggests, is to be achieved by retiring away from the theatre and the city to a quiet, secluded environment in which to read the text (Works 100).
Emphasizing the anxiety over mass culture that informs Lamb’s hostility to theatre, is the essay’s curiously elitist notion of the naturalness of Shakespeare’s plays. Lamb is fiercely protective over the plays for being “grounded deep in nature, so deep that the depth of them lies out of reach of most of us” (Works 102). Such a shallow-minded crowd, represented by an ignorant audience for whom the theatre makes only a vulgarized Shakespeare accessible, suggests a post-Garrick society so conditioned by theatre that it is no longer capable of recognizing the human insight a non-performed Shakespeare offers. In this pre-Elian incarnation, therefore, Lamb presents a conservative model of theatre, a plebeian entertainment ideally confined to a legitimized stage without its crass artificiality contaminating public life. The essay implies, then, that the very act of reading has the potential to liberate the individual from the crowd’s ritualistic performances. As will become clear, Lamb’s anti-theatre essay on Shakespeare ironically informs Elia’s readerly theatricality.
By the time of Elia’s arrival in 1820, Lamb’s concerns over theatre had been variously taken up by Hunt, Hazlitt, and Coleridge. Thus, anti-theatre sentiment becomes an identifiable tenet of Romantic criticism. In the case of Hunt and Hazlitt, the animus is focused on the spectacular style of Kean’s Shakespearian roles. In The Examiner for 26 February 1815, visiting a playhouse for the first time since his release from prison to see Kean’s Richard III, Hunt’s expectations that the latest stage sensation would deliver the theatre from “the artificial style of the actors lately in vogue,” are frustrated (II, 20). Kean, whose controversial originality had led Hunt to believe that the actor might do greater justice to Shakespeare’s genius than the classical decorum of the Kemble school, is deemed to be no better than “a first-rate actor of the ordinary stagy class,” who only occasionally touches the “truth and originality” of Richard’s character (II, 21).
In an albeit more favourable response in The Examiner’s review of Kean’s Richard II on 16 March, Hazlitt also echoes Lamb’s sentiments. In addition to Elizabeth Siddons’s, Kean’s is the only exception Hazlitt is prepared to make to an intention never to see Shakespeare acted. Like Lamb, Hazlitt sees the theatre’s instantaneous appeal to the senses rather than the reflective mind as precluding the depth of empathetic experience to be gained only by reading the plays:
Not only are the more refined poetical beauties and minuter strokes of character lost to the audience, but the most striking and impressive passages, those which having once read we can never forget, fail comparatively of their effects except in one or two rare instances indeed. It is only the pantomime part of the tragedy, the exhibition of immediate and physical distress, that which gives the greatest opportunity for ‘inexpressible dumb show and noise’, which is sure to tell, and tell completely on the stage.221-2
In his 1818 lecture on The Tempest, Coleridge adds his name to the anti-theatre lobby, with an assertion that the “sympathetic imagination” is stimulated “from within,” without the aid of stage illusion “where so much is addressed to the mere external senses of seeing and hearing [that] the spiritual vision is apt to languish” (269). Admittedly, for all the unintentionally pantomimic quality of Kean’s tragic performances, Hazlitt does show an appreciation of the actor’s spectacular “energy, ingenuity, and animation” (224). But this is clearly a second-rate success for Hazlitt: Kean only excels within the showy, degraded milieu of contemporary theatre, a (regrettably) dominant world he epitomizes. Yet it is uniquely in Lamb that a shift occurs from writing in resistance to theatre, to the use of theatre in writing against mass culture.
III. Theatricality and Lamb
Theatre in Elia is simultaneously instrumental in self-representation and the representation of metropolitan life. It appears in Elia in three distinct but interrelated ways. The first and simplest is in the six essays that are specifically about the theatre and/or actors: as periodical texts, the titles are “My First Play,” “On Some of the Old Actors” and the two further “Old Actors” essays, “Imperfect Dramatic Illusion,” “Reminiscences of Elliston,” and “Barbara S------.” Although tending towards elegy - for the bygone escapism of artificial comedy against the current trend for domestic melodrama - a deep affection for theatre that is absent from Lamb’s essay on Shakespearian tragedy is evident. Also in this category are the numerous incidental appearances of theatrical subjects in other essays. The latter range from Bridget Elia’s vivid recollection of theatre-going in “Old China,” to the sprinkling of references to, and quotations from, Elia’s favourite plays. Immediately apparent at this level is the unalloyed pleasure the theatre provides, and the sanctuary it affords from the harsher realities, or simply the ennui, of metropolitan life.
The second manifestation of theatre is in the actor-motif that emerges from the various, typically eccentric, characters that populate the essays. Characters like the old clerks of the South-Sea House, “G.D.” (George Dyer) and Elia himself in “Oxford in the Vacation,” the old benchers of the Inner Temple, the counterfeit beggars in “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis,” and the eponymous Captain Jackson, are all linked by a resource for ameliorating drab or otherwise unpromising circumstances with consummate or self-deluding identity-play. “He is the true actor,” Elia claims in the very first essay, “who, whether his part be a prince or a peasant, must act it with like intensity” (“Recollections of the South-Sea House” II: 145). At this level, theatre becomes theatricality on Elia’s terms, by achieving a role beyond the playhouse as an integral and unexpectedly beneficial part of, rather than refuge from, metropolitan life.
The third, existential way is that of Elia’s pervasive presence within the London Magazine. Elia often appears to be an assimilation of Lamb’s earlier ideas to a coherent self, the strength of the ideas deriving less from any intrinsic worth than their function as statements constructive of the Elia character. In the unpublished “Review of the First Volume of Hazlitt’s Table Talk,” Lamb asserts the importance to a “series of miscellaneous essays” of “some pervading character to give a unity to it” (Lamb as Critic 300). In the manner of Montaigne and Johnson, the essayistic character’s obtrusion of his “own particular views” as “universal truths,” is “the charm which binds us to his writings” (300). With Elia, however, Lamb takes such an appeal a stage further to establish an illusion of corporeality, or in Jacobus’s terms, a “metaphysical presence,” which introduces to the author-reader relationship an element of the actor’s relationship to an audience.
This corporeality effect is produced by the frequent evocation of a native presence in the cityscape: at the South-Sea House, the Inner Temple, or Christ’s Hospital, to name but three examples. In “The Old and the New Schoolmaster,” Elia can be found traversing the city by coach, and in “The Superannuated Man” recalling the “Stones of old Mincing Lane which I have worn with my daily pilgrimage [to work] for six and thirty years” (London 10, 72-3). This illusion of bodily presence is similar to what Margaret Russett observes in her likening of the Opium-Eater to Elia as a “magazinist persona,” the “impersonations” of which achieve for its creator the status of “minor author” (122). “Allured by familiar places and objects,” Russett proposes, “the reader’s gaze is arrested just short of full identification by a refusal of contractual presence” - or, the revelation of the author’s true identity (122). The implied metropolitan reader is thus beguiled into an impression of Elia as a real person, as real as the London he supposedly inhabits, and as real, indeed, as the quotidian world to which the reader himself belongs.
Such ontological theatricality actualizes the educative suggestion of the other levels through an implied reader. The placement of the reader in an audience-like mode of perception through the illusion of Elia’s physicality is followed by the narrow materialism of this vision being brought to the reader’s attention. This is achieved by Elia’s various invocations in the essays and elsewhere in the London Magazine of fictive license. One such, titled “Elia to his Correspondents,” appears in November 1821, in the editorial feature, “The Lion’s Head.” Elia responds to a reader - the pseudonym of which, “Peter Ball, or Bell,” suggests the reader’s own construction as a performer in Elia’s identity-play - who queries the changing location in the essays of Elia’s birthplace, or “nativity.” Elia identifies Peter with an “improper” reader-type, and concludes with a defiant message:
To “Indagator,” “Investigator,” “Incertus,” and the rest of the pack, that are so importunate about the true localities of his birth---as if, forsooth, Elia were presently about to be passed to his parish---to all such churchwarden critics he answereth, that, any explanation here given notwithstanding, he hath not so fixed his identity (like a rusty vane) to one dull spot, but that, if he seeth occasion, or the argument shall demand it, he will be born again in future papers, in whatever place, and at whatever period, shall seem good unto him.London IV: 466
Elia’s metropolitan identity-play therefore works to disabuse the implied reader of a reductive empiricism, and, in the process, empower the “minor” periodical author as a phantasmal, emancipatory, presence. Lamb therefore subverts theatricality – the appeal of commonality and the body as spectacle - to redeem the audience-like reader from the theatricalized crowd by making him into a “proper,” imaginative reader. Janet Ruth Heller demonstrates of Lamb’s Shakespeare essay that it is consistent with an overall advocacy of reading as a creative, proactive act, and argues that the essay therefore anticipates seminal twentieth century theories on reader response and film by Wolfgang Iser and Seymour Chatman (115-27). I would add that, through Elia’s implied reader, Lamb puts into practise that which he merely preaches in the essay on Shakespeare.
The difference in attitude towards theatre between the pre-Elian and Elian Lamb, then, inheres in a change of approach to the same fundamental issue, that of the crowd and the mass culture it engenders. The pre-Elian Lamb blames theatre for creating mass culture, whilst the Elian incarnation locates in theatricality a means of salvation. The difference in the essayistic figure, furthermore, reflects the belief behind Elia that the crowd can, and should, be educated, or turned into sympathetic readers. Without Elia’s readerly, ludic selfhood, the earlier Lamb is implicitly not interested in converting readers from the theatricalized mass. For all the Shakespeare essay’s trenchant advocacy of readers over audience members, the relatively remote figure of the essayist suggests he would not have things any other way. He remains aloof by preaching only to the converted, ensuring that a self-justifying distance between high and low culture, or, in John Carey’s terms, “the intellectual and the masses,” is maintained.
Furthermore, the relevance of the essayistic figure to Elia’s subversion of theatricality is emphasized by the uncertain cultural status of the essay. In particular, it is the essay’s intrinsic association with periodical writing, and more broadly, metropolitan commerce, that ensures the condition of dubiety that Lamb enters as an essayist. As Gregory Dart has argued, the Cockney dispute can be viewed as a particularly aggressive expression of the new miscellaneous magazine writer’s discomfort with an indeterminate position between the “cheap, popular ‘flash’” journalism of the day, and the high literary aspiration of “elite” reviews such as the Edinburgh and the Quarterly (147-8). But crucially, instead of exhibiting what Russett terms “professional anxiety” over the fragmentariness, pseudonymity, and ephemerality of the periodical text, Lamb uses Elia to self-reflexively play with these marginalizing conditions and assimilate them to a phantasmal or metaphysical self. As Elia, therefore, Lamb revels in states of impermanent or dubious ontology that are the antithesis of his earlier, unselfconsciously stable and static selfhood in the Shakespeare essay. In the second essay, “Oxford in the Vacation,” in October 1820, Elia makes typically self-deprecating play of his social identity by “confessing” to his fastidious imaginary reader, that in addition to being a periodical essayist, he is himself a day-jobbing clerk: “a votary of the desk---a notched and cropt scrivener---one that sucks his sustenance, as certain sick people are said to do, through a quill” (II: 365). Evidently, theatricality performs a dual function for the Elian Lamb. Not only is it used to oppose instead of express mass culture, but at the same time it enables Lamb himself to avoid stigmatization as a product of that culture. As Elia tells the reader, in “New Year’s Eve,” in one of numerous moments of dramatised evasion: “…if I tread out of the way of thy sympathy, and am singularly-conceited only, I retire, impenetrable to ridicule, under the phantom cloud of Elia” (III: 6).
The Oxford essay features, moreover, perhaps Elia’s most strident statement of emancipative theatricality. Of Oxford, Elia claims that:
I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the Universities …. Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree or standing I please. I seem admitted ad eundum. I fetch up past opportunities.
I can rise at the chapel-bell, and dream that it rings for me. In moods of humility I can be a Sizar, or a Servitor. When the peacock vein rises, I strut a Gentleman Commoner.II: 366
Oblivious to audience, the unspectacular Elia performs purely to himself and for his own benefit. This passage is entirely congruent with an extra-essayistic representation of Elia by a “friend,” Phil-Elia. A promotional mock obituary in January 1823 for the forthcoming volume of collected essays, it attributes to “the late” Elia’ a capacity for “making himself many, or reducing many unto himself” (LM VII: 19). In keeping with the ontological freedom that Elia claims for himself, he is resurrected in several further essays in the London, the next appearing in the same issue under the name “Elia’s Ghost.” Phil-Elia is himself, of course, an example of Elia’s – or is it Lamb’s? – predilection for ludic impersonation. Lamb therefore does not simply perform Elia, but makes Elia himself into a performer of different parts, parts that are not confined, furthermore, to or by the nominal boundaries of the essays. Conceived by a failed dramatist, Elia represents Lamb’s attempt at managing theatre on his own terms: by appropriating theatre’s illusory, emancipative qualities to the unspectacular figure of the periodical essayist.
See above studies by Marc Baer, Elaine Hadley, Jane Moody, and David Worrall.
See Heller (2): Janet Ruth Heller proposes that in the eighteenth century a critical reaction to the increasing trend in theatre towards the spectacular led, in turn, to the growth of a market in “poetic plays” designed solely for readers.”
For a useful summary of how the changing socio-economic climate influenced the theatre and type of audience at this time, see Booth (VI: 3-4).
See Kahan: Kahan indeed observes that Kean’s cultic presence endures to this day, his “fictonal figure” having undergone in recent years a resurrection on stage and screen.
In Ch. 1. The present study is indebted to Epstein Nord’s definition of theatricality in terms of the written text, but clearly diverges from her notion of it as a phenomenon seemingly unrelated to the contemporary actuality itself of late-Georgian theatre.
For a study of the political signification of the crowd in Romantic and early Victorian literature, see John Plotz’s book.
See Newlyn and Barbarese articles. These articles are linked by a notion of Coleridge’s career-long struggle between an ideal notion of intimate reception – encapsulated in the conversation poems - and the felt need to reach as wide an audience as possible. Newlyn, moreover, identifies and debates a “conservative disapprobation of reading-as-consumption” in Coleridge’s prose, which Coleridge blames on “the expansion of reviews, magazines and selections, newspapers and novels” (206-7).
See Burton (238): Burton describes how the audience’s initial enthusiasm for the play suddenly deteriorated: “The audience listened to the play attentively, but at its denouement, when Mr. H’s full name was disclosed [as ‘Hogsflesh’], as Crabb Robinson recalled, “the squeamishness of the vulgar taste in the pit showed itself by hisses.” Dismayed, and then afraid of being recognized as the author, Charles vigorously joined in, “and was probably the loudest hisser in the house.” The remainder of the play was rendered inaudible by barracking from the audience.” Burton also informs us that this critical and financial failure “went hard” with both Charles and Mary.
The majority of the fifty-three essays - and, as is generally accepted, the majority of the best ones – appeared in the London Magazine between 1820 and 1825. However, Lamb realised by 1825 that the London was in decline, and therefore had published a total of nine essays in other magazines. Of the above list, only “Reminiscences of Elliston” appeared in a magazine other than the London, in the short-lived Englishman’s Magazine, in August 1831. For some reason, Lamb had it divided into two separate essays for publication in Last Essays, in 1833: “To the Shade of Elliston,” and “Ellistoniana.” The three “old actors” essays were revised and rearranged for collection in Essays in 1823 as “On Some of the Old Actors,” “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century,” and “On the Acting of Munden.”
Lamb’s review was published for the first time in Park’s edition of the author’s critical writings.
The supposed letter to which Elia responds takes issue with the fact that in “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” (September 1821) Elia declares himself “a Templar Born,” whereas earlier, in “A Chapter On Ears” (March 1821), he had given his birthplace as somewhere near Cavendish Square. Another correspondent is similarly chastised for pointing out the imposture of Elia’s claim in “Christ’s Hospital Thirty-Five Years Ago” (November 1821) that he came from Calne, in Wiltshire. Moreover, Elia’s claim to Genoese ancestry in “A Chapter on Ears” is also challenged. In a letter to John Taylor, (publisher of the London, and editor after Scott’s untimely death), Lamb tells of how he took the name “Elia” from an Italian clerk he had worked with in his brief spell working at the South-Sea House. The fact also that Elia’s name is an anagram of “a lie” – as Lamb himself realised - is, of course, highly appropriate for Lamb’s whole approach to literary identity.
The Romantic anti-theatre aesthetic can be seen, therefore, as the prototype for a literary anxiety over mass culture that Carey attributes to a modernist ideology.
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