Corps de l’article
It is a truth universally acknowledged that romantic theatre and drama are today no longer considered a waste of a publisher's resources. But what can one learn about the scholarly interest in theatre, drama, and performance in the British romantic period from three books published within the same year? Is there an intellectual trend or merely a market vacuum waiting to be filled? How does scholarship on this subject reveal strategies emerging in scholarly work generally?
The recent books by Catherine Burroughs, William Jewett, and Judith Pascoe are each grounded in thorough historical and textual scholarship and therefore share a kind of solid scholarly respectability. Each adds to our understanding of how one might interpret the largely underinterpreted intersection of romanticism and drama/performance studies, because any thorough, rigorous scholarship on romantic drama and performance is likely to illuminate previously unlit corners of early nineteenth-century British dramatic writing and its surrounding cultures. Various topics or approaches link the books: inquiry into how gender and performance interact (Pascoe and Burroughs); examination of crises in the thought of high romanticism (Jewett and Pascoe); exploration of the significance of the dramatic closet (Jewett and Burroughs); and attempts to create new paradigms for studying the romantic period and redefining the canon we study (Jewett, Pascoe, and Burroughs) And yet, the differences between these books are quite striking for each has different purposes in mind and therefore works with its historical and textual materials in distinct ways.
Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency
William Jewett sets out to make the case that high romantic dramatic writing is not, as has often been argued in the past, an unfortunate generic accident—a case of great poets foolishly choosing a genre in which they were ill-equipped to write well. Rather, romantic drama represents a complex engagement with a genre—the play-to-be-read or closet drama—that these poets chose precisely because of the complex problems of agency that such a form allowed them to explore in relation to their publics. While Jewett is not unaware of the complex and fraught relationship that writers like Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron had with the idea of their plays being performed in the theatre, he suggests that it is precisely in the form of the "read play" that their explorations of agency most effectively problematize their own agency and performance as writers in relation to Britain's politics.
Jewett's readings of The Fall of Robespierre & Wat Tyler, The Borderers, Osorio & Remorse, The Cenci, Marino Faliero, and Charles the First & The Triumph of Life are rigorous and find much new to say about the dramaturgical strategies of these "dramatic" works and about their development within the histories of their respective authors. For Jewett, romantic writers found in drama a genre suited to their particular crisis of agency: "[D]rama asks us—as lyric and narrative do not—to take pieces of language for persons, forcing us—out of a puzzlement that is inherently moral—to confront the ways in which our language grants us agency" (ix). Relocating the works of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth within particular social and political contexts, Jewett teases out the complex acts of self-staging that these dramatic works represent, turning away from readings of these works that treat them as, in a sense, authored by social conditions. For example, in his reading of The Borderers, Jewett provocatively shows that we might see the play as Wordsworth's attempt "to express himself . . . to secure a space of inconsequence or neutrality for his own compulsive doubt to run wild, so that it will not express itself as Rivers's does" (61). The plays of high romanticism's first generation are revealed to be historically situated and psychologically conflicted literary and political performances.
When Jewett turns to the second generation of romantics, he finds new ways of reading familiar texts not through more careful historical contextualization than has often been attempted but rather through detailed attention to dramaturgical structures and their potential significance. If he rescues the first generation's dramatic writings from a critical tendency to treat them as comfortably psychological studies of character, he saves the second generation's dramas from being read merely as political pieces by emphasizing some of the complex dramaturgical and linguistic strategies in which Byron and particularly Shelley engage:
Shelley uses dramatic character as a laboratory for studying the agencies of social change as they might develop in isolation from the social constraints that would otherwise bind them. His use of generic convention reveals this exploratory motive. . . . The Cenci pursues Shelley's concern with the agencies of historical progress by giving sustained attention to just those jagged seams where personal (or lyric) agencies of change run up against social (or dramatic) constraints.137
Despite the thoroughness of Jewett's readings and the value of his exploration of the importance of dramatic forms to the political and social thought of major romantic writers, his disclaimer early in the book concerning his decision to sidestep theatre history creates a substantial problem for the book's central premises. Jewett writes,
I have chosen not to emphasize the relations between this largely unperformed canon of plays and the theatrical world of early nineteenth century London. . . . The poets I consider certainly thought about the skills of specific players and about the conventions dictated by huge patent theaters when they contemplated yielding their words to the public embodiment projected by dramatic form.4
While it is certainly a critic's privilege, especially when the decision is openly acknowledged, to focus his study on a particular approach to the works at hand, a profound ideological tautology is introduced into the book by accepting both a canon and a method of inquiry handed down by scholarly practices that have long been under the influence of high romantic paradigms of literariness and social thought.
Because Jewett frames out of his study the particulars of stage history, his exploration of these poets' thinking and dramaturgical strategies takes place under self-imposed laboratory conditions within which the complex influence of social and theatrical performance on what these writers thought about ideas like "action" is put aside as though it could have been merely a matter of a choice that they considered but avoided. As studies like Iain McCalman's Radical Underworld and Gillian Russell's The Theatres of War have shown, politics and performance cannot be neatly divided in this period, neither in their embodied reality nor in their imaginative echoes in the works of writers of the period. Jewett's decision and disclaimer, however, posit that such a clean division is at least a workable scholarly strategy, but the result of his cropping of the evidence surrounding these writers is that key terms in his analysis of why these writers adopted a non-embodied form of dramaturgy—terms such as "body"—come to seem mere cardboard cutouts that function as counterpoints to the more real complexities of the philosophical and political concepts with which these writers deal in their writing in dramatic forms. If Jewett's study considered how messy bodily contexts influenced the decision by these writers to disembody their dramas, it might be able to analyze fewer texts, but it would offer richer models for a new kind of criticism of romantic drama. (Imagine if Jewett's sharp readings of Wordsworth's self-staging in The Borderers could incorporate Judith Pascoe's work on Wordsworth's bodily performance of romantic authenticity.) In spite of its theoretical interest in rethinking a genre trivialized precisely by typical scholarly practices, Jewett's study accepts too easily the conveniently boundaried theatre in which professional literary scholarship typically performs while keeping theatrical and social performances offstage.
Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship
Pascoe's study sets out to show that "theatricality," rather than being an alternative to romantic "authenticity," can more productively be viewed as a widespread sensitivity and strategy that produced both anxiety and exploration in the period's written and social styles. Positioning William Wordsworth as the marker of the "anti-theatrical" or authentic strain in romantic poetry and culture, Pascoe sets out to show both how theatricality as a set of metaphors and strategies circulated throughout social life and poetry of the period and how even Wordsworth's style was carefully cultivated and enacted. As a result, Pascoe's book aims to "examine the performative aspects of early romantic literary culture as a whole" and rather than considering "women writers' overtly theatrical self-representations as a deviation from the norm, or as a falling-off from a standard of sincerity" to see "theatricality" as a continuum on which poetic and social performances can be seen as sharing common strategies of artifice.
Pascoe's approach leads her to come at the issues raised by theatricality from several different angles. She develops a series of examples from romantic society and poetics in order to show that theatricality was understood to be a common, though sometimes controversial, part of how the culture thought of forms of public self-presentation. In two detailed examples, Pascoe examines the 1794 treason trials and Della Cruscan poetry, each from different areas of life in the period yet both revealing that key performers and the periodical press were sensitive to the theatricality of enacting emotion convincingly. Pascoe notes that "theatricality" as strategy and site of criticism recurs repeatedly in comments on the performances of Thomas Erskine, the chief defense counsellor at the treason trials, in reviews of the Della Cruscans and of women's poetry generally, and within the self-authorizing claims of authenticity of Wordsworthian romanticism: "The pairing of theatrical strategem with antitheatrical attacks on the opposition matches the odd attraction-revulsion relationship to theatricality which permeates the founding documents of romanticism" (65). Thus, a discourse about theatricality is shown to emerge repeatedly and to apply pressure to many different performances in the period.
Perhaps the most central concern of Pascoe's book emerges through her sustained exploration of gender and theatricality. By offering interpretations of the reception of the gendered performances of Sarah Siddons and Marie Antoinette, Pascoe establishes a context for her study of the poetic performances of several key women poets of the early romantic era, including Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Hannah Cowley, Letitia Landon, and Jane Taylor. Pascoe's analysis of the performances of these women poets is, however, always juxtaposed with her ongoing inquiry into the performance of romantic authenticity exemplified by William Wordsworth. For Pascoe, Wordsworth engages in a sustained and multifaceted self-performance through which he creates himself as the centerpiece of a non-theatrical romanticism. She provides detailed readings of portraits of Wordsworth and of his written self-characterizations. Her sustained counterpoint to the Wordsworthian style is Mary Robinson, whose poetic performances Pascoe traces from her participation in Della Cruscan poetry on through to her writing of poetry for the Morning Post. Robinson's theatricality, seen in the new context that Pascoe establishes, comes to seem a richly complex form of cultural strategy influenced by her awareness of the meaning of her gender, of her own specific personal history (as the Prince of Wales' former lover), and of the nature of periodical writing in general and poetry in particular. Wordsworth's insistent attempts to unify his persona look, in comparison to Robinson's performances, like a somewhat more anxious yet no less theatrical approach to poetic self-creation.
While Pascoe's book provides links between its distinct section, its central topic comes to seem more of a structural convenience than a convincing central idea. Because Pascoe loosely collects instances of "romantic theatricality," I had to wonder whether there was any coherent collection of phenomenon that deserved to be grouped together as "romantic theatricality." In a sense, the only unified "theatricality" I found myself able to believe in as the book worked its illuminating way through many different kinds of examples was a theatricality that was primarily a discursive counterpoint to "romantic authenticity." But if the pervasive theatricality that Pascoe investigates is mainly just a way of reading the reverse side of a romantic ideology, she has done little more than challenging high romanticism's claims while keeping it central (if more inclusive and complex). Why not ask what kinds of "romantic theatricalities" there were, dwelling on the differences that Pascoe notices and studying more closely the implications of different strategies—such as Wordsworth's authenticity and Robinson's evasive variety. The question, ultimately, is not whether romanticism was theatrical, but rather what it did by being theatrical in one way or another—and for that matter what we scholars do by allying ourselves with one or the other of its forms of performance. Pascoe's book invites us to ask this next set of questions, but the structure of her study seems to limit her own ability to say more about how each of these varied theatricalities provided a more inclusive romanticism with a range of possible effects.
Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers
Catherine Burroughs' book attempts to map a discursive space boundaried by private theatricals, by the ground that connects closets to performances and gender to performance, and by new paradigms of theatrical theory. Burroughs's purpose is not merely to show us this space itself, but to make us aware of the importance of such a space so that we can then understand the position that Joanna Baillie might come to occupy in a new vision of the history of dramaturgy and of women writers.
Burroughs, questioning several paradigms concerned with our assumptions about theatre theory and performance's role in public and private spaces, explores in particular the ways women understand their social and theatrical performances, touching on the importance of women actors and in particular (like Pascoe) on the performances of Sarah Siddons. By tracing women's particular sensitivity to nuanced performances of gender, Burroughs shows that important theoretical moments in women's writing and thinking might be recovered by reexamining where we look for "theatre theory." Burroughs deliberately connects social to theatrical performance, demonstrating why, in the case of women's writing on performance, neglect of alternative forms of theorizing about performance results in a failure to sample a full range of positions. As Burroughs pointedly notes, "[A]n exploration of the discourse that concerns acting in social theaters provides an important context for understanding why much of women's theater theory is often structured by the opposition between the public stage and the private closet" (17). Within a gendered system of performances, women's "theater theory" provides an important point of view on how varied social performances function in the culture's staging of itself.
I have suggested that Burroughs' discussion locates Joanna Baillie's plays and prefaces in a central position in relation to the kinds of performance issues the book explores. Burroughs does not just read Baillie's writing as important in relation to already established discourses about women's writing and romanticism, but instead she places Baillie within a context that can only be fully understood when Baillie's work is given full consideration. As Burroughs seems to understand, the terms by which Baillie's plays can be understood to be important as more than recovered artifacts need to be constructed. As a result of this elaborate context setting, Closet Stages, when it finally turns directly to Baillie's plays and prefaces in chapters three, four, and five provides readings that not only make obvious Baillie's importance to dramaturgical and women's historiography but also suggest the ways that a fully explored counter-tradition could be described without seeming to turn it into a minority form of dissent. In the context of this study, Baillie seems to write out of a set of traditions of women's thought about performance that Burroughs has sketched, but Burroughs' study invites us to further explore the formulation and transmission of these traditions without limiting ourselves to the terms and practices that have defined the high romantic literary tradition.
Because Burroughs repositions many of the ideas about romanticism, drama, and performance that are frequently mentioned in studies of this newly emergent field of inquiry, her study shifts scholarly paradigms in ways that raise questions for both Jewett's and Pascoe's books. Burroughs' rethinking of the relationship between "the closet" and "performance" can enrich our perspective on Jewett's readings of non-theatrical dramas, suggesting that these plays were probably written in relation to a much more varied idea of performance than a simply "theatrical" or "non-theatrical" model might suggest. Burroughs' exploration of the cultures of women's performances adds further detail to the kinds of theatricalities that Pascoe's women poets might have been writing from, suggesting that along with publicly acknowledged theatrical figures like Marie Antoinette and Sarah Siddons, common structures of performance from private theatricals to a woman writer's awareness of gender's performative elements probably influenced and were exploited by these poets. While all three books seek to revise the ways we think about romanticism in relation to its performances and dramaturgies, Burroughs' most directly confronts the implications of a change of paradigms for a contemporary scholar's methods, for disciplinary boundaries, and even for the structure of a published scholarly study.
Conclusion: Discursive Birth Pangs
If we view these three books as evidence of changing scholarly concerns, we see how hard it is to structure a book that asks paradigm-shifting questions. Each of the books has roped off a section of turf where romanticism and performance or dramaturgy intersect, but each faces considerable challenges in shaping its materials. Jewett's book is structured by its choice of dramatic texts, but struggles to sustain a throughline that would make convincing its claims about the importance of romanticism's exploration of agency through dramatic form. Though the book ends with the provocative implication that Shelley may have ended his life because of a confrontation with autonomy produced by the writing of The Triumph of Life, Jewett's ending seems loosely connected to the readings offered in early chapters. Pascoe's book centers on a concept—romantic theatricality—that is weakened by its being stretched across such a wide range of phenomenon. As a result, some of its readings of particular theatricalities hit home less powerfully than they might. Burroughs, too, for all her book's strategic positioning of contextual materials in order to create an important position for Baillie, seems to come up short of a conclusion in her final chapter.
I draw attention to these structural difficulties in the three books not because I believe the writers have failed either in developing important and compelling work nor in shaping their work carefully. Rather, I want to suggest that what structural gaps and irresolution signify in recent writing on romanticism, drama, and performance is that scholars are building a set of discourses that may not be compatible with the disciplinary structures, scholarly arguments, and forms of publication that have become naturalized in academic work in the humanities. It may be that writing a book on romanticism, drama, and performance is as complex and daunting a task for contemporary scholars as writing a play was for romantic poets. We should, therefore, value all the more the important work that William Jewett, Judith Pascoe, and Catherine Burroughs and their respective publishers have produced because their books, like romantic dramas and performances, are not seamless .
Romantic Circles Review of Catherine Burrough's book