Science Fiction and Techno-Gothic Drama: Romantic Playwrights Joanna Baillie and Jane Scott[Notice]

  • Marjean D. Purinton

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  • Marjean D. Purinton
    Texas Tech University

Early nineteenth-century British drama reflects its linkage with the culture's preoccupations with science and medicine. Science did, in fact, take form in the theatre, where production strategies were shaped by the machinery of staging enhanced and encoded with scientific discoveries. Conversely, theatre was appropriated by science as the actual site for staging experiments and displays. Since the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle's demonstrations for students were staged as anatomical theatres of medicine with formalized and regularized performances. Staged dissections functioned in spectacularly pedagogical ways in science's institutional training. Scientific and pseudo-scientific interests were theatricalized in other public but non-dramatic forms, such as traveling and raree shows, itinerant lectures and demonstrations, extravagant displays and exhibitions, and forums at the Royal College of Surgeons. Romantic drama that took on fantastical and spectacular forms was informed by science, and this interconnectedness between theatre and science may explain the predominance of gothic and melodrama. Staged as gothic, seemingly natural elements associated with science and medicine were technologically designed and manipulated to create a world of illusions and phantasmagoria. Both gothic and science were discursive fields upon which anxieties about social identity and physicality could be displaced, and the gothic conventions of drama were particularly convenient for playwrights' use in negotiating the influences of science upon culture. I use the term "techno-gothic" to describe Romantic drama's performance of science and the supernatural—or technology and gothic. Techno-gothic is an ideologically charged and melodramatic structure in which disturbing issues and forbidden experiences characteristic of gothic are recontextualized by the period's pursuit of science. Techno-gothic drama is, in fact, a product of the Romantic revolution in science. A hybrid genre, techno-gothic drama constitutes an incipient "science fiction"—theatrical, and therefore fictive, representations of science. While we often think of the period's fiction writers as originators of science fiction, and some scholars point specifically to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, I argue that roots of Romantic science fiction are also located in its techno-gothic drama written by women before 1818. The British stage and novel of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shared speculative fictions. Stories of supernatural fiction were dramatized; similarly, gothic mechanisms, tropes, and characters of fiction became the elements of gothic drama. The theatrical representations of speculative fictions were, however, equally significant to the production, popularization, and commercialization of gothic and science. Reading techno-gothic drama informs our understanding of the eclectic cultural and conceptual pressures that generated "science fiction." In Romantic drama, techno-gothic was expressed in two popular forms—grotesques and ghosts. The techno-gothic grotesque embodied a discursively constructed monster or aberration. On stage, the Bakhtinian body of becoming, process, and change, with its carnivalesque associations, excited pleasure and terror in its horrific physicality. Physicality offered a way of performing preoccupations with the body, its anatomy, its physiology, its potential for disease and deformity, its propensity for physical disabilities and socio-sexual transgressions. The techno-gothic grotesque makes visible the threatening "other," simultaneously disturbing and appealing. The techno-gothic grotesque staged what science could explain, produce, or transform on a fictive, performing body. The techno-gothic ghost, on the other hand, offered a vehicle for performing disembodiment. Technologically designed special effects of the stage stimulated the imagination to contemplate the absence of substance, religious and pagan spirits, metaphysics, inchoate psychology and neurology—areas which science sought to explain. By manipulating the ways light bounced from a polished and curved plane, for example, production managers could create optical effects. Spectators looking into a mirror could be terrified at the appearance floating upon its surface, a phantom signifying fictions generated by both superstition and science. The presence of techno-gothic spirits excited much controversy in their …

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