In order to get ready for the upcoming production of “De Monfort”, I want to offer the first of two blog posts detailing Joanna Baillie’s complex relationship to the theater and theatrical production.
Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were also struggling to find willing theater managers in the 1790s, Joanna Baillie saw print publication as a potentially useful tool in her pursuit of reaching the stage. Her 1798 Plays of the Passions features her famous “Introductory Discourse,” which discusses “every species of moral writings,” with an emphasis on the “Dramatick” (2). Baillie claims that “Dramatick” writings are vital because theatrical exhibitions appeal to our own “sympathetick propensities” more effectively than any other “species” of writing (2). Furthermore, as Julie Murray observes, Baillie’s “presiding concern in the Plays on the Passions is with the possibility of a theatrical space capable of representing passion in extremis” (1043). In later editions of Plays on the Passions, Baillie added “detailed criticisms of London theaters as physical spaces and systematic technical recommendations (especially about lighting) for their improvement” (Cox & Gamer xiii-xiv). Baillie, therefore, was far from ignorant of the features of stage production.
The decision to publish her plays first, her chosen “mode of publick introduction,” had a clear impact on how her plays were received by her contemporaries and later by literary scholars (65). While Romantic writers like Lord Byron asserted that their plays were written without any intent of stage production, Baillie claims that it would be a mistake to assume that she “had written them [her plays] for the closet rather than the stage” (66). Baillie’s awareness of and interest in the space of the playhouse coupled with the fact that she found success as a published playwright makes defining her relationship to the theater of her time a difficult task. As William D. Brewer, points out, the Plays of the Passions “were widely admired” by Baillie’s contemporaries and “as a published (rather than performed) playwright, she had few rivals” (166). To Byron and Walter Scott, Baillie came to represent “a vital force in a valiant, if failed, attempt to reinvigorate the romantic stage” (Brewer 181). The failure of this “valiant attempt” has led to her plays being interpreted and analyzed as texts.
This blog post seeks to examine the ways in which Baillie characterizes the stage and theatrical spectatorship in order to show what the theater offered her that print could not. Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse” offers instructions not on how to read the Plays on the Passions but how to read them in order to understand why they should be staged. Or, in other words, how they should be read to understand why print is not the best medium of dissemination for them. According to Baillie, print publication and stage production are two different “channels” of “public introduction” (66). Her collection of plays attempts to reverse the usual relationship between these “channels.”
Baillie begins her “Introductory Discourse” with a discussion of public executions in order to explain why spectators are drawn to such grisly events. In doing so, she invokes both Edmund Burke’s 1757 Philosophical Inquiry and Adam Smith’s 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his work, Burke places public execution in competition with “the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have” (26). According to Burke, spectators would fly from the theater in order to witness the execution, thus demonstrating “the comparative weakness of the imitative arts” (26). Unlike Burke, Smith does not use public execution to examine the theater directly but his descriptions of a man mounting the scaffold and the effect his actions have on spectators influence Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse.” Smith claims that when “our brother is upon the rack,” we use our imagination in order to sympathize with him (13). The degree to which spectators sympathize with the condemned man depends upon how he carries himself. Smith claims that if a man is “led out to a public execution, and there shed one single tear upon the scaffold, he would disgrace himself for ever in the opinion of all the gallant and generous part of mankind” (62). Although onlookers would express pity, “they would have no pardon for the man who could thus expose himself in the eyes of the world” and such “behaviour would affect them with shame rather than with sorrow” (62). Smith cites the real life example of the Duke of Biron, who was a fearless warrior on the battlefield but wept as he climbed the scaffold and, according to Smith, lost much favor and sympathy as a result. Sympathetic identification is, for Smith, a two-way street.
Baillie, like Smith, claims that the “multitudes of people” who attend public executions do so not to witness “the sufferings of a fellow-creature,” but to “see a human being bearing himself up under such circumstances” (5). Although spectators most likely cannot see the particular expression on the condemned individual’s face, Baillie states that onlookers do observe whether “the motions of his body denote agitation or calmness; and if the wind does but ruffle his garment, they will . . . read some expression connected to his dreadful situation” (6). Baillie also points out that even those who are too horrified to attend the execution will be “eager to converse with a person who has beheld it; and to learn, very minutely, every circumstance connected with it, except the very act itself of inflicting death” (6). Therefore, according to Baillie, both those who attend the execution and those who want to hear about the event are primarily interested in “every circumstance” about the event other than the spectacle of inflicting death.
For Baillie, the theater is a tool that can foster and influence this “universal desire in the human mind to behold man in every situation” (7). Man’s natural “sympathetick curiosity,” which is “exercised upon mankind in great and trying occasions” like a public execution, leads individuals to seek out “the grand,” “the generous,” and “the terrible” (12). According to Baillie, “In examining others we know ourselves. With limbs untorn, with head unsmitten, with senses unimpaired by despair, we know what we ourselves might have been on the rack, on the scaffold, and in the most afflicting circumstances of distress” (12). Baillie does not condemn the multitudes who attend executions. Instead, she recognizes the need to temper the curiosity that draws spectators to such a “terrible” event. As Barbara Judson notes, Baillie’s concept of “sympathetick curiosity” is “a delight in the study and observation of mankind, motivated on occasion by compassion, but more often by sadism, malice, and rubbernecking” (53). Therefore, for “sympathetick curiosity” to “fulfill its potential as a moral faculty, it must be disciplined by a great national theater” (Judson 53). According to Baillie, the theater can manufacture “grand” and “terrible” “occasions” without the actual tragedy and develop man’s “sympathetick curiosity.”
Perhaps we will see if the theater can function as this “disciplining force” on November 3rd.
–Randall A. Sessler
 Catherine B. Burroughs has redefined the concept of the “closet” drama in order to approach Baillie’s plays in terms of current feminist and queer approaches to literature and performance. See Burroughs’s Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). Furthermore, Burroughs also points out that some of Baillie’s dramas were staged in the “private theatricals” of the upper class. For a full discussion of this form of “staging” see “Chapter Five: Private Theatricals and Baillie’s The Tryal,” pages 143-168.
Baillie, Joanna. “Introductory Discourse.” A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate The Stronger Passions of the Mind. Each passion being the subject of A Tragedy and A Comedy. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1798. Web. 18 Feb. 2012.
Brewer, William. “Joanna Baillie and Lord Byron.” Keats-Shelley Journal 44 (1995): 165-181. Web. 17 Jan. 2013.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. London: R. and J. Dosley, 1757. Print.
Burroughs, Catherine B. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1997. Print.
Cox, Jeffrey N., and Michael Gamer. Introduction. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2003. Print.
Judson, Barbara. “”Sympathetic Curiosity”: The Theater of Joanna Baillie.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 25.1 (2006): 49-70. Print.
Murray, Julie. “Governing Economic Man: Joanna Baillie’s Theatre of Utility.” Elh 70.4 (2003): 1043-65. Print.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.