Orality vs. “Orality Effects”

I am currently working on converting the ideas in this post, which are drawn from my research, into an article. I hope you find the topic to be engaging. Let me know in the comments if you are intrigued, have other case studies / examples, or any other thoughts!

Evidence for the Romantic period’s elevation of poetry’s notionally oral roots is seemingly everywhere. From the ballad collections of Bishop Percy and Francis James Child to Wordsworth’s claim that the poet is a “man speaking to men” in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (my emphasis 110) to G. W. F. Hegel’s assertion that poetry was meant to be spoken and was the most “perfect” form of art because it relied upon the least amount of physical material. Deviating from Deconstructionist approaches, Maureen N. McLane’s recent work nuances the written-oral binary by observing that poets during the Romantic era “turned to the sophisticated resources of print culture to satiate the nostalgia for a poetry and an epoch that preceded print,” resulting in what she terms “a new literary orality” (425). For McLane, “It was not of course orality per se but rather a variety of orality effects that these poets strove to attain” (425). These “orality effects” include the use of the ballad form, the “encounters” that are “modeled as embodied exchanges of speech” in Lyrical Ballads (438), and William Blake’s desire to “conjure and critique the primary world of pipers, lambs, and children” in Songs of Innocence (432).

The recitations of their own work before publication, then, would seem to offer poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge the opportunity to express this “nostalgia” on a personal level and draw attention to the performative history of their own poetry. Both poets, however, worked to hide their recitations from their reading public. For example, over a series of evenings in December 1806, Wordsworth read the poem that would come to be known as The Prelude aloud to a group of family and friends, including Coleridge. Moved by the performance of his friend, Coleridge wrote his “To William Wordsworth, Composed on the night after his recitation of a Poem on the Growth of an Individual Mind.” When Wordsworth heard that Coleridge intended to publish the poem, he wrote his friend, urging him to reconsider. Wordsworth’s objections to the proposed publication reveal his awareness of the effects of the medium in which his work circulated, his awareness and anxiety that Coleridge, as an auditor and spectator, experienced his poem in a way that the reader would not.

Coleridge’s famous recitations of “Kubla Khan” and the poem’s subsequent publication further expose the Romantic privileging of print. All who heard Coleridge recite his poem before its eventual publication in 1816 left in awe. Therefore, it is telling that the preface to the published version of the poem makes no mention of this circulation history. Rather, the poet returns his readers to the moment of composition, to the moment that “Kubla Khan” – although, according to the preface, only partially – was literally put on paper. When the harsh reviews of the published version came out, Coleridge responded in the conclusion to Biographia Literaria, which was published in 1817. There, the poet uses “Kubla Khan” as a sort of medial cautionary tale, warning his fellow poets against assuming that the response the recitation of a poem receives is an accurate barometer for how the same work will be read as a print publication.

I hope my work will show that despite Romanticism’s celebration of poetry’s notionally oral roots and “orality effects,” actual recitations emerged as the potentially problematic rivals to their printed counterparts.

Yours in Romanticism,
Randall Sessler

Works Cited:

McLane, Maureen N. “Ballads and Bards: British Romantic Orality.” Modern Philology 98.3. (2001): 423-443. JSTOR. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Wordsworth, William & Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800. Ed. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter. Peterborough (Ontario, Canada): Broadview, 2008. Print.

Review of Red Bull Theater’s Staged Reading of De Monfort by Joanna Baillie

Review of Red Bull Theater’s Staged Reading of De Monfort by Joanna Baillie

Directed by Sari Ketter
Revelation Readings at Red Bull Theater
Playwrights Horizons Theater, 416 W 42nd St, NYC
November 3, 2014

Cast List
Jerome Raphael Nash Thompson
Manuel Bill Buell
De Monfort Christopher Innvar
Countess Freburg /Abbess Caitlin O’Connell
Count Freburg Tom Nelis
Jacques/Count Waterlan/Brother Thomas Joe Penczak
Rezenvelt Robert Sella
Page/Conrad /Officer Gregory Sullivan
Jane De Monfort Christina Rouner
Gentleman/Brother Bernard Daniel K. Isaac
Theresa/Lay Sister Susanna Stahlmann
Stage Directions Jacob Perkins
Musicians Charles Dolph (voice), Ethan Philion (double bass)

On 3 November 2014, Red Bull Theater and the English Department of New York University produced a staged reading of Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort, followed Q&A session. One of the earliest of Baillie’s plays on the passions, De Monfort is perhaps her best-known dramatic work.

De Monfort possesses the gothic tone and plot elements so popular on stage in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and the actors met the challenge of bringing these elements to life. As the Count and Countess Freburg, Tom Nelis and Caitlin O’Connell provided an amusing comic counterpoint to the gloomy depression of Christopher Innvar (De Monfort). Christina Rouner (Jane De Monfort) used movement and blocking to good effect in Act II, pacing along the stage and kneeling before Innvar to convey the emotional intensity of Jane’s plea for her brother to confess his trial. That scene, in which De Monfort confesses his hatred of Rezenvelt and begs his sister not to withdraw her love, commanded the audience’s attention. In Act II Robert Sella (Rezenvelt) similarly employed movement about the stage to gracefully portray the shift from forgiveness to sincerely offered friendship to miffed rejection in response to De Monfort’s acknowledgment of fault.

The director, Sari Ketter, placed more emphasis on movement and blocking than is common in readings. While it was a surprise, it was also done largely to good effect, especially considering the single rehearsal before performance. Ketter also chose to incorporate music during the reading of stage directions at the opening of each scene. Through most of the play, the string music and vocals effectively contributed to a sense of each scene, providing light party music at the opening of Act II for the Freburg’s ball and haunting, gothic tones at the transition to Act V, in which De Monfort murders Rezenvelt in the forest outside a convent. Act V began with juxtaposed monologues from Innvar (De Monfort) and Sella (Rezenvelt), in which the string musician provided sound effects mimicking the owl hooting referenced by each of them; in this moment, the sound effect may have leant too far toward the stagy and humorous to maintain the serious tone of Romantic gothic drama.

In the Q&A following the performance, Red Bull director Jesse Berger, director Sari Ketter, and English scholars Tara Menon and Veronica Goosey from NYU discussed the play with the audience. Menon and Goosey provided context, discussing Baillie’s life, the series of plays on the passions, De Monfort’s performance history, and wider issues like sympathy and the incest trope. Ketter discussed the process of cutting the play and adding music. She consistently cut from the stage directions, as Baillie often employed them to convey her directorial thoughts on delivery.

In comparison to previous choices for collaborative production (Sardanapalus, Prometheus Unbound), De Monfort succeeded very well as a physical representation of the drama. The actors brought out the play’s humor while maintaining the seriousness of Baillie’s investigation of hatred. At one point in Act II, toward the end of Innvar and Rouner’s intense discussion of how to control strong negative feelings, Bill Buell (Manuel) enters, whistling, to announce another character’s presence, and exits without ever stopping his movement upon his master’s dismissal, introducing a moment of levity to ease the heavily charged scene. Ketter’s directorial decisions and the actors’ skill combined to bring to life a play which has been too long away from the stage.

Veronica Goosey

Closet or Playhouse? Baillie’s Ideal Dramatic Space

Stuart Curran has described Joanna Baillie as exerting “the most direct practical and theoretical force on serious drama written during the Romantic period.”[i] Yet for such an important playwright, her work rarely appeared on stage. Of her numerous plays, only six were performed in major playhouses during her life, and of those, only three made it into the patent theaters.[ii] Baillie’s contemporary, Elizabeth Inchbald, whose plays regularly appeared at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, wrote that Baillie’s drama “is both dull and highly improbable in the representation . . . its very charm in the reading militates against its power in the acting.”[iii] So why would a writer, receiving such backhanded compliments from those who profess to admire her plays, continue to seek out the stage?

For Baillie, the answer lies at least partly in her theory of theater. As noted in an earlier post by Randall Sessler, according to Baillie the theater provides a space capable of representing the extremes of passion, for the purpose of educating people about human nature. According to Baillie, man’s natural “sympathetick curiosity” drives us to examine each other, since “In examining others we know ourselves.”[iv] Baillie argues that “It is only from creatures like ourselves that we feel, and therefore, only from creatures like ourselves that we receive the instruction of example.”[v] Thus, dramatic literature, and especially tragedy, is the most efficacious form of literature for moral education, since it allows for performance, which provides a form of bodily presence and immediacy unavailable to other mediums.

Baillie explicitly describes the theater as “a school in which much good or evil may be learned,” and writes her dramas with an eye toward performance, aiming to use the theater as a tool to guide and focus this “universal desire in the human mind to behold man in every situation.”[vi] In her attempt to use the stage as a forum for moral education, Baillie makes it a space for the dissection of strong passions, for man’s education in his own nature.

The upcoming staged reading of De Monfort by Red Bull Theater promises to combine the “charm” Inchbald found in Baillie’s language with the close examination of passion Baillie felt was best presented by trained actors in the “school” of the theater. We invite you all to join us Monday, November 3!

~Veronica Goosey

[i] Curran, Stuart. “Romantic Poetry: The ‘I’ Altered,” in Anne K. Mellor, ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988, 186.
[ii] De Monfort played at Drury Lane in 1800 and 1821. Constantine appeared in 1808 in Liverpool and in 1817 at the Surrey Theatre in London. The Election, revised as an opera, ran at the Lyceum Theatre in 1817. The Family Legend payed in Edinburgh in 1810. The Separation was staged at Covent Garden in 1836, the same year Henriquez  appeared at Drury Lane.
[iii] Donkin, Ellen. Getting Into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776-1829. London: Routledge, 1995, 163.
[iv] Baillie, Joanna. “Introductory Discourse” in Peter Duthie, ed. Plays on the Passions. Ontario: Broadview, 2001. 74.
[v] Ibid. 87
[vi] Ibid. 104, 70.

In a World of Men: Gender in Baillie’s De Monfort

At first glance, Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort seems primarily concerned with male characters and masculinity. The play centers on the conflict between the title character and his antagonist, Rezenvelt. Over the course of the play, Baillie explores the “raging passion”—“black, lasting, deadly hate”—De Monfort feels for his peer. While De Monfort, like the other Plays on the Passions, is a sustained exploration of human psychology, the play also stages, via its depiction of the relationship between the two men, the conflict between a declining aristocracy and the rising middle class. In the introduction to the Broadview edition of the Plays on the Passions, Peter Duthie suggests De Monfort’s hatred for Rezenvelt is motivated by the ease with which Rezenvelt rises through the ranks and De Monfort’s consequent anxiety concerning the tenuousness of his social position. De Monfort’s masculine rage, his hatred, is driven by class antagonism. In short, the relationship between the men in Baillie’s play stands for tension between the classes.

As a solution of sorts, Baillie offers a female character: Jane De Monfort. Jane, De Monfort’s sister, is universally admired, even idolized, by the characters in the play. Count Freburg praises her “native dignity of worth,” her “noble grace”; even a page who has met her for the first time is struck by how Jane is “so queenly, so commanding, and so noble.”

Overwhelmingly virtuous, Jane stands, in distinction from her dissolute male counterparts, as a moral paragon. In “Class, Gender, and Social Motion in Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort,” Daniel Watkins argues that, after the death of the two primary male characters, “Jane’s character gradually begins to represent, in idealized form, an individualism and subjectivity over and against aristocratic and religious structures of value—to display, that is, bourgeois sensibilities shorn of the ugliness associated with Rezenvelt’s character.” The play closes with an image of Jane surrounded by friends and servants offering, Christ-like, blessings to all.

As utopian alternative to the bitter battle that rages to the death of the male protagonist and his rival, Joanna Baillie gives her audience Jane, a generous, compassionate woman. As the story goes, Sarah Siddons, the most famous tragic actress of the century urged Baillie to “Make me some more Jane De Monforts.” This demand, from one woman making her way in the male-dominated world of the 18th century theatre, is unsurprising.

~Tara Menon

De Monfort publication and reception history

De Monfort is part of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, a larger dramatic project with volumes published in 1798, 1802, 1812, and 1836. The play was published in the first volume of Plays on the Passions (1798) along with Count Basil, The Tryal and her dramatic theory as outlined in an “Introductory Discourse” Randie discussed in last week’s posts. In her “Introductory Discourse,” Baillie provides her theorization of the psychological workings of stage representation and the social function of the theater. She describes her project as a series of paired tragedies and comedies, “in which the chief object should be to delineate the progress of the higher passions in the human breast.” The “higher passions,” or intense emotions, for which she wrote associated plays include love, hate, fear, hope, ambition, jealousy, and remorse.  Count Basil and The Tryal are Baillie’s tragedy and comedy on love, and De Monfort is Baillie’s tragedy concerning hatred.

While Baillie’s plays were published in several editions and consistently won critical acclaim, De Monfort  is one of only a few of her plays that were professionally performed. Although the plays were sometimes performed in provincial theaters and more often as part of private theatricals, only a few plays had short runs in the patent theaters. De Monfort was performed at Drury Lane Theater in London twice in Baillie’s lifetime. It opened on 29 April 1800 and ran for eight nights with John Kemble and Sarah Siddons playing De Monfort and his sister Jane. The play was revived for a five-night run in 1821 with Edmond Kean in the title role. Contemporary theatrical reviews from the Dramatic Censor claim “the Piece wants interest—it wants variety—it wants activity—it is too barren of incident,” but this criticism must be considered in the context of the spectacular sets, live animals, and musical effects of the melodramas which were the period’s most popular stage performances. Nevertheless, it seems from the short runs that a play which succeeded both commercially and critically in print received a rather lukewarm reception on stage. Hopefully, the play’s focus on a single character’s development (or devolution) and streamlined plot will play well as a staged reading.

~Veronica Goosey

Baillie’s “contemplative” and “untutored” spectators

I would like to build on some observations made in my previous post regarding Joanna Baillie’s theorizations of the communal space of the theater and her representation of spectators.

According to Baillie, the theater allows spectators to observe each other’s responses to what is transpiring on the stage. For Baillie, “The impressions made by it [dramatick writing] are communicated, at the same instant of time, to a greater number of individuals, than those made by any other species of writing; and they are strengthened in every spectator, by observing the effects upon those who surround him” (21). Baillie believes that the “impressions” of a given play reach a large audience immediately and are “strengthened” by observing the reactions of one’s fellow spectators. It is important to recognize, however, that although Baillie celebrates the position of the spectator, she is not unaware of the potential passivity that earlier writers such as Rousseau and Burke caution against. She expresses concern that “the studios man who wants cessation from thought” or “the indolent man” may attend the theater and be “pleased with an amusement in which they have nothing to do but open their eyes and behold” (18). A man of “contemplative character,” in contrast, “partakes, in some degree, of the entertainment of the Gods, who were supposed to look down upon this world and the inhabitants of it, as we do upon a theatrical exhibition” (7). The theater places the “contemplative” spectator in a position of privilege and judgment.

Furthermore, this privileged position, as Baillie makes clear, is open to more classes of people than literature. Baillie argues that like ballads, a good drama has the potential to reach the lower classes. According to Baillie, “A play, but of small poetical merit, that is suited to strike and interest the spectator, to catch the attention of him who will not, and of him who cannot read, is a more valuable and useful production than one whose elegant and harmonious pages are admired in the libraries of the tasteful and refined” (66). Baillie also claims that “to have the approbation of my countrymen” would be “more pleasing than any other praise” (66). She locates her fellow countrymen not in libraries or among the best educated, but among the lower working classes. It is the applause of “the spontaneous” and “untutored plaudits” that Baillie seeks to reach (66).

Yet, despite celebrating drama’s potential to reach the illiterate, Baillie asserts that the “untutored” spectators will recognize that the efficacy of a play depends upon its author, the dramatick writer. For Baillie, dramatick writers face more challenges and have more potential than other writers: “If the study of human nature then, is so useful to the poet, the novelist, the historian, and the philosopher, of how much more importance must it be to the dramatick writer? To them it is a powerful auxiliary, to him it is the centre and strength of the battle” (23). While the “study of human nature” is at the “centre” of the dramatick writer’s task, poets and novelists, Baillie argues, have many advantages that can compensate for failing to study human nature. Poets and the novelists can “represent to you their great characters from the cradle to the tomb” but “the characters in drama must speak for themselves” (24). According to Baillie, theater-goers recognize that the dramatick writer is the source of a good play or scene that accurately represents human nature: “When we meet in some scene of a good play a very fine stroke of this kind, we are apt to become so intoxicated with it, and so perfectly convinced of the author’s great knowledge of the human heart, that we are unwilling to suppose that the whole of it has not been suggested by the same penetrating spirit” (my emphasis 25). In other words, despite the numerous mediating figures, including actors, directors, stage designers, and musicians, the dramatick writer remains central.

Baillie, then, positions herself at a crossroads between print and the stage. She publishes her “Introductory Discourse” and Plays on the Passions with the hope that the literate and educated will read her work, approve of her “mode of publick introduction,” and stage her plays, thus allowing her to reach a broad and illiterate audience. She also demonstrates a keen awareness of the features of stage production and the potential of the theatrical space while also claiming that spectators, including the illiterate “untutored plaudits” she longs to reach, will recognize that the underlying knowledge of human nature that makes a play worth seeing comes from the genius of the author.

Perhaps the hybrid medium of the staged reading is a perfect means at once acknowledging Baillie’s fame as a published playwright and honoring her wish to reach a theatrical audience.

–Randall A. Sessler


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. 2013.

Joanna Baillie’s “Mode of Publick Introduction” and the Theater of Sympathy

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).[1] 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


[1] 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.

works referenced:

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.

Joanna Baillie: Romantic Playwright

This year’s “unstageable” Romantic drama is Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort. Unlike most of the plays we select to be performed at staged readings, Baillie’s work was staged in her lifetime–to a lukewarm reception, commercially and critically, which will be discussed in more detail in coming posts. However, Baillie herself enjoyed a robustly positive critical reputation as a playwright in the Romantic period.

Among published playwrights, Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) had few rivals in the Romantic period. She was ranked by Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott as the best writer of English tragedy since the Renaissance. Her major project, A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind (more widely known as Plays on the Passions), incorporated four volumes of dramatic works. She published several volumes of poetry and a total of twenty-eight plays. She was a dramatic innovator to whom her supporters looked for a potential reformation of the Romantic stage.  Although five of her plays were staged during her lifetime, none were commercially successful in the theater.

In print, however, Baillie’s dramatic works won both commercial success and critical acclaim. Baillie’s literary circle, which included Sir Walter Scott, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, and literary critic Francis Jeffrey, reveals her involvement in and influence on Romantic-era drama and literary theory. Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, which some critics have described as psychodrama, strongly influenced Lord Byron’s dramatic works, which likewise focus on the development of mental and emotional processes in characters. Contemporary critics labeled Baillie’s plays closet dramas, and until recently modern critics followed earlier critical claims. However, Baillie’s prefaces demonstrate her familiarity with the stage practices of her day, and her plays often incorporate editorial notes with her suggestions for how to render a scene on stage. She argued that her plays were not only intended for performance, but for best effect should be staged in small, well-lit theaters where facial expressions could be clearly seen.

This season’s staged reading of De Monfort by Red Bull Theater will give us the opportunity to judge the truth of Baillie’s claim.

~Veronica Goosey



Baillie’s De Monfort Coming to the Stage

The third annual staged reading of “unstageable” Romantic drama, produced by Red Bull Theater and the Department of English at New York University, is Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort.

Baillie was the most celebrated playwright of the Romantic period. De Monfort (1798) is one of a dozen plays that form Baillie’s major dramatic project, 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, more generally known as Plays on the Passions. Although the play was staged briefly at Drury Lane in 1800 and even more briefly in 1821, contemporary critics argued that is performed poorly and was not suited to staging. Baillie argued against classifying her work as closet drama, though she acknowledged that its focus on psychological developments meant it was best suited for small, well-lit theaters where actors’ facial expressions could be easily discerned.

On November 3, 2014, we will see how Baillie’s De Monfort fares in performance as a staged reading at Playwright’s Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York City. Tickets are available at Red Bull Theater‘s website. More information on this play, its history, and its critical issues will be coming in the weeks before performance.

Baillie's De Monfort staged November 3, 2014

Baillie’s De Monfort staged November 3, 2014

Coleridge in the Theatre

Next week, a one-man theatrical adaptation of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” will be performed in New York City. Unlike the ventures of  NYU’s Romanticist Research Group in conjunction with Red Bull Theater or the University of Pennsylvania’s “Unbinding Prometheus” Project, “THE RIME” is not an academic project.

While the annual Red Bull readings of Romantic drama co-produced by RRG are partly professional theater, they are funded by academics to study performance aspects of drama. “THE RIME” is the work of Gabriel Portuondo, who developed the adaptation through four years of workshops (2010-2014) and crowdsourced the project funding via Kickstarter (see the project Kickstarter page here.)

While “THE RIME” is certainly a more artistic endeavor than, say, Broadway’s The Lion King (with no disrespect to the wonders of Disney) the question of interest to me is the theatrical appeal of Romantic poetry. I do not doubt that Coleridge’s poetry can be brought to powerful life in Portuondo’s performance.

I gladly solicit reviews from any readers able to attend the United Solo Theatre Festival this month at nyurrg@gmail.com

~Veronica Goosey

For the interest of our readers, performance and ticket information are available below:

THE RIME, a captivating one man theatricalization of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” will be performed Monday, September 22 at 7:30 PM, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, NYC, as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival.

TICKETS, with a price of $19.25 are available at Theatre Row box office, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036, as well as over the phone at 212.239.6200 and online at telecharge.com. More details can be found at www.unitedsolo.org