In the introduction to the Cornell edition of The Borderers, Robert Osborne claims that William Wordsworth’s inability to find a theater manager willing to stage the 1797 early version of his play makes the poet’s dramatic effort a failure. Osborne notes that Wordsworth “justifiably attributed his failure ‘to the depraved State of the Stage at present,’ and was ‘underdetemin’d’ whether to wait for a change in theatrical taste ‘or publish it immediately’” (5). It is important to recognize that publication of the text of the play was not Wordsworth’s original intention. Only after his drama was rejected by the managers of both Covent Garden and Drury Lane did Wordsworth consider seeing whether his “experiment” was “adopted for the closet” (Letters 6). Wordsworth’s own classification of his play along with the fact that he originally wrote with an eye towards the stage has led many critics to dismiss The Borderers as a dramatic experiment that ultimately failed. The success of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, a collection that Wordsworth again called an “experiment,” therefore presents critics with a convenient transition from experimental failure to experimental success. However, such critical narratives depend upon the manner in which one defines success as well as where one locates Wordsworth’s experimentation. Is contemporaneous stage production or publication of a drama necessary for one to label it a success? Is Lyrical Ballads more successful than The Borderers because it made it to the press and thus reached a contemporary audience?
The Borderers begins to show the complex position Romantic dramas occupy in modern scholarly discourse. Wordsworth and Coleridge famously looked to the staged drama as the first vehicle that would help them create the taste by which they would be received. If, as I have proposed above, we define contemporary staging as the marker of success of a given Romantic drama, then only the 1813 production of Coleridge’s Remorse and the 1821 staging of Lord Byron’s Marino Faliero would qualify for such distinction. Alan Richardson’s landmark study A Mental Theater argues for a new understanding of the Romantics’ foray into drama. According to Richardson, “Whether condemned for his elitist pose and disdain for the public, or defended as a well-meaning but anachronistic reformer, the Romantic poet as dramatist is judged against his alleged “retreat” from the theater, rather than for the invention of a fundamentally new poetic form” (3). While Richardson’s work does a tremendous amount of valuable work to resuscitate the dramatic efforts of the second generation Romantics, his book, as the preceding passage makes clear, places Romantic dramas in the larger genre of poetry. The mental drama, a phrase that first appears in Byron’s letters, or closet drama becomes part of a greater poetic history. Building on Richardson’s foundational work, Daniel P. Watkins’s A Materialist Critique English Romantic Drama attempts to implement a materialist methodology that will allow scholars to more accurately engage with the dramas of Byron, Shelley, and other prominent Romantic figures. Watkins creates what he calls the “drama – theater distinctions” (4). That is, the text of a play is a drama while its staged production is an entirely different object of study.
Together, the work of Richardson and Watkins shows the rich areas of inquiry that demand further examination. Watkins is right to recognize the medial distinction between a staged production and a text of that production. If we follow his formulation, studying Coleridge’s Remorse involves much more than simply looking at the text of the play. Scholars should ask where does each iteration of the play occur – in what can it be found? In order to examine Coleridge’s drama fully, we need to look at the original 1797 written version of the drama, titled Osorio, the excerpts that appear as poems and are retitled in the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads, the context and response to the 1813 production of Remorse at Drury Lane, and the publication of the text of that production.
The example of Remorse raises a series of crucial questions: What is the relationship between media and meaning? Where did major Romantic dramas originally appear? What role did the poet himself play in the appearance/placement/presentation of a particular drama? What we can learn from that placement? And, how do we negotiate artistic intent?