Romantic Drama and Romantic Theatre

Some time ago, we posted some thoughts on the staging of unstaged Romantic-era plays and on the phenomenon described by critics as mental theater.  I’d like to return to the subject of Romantic-era drama. When was the last time your English department offered a course examining the dramatic material of the Romantic period as drama? While staging is acknowledged to play an important role in understanding a Shakespearean tragedy and what’s being staged is a political issue in the early eighteenth century, Romantic drama is not widely viewed as dramatic, and the drama being staged in the period is not often made an object of study.

Romantic drama, and particularly the dramatic works of the “big six” Romantic poets, is generally viewed as poetry rather than as drama. For one thing, the drama of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron is lyrical, often employing long soliloquys and other marks of interiority. For another, few of these plays were ever staged, and in some cases the authors claim that they are not intended for the stage. However, there is evidence that the writers sought to have their plays staged without theatrical success, or in several cases, without acceptance by the managers. Wordsworth could find no one
to take The Borderers. Coleridge’s early Osorio was revised into Remorse before it took to the stage. Although The Cenci was the only work of Shelley’s to go into a second edition in his lifetime, no public performance made it onto a London stage until well into the nineteenth century. The vexed relationship between Byron’s dramas and their staging I’ll leave to my esteemed colleague Randall Sessler to discuss at another time. Joanna Baillie, one of the most esteemed dramatists of the period both critically and popularly, published multiple editions of her Plays on the Passions, and had several of her plays staged, but none achieved commercial success on the stage. Baillie, like the Romantic poets, was more concerned with tracing a character’s psychology than with spectacular stage effect. Critics have suggested that this focus on interiority and lyric
expression may have made the plays difficult to stage.

Some of the poets themselves suggest that they lack stage success because the stage is degenerate. As Jane Moody indicates in Illegitimate Theatre in London 1770-1840, Romantic poets dismissed the theaters as “places of noise, dirt, spectacle and unbridled sexual commerce, where Shakespeare was being mangled into opera, and ignorant audiences preferred performing dogs to the pleasures of Sheridan and John Gay” (2-3). Nor are these criticisms without basis. In addition to physical and moral contributions to “illegitimacy” to which Moody refers, the stage was subject to censorship and supervision unmatched by any other medium in the period, thanks to the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which, although relaxed by the Theatrical Representations Act of 1788 and the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843, was not repealed until the passage of the Theatres Act of 1968. Plays intended for performance had to be approved by the Licenser, a position in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and could be censored by him. The Act particularly censored political commentary and satire. Although political statements would generally be excised from performance texts, the published versions of plays were not often censored. So although drama remained a legitimate form for political commentary, dramatic compositions approved by the Licenser could be viewed with suspicion.

Moreover, the plays being staged emphasized sentimentality and spectacle. The gothic dramas of Matthew Lewis and others, the Orientalism of, for instance, George Colman the younger’s Blue-Beard, the spectacle of trained animals as in The Quadrupeds of
Quedlinburgh
, and the popularity of pantomime are only a few examples of what poets and other critics denounced as the degeneracy of the stage. Additionally, changing stage practices and public taste made adaptations of Shakespeare more popular than the original works—Nahum Tate’s happy-ending version of King Lear was rather popular throughout the nineteenth century. Yet despite condemnations of the theater from poets rejected by the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, at various points Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Baillie all sought to have their plays staged as a way of legitimizing their dramatic efforts.

We can contextualize and historicize the retreat from the stage of the Romantics and other major poets working in dramatic genres during this period. But if, as argued in our earlier post Romantic Drama: Experiments, Mental Theater, and Media, the retreat from the stage of some of the period’s most talented dramatists led to the invention of a new dramatic form, and a new dramatic space, what does that do to our study of the Romantic-era stage and the drama performed there? How ought we to approach a dramatic performance? As scholars and critics of English literature, we are trained, at least primarily, to study texts. Text and performance are significantly different objects of study, and should be treated differently, but in what ways? How can we, as textual scholars, contribute to a reading of the staging of Byron’s Marino Faliero or Baillie’s
De Montfort, in addition to the texts?

~Veronica Goosey

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2 thoughts on “Romantic Drama and Romantic Theatre

  1. To my way of thinking, it’s staging practices in the early nineteenth century that most fully evidence something we might call a romantic ideology. One could argue that this is a product of the theatre attempting to reproduce the effects that have proved so popular in literature of the day: the use of ground rows with concealed lighting, to produce obscure and varied landscapes; cut scenes that allowed for partially hidden interiors; both juxtaposed with a scenic drive to reveal all; a wealth of stage properties generating a sense of full and chaotic reality; acting choices that stressed “new readings” (a newly coined phrase) and idiosyncratic interpretation; an antiquarian delight in the rare “authentic” object–not so much to provide historicist accuracy but to create sense of immersion in distant times or places. It goes on and on. One could also argue that these details are simply the product of new technologies. However since some would assert that the principal commonality of romantic texts are they can all be read as heterogenous responses to the range of technical and social changes that constitute our modernity. As such, the 19th century stage can be very much sen in dialogue with the great writers and critics of the day. Certainly the state quickly adapted the works of Scott, Moore, Byron, and Southey (especially the Oriental Romances). Since they did so without permission, it seems likely that managers would hardly care if poets wanted their plays staged or not. However in the case of Byron, it is probably his death that inspired Alfred Bunn to stage Sardanapalus, especially as the manager tried to feed of the continued rumors that Byron had been involved with the actress Mardyn and falsely advertised her int he role of Myrha. (In his autobiography, he asserted that the role had been written for her).
    In any case, great blog!

  2. I will offer just some quick thoughts on this matter. As my colleagues have already described, the categorization of “Romantic Drama” is problematic because of the “new poetic form” (as Randall Sessler astutely quotes Alan Richardson) that makes staging a production of a Romantic play quite the challenge. However, beyond this opposition to performance, we have not sufficiently explored the varied compositional natures of these works that add another layer of complexity to this discussion. This diversity also hints at the difficulty of the limits of such classification that many literary and performance studies scholars have detected.

    There is a huge difference, for instance, between Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. While the latter was produced on stage, no production of Prometheus Unbound has ever been attempted to my knowledge. The same holds true for Shelley’s Hellas. What are we to make of a play, then, as a “Lyrical Drama”? Or more generally, how do we account for the tension not just between drama and theatre in the period but the resistance to the generic category altogether? My simple point here is that the “plays” of the early nineteenth century offer a diverse set of concerns and aesthetic maneuvers even though their totality is generally understood as an extreme focus on “interiority and lyric expression” and hence “not widely viewed as dramatic”. I propose we offer more nuanced studies of these works by encouraging performance and literary scholars to turn their attentions back to them.

    -Omar F. Miranda

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