Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus was published in 1821 as part of a collection of dramas also containing Cain and The Two Foscari. The collection lacks the usual Byronic trappings; most notably there is no frontispiece of the poet himself. Byron was a skilled and prolific self-promoter, so the absence is rather striking. Also a bit strangely, Byron had his publisher, John Murray, release the new collection during the same week that John Constable released Pirate, the new Walter Scott novel. Byron to have his dramas published at the end of theater season, despite the fact that this release date would make the collection a commercial rival with Britain’s other top-selling writer.
In the January 1822 review of the collection in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, John Gibson Lockhart focuses on Byron’s life, rather than his work; he discusses at length and in detail Byron’s ongoing and very public feud with then Poet Laureate Robert Southey. After offering a brief discussion of the poem itself, Lockhart dubs Sardanapalus a dramatic “failure.” Francis Jeffrey’s review of Sardanapalus in the February 1822 Edinburgh Review places Byron within the larger framework of the history of English theatre, describing a decline since the genius of Shakespeare ruled the stage. According to Jeffrey, modern poetry has difficulty translating to the theatre. Jeffrey turns to Byron’s poems in order to comment upon the plays, a technique that continues through much Byron criticism. Ultimately, the review labels Sardanapalus a failure—albeit one that expresses much beauty. In his July 1822 review of Sardanapalus in The Quarterly Review William Gifford takes up Byron’s prefatory claim about the benefits of adhering to the unities. According to Gifford, no English writer, with the exception of Joseph Addison, has successfully adopted the unities. Gifford claims that Byron’s plays are “intended for the closet,” or for personal reading, which is well-supported by Byron’s insistence that his plays were never intended to be staged. Yet Gifford questions the seemingly incongruous practice of writing closet plays which adhere to the unities. As Gifford argues, “The only purpose of adhering to the unities is to preserve the illusion of the scene [on stage]. To the reader they are obviously useless.” Gifford argues that the attempt to produce a dramatic work frustrates and cramps Byron’s usual poetic prowess. Since the nineteenth century, scholars have tended to treat Romantic drama as poetry, when they deem it deserving of critical attention at all.
The Romantic poets themselves had a strained relationship with the stage, as we have discussed in previous posts. Richard Allen Cave suggests that Romantic drama did poorly on stage because the public taste was not adapted to the lyric interiority of mental theater: “An age of melodrama, burlesque, and equestrian spectaculars did not look kindly on dramatists whose values were other and centred on the presentation of subtle psychological nuance and on preserving the integrity of the tragic tradition. Friction and disdain colour the relations between the contemporary stage and most of the Romantic poets.”
There were two stagings of Sardanapalus in the patent theaters in London during the nineteenth century. The play opened at Drury Lane on 10 April 1834 in a production by William Macready. The Morning Chronicle’s review of the performance found fault with Byron’s attempt to maintain the unities: the play “was presented to an audience…with every advantage of acting, scenery, and costume. If, therefore, it turns out not a very successful experiment, the fault lies in the work, and not in the management…Certainly the tragedy of Sardanapalus will gain no converts to the classic drama—at least when publicly represented—and though it may be read with great satisfaction as a poem, it wants incident and even interest as a play.” The main draw of the performance, as this review illustrates, is its elaborate Orientalist scenery.
When Charles Kean revived the play in an 1853 production, he, like Macready before him, cutthe preening-at-the-mirror scene from performance, presumably to downplay Sardanapalus’ potentially unheroic implication with the feminine. When King Sardanapalus accepts the need to enter the battlefield, his preparations indicate what might be described as “effeminate” attitudes, as he is evidently more interested in how he looks in his armor rather than how well it might function:
Sfero: King! your armour.
S.: Give me the cuirass—so: my baldric; now
My sword: I had forgot the helm, where is it?
That’s well—no, ‘tis too heavy: you mistake, too—
It was not this I meant, but that which bears
A diadem around it.
Sfero: Sire, I deem’d
That too conspicuous from the precious stones
To risk your sacred brow beneath—and trust me,
This is of better metal though less rich.
S.: You deem’d! Are you too turn’d a rebel? Fellow!
Your part is to obey! Return and—no,
It is too late. I will go forth without it.
Sfero: At least wear this.
S.: Wear Caucasus! why, ‘tis
A mountain on my temples.
Sfero: Sire, the meanest
Soldier goes not forth thus exposed to battle.
All men will recognize you—for the storm
Has ceased, and the moon breaks forth in her brightness.
S.: I go forth to be recognized, and thus
Shall be so sooner. Now—my spear! I’m arm’d.
[In going stops short, and turns to Sfero]
Sfero—I had forgotten—bring the mirror.
Sfero: The mirror, sire?
Sa.: Yes, sir, of polish’d brass,
Brought from the spoils of India—but be speedy.
S.: [looking at himself]
The cuirass fits me well, the baldric better,
And the helm not at all. Methinks I seem
[Flings away helmet after trying it again]
Passing well in these toys; and now to prove them. (III.i.126-165)
Despite being urgently requested on the battlefield, the king spends precious moments primping. He refuses a helmet on several grounds—first it’s too heavy, then he’s upset that it’s not the pretty one he intended the guard to fetch, and when the guard offers an alternative helmet, he again complains of its weight, comparing it to a mountain range. Before heading out, he actually sends a guard to fetch is mirror so he can make sure he looks good, refusing the helm entirely on the grounds that it doesn’t fit the outfit, which otherwise makes him look “passing well.”
Nineteenth-century theatrical critic George Henry Lewes remarked on Kean’s performance in the 1853 production: “He must know the plain meaning of plain English words, and therefore it is astounding to see him not only carefully evading any representation of the effeminate voluptuousness and careless indifference of Sardanapalus, but also uttering the words in tones directly contrary to the sense. Thus, when the sword is placed in his hands, he gives it back, with the remark that it is too heavy, and the remark instead of expressing effeminacy, he utters it as if it were a stolid assertion of a matter of fact! How Byron would have fumed could he have heard his intention thus rendered. Charles Kean omits the detail which Byron laid so much stress on, viz. Sardanapalus calling for the mirror to arrange his curls before rushing into battle.” We hope to see on Monday, November 12th, how Red Bull’s staged reading negotiates Byron’s gendered representation of kingship and governance.
R.A. Sessler and Veronica Goosey