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1C. Romantic Dramatic Forms: Performing the Subject, Gender and the State
Special Session: Marjorie Stone (Dalhousie)
Trish Lootens (Georgia): "Drama and Monologues: Pre-Victorian Performance in the Writing of Letitia Landon"
Michael Kohler (SUNY Binghampton): "Governmentality, the younger Kean's drama, and the 'dramatic lyric'"
"Snub-nosed Brompton Sappho": to a student of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the phrase is deeply evocative--and not least because it is misquoted. The words are attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. What Disraeli actualy wrote, however, was that Landon 'looked the very personification of Brompton--pink satin dress and white satin shoes, red cheeks snub nose, and her hair a la Sappho." Clearly, there is a difference between attempting to be Sappho and wearing one's hair a la Sappho, and that difference goes to the heart of my proposed argument.
As the author of "The Improvisatrice" and the translator of verses from Germaine de Stael's Corinne, Landon founded her career on the enactment of a "natural," "purely feminine" poetic mode: luscious, spontaneous, impassioned, and transparently confessional. She thus became deeply--though in key respects, ironically--associated with a cultural fantasy that was to linger longer after faith in other sorts of "Romantic sincerity" had died: the dream, to quote one mid-century critic of Felicia Hemans, that the works of an honest woman poet could be "strictly effusions," "rained around her"--that one could hear in such verse the "just audible beatings of the deep female heart." As late as the 1890s, E.C. Stedman's *Victorian Poets* was still promising that "when an impassioned woman . . . reveals the secrets of her burning heart, generations adore her" and "literature is enriched" by "glimpses of [her] purity." Landon failed to live up to this dream, of course. The question is: how should we assess such failure?
What if the feverish, undignified passions of a Sappho did wrack the snub-nosed body of an early nineteenth-century London woman? What if that same woman sought to maintain herself, educate a brother, and support a widowed mother on the proceeds of her writing? Such questions have helped recent critics transform Landon from the heroine of a tragicomic literary legend to a subject of serious study. In the process, however, L.E. L.'s former moral failings have become political. No longer the victim of "a very undesirable literary set," embarrassingly bad taste (a moral flaw for nineteenth-century women), or weakness of character, the current incarnation of L.E.L. is guilty instead of over-investment in her period's conventional constructions of femnininity. And thus, while the terms of criticism have shifted, the assumed trajectory of Landon's career has not. Like so many other nineteenth-century Sapphos, the snub-nosed Brompton Sappho still ultimately dooms herself to silence: to quote Anne Mellor, "by writing herself as a female beauty, Landon effectively [writes] herself out of existence: she [becomes] a fluid sign in the discourse ... that denied her authenticity and overwrote whatever individual voice she might have possessed." In both caes, what would seem to be at stake is a fall from the specific, inspirational grace of what might well be called feminine--or feminist--sincerity.
And indeed, the figure of the disillusioned and dissembling Improvisatrice is Landon's contribution to the iconography of fallen women poets--and thus to her own legend. "I live among the cold, the false," L.E.L wrote, in the apparently confessional "Lines of Life," for example: "And I must seem like them / And such I am, for I am false / As those I must condemn" (ll. 9-12). Given the presence of such language--incidentally, in one of Landon's most heavily anthologized verses--readers can scarcely be blamed for conflating L.E.L. with her own Eulalie or Erinna. Like Sappho or Corinne before her, it would seem--though in a different context--England's Improvisatrice had fallen. My paper will rethink that alleged "fall," however, by reconceiving Landon's literary career as that of a precursor to the great Victorian writers of the dramatic monologue. For Landon was more than a pre-Victorian performer of apparently spontaneous, confessional narratives: she was an adept and passionate satirist whose ironic performances--first in person and then in the prose of her successful realist novels--explicitly challenged and undercut her verses' pretense to transparency. Inded, taken as a whole, her literary career may be read as a deliberate playing of the "edge" that Robert Browning's Bishop Blougram famously identifies as central to the "interest' of the dramatic monologue. Nor is the connection merely a fanciful one, I will argue: for key aspects of the dramatic monologue may trace back to Landon and her fellow giftbook authors, who attempted to shape successful verse within the confines of "illustration" of the assigned faces of stock characters.
Finally, by briefly adressing the writing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I will consider how a specific Landon volume such as *The Golden Violet* may stand as an odd, but suggestive precursor to Victorian dramatic monologues such as Browning's *Men and Women*. Such a connection, I will suggest, says a great deal about the necessity for extending our reading of Landon, both within and beyond the bounds set by current understandings of the "poetess tradition."
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In this paper, I seek to understand the between the "dramatic lyric," developed principally in Robert Browning's work of the 1830s and 40s, and two important but apparently tangentially related phenomena. The first is the incapacity of the most ambitious and successful Romantic poets to produce theater works of lasting interest to theater practitioners and their audiences: mere "closet dramas." The second is the increasingly painstaking efforts on the part of Victorian professional theaters to achieve historical "fidelity" on stage.
While both mid-century theatrical antiquarianism and the genre of the dramatic lyric are expressions of the Victorian sense of the historical contingency of human consciousness and belief, I argue that the dramatic lyric constitutes a rejection of the kind of historical experience represented on the popular stage and in the novel. Charles Kean's historical pageant dramas, which epitomized Victorian theater practice in this regard, were an expression of the increasingly dominant Rankean model of historical representation. As such, Victorian theatrical representation was fundamentally allied both with the historical novel and the imagination of the state as the vehicle of historical movement. I suggest that the dramatic lyric, quite the contrary, draws its impetus from the anti-theatricalism of the Romantic closet drama and so constitutes an alternative to the statist and recuperative imperatives of nineteenth-century historicism. I conclude by suggesting provisionally that while both the dramatic lyric and the antiquarian drama are conditioned by the relatively new relation of subject to social body that Michel Foucault has called "governmentality," it is the dramatic lyric that explores more searchingly the predicament of the subject in an age in which the nation-state was no longer the exclusively privileged bearer of collective identity.
Hegel argued in his lectures of the philosophy of history that the possibility of genuinely historical narrative begins with the emergence of the state. Leopold von Ranke's Latin and Teutonic Nations, which decisively shaped Europe's attitude towards the past, unites Hegel's attention to the state to a rigorous effort to explore an authentically alien and unavailable past through "primary materials." In England, the reception of the Rankean emphasis on primary documentation was conditioned by the precedent of Scott and the explicit novelization of history in Macaulay, who held that the "truly great historian would redeem those materials the novelist has appropriated." Kean's mid-century theater work was just such a historicism in practice. Kean, praised in the popular press not only as an actor but as a "scholar and antiquarian," assiduously worked to recuperate the past through carefully researched productions, chiefly of Shakespeare's chronicle plays, which rooted the British nation in a past that was alien yet theatrically recoverable. In this vein, Blackwood's Magazine defended the prestige of the historical novel because it offered a compendium of historical visions tantamount to being in the theater, "the scenery of all the different parts of the world, under every possible variety of light, colour, and circumstance; the manners, habits, and customs of all nations, and all ages and all grades of society." Kean's productions, in which "no labour or expense [were] spared in endeavoring to attain the utmost fidelity of historical illustration," we above all perceived as faithful to such vanished but usable pasts.
Beginning with the 1836 poems, "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" and "Porphyria," Robert Browning endeavors during this period to achieve a strikingly different and challenging recuperation of lost presence. In the 1842 volume Dramatic Lyrics, this rejection of Rankean historicism functions chiefly by associating an engaging simulation of psychological presence, Browning's passe partout in the English canon, with a sexual anxiety peculiar to Romantic closet drama. Poems such as, "My Last Duchess," "Count Grismond," or "In a Gondola," strongly suggest that their male protagonists merely imagine infidelity or criminal complicity, and hence that the murders and public accusations are expressions of deep-seated misogynist pathologies. Nonetheless, the very attraction of these poems stems largely from the reader's false sense that they might confirm for themselves the fidelity of these fictional women. Romantic closet dramas such as Shelley's The Cenci similarly thematize analogous epistemic conundrums. Yet clearly confirmation is impossible; whether the last Duchess was indeed over generous with her affection is a question that cannot be answered, not because Browning doesn't give us enough information but because she does not and did not exist. The unknowability of the fictional psyche functions paradoxically as a device that enables Browning to achieve the effect of subjective, contingent presence. On the thematic level, the impossibility of verifying or falsifying the "fidelity" of the character expresses a challenge to any claim to historical "fidelity," because it implicitly paints the drive to achieve fidelity as a pathological anxiety.
Browning's characteristic refusal, during this middle period, to integrate these fragments of historically conditioned subjective experience within larger narrative structures expresses in another manner this profound distrust of the recuperative pretence of the Victorian theater, the historical novel and Rankean historicism. I suggest finally that this skepticism manifests a profound cognizance of the decline of the state as a privileged vehicle for collective identity.
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