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Digitizing Romanticism

"Editing Electronically Women Playwrights of the Romantic Period"

Thomas C. Crochunis, Brown University
Michael Eberle-Sinatra, St. Catherine's College, Oxford


Prepared for "Digitizing Romanticism," Session chaired by Neil Fraistat, University of Maryland

Thomas Crochunis's Paper | Michael Eberle-Sinatra's Paper

Crochunis' Paper

The British Women Playwrights around 1800 Web project began because we were interested in sustaining over time a community exploring the histories and writing of women in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century British theatre. The project has had a split allegiance from its beginning. It has tried on one hand to help form a contemporary community of inquiry to help those of us who work on British Women Playwrights from the years around 1800 to share our work. On the other hand, the project has sought to accumulate materials and commentary about these women playwrights so that they will become better known to scholars and students of the humanities. Though we knew from the beginning that we weren’t about something as straightforward as recovering the neglected plays written by women and putting them online. We have only discovered little by little that a critique of scholarly practice is essential to opening a space for these neglected histories. For example, the constraints placed on inquiry in women’s theatre history by the business of scholarly publishing have made an electronic project seem a comfortable fit for our work; we see this realization as both a fortuitous circumstance and relevant data that reveals how historiographic practices affect historical knowledge.

I draw attention to both our performance and critique of historiography because I believe that our project’s self-conscious straddling of these dual loyalties is what makes it potentially important to electronic scholarship. If any of you have visited the site, you know that we are not an exhaustive database of plays by women. Nor are we a scholarly journal, a set of hypertext editions, or a site where performance of these plays is being explored. Over time, we might become these things, but for now we remain provisional, shaping the venue through the dialogue between offers of content from members of the working group and importunate requests by Michael and me designed to extend in new directions the body of data on British women playwrights. We could, perhaps (if we had begun with a funding source), have set about constructing an exhaustive database of texts or a series of working papers by scholars or a series of downloadable videotaped performance experiments. But it seemed wrong to define the methods we would use since we are interested in asking questions about how scholarly procedures have contributed to the disappearing of these women playwrights and about how electronic tools might make women’s theatre history newly visible in unforeseen ways. In short, we have allowed the parameters of our site to remain undefined, emergent, because the work we are hoping to foster self-consciously questions its own relationship to scholarship’s established procedures.

What I want to put forward in this presentation are four main propositions about our historical subject and our methods that inform the ways we think about the content of our site. By stating these directly and unpacking them very briefly, I want to suggest that the formation of a scholarly venue like ours can produce methodological self-reflection that is extremely valuable in generating both creative possibilities for how to move forward and cogent critique of scholarly historiography.

Play texts are a distinctive kind of historical artifact.

Play texts occupy different positions in relation to issues of historical representation than scholarly editing has yet adequately dealt with. If part of the impulse in textual editing is toward some form of representation of the historical, play texts complicate that task immensely. First, they raise questions about what ought to be represented–the manuscript artifacts whose relationship with subsequent performances is uncertain, the traces of the performance itself, or the published text that has any of a number of relationships to staging? Second, play texts complicate authorial intention beyond all measure, since any such intention must be interpreted in relation to complexes of social process, interpretation, and counter-intention that make the versions of literary texts seem simple by comparison. Finally, play texts are artifacts in a medium–words on paper–that is different from the medium of performance. Although the textual medium determines the artifact’s form, the writer likely wrote the script for use within a social process (rehearsal, reading, censorship). Therefore, textual artifacts related to theatre need to be understood as contextual gestures toward artistic intentions. All three of these complications ought to give us pause when we think about how and why to publish a theatre text electronically or in print as part of an act of historical representation.

Reading play texts requires new protocols of interpretation.

The uses to which play texts might be put by those using electronic resources–that is, how theatre materials might be "read"–differ from how literary texts are read. For the reasons outlined above, play texts are often read differently from other published literary texts. Even if we simplified our reading by focusing on a playwright’s intention, we would need to read a playscript in relation to its theatrical context since plays invoke the theatre as actual or imaginative venue. But there is more complication: to read women’s theatre writing of the period around 1800, it is essential to do more than read single plays or an author’s oeuvre as literary writing. Not only does reading beyond the literary allow for an awareness of women’s plays as a family of texts similarly influenced and sometimes similarly structured, but it also reminds us that reception of these plays in either theatres or print responded to both their literary content and their engagement with social processes like those of the patent theatres. Furthermore, all these nuances of scholarly interpretation aside, these plays might also be read today by theatre practitioners seeking possible performance texts and by students with an interest in women’s writing. After all, since these plays have been left out of the educational canon, it’s possible that people will have never been taught about them and might just find them surprisingly interesting to think about, read aloud, imagine in performance. This possible interest in non-scholarly reading adds further complication to how we publish the texts since we cannot assume that a dense historiographic apparatus will support all possible kinds of reading.

Studying women’s writing for theatre requires sociological methods.

The social contexts bearing on women’s theatre writing in the years around 1800–as cultural production then and as object of scholarship now–differentiate it from other forms of cultural production of its time, like poetry or the novel. While there are many provocative connections that can be made between women’s writing in other, more commonly discussed genres and their plays, fundamental differences exist between how we need to think about women’s writing for the theatre and about their other forms of literary production. Women’s playtexts must be contextualized sociologically if they are to be understood in any adequate way. Though literary analysis and textual criticism of the various versions of women’s plays are possible approaches that, strategically employed, can illuminate the particular circumstances and strategies of a woman writer, scholarship on women playwrights requires a versatile methodology of inquiry that gathers evidence from widely variable sources ranging from receipt books, glancing journalistic references, caricatures, advertising bills, personal correspondence, second-hand mentions, and the play texts themselves. In effect, however normalized the social process of women’s literary production in other genres, we don’t yet know enough about women’s complex social authorship of theatre texts to read these plays as literary works. To historicize our interpretations, we must view play texts as complexly linked sources of data.

Building a venue for inquiry stimulates collegial discourse.

The value of a Web-based venue that both allows for shared work and accumulation of resources is especially important for women’s theatre history. Sociological inquiry depends on studies of patterns of activity and a lone scholar can find developing a project based on sufficiently dense information from multiple sources almost overwhelming. Collaboration through providing practical leads, sources, and even, potentially, sharing data might make certain projects possible that might otherwise be inconceivable within the currently expected pace of professional publication. Also, considering that the range of types of reading in which those interested in women playwrights might engage–from scholarly data collection and textual editing to performance experimentation and reading out of interest–an approach taken by a performance-oriented reader might stimulate a history-oriented reader to raise new questions. Such cross-fertilization of inquiry is particularly important to work in theatre history and performance where so many elements of social process must be part of any robust inquiry into a text, a writer, or a historical period. Of course, collegial interaction, more immediate publication of creative interpretations than books or articles can offer, and even contentious disagreement can affect how inquiry moves forward. The more the discourse thrives within a shared venue . . . well, the more the inquiry thrives.

Although my four propositions range from statements about the nature of women’s theatre writing as historical material to comments about developing new models of scholarly process, it is my view that our rethinking of history and historiographic practices needs to happen simultaneously for a Web-based venue to merge the data-manipulating power of computers with the social activity of groups of colleagues. We can’t expect to get new wine just because we use new bottles.

Michael and I began our work on this project suspecting that the media and practices of professional scholarship might be inherently resistant to dealing with the history of women playwrights, particularly those from the British Romantic period. I can’t speak for him, but I am firmly convinced that there are deep paradigm discontinuities between the material culture of humanities scholarship and the histories of these women’s social/literary activity. I suspect that the lack of attention to these women playwrights was not merely a choice at the level of content–that is, a preference against plays or against the writing of women . . . though both of those are surely part of the neglect–but a deeply structured resistance to the kinds of practices that inquiry into this material might provoke. Professional scholarship is founded on publication of criticism, rigorously veted scholarly editions, quarterly journals, annual conferences; it has not typically supported frequent experimental performances, collaborative residencies of peers, ongoing discussion spaces, or informal reading and performance inquiry groups. Scholars of women’s theatre history must often sustain themselves as more-or-less isolated specialists, not as members of collaborative communities of interest; that is, they are members of academic departments, not of feminist theatre ensembles. So, in effect, we are experimenting with the creation of an alternative venue for collective work and continuing to ask what online media have to offer. It’s cheaper than building a theatre, but we’d welcome funding ideas if you have them.


Eberle-Sinatra's Paper

Following Tom's remarks on the British Women Playwrights around 1800 project, I would like to describe the three major sections of the site and some of the forthcoming additions currently in progress.

The BWP1800 site includes several pages that reflect our effort to maintain an open-ended approach to the issues relevant to dramas written by women playwrights around our intentionally loose time frame. These issues include, specifically, editing these plays (in print and/or electronically); teaching and using these texts in a classroom environment; offering a space for discussion by Romantic scholars and theatre specialists; and finally attempting to bridge the gap between reading and discussing these plays, and performing them.

Works

There are currently two plays available at the BWP1800 site, with three more in preparation. The first play coded for our project was Jane Scott's Broad Grins or Whackham and Windham; or, The Wrangling Lawyers, a burletta in two acts, first produced at the theatre Sans Pareil, London, on 25 January 1814. Jacky Bratton provided the text and an introduction that makes clear one of the major difficulties one faces when preparing texts of plays for either print or electronic publication. She writes:

The text given here is only the accidentally-surviving shadow of the theatrical event: it is taken from the copy made for the purposes of obtaining a licence for performance from the censor's office under the Lord Chamberlain. As such it does no more than sketchily represent the play as performed. This is of course true of all play texts, but it is especially and acutely the case with works like this, whose life was intimately embedded in the situation of their writing and performance, and whose appearance in manuscript was no more than a gesture towards legal requirements. This text was never intended as even a blueprint for the real thing; its purpose was only to reassure the authorities that nothing seditious was intended. What actually happened at the Sans Pareil, with the collaborating cast of performers and the regular, knowing, participatory audience who approved of the play, can only be grasped by regarding the ensuing text as a set of clues, whose life is to be found or recreated on the stage.

Consequently, it was agreed that our text of Whackham and Windham was going to be a full, plain-text file of the play, as well as a lightly edited version, coded in HTML and broken down into acts and scenes for easier access. I am assuming that this audience is already well-aware of the problematics of both electronic editing and reading from the screen.

Our principal aim at the BWP1800 project is to make some plays available for teaching and discussion, in some cases for the first time since their original performances, as is true for Whackham and Windham, or since their first and only publication without any instances of recorded performances during the author's lifetime, as in the case of Elizabeth Inchbald's play The Massacre: Taken from the French. A Tragedy of Three acts. Danny O'Quinn has written an introductory essay that illustrates the important political issues at work in The Massacre, and we hope that the wider availability of the play and O'Quinn's essay will together foster further interest in the play. This leads me to the second major section of the BWP1800 site, and the spirit of discussion and scholarly exchange that we hope to generate.

Essays

When Tom and I began this project, it was clear that we wanted lots of input from various scholars on the usefulness of such a site, its potential, and its future. The lack of printed texts of plays written by women playwrights was one of the motivations behind providing electronic texts, but the lack of funding was clearly going to prevent us from offering dozens of plays within the first two years. We also wanted to pursue the genuine spirit of discussion that we had witnessed at the two MLA sessions Tom had organised in Toronto and San Francisco. So we invited scholars to present their works online, accompanied by a response written by another scholar in order to invite further discussion. The recent addition of a Bulletin Board section will, we hope, also foster discussion.

The 'Essays' section currently contains six pieces, dealing with issues ranging from the difficulties of teaching theatrical texts and the usefulness of the electronic medium [see Kate Newey's piece, and Crochunis' response] to the technical aspects of editing plays. To make a text available in 'simple', straight-forward HTML coding is one thing; to offer a full-blown SGML coding is another, especially when questions of timing and funding are involved. Lauryn Mayer and Julia Flanders discuss their work at the Brown Women Writers project and the complexity of coding plays in SGML versus the coding of poems and novels. Kathryn Sutherland responds to their essay by questioning further the problematic of electronic editing and the importance of the role of the editor. I outline our plan for the electronic archive of Joanna Baillie's play De Monfort, which is to include scanned images of playbills and actors, and QuickTime videos of some scenes from the play. Our most recent update is a dialogue between Judith Pascoe, Bruce Graver, and Thomas C. Crochunis about the project, its potential pitfalls, the importance of maintaining peer-reviewed, high-standard materials amidst the sea of texts that the World Wide Web offers, and its use for academics unfamiliar with electronic technology.

Bibliography

This section provides a listing of articles, books, and collections of essays dealing with women playwrights and Romantic drama, as well as works dealing with humanities computing and electronic editing. New items are constantly added to the bibliography, which remains in-progress to reflect the growing interest in this field and the expansion of the BWP1800 project. We hope that academics and students will find references to works as yet unknown to them, and that they will also tell us of missing references that should be included.

I will conclude this brief presentation in saying that Tom and I are very happy with the interest the project has generated so far, though we are still unclear about its exact future, but this is in my view probably a good thing. We are obviously keen to hear what you think.


Return to the Digitizing Romanticism Homepage

Go to Fraistat, Digitizing Romanticism: Introduction

Go to Kelley and Sha, The Sister Arts Go Digital: The Romantic Circles Art Gallery

Go to Clery, The Corvey Project: Collaborative Excavation of the Professional Woman Writer, 1790-1840

Go to Grimes, Beyond the Paper Chase: Building a Comprehensive Online Romantics Bibliography—A Progress Report