Catherine B. Burroughs, Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers
Julie A. Carlson
University of California, Santa Barbara
Those of us who attend developments in romantic drama and theater are happy to greet the appearance of Catherine Burrough’s Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. It advances this field in important respects by both focusing extensively on Baillie and providing some of the historical and theoretical contexts that help us to appreciate the power of Baillie’s work. The lead playwright of her age and considered by some of her peers to be the best playwright since Shakespeare, Baillie pretty much had fallen from view until roughly five years ago, when she became a rising star on conference and publishing circuits in romantic studies. A few scholars—especially Margaret Carhart and Joseph Donohue—had argued long before then for the importance of Baillie’s writings, but their comments fell on ears unreceptive to the drama of romantic theater or the women writing in the period. An appreciative audience for both now thrives, thanks to the many scholars whose work Burroughs generously acknowledges. It is some measure of the rapid popularity of both fields that people have been clamouring for a book on Baillie in the last years.
Closet Stages meets this demand in a partial respect and, by its own admission, serves mainly to set the stage for a full-scale treatment of Baillie’s career. In this, as in so many events associated with theater, Closet Stages may suffer from its perfect timing by not delivering exactly what audiences for romantic theater studies have been waiting to hear. For Burroughs’ focus is on Baillie as a theorist of theater, not as one of the most prolific playwrights of the period, whom she situates in the context of women writing for and about the London stage between 1790 and 1840. Clearly a valuable focus as well as an indispensable resource for further studies of female playwrights in this period, this emphasis feels at times both ahead and behind of current interest in Baillie. The interpretive frame of performance studies gets ahead of the groundwork still required to assess the nature of Baillie’s extraordinary accomplishments. Efforts to promote the importance of Baillie is somewhat behind the welcoming reception that already exists. Burroughs should not be faulted for the fact that the popularity of Baillie has superseded some aspects of her recovery in book form. And Burroughs deserves major credit for having prepared us to want more on Baillie from her book.
Analysis of Baillie’s “theory and dramaturgy” is one of four aims motivating Closet Stages. (“Dramaturgy” comprises analysis of the first three plays of Plays on the Passions.) The other aims provide a historical context for Baillie by featuring “women writers from the British Romantic era as theater theorists,” constructing a “female-authored theater theory before 1850,” and presenting “a picture of Romantic theater and drama from the perspective of women who performed on (and off) the London stage” (25, original emphasis). Its focus on women’s contributions to early nineteenth-century theater supplements Judith Pascoe’s Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Cornell, 1997) and Ellen Donkin’s Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London, 1776–1829 (Routledge, 1995) by presenting them primarily as theorists of theater performance. Burroughs argues that the theoretical pronouncements of these women have been ignored because both theater theory and romantic closet drama have been treated as provinces of men. Allowing theater women into the theoretical picture entails expanding the venues and forms that count as “theory,” the advantages of which expansion are displayed in the second chapter, “Representing the Female Actor: Celebrity Narratives, Women’s Theories of Acting, and Social Theaters,” and the very helpful “Appendix: Selected List of Texts Containing Women’s Theater Theory Published in Great Britain (1790–1840).” Drawing on celebrity memoirs, autobiographies, interviews, play prefaces, advertisements, letters, journals, diaries, and dedicatory remarks, Burroughs uncovers fascinating material by Anne Mathews, Mary Berry, Anna Jameson, Sarah Siddons, Dorothy Jordan, and Helen Maria Williams that should stimulate further work on these writers. Her situating women in the closet is even more productive for the recovery of nineteenth-century theater. It makes women’s place in the home “experimental theater” (11).
Burroughs’ challenge to the alleged antitheatricality of closet drama aligns Closet Stages with Michael Simpson’s Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley (Stanford, 1997). Simpson stresses the potentiality of theater that closet drama, even as a form of reading, always implies by way of illustrating how Byron’s and Shelley’s plays keep radical tendencies alive. Burroughs emphasizes the actuality of theater in female closet spaces by way of underscoring women’s theatricalization of the private sphere. The projects investigated range from conventional to highly metaphorical understandings of theater, the benefits of which are perceived to be political as well as aesthetic. Endorsing the merger of social and theater stages advocated by performance theory, particularly its depiction of gender as act, Burroughs views the “small experimental theater” of the “female closet” as the space where “dramas and gendered identities were conceived and rehearsed, sometimes in preparation for public viewings, at other times for private or semiprivate readings and dramatizations” (11). The opportunities and difficulties of performing femininity, she contends, are negotiated through the kinds of theater to which such performances give rise. Plays by female playwrights of the period dramatize the constraints of femininity, even as they reinforce them, and depict the home as a theater of war. Private theatricals, in vogue from 1770 to 1810, provide women the opportunity to critique gender identity and the comforts of home, other benefits of which Gillian Russell has analyzed in The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society 1793–1815 (Clarendon Press, 1995). Theater theory by women underscores the anxiety of female playwrights and performers who struggle to maintain their respectability while taking the house by storm. In their own attempts to “conform to” and yet “experiment with” the “correct performance of feminine behavior” then, middle- and upper-class English women can be said to take actresses’ lead (28).
This recovery of the plays, theories, and Lives that came out of the female closet in the early nineteenth century should convince us of the illegitimacy of separating closet from stage. Maintaining the separation obscures our view of the number of women intimately concerned with theater practice in this period as well as the even larger numbers of them making theater in, and out of, their homes. The illegitimacy of this separation is all the more visible when considering the legitimate theater of Baillie, the topic of chapters three through five. Chapter three investigates Baillie’s prefaces “in the context of other female playwrights who contemplate their gendered position in public theater,” and chapters four and five portray Basil, De Monfort, and The Tryal as enacting theories of acting and of gender performance (73). Situating Baillie in this way highlights her distinction in failing to distinguish closet from stage, private from public, psychic from social, female from male. Baillie’s plays follow “the great man into his secret closet” but envision their analysis of passion as occurring in metropolitan, rather than mental, theaters, spaces which Baillie even redesigns as part of the interiorizing of drama.
The merging of private and public domains in the content of her plays confirms the applicability of performance theory to analysis of it. Public figures are portrayed in domestic settings which themselves house war, theater, elections, ghosts of history. Scripts are frequently metadramatic in their commentary on performance codes, and neither male nor female characters find the performance of gender all that satisfying. Characters are assessed in terms of their theatrical tendencies, where histrions like De Monfort, Rezenvelt, and Victoria are put in their place by the anti-theatrics of Jane de Monfort, Countess Albini, and Hargrave. Their place turns out to be the grave or the convent, but not while on stage—for Baillie also respects some differences between theater and life. Even the more contemporary connotations of the closet that Burroughs invokes are appropriate to the passion between Rezenvelt and De Monfort or Basil and Rosinberg. One could say that Baillie’s sustained attention to how passion undermines identity performs the social and psychoanalytic work of the performances in and of her plays.
But situating Baillie within a tradition of female theater theorists and in the terms of performance theory distorts her achievements too. Baillie is not alone in making theater out of the closet but, in my view, she is singular in her accomplishments as a theorist and playwright of closet-drama in this age. Asserting her singularity is meant less to maintain evaluative hierarchies than the distinctions that define what an artist has achieved. Not every thought is a theory, nor is every writer capable of producing one, for reasons that merit political and intellectual analysis. Nor is every performance of gender or theater worthy of review. We may still wish to distinguish storming the house through one’s depiction of victimized femininity from storming around the house as a victimized female. Particularly valuable is how Baillie’s plays anticipate the political ends of performance theory while remaining theater. This means that they explore gender and sexual identities as conventions that are tragic and comic and that cost some people more than others. Such insights, however, also spotlight the non-identity of early-nineteenth century and late-twentieth century closets. Queer performativity is hardly sanguine about the heterosexism of gender as a category of analysis, and it is even more suspicious of taking anyone at her word. In two regards, then, the framing chapters misconstrue their objects in my view. In attempting to record the “self-experience” of early-nineteenth century theater women, the second chapter wants a performative identity and an Authentic Life too (59). Introducing Baillie as part of a company of theater women paradoxically shows to what extent she is set apart. This may or may not be an intentional design of Closet Stages, but it deserves praise for facilitating the view. Closet Stages showcases Baillie and opens the door to further work on an exciting array of theatrical performances by early-nineteenth century women.