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Women in British Romantic Theatre:
Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840

edited by Catherine B. Burroughs

Introduction: Uncloseting Women in British Romantic Theatre


  1. That these plays of the small and private space could teach audiences what Baillie described as ``sympathetic curiosity''[27] is the focus of Marjean D. Purinton's analysis of The Tryal. By examining Baillie's dramatization of two female characters' conscious attempts to stage their resistance to marrying for money alone, Purinton underscores the degree to which the political features of marriage have historically, in courtship, been reinforced by theatrical rituals. She also highlights the potential for theatre to provide some women with strategies for exerting control over their Romantic lives, exploring how cousins Mariane and Agnes draw on their knowledge of playwriting, directing, and stage performance to create a series of ``trials,'' or ``little dramas,'' that flummox their male suitors. Baillie's dramaturgy permits her both to emphasize the performative aspects of women's (and men's) gendered position and to suggest that private stages are especially conducive to teaching audiences how to develop a political consciousness. For this reason, Baillie may be viewed as continuing a trend established by pre-Revolutionary women writers during the Age of Sensibility to combine sentimental comedy and the values of the Sunday School Movement with Madame de Genlis's ``theatre of education.''[28] But Baillie does so in order to create a new comedic form for the new century - what she calls ``Characteristic Comedy'' in her famous ``Introductory Discourse'' (1798) - a mode that ``represents to us this motley world of men and women in which we live, under those circumstances of ordinary and familiar life most favourable to the discovery of the human heart . . .''[29]

  2. Because in her day Baillie was so well received, so prolific, and so relatively unperformed (in spite of her ambition to see her plays staged), she is central to current attempts to confront the extent to which the category of ``closet play'' has created misperceptions about Baillie's investment in public staging and negatively affected the critical reception of her plays since the 1830s. In the book's third section - ``Performance and Closet Drama'' - the essays by Susan Bennett and Jacky Bratton address the way in which generic categories affect the historical evaluation of playscripts and the construction of critical narratives about theatre. As Bennett demonstrates, both Baillie's prefaces and dramaturgy convey her practical interest in, and knowledge of, early nineteenth-century London theatre, as well as her sensitivity to performance questions triggered by scenes that make use of actual closet space. Identifying Baillie as an important early advocate of ``alternative theatre,'' Bennett looks closely at Baillie's tragedy, Constantine Paleologus (1804),[30] and at some of the ways that Baillie used her preface writing to intervene in the critical reception of her own work.[31] Bennett performs this analysis in order to argue that Baillie must be released from the closet of genre, periodization, and discipline so that the divide between literary critics of Romanticism and theatre historians - about which Jane Moody and Thomas Crochunis have recently written[32] - can be eroded and the historical significance of Baillie's work more widely appreciated.[33]

  3. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this book's aim to undermine page/stage oppositions, even as it explores their functioning, occurs in the essay on Jane Scott, the most prolific female British playwright between 1806 and 1819 (she created approximately fifty playscripts, ranging from pantomime to burletta to comic opera).[34] As Jacky Bratton tells us, the essay in this collection grew out of her desire to understand some of the ways in which gender affects the dynamics and tone of the melodramatic form produced during the period after the explosion of Gothic plays in the 1790s[35] and before the proliferation of melodrama during the Victorian period. Bratton began to explore this issue by transcribing the licenser's copy of Scott's five-act drama, Camilla the Amazon (1817), which was performed in Scott's own ``illegitimate'' playhouse, the Sans Pareil; and Bratton's search extended to the classroom where she enlisted the talents of script reader Gilli Bush-Bailey and students in the honors degree program in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Media Arts at the University of London to perform the transcribed text. But performance was not the culmination of the course's investigation; participants were also encouraged to write about their experiences of workshopping the play. Modelling ``heteroglossic critical writing,'' sections of the essay are interlarded with students' words about their rehearsal and performance process, the research of the tutors, quotations from Camilla the Amazon, reviews from Romantic periodicals, and commentary from late twentieth-century critics about Gothic melodrama. Thus, in both its origins and execution, the essay demonstrates how questions debated in scholarly research about British Romantic drama and theatre find different formulations and responses when (women's) playscripts are recovered and performed, and it argues that generalizations about genre often become productively confounded by modes of theatre research that happily insist upon placing tone, audience reception, and acting methods center-stage with the reading experience.

  4. The extent to which studying pre-twentieth-century female dramaturgy offers new perspectives on theatre criticism and theory is central to the fourth section of this collection.[36] As Marvin Carlson notes in his essay on the critical prefaces that Elizabeth Inchbald composed for Longman's 25-volume series, The British Theatre (1805-08), Inchbald's distinction as one of a fairly small group of British women who wrote theatre theory becomes more impressive when one realizes that she was the first British critic of either sex to undertake a project of such prominence and scope: chosen by the series' publisher to record her critical views of 125 plays current in the early nineteenth-century British repertory, Inchbald produced a monumental record of the ``legitimate'' drama, those plays that had found a foothold in ``major'' British playhouses. Certainly Inchbald's selection as the preface-writer for Longman's series more than legitimized her as a critic; it ensured that she would be heralded in subsequent ages as a major shaper of critical taste. Yet Inchbald has not been canonized in discussions of landmark theatre theorists who wrote before Modernism, even though she was apparently, as Carlson notes, the first British critic to draw upon personal knowledge to discuss plays as both read and performed experiences. The general failure of post-Romantic scholars to appreciate that the better-known ``closet critics'' - like Lamb and Byron - were not so much against performance as intrigued by theatrical possibilities unavailable on commercial stages[37] has ensured that women writers from the period, even preeminent writers like Inchbald, would be disregarded.

  5. But Inchbald deserves our attention for her remarkable achievements: one of these, as Carlson demonstrates, was the construction of a voice that would not offend readers unaccustomed to viewing a woman in the position of theatrical critic or theorist. And her published writing reveals that she could shift deftly into a more complicated voice when necessary, as when she wittingly and with- eringly responds to the published complaints of playwright George Colman.[38] Additionally, Inchbald brings her performance experi- ence to bear on the critical enterprise in ways that convey her belief in the importance of consciously addressing how different critical perspectives - whether theatrical or literary - will affect one's assessment of a dramatic work.

  6. Because Inchbald was such a powerhouse of varied theatrical talent - creating more than 20 plays and 125 critical prefaces, and performing, less notably, as an actress - she demands more critical scrutiny than she has previously received.[39] Thomas Crochunis is interested in some of the ways that Inchbald's published work reflects a self-consciousness about ``authorial performance.'' Thus, he compares Inchbald's critical prefaces with the prefatory writing Baillie produced in her three-volume series, Plays on the Passions (1798, 1802, 1812), to argue that certain female playwrights during the Romantic period often staged authorship as a complex cultural process: by publishing their plays, Baillie and Inchbald targeted their work for closet readers, even as they expressed their aim to have them performed before live audiences rather than only read. Yet, because they attached critical commentary to their work designed to shape readers' responses to (female) authorship, both Baillie and Inchbald created performances surrounding their playscripts that alternately complemented, reinforced, and competed with their dramaturgical performances. A study of the differences between these various discursive stages can cause us, Crochunis argues, to pay more attention to the ways in which the ``cultural mise en scene'' affected - and affects - any reading of a playscript or theatrical document. For if we are to receive a more culturally specific picture of a playwright's work, then we must, as Sue-Ellen Case has argued, attend to the variety of scripts contained within a dramatic text and resituate that text by exploring the many ``performances'' embedded in it.[40]

  7. Among these neglected performances from the Romantic period are translations and adaptations of French and German playscripts crafted by writers such as Elizabeth Craven, Maria Geisweiler, Anne Gittins Francis, Elizabeth Gunning, Hannah Brand, Marie The¬reŃse DeCamp Kemble, and Mariana Starke.[41] In the volume's fifth section, Jane Moody examines the controversy surrounding In- chbald's translation of a Kotzebue play, The Wise Man of the East (1799) - a comedy in which a female character commits suicide. Moody suggests that the act of translation allowed women like Inchbald to transform ``foreign plays'' from ``subversive'' documents into texts that confirmed particular aspects of hegemonic ideology. And yet this conservative impulse should not overshadow what Moody characterizes as the liberatory potential of the translating and adaptive mode. Particularly for Inchbald (and for Anne Plumptre with whom Moody compares her), translation became an oblique means of raising important political questions about the construction of feminine identity. For just as suicide draws attention to the issue of agency and its restrictions, so translation enabled Inchbald to rehearse a set of potential ``selves'' (for herself and her characters) that freed a writing persona, even as it also closeted away the idea of one, identifiable writer to whom readers and audiences could assign responsibility and praise.

  8. Julie Carlson, whose essay concludes this collection, has also written about adaptation in terms relevant to the topic of revision, which is the larger focus of her essay here: ``[p]erformance meets sociality at adaptation, a space-time in which moving speeches can remake social relations . . .''[42] As the starting-point for Carlson's analysis of two plays on the subject of remorse - Baillie's tragedy, Henriquez (1836), and Inchbald's comedy, A Case of Conscience (1833) - Carlson revisits her earlier assertions in one of the most important books about Romantic theatre to emerge in the 1990s, In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (1994). She shares her reflections on that book's arguments in order to highlight her own ``remorse'' at having engaged exclusively with male writers and (in her assessment) for suggesting that women writers did not undergo psychological journeys comparable to the male playwrights she features in her study. Such undefensiveness about one's own work can remind us that it is vital to encourage scholarship on women in Romantic theatre that embraces a range of practitioners and perspectives. This surprising critical strategy also allows Carlson to demonstrate the significance of the revisionary impulses that characterize Inchbald's and Baillie's dramaturgy, which makes radical attempts to reform love. Indeed, Inchbald's and Baillie's attempts to offer alternative views of Romantic passion resemble the radical but non-nostalgic aims of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Amelia Alderson (Opie), who revised both Burke and Godwin so that ``illusion'' and ``reason'' are not opposed.

  9. Yet Carlson's essay is less a celebration of potentially liberating action than a pragmatic reflection on the historical limitations for many women (whether performers or characters) created by the theatrical apparatus. For even as Carlson praises Inchbald's and Baillie's efforts to reform perceptions of female beauty, her essay anticipates the melancholy that may result from expectations that theatre can release women from concerns about body, aging, and physical attractiveness - especially in the context of a dramaturgy that features Romantic desire. While an actor onstage can achieve a degree of autonomy from cultural and dramaturgical constraints - as Ellen Donkin shows Sarah Siddons to have done[43] - when female bodies appear in front of audiences, it is often difficult to frame them so that viewers enculturated to objectify the female form can regard them as subjects, especially if a play's dramaturgy seems to follow conventional paths.[44]

  10. With so much recovery work waiting to be done in the complex and fascinating field of Romantic theatre and drama, the five sections of this volume are designed to describe the rapidly changing terrain of critical scholarship and to point to other areas of research on women artists who worked in London theatre between 1776 and 1843.[45] Taken together, they also promote the sharing of intellectual tools and practices from different disciplines in the project of bringing late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British stages into fuller view. And they aim to demonstrate that the uncloseting of women in British Romantic theatre is cause for both relief and sustained celebration.

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