“Composition” and “Execution'”: The Dramatic Efforts of William Godwin

The Romantic era witnessed the reemergence of closet drama, the rise of what scholars have come to call mental theatre, and Charles Lamb’s famous declaration that Shakespeare has always belonged in print and has always been meant to be read. Examining these attempts to remediate the theatre – to have print supplant the stage as the correct medium for theatrical exhibitions – under the larger categories of poetry, imagination, or mental theatre does not consider the shifting material situation of the period. While valuable work has been done examining theatre’s relationship to these categories as well as the social space offered by the theatre and changes in theatrical laws and practices, this post will show that one of the principal objections regarding writing for the stage during the Romantic era was more pragmatic. William Godwin, an early and neglected participant in this conversation, claims that the lag time between the composition and performance of a play prevents the theatre and playwrights from staying current.

As many critics have shown, Godwin and his circle – including Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Thelwall, and others –share a “profound mistrust of the theater and theatricality in general.” [1] Summarizing the chief goals of Godwin’s landmark 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, Mark Philip echoes these sentiments when he claims that, according to Godwin, “as people become more fully autonomous, rational and benevolent, the institutions of property and government will fall by the wayside, but so too will such invidious practices as concerts and theatrical performances.” [2] A reexamination of his famous dismissal of the “invidious practices” of concerts and theatrical performances, however, reveals the effects print had on the theatre. It is when he is writing about cooperation that Godwin turns his attention to the arts, specifically music and the theater. Before asking “shall we have theatrical exhibitions,” the political thinker asks “shall we have concerts of music?” Godwin dismisses both music and the theater because he believes that it is detrimental for men to “come forward in any mode, formally to repeat words and ideas not their own.” [3] The, in Godwin’s terms, “mode” of music and theatrical exhibition simply facilitate repetition.

The distinction between “executing” and “composing” music and dramas reveals Godwin’s main concern regarding these two “modes” of artistic representation.[4] G. Thomas Tanselle’s discussion of literary texts and musical scores in A Rationale of Textual Criticism is useful in understanding Godwin’s objections. For Tanselle, both types of art serve as sets of instruction for the reader and performer: “As artifacts, literary texts are analogous to musical scores in providing the basis for the reconstitution of works, even though the medium of those works is different.” [5] According to Tanselle, both are sets of instructions for their reproduction. It is this idea of reproduction that Godwin believes to be problematic. The “execution” of earlier compositions is a type of submission to the authority of the past. To privilege the work of earlier generations is, according to Godwin, to “yield supinely to the superior merit of our  predecessors.” This anxiety regarding the “merit of our predecessors” connects Godwin’s concerns regarding music and the theater with the larger issues of Political Justice. For example, discussing the legislative decisions of the new national assembly in France, Godwin writes, “‘Man and forever!’ was the motto of the labours of this assembly. Just broken loose from the thick darkness of an absolute monarchy, they assumed to prescribe lessons of wisdom to all future ages.” As Angela Esterhammer points out, Godwin claims the French Constitution “fell into exactly the same trap of attempting to legislate for all time.”[6]  Likewise, the musical and theatrical compositions of his predecessors have come to dominate the art of the age.

It would seem, then, that the rehabilitation of the artistic modes of music and theatrical production is possible. When he concludes his discussion of the arts of his time, Godwin gestures towards a solution. He claims that the current moment’s submission to past compositions “borders perhaps, in this respect, upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs.”[7]  “Every useful and valuable idea” must be expressed immediately. Godwin’s longing for “immediate utterance” reveals his “Romantic proclivity for the oral.” [8] It also begins to show why the theater, which “tended to relegate the written word to secondary significance, behind the spoken”[9] would appeal to him. Furthermore, as George Woodcock recognizes, “Godwin’s view of social change,” especially in 1793 when he was first gaining notoriety, required “a certain immediacy, for he believed men’s minds would be open to the persuasion of reason” if “the truth were shown to them.” [10] Therefore, showing “the truth” to men immediately through a medium that privileges the spoken word would be quite persuasive. Those capable of reviving the artistic modes of the music and theatrical production are not the performers or actors – that is, those who are responsible for the execution of a given work – but the composers. In other words, the execution of compositions written during his own moment would, for Godwin, put an end to the practice of “supinely” submitting to the superiority of his predecessors.

The extent of Godwin’s investment in the stage is most evident when after the performance of his play Antonio in 1800, he claims, “I regard the 13th of December last as a great era in my life, & I am not without hope that it may ultimately prove an auspicious one.” [11]   Despite the fact that the play was performed only once, this quotation shows that he clearly hoped that the first production of one his plays would not be his last. The fact that he labels the staged performance of his play as an “era” is also important. As Julie Carlson notes, writing for the stage is “precisely a writing for – for a future representation and reception that may or may not occur.”[12]  The “great era” Godwin identifies further highlights the distinction between the writing of a play and its staged performance.

Godwin wrote four plays over the course of his career, two of which made it to the Drury Lane stage. What happens to our understanding of Romantic drama when Godwin is put into the conversation? What happens when we consider Godwin’s distinction between “composition” and “execution” in relation to attempts to locate the theatre and theatrical performances in print as opposed to the stage?

[1] Karr, “Thoughts That Flash Like Lightning,” 327.

[2] Philp, Godwin’s Political Justice, 1.

[3] Godwin, Political Justice, 272.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism, 23.

[6] Esterhammer, “Godwin’s Suspicion of Speech Acts,” 560.

[7] Godwin, Political Justice, 572.

[8] Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, 135.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Woodcock, William Godwin, 125.

[11] Maniquis and Myers, Godwinian Moments, 227.

[12] Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism, 5.