Rethinking Romantic Media: Print Alternatives

While my research has thus far focused on Romantic print media, my recent foray into the world of media archeology has led me to search for alternative media that print obscures. In Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler confronts “the historian’s writing monopoly” (6) by arguing that print cannot adequately take into account oral and visual culture. Writing merely stores the “facts of its authorization” (7), while “whatever else was going on dropped through the filter of letters and ideograms” (6). Kittler points to photography and film as storage media that put an end to the monopoly of print by recording the images and noise that print filters out. And yet, for scholars like ourselves interested in the period that preceded these inventions, how do we uncover the alternative media that print obscures? In order to answer this question, I turn to two examples of performance-based media that much recent work has attempted to reconstruct: lecture and drama.

Reconstructing the Romantic lecture

On February 28, 2014, the University of Colorado at Boulder hosted “Orating Romanticism,” a series of speakers that included Dr. Sarah Zimmerman of Fordham University, Dr. Sean Franzel of the University of Missouri, and CU Boulder’s own Kurtis Hessel. While each speaker focused on a particular lecturer or series of lectures, all spoke about the challenges they face when attempting to reconstruct a medium that is inherently performative and ephemeral. Dr. Zimmerman explained that Romantic lectures were critical oral arguments shaped by participating auditors as much as speakers themselves. For example, when giving a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s characters at the Royal Institution, Coleridge frequently deviated from his notes and occasionally strayed so far from the advertised topic that auditors complained in their reviews. Other lecturers changed their topics according to the audience’s immediate responses, collapsing the time between composition and reception that characterizes print. Working with such a medium proves challenging, explained Zimmerman, because the lecture’s “authoritative text,” if such a thing exists, “lies at the midpoint that marks the exchange between performer and audience.” As an inherently performative media dependent on time, place, and audience, the Romantic lecture cannot be adequately expressed in print.

Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)
Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)

Facing this challenge in his work on Coleridge’s, Hazlitt’s, and Humphry Davy’s respective lectures, Kurtis Hessel explained that in order to reconstruct these events we’re forced to cobble together “texts” from various sources, including the speaker’s notes, advertisements, reviews, and writings of those who attended. And yet, cautioned Hessel, these sources are often unreliable indicators of what actually took place. Just because a lecture was advertised, for example, does not mean it was actually held. If ticket sales failed to reach certain quotas, the event was canceled. In addition, while some lecturers like Hazlitt published write-ups of their lectures following the event, the printed version does not necessarily provide an accurate account of the lecture itself. Although it’s tempting to treat lectures in the same way we treat texts, Hessel struggles against this inclination in his work. Rather than relying on an available text, he explained, we’re forced to construct one. While print continues to dominate our understanding of Romantic-era oral media, we should seek out as many diverse sources as possible in order to reconstruct these moments. The lecture itself exists somewhere in between.

Reconstructing drama and pantomime

Drama is a similarly performative medium that presents methodological challenges when reconstructing it in print. With the exception of closet dramas and other plays that were not intended for the stage, the majority of popular stage productions were written with performance in mind. Although we have scripts, stage directions, and other textual remnants of these works, it’s difficult to imagine what occurred at individual performances. In Coleridge’s highly successful drama Remorse (1813), for example, we know that audiences were enthralled by a spectacular incantation scene in which an altar goes up in flames to reveal a painting of the protagonist’s assassination. Yet no surviving versions of the text give any indication of how this effect was achieved. Instead, our best guess comes from a write-up in The Examiner that describes “the altar flaming in the distance, the solemn invocation, the pealing music of the mystic song,” that together produced “a combination so awful, as nearly to over-power reality, and make one half believe the enchantment which delighted our senses.” Though lacking in specifics, this description depicts the scene better than the play’s stage directions, which simply read “The incense on the altar takes fire suddenly, and an illuminated picture of Alvar’s assassination is discovered.” In cases where stage spectacle played an important role in a production, paratextual materials are often better approximations of performance than the text itself.

These materials become even more important in the reconstruction of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pantomime, a form characterized by on-stage action rather than dialogue. When trying to reconstruct the text of Harlequin and Humpo (1812) for The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer used manuscripts with short descriptions of scenes alongside audience programs and other detailed information, but it’s impossible to arrive at an “ideal text” when a performance has no words. In places where the manuscript had little detail, they looked for descriptions in newspaper reviews. One review reveals that an Indian boy performed impressive contortions and acrobatics for a good portion of Scene V, a sequence that isn’t mentioned in the manuscript and seems have been a last minute addition to the show. It’s the piecing together of these sources that gives us the closest possible approximation of the work.

Joseph Grimaldi as "Clown," an archetypal pantomime character. c.1810. Wikipedia.

Joseph Grimaldi as “Clown,” an archetypal character in pantomime, c. 1810. (Wikipedia)

Destabilizing print

Despite my desire to uncover alternatives to print media, to deconstruct Kittler’s “writing monopoly,” it’s obvious that print is all that remains of Romantic performance culture. And yet, in our efforts to cobble together “texts” of these lectures and plays, it becomes harder to uphold traditional notions of textual stability. Especially in instances where there are multiple versions with significant differences, books are characterized by variation, difference, and inconsistency rather than grand solidity and authority. While publishers tend to smooth over these ruptures in “definitive editions” of canonical texts, reconstructions of forms like lecture and drama refuse to lull the reader into a fall sense of continuity. The search for Romantic print alternatives, though perhaps futile, may lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the different forces at play within printed texts.

 

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