Tag Archives: drama

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.


“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.

Now Playing: Byron’s Manfred

Lord Byron’s first drama Manfred was published in 1817. While the play proved a commercial success, it never made it to the stage. In 1820, however, Marino Faliero was published and began being performed at Drury Lane later that year. As Thomas L. Ashton points out, Byron’s play is severely edited. Therefore, like Coleridge’s Remorse, the scholarly critic has multiple objects of inquiry: the original version of the play, the staged production, and the text of that production.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the staging of Marino Faliero is Byron’s response. In 1821, Byron published a collection of dramas containing Sardanapalus, Cain, and The Two Foscari separately from his regular verse. Contemporary reviewer William Gifford and Victorian commentator Matthew Arnold see the collection as the poet’s attempt to distance his weak dramatic experimentations from the rest of his work. Yet the features of this volume demand more attention. The collection lacks the usual Byronic trappings; most notably there is no frontispiece of the poet himself. Also, in his 1821 review of Sardanapalus, John Gibson Lockhart asks why Byron and his publisher John Murray decided to release the new collection during the same week that John Constable released Pirate, the new Walter Scott novel. Byron fought Murray to have his three dramas published at the end of theater season, despite the fact that such a release date would make the collection a commercial rival with Britain’s other top selling writer.

What if one of the plays in Byron’s 1821 collection made it to the stage in the poet’s lifetime? What are the implications of staging a play that the author contends was not written for the playhouse? In other words, what happens when the play is remediated? Furthermore, what happens to our scholarly narratives if we foreground the medium of the playhouse? Does Byron’s position in the canon change (he has proven disruptive and does not appear in certain foundational works including Natural Supernaturalism)?

Wordsworth and Coleridge’s early dramatic efforts have received attention but what of other prominent writers who forayed, or attempted to, into the playhouse? What are we to make of the fact that William Godwin continued writing plays, only one of which was staged and only once, when he had found success as a political philosopher and novelist? How are we to read the fact the only work of Shelley’s that needed a second edition in his lifetime was The Cenci?