Tag Archives: Godwin

“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.

Editing Lyrical Ballads: Wordsworth’s Decision to Remove “The Convict”

Only one poem from the original 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads does not appear in the two volume 1800 edition: Wordsworth’s “The Convict.” The specific political goals of the poem do indeed make it difficult to situate among the other works in the collection (with the exception of Coleridge’s “The Dungeon”). For most critics, “The Convict” is out of keeping with the rest of the poems in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. When scholars such as Celeste Langan and Quentin Bailey do engage the poem, they usually do so under the larger category of vagrants or vagrancy. In other words, the convict, like Martha Ray of “The Thorn,” the mad mother, and the idiot boy, is one of the marginal figures that Wordsworth’s poetry pulls to forefront. Yet the convict receives his title not from a loquacious speaker or a gossipy group of townspeople but from a formal political institution. Furthermore, while crime, even violent crime, is implied in several poems in Lyrical Ballads, in “The Convict” clear action is taken. For example, while the speaker of “The Thorn” claims that “some had sworn an oath that she [Martha Ray] / Should be to public justice brought,” no punishment ever occurs (323-3). “The Convict,” in contrast, depends upon the presence of “public justice”  for its very title.

Yet, for all of its differences, I want to suggest that the “The Convict” does share one crucial feature with the other poems in Lyrical Ballads: the centrality of the speaker. By examining the physical and imaginative movement of Wordsworth’s sympathetic speaker, I will show how “The Convict,” to a certain extent, “fits” with the larger project of the collection. When we turn to the poem, we see encounter the speaker standing on a mountain slope in the “glory of evening” (1). Reluctantly, he leaves his idyllic surroundings to visit the convict within the “thick ribbed walls” and “the glimmering gate” of his prison (9,11). As Kenneth Johnston notes, the poem “turns very abruptly from its opening scene of natural beauty to a highly articulated scene of human suffering” (419). The subject of the poem, an individual convicted of committing a crime, has already faced public judgment. There is also, as Quentin Bailey and others have noted, no suggestion that the convict is innocent. As judgment has been made and the guilty convict imprisoned, the public’s engagement with him, it would seem, is at a close.

In the fictional scenes of “The Convict,” Wordsworth’s speaker is able not only to represent the convict’s sad state but also use his “fancy” to see what lies in the man’s heart. Gazing at the convict as he sits staring dejectedly at his fetters, the speaker claims “’Tis sorrow enough on that visage to gaze, / That body dismiss’d from his care; / Yet my fancy has pierced to his heart, and pourtrays / More terrible images there” (17-20). Although the mere sight of the convict’s “visage” is “sorrow enough,” the speaker is able to push further, to offer more insight. Through his “fancy,” Wordsworth’s speaker can look not only on the convict’s “matted head,” neglected body, and the crippling effects imprisonment has on his body, but also gaze into the convict’s “heart” and find “the more terrible images there.” It is telling that rather than revealing details of the convict’s crime, these “terrible images” show the degree to which the convict “wishes the past to undo” (22). According to the speaker, the convict’s “crime, through the pains that o’erwhelm him, descried, / Still blackens and grows on his view” (23-4). The speaker suggests that it is remorse for his crime that “blackens” the convict’s appearance. Such insight, or perhaps more accurately, imaginative speculation, is possible in the fictional scenes of Wordsworth’s poem.

According to the speaker, the monarch has the potential to alleviate the convict’s sufferings. He imagines how different the convict’s situation might be if the king were standing in his place: “When from the dark synod, or blood-reeking field, / To his chamber the monarch is led, / All soothers of sense their soft virtue shall yield, / And quietness pillow his head” (25-8). Like his own movement from the mountain slope to the prison, the speaker imagines the king leaving a dark church or a bloody battlefield to come to the convict’s chamber. The speaker locates the monarch in three value-laden spaces: the church, the battlefield, and the prison are all places in which the public is constituted and acts (thinking here of Locke, Kames’s “publick” from Historical Law-Tracts, and Bentham). In others words,  Wordsworth’s speaker refers to places that became metonymic for the common interest, places where the public is constituted. The monarch entering the convict’s cell is endowed with the necessary agency to assist him.

At the close of the poem, the speaker rewrites this earlier episode by imagining what he would do if he commanded the power of the monarch. The convict, so weighed down by his condition, lets out a tear which the speaker proceeds to read: “The motion unsettles a tear; / The silence of sorrow it seems to supply, / And asks me why I am here” (42-4). In the speech act that follows, the speaker offers his answer:

“Poor victim! no idle intruder has stood
With o’erweening complacence our state to compare,
But one, whose first wish is the wish to be good,
Is come as a brother thy sorrows to share.

“At thy name though compassion her nature resign,
Though in virtue’s proud mouth thy report be a stain,
My care, if the arm of the mighty were mine,
Would plant thee where yet thou might’st blossom again.” (45-52)

In these lines, the speaker identifies himself as a special type of observer. Unlike the “idle
intruder” who visit the convict’s cell to compare his state to that of the imprisoned criminal, Wordsworth’s speaker expresses a desire “to share” the convict’s “sorrows.” As Bailey points out, the speaker distinguishes himself from more sentimental visitors and the moralizing of writers like Robert Southey because in late eighteenth century Britain “visits to a prison could too easily be assimilated by the literature of sentimentality and suffering” (7). “The Convict,” then, strives to avoid falling into these generic pitfalls and puts forward a suggestion for penal reform. It is also important to note that in the closing stanza, the speaker states that the personified abstractions of “compassion” and “virtue” have named and judged the convict. The phrase “thy name” could refer to the title of the poem itself. The title of “convict” is a name that has been assigned to this man by “public justice,” which in turn has led to him being abandoned and condemned by “quietness,” “compassion,” and “virtue.”

Many critics have recognized the influence of Godwin in the poem’s crucial
final two lines and their call for reform. Emile Legouis points out that, like Godwin’s Political Justice, Wordsworth’s poem calls for “transportation as a substitute for capital punishment” and “kindness and compassion” for the convicted (309). The speaker’s desire to relocate the convict is indeed clear, but many critical studies do not consider the manner in which the speaker expresses this desire. The final eight lines of the poem can be read as the speaker’s attempt at a performative speech act. If “the arm of the mighty” were the speaker’s to command, his words would perform an action: they would transport the convict, “plant” him somewhere where he “might’st blossom again.” Such a closing further connects Wordsworth to Godwin. As Angela Esterhammer points out, Jeremy Bentham “interpreted laws as verbal utterances exchanged between sovereigns and subjects” (554). While Bentham describes laws as speech acts, Godwin believes, as is clear in Political Justice, that language’s “only legitimate purpose is the communication of truth” and that words should never do anything (Esterhammer 555). According to Esterhammer, for Godwin, “all speech acts that attempt to exert control over future behavior ultimately work against the improvement of society because they institutionalize error, protect existing abuses, and prevent reform” (557). In other words, temporality troubles
contracts, oaths, pledges, promises, and all other performative speech acts.
Bentham’s classification of laws and Godwin’s, to borrow the title of Esterhammer’s
essay, “suspicion of speech acts” provide an useful context for examining the close of “The
Convict.” The speaker imagines himself in a position to make a verbal utterance that would carry with it the weight of the law. “If” he commanded the power of the monarch,  the speaker’s words would enact the very political reform that critics have identified in Godwin and Wordsworth.

While Godwin’s main anxiety about performative speech acts centers around time, the anxiety of Wordsworth’s speaker appears to have more to do with who has the capacity to make a performative utterance. “The Convict,” then, documents two types of representative failure. First, the “fancy” of the speaker shows the reader what lies in the convict’s heart after his judgment and imprisonment. Secondly, as is evident throughout the poem and forcefully so at its close, the monarch and “public justice” do not represent the will of the sympathetic speaker.

Perhaps the poem’s attempt to represent more “accurately” a marginalized figure and its meditation on the failure of political representation more generally connects it to the larger democratic purpose of Lyrical Ballads that will be announced in 1800.


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?