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Éire-Ireland 41.3&4 (2007) 185-214

Theater and Nation in Irish Romanticism:
The Tragic Dramas of Charles Robert Maturin and Richard Lalor Sheil
Claire Connolly

Charles robert maturin's gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) describes religion as "the national drama" of Catholic countries (I, 95). Maturin explains the inter-penetration of drama and religion that appears throughout his writings in an 1817 review essay, taking the form of an anonymous response to Richard Lalor Sheil's tragedy The Apostate (Covent Garden, 3 May 1817).1 Arguing that drama originates in religion, the article traces the history of theater in relation to that of "religion and morality" in Europe—from the "false mythology" and "moral desert" of the Greeks, through the "rude form" of medieval mystery plays, to romantic-era depictions of the Inquisition. Maturin's article suggests that during the Reformation period, theater accepted and absorbed the energies of religion itself: "the key of knowledge was wrested from the jealous and tenacious hands of the Romish priesthood, the doors of the temple were thrown open, all were invited to enter, and multitudes [End Page 185] obeyed the call" (Maturin and Gifford, "The Tragic Drama" 254). Sensitive to the religious dimensions of stage culture and simultaneously aware of the theatricality of sectarian disputes, Maturin makes theater itself at once the scene, figure, and ground of confessional confrontation.

Maturin and Sheil represent the two major sides of the denominational divide in early nineteenth-century Ireland: the former was a controversial Protestant clergyman of Huguenot origin whose chief literary allies were the Tory circle associated with Walter Scott and the Quarterly Review; whereas the latter was a Catholic barrister best remembered for laying aside his ambitions as a dramatist and joining with Daniel O'Connell to co-found the Catholic Association in 1823. What unites Maturin and Sheil is, however, just as significant as what divides them. Both made their dramatic reputations on the London rather than the Dublin stage. Both wrote plays that thematize characteristically Irish political concerns (violence, suffering, hunger, religious tolerance), but never adopt Ireland as their setting or make it part of the world of their drama. Maturin's as well as Sheil's plays, however, were reviewed and read in relation to metropolitan debates about Catholic suffrage and issues of political representation. Significantly, both wrote powerful literary tragedies that examine the tragic fates of societies and individuals scarred by history—especially by histories of conflict realized in religious terms—in a period when major Romantic writers struggled to forge tragic dramas from the confusion of contemporary life.

The result is a shared repertoire of images and styles that serve to unite at the levels of form and reception the dramatic work of figures divided by politics and religion.2 In Maturin's and Sheil's plays, fate is experienced less as a metaphysical force and more as a set of material consequences that attend upon inequality and injustice. A dramatic investment in extremes of power moves the plays into a Gothic idiom, whereas the tendency to focus on intensely private dilemmas played out against a backdrop of heated public scenes [End Page 186] results in a further downward drag into the "lower genre" of melodrama.3 Each of these stylistic junctures (tragic, Gothic, and melodramatic) involves an encounter with ideas and images associated with religion, resulting in a dramatic oeuvre realizing its tragic vision within a clearly confessional context.

A shared investment in religious hatred and intolerance (political, cultural, psychic) leads Sheil and Maturin to incorporate Catholic-associated forms, modes, and topics within the folds of their dramaturgical practices. This tendency is visible both in style (a focus on suffering statues and bodies in pain, as well as on ritualistic and liturgical uses of language) and in content (absolutism, martyrology, intolerance). The reception of the plays filters and processes contemporary debates about the admission of Catholics to British public life in the years leading up to Emancipation (1829). Catholicism is crucial to three major...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 185-214
Launched on MUSE
2007-01-04
Open Access
No
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