On the subject of pathetic tragedies, Robert Hume writes: “Too often the pathetic plays have on one the effect of watching a dog die by inches after being run over in the street” (403). Brazenly avowing what many readers might quietly feel, Hume identifies a key critical problem for those of us trying to understand Restoration tragedy and its audiences: What was it about watching the depiction of intense emotional pain that brought audiences again and again to the playhouse? Though one cannot deny the attraction of a good cry, the unruly nature of the Restoration playhouses resists the idea that the experience of a Restoration tragedy for its audience was one of absorptive identification.
Theater historians working on the Restoration and early eighteenth-century performance environment routinely emphasize that the late seventeenth-century audience was distracted, often unruly, and at the playhouse for a great many reasons other than the play itself. Additionally, some audience members were not even present for the entire play, choosing to enter after the third act for a lesser fee (referred to as “after money”) or sometimes without cost, thus seeing only the fourth and fifth acts. The chaotic nature of the Restoration playhouses has contributed to an important yet problematic critical commonplace in theater history and drama criticism: that Restoration theater performance created a distance between the performance and the audience. This distance, what Jocelyn Powell terms “a kind of involved detachment” (24), is contrasted with the audience absorption characteristic of sentimental plays later in the eighteenth century. While I agree with the importance of Powell’s notion of “involved detachment,” his move from this detachment to reading all the plays of this period through the lens of objectivity is based on a problematic binary relationship between objectivity/analysis and subjectivity/absorption. In other words, there is much more than objective analysis occurring in the space created between audience and performance in the Restoration theater. As I will argue, this space also facilitated [End Page 37] the creation of an affective relationship between the performers and the audience and the contagion of that affect amongst the individual audience members themselves.
Eric Rothstein, in his classic, foundational text on Restoration tragedy, also stresses the fractured attention of Restoration audiences, describing the plays as “a series of effective incidents rather than a ramified totality” (8). While this leads to a separation of affect and judgement, Rothstein argues that the dramatic criticism of the time reveals that the playwrights saw these two operations as intimately related rather than oppositional. Describing the Restoration notion of catharsis, Rothstein argues that for critics at the time, “catharsis came as a result of contemplation and will, of meditation on the emotions generated, albeit perhaps a meditation and decision both natural and unconscious” (13). Rather than being set against affect, judgement is here an important element of the entire affective operation of seeing a play, and much like the operations of envy to which I will shortly turn, the effect of this separation of passion and judgement was that “the pleasure of the passion separates itself from the bitter moral of passion’s fruits” (13).
This article builds on Rothstein’s work by bringing it together with current writing in the field of affect theory that establishes that there is a great deal more to the realm of audience response than subjective feelings, and by demonstrating that the model of subjective emotion may not be the best one for understanding the affective impact of dramatic performance in the late seventeenth century. Combining the notion of a mediated distance between audience and actors with an understanding of affect as an inter-personal relationship provides another model for understanding the experience of theatrical performance in the period. Rather than creating a distance that led to objective analysis, the serious drama of the Restoration created audience distance that was subsequently filled with the interplay of affective response between the players and the audience. This response was created not only by the actions of the characters upon the stage but also by the audience’s knowledge of the private lives of the...