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Character's Theater

Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

By Lisa A. Freeman

Publication Year: 2011

If the whole world acted the player, how did the player act the world? In Character's Theater, Lisa A. Freeman uses this question to test recent critical discussion of eighteenth-century literature and culture. Much current work, she observes, focuses on the concept of theatricality as both the governing metaphor of social life and a primary filter of psychic perception. Hume's "theater of the mind," Adam Smith's "impartial spectator," and Diderot's "tableaux" are all invoked by theorists to describe a process whereby the private individual comes to internalize theatrical logic and apprehend the self as other. To them theatricality is a critical mechanism of modern subjectivity but one that needs to be concealed if the subject's stability is to be maintained.

Finding that much of this discussion about the "Age of the Spectator" has been conducted without reference to the play texts or actual theatrical practice, Freeman turns to drama and discovers a dynamic model of identity based on eighteenth-century conceptualizations of character. In contrast to the novel, which cultivated psychological tensions between private interiority and public show, dramatic characters in the eighteenth century experienced no private thoughts. The theater of the eighteenth century was not a theater of absorption but rather a theater of interaction, where what was monitored was not the depth of character, as in the novel, but the arc of a genre over the course of a series of discontinuous acts.

In a genre-by-genre analysis of plays about plays, tragedy, comedies of manners, humours, and intrigue, and sentimental comedy, Freeman offers an interpretive account of eighteenth-century drama and its cultural work and demonstrates that by deploying an alternative model of identity, theater marked a site of resistance to the rise of the subject and to the ideological conformity enforced through that identity formation.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: A Prologue

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pp. 1-10

...This book challenges at least two major premises of eighteenthcentury literary and cultural studies: first, that the study of eighteenth-century drama can contribute little to how we understand the literary forms and cultural contents of this period; and second, that the subject as figured in the novel emerged inevitably in the eighteenth century as the dominant discursive structure for modeling modern identities...

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1. Staged Identities: It's just a Question of Character

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pp. 11-46

...As I have already explained briefly in the Introduction, this study argues that the stage located its response to this situation not in representations of the "subject" as did the novel, but rather in representations of identity that fell under the rubric of "character," as it was specifically conceived and understood in the eighteenth century. In this chapter, then, I begin to address...

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2. Plays About Plays: An "Abstract Chronicle"

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pp. 47-86

...In the previous chapter, I made the case that the stage not only presented identity as an effect of character, but that in so doing it reflected and capitalized upon, rather than concealed and compensated for, the general "crisis of character" that was of such widespread concern in eighteenth-century culture. In this sense, "character," as it was produced on the stage and represented by "players," can be viewed as an "abstract"...

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3. Tragedy's Tragic Flaw: National Character and Feminine Unruliness

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pp. 87-144

...If eighteenth-century plays about plays held the line of defense against foreign invaders, then it was tragedy's task to work the offense in an attempt to "liberate" the English nation. Plays about plays often made this point about the cultural work of this dramatic genre. Drawing an analogy between theater and nation, they figured successful tragedy as the antidote to both a faltering national stagecraft and an ailing national morality...

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4. Constituting Parodies of Identity: Manners, Humours, and Intrigue on the Comic Stage

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pp. 145-192

...In this chapter, I turn to comedy as the genre most intimately associated with the representation of social relations. In contrast to tragedy, which, as demonstrated in the previous chapter, works toward the articulation of public virtue through the suppression of the private, we will see that eighteenth-century comedy works to investigate and expose the private social relations that made public life possible. Indeed, where eighteenth-century tragedies either pass over or subordinate the family ...

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5. Sentimental Comedy: Or,The Comedy of Good Breeding

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pp. 193-234

...For if sentimental comedies marked a departure on the English stage, it was a departure, as I shall contend, away from that ironic perspective and towards a rhetorical posture of sincerity. In this chapter, I want to explore what it meant for comedy to lay claim to sincerity in an eighteenthcentury context and to look in particular at what kinds of motives and interests lay behind the sentimental strain of comedy that first emerged in this period and would continue to confound and perplex comic taxonomies for years to come...

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pp. 235-238

...Turner understands performance as an outlet for social concerns in which various crises and anxieties are not only accessed and reflected but also interpreted and assigned meaning. He places drama not only at the center of human experience, but also at the center of processes for making sense out of that experience. For Turner, drama is no less than "our native way of manifesting ourselves to ourselves and, of declaring where power and meaning...


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pp. 239-274


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pp. 275-290


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pp. 291-296

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pp. 297-298

...This book has been a long time in the making, and the debts I have incurred over the years have been many. For support while this project was in its earliest stages, I am grateful to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities as well as to the Penn-in-London fellowship program. As a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I have received grants from the Campus Research...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201949
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812236392

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 606607593
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Character's Theater

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Subject Headings

  • English drama -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • Characters and characteristics in literature.
  • Literary form -- History -- 18th century.
  • Identity (Psychology) in literature.
  • Group identity in literature.
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