- Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England
Spectacular Politics offers connoisseurs of early modern English popular taste a galaxy of little-considered popular delights. What such disparate texts as street pageants, anti-Parliament plays, women writers, and the gothic drama have in common, in Backscheider’s view, is that they all represent “mass culture” and that they arose and enjoyed popularity during moments of political crisis: “the history of a nation seems to be composed of times when there is a dominant ideology and of times when that ideology breaks down and no longer functions as an organic, relational whole that seems both ‘valid’ and ‘natural’” (xii).
Backscheider organizes her analysis and descriptions around Gramsci’s model of the “integral state,” which posits that those in power “must have both the intellectual and moral consent of the governed,” and in her choice of examples she attempts to pinpoint efforts at creating “communal fictions” at specific times of crisis. She further complicates this already complicated argument by adding gender as a factor in the hegemonic apparatus, seeking to find in all three examples how the “public sphere become increasingly gendered” and constituted in “binary oppositional vocabulary” (xvii).
Part I deals with Charles II’s efforts to reestablish and recredential the ideology of monarchy supposedly killed off with his father. Backscheider has amassed a very interesting collection of documents attesting to Charles’s personal involvement with resurrecting the symbols of monarchy, employing Edward Hyde to research royal ceremonial events under Elizabeth and forming a committee to remake royal ornaments and regalia. Part II moves to the end of the century, focusing on a brief period in which over one-third of the new plays being produced in London were by women or adapted from women’s texts (71). Rather than seeking to reinscribe a defeated ideology, the mutually supportive group of Delarivière Manley, Catherine Trotter, and Mary Pix were struggling to renegotiate the terms of “woman,” “courtship,” “the good marriage,” and “the woman writer” in the context of women’s writing established a generation earlier with Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn by controlling popular modes of representation of key cultural terms. The final section turns to gothic drama and its modes of acting, tracing the rise in popularity of particular images and themes and the success of actresses such as Sarah Siddons. George III’s madness, Backscheider argues, should be considered as the crucial impetus for the Gothic, rather than the more typical interpretation of it as a response to the French Revolution.
This is an engaging work that massively represents primary texts with which most of us are not familiar, offering a fresh approach to these periods. There are some persistent features, however, which cause one to resist the narrative flow of the thesis. Backscheider declares in her introduction that “mine is not a historical study,” but that something referred to as “history,” produced by “historians,” provides the essential framework on which her cultural analysis is staged. The “non-historical” analysis of cultural hegemony is dependent on the unacknowledged premise of “historical fact.” The first sentence of the first chapter starts bluntly: “Historians describe England as having been in a state of virtual anarchy during the last months of 1659 and under King Charles II’s firm control by the beginning of 1661” (1). The reliance throughout on quoting from selected distinguished historians avoids the issue of the historicity of the texts and performances discussed—it is as though “history” itself is unproblematic and the real challenge lies only in discovering the mechanisms of ideology (self-fiction, self-fashioning).
Such a trusting attitude towards “history” and “historians,” however, leads to numerous inconsistencies. The Restoration is described as a time “before mass literacy and a well-developed press and propaganda network” in one section (1), although later the analysis of why Charles failed to establish his hegemonic vision of monarchy stresses the vast network of [End Page 117] pamphlets and periodical literature which flourished...