- Staging Identity: Frances Burney’s Allegory of Genre
Unfortunately for me, I was to appear first, & alone.—I was pushed on,—they clapped violently—I was fool enough to run off, quite overset, & unable to speak. I was really in an agony of fear & shame!—& when, at last, Allen & Barsanti persuaded me to go on again,—the former, having, in the lively warmth of her Temper, called to them not to Clap again, for it was very impertinant [sic];—I had lost all power of speaking steadily, & almost of being understood; & as for action, I had not the presence of mind to attempt it.from Frances Burney’s journal, 1771 1
Next came my scene; I was discovered Drinking Tea;—to tell you how infinitely, how beyond measure I was terrified at my situation, I really cannot,—but my fright was nearly such as I should have suffered had I made my appearance upon a public Theater.from Frances Burney’s journal, 1777 2
The journal accounts of Frances Burney’s appearances on the private stage read as records of fear, hysteria, and shame, which is to say that they stage nothing less than a spectacle of bourgeois formation. As I will go on to suggest, Burney’s stage fright constructs her as a private individual, over and against the collective gaze of the audience; her terror inscribes the public body as private text, as the “somatic fiction” of a nascent middle-class identity. 3 Indeed, this suffering interiority also [End Page 433] demarcates the privileged space of feminine feeling in Burney’s first novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, itself a fiction of identity and origins, of stage fright and staged reading. When Burney writes in her journal about her own fear of making a public appearance, she anticipates the antitheatrical terms in which Evelina will cast the problem of female subjectivity and through which the novel will work out issues of generic identity and ideological affiliation.
What is so striking about Burney’s diary entries—and what links them to Evelina—is that they construct female subjectivity by narrating what appears to be the very destruction of the subject. Burney stresses the loss of agency and self-control that she experiences as a performer, a loss of agency that is figured as an alienation from or mutilation of the body. When Burney becomes “violently” agitated before taking the stage, for example, her dizzy confusion is figured as a physical wrenching: “My Head seemed to turn round, & I scarce knew what I was about” (Journal I, 162). In another episode, her terror at being on display is turned inward as a form of self-cannibalism: “All the next scene gave me hardly 3 words in a speech . . . so I had little else to do than to lean on the Table, & twirl my Thumbs, &, sometimes, bite my fingers:—which, indeed, I once or twice did very severely, without knowing why, or being able to help it” (Journal II, 239). 4 Not being able to help herself is in fact the common theme in all of Burney’s entries on acting: “I could not command myself”; “I could hardly Dress myself,—hardly knew where I was,—hardly could stand”; “I was quite sick.” When Burney makes an entrance, as in my first epigraph, she is “quite overset,” “unable to speak,” and lacks any “presence of mind.” This mental absence, a kind of self-evacuation, finds its best expression in paradox: “The moment I entered, I was again gone!” (Journal II, 242) Making a theatrical entrance, it seems, necessitates a corresponding mental exit. Or does it?
Although it may seem at first that the performer’s mind exits stage right when her body takes center stage, I would claim just the opposite: at no point is Burney more present than when treading the boards. Although she claims to be “gone,” “absent,” “outside [her]self,” she narrates these experiences as a glut of interiority, an interiority that her theatrical terror stages as inaccessible. So Burney’s corporeal display registers as an excess of feeling in my second epigraph: “To tell you...