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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 109-115
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Beyond Romanticism: New Books on Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century British Drama
Matthew J. Kinservik
The University of Delaware
Catherine B. Burroughs. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). Pp. xii + 238. $39.95 cloth.
Catherine B. Burroughs, ed. Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xvi + 344. $59.95 cloth.
Colley Cibber. An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000). Pp. xxxii + 372. $17.95 paper.
Jane Moody. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xiii + 278. $59.95 cloth.
When one thinks of Romantic drama, the first association is likely to be the page, not the stage. Byron's ambivalence toward public performance and judgment, Wordsworth's tirade against the "sickly and stupid German tragedies" in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and Shelley's unstageable The Cenci are all well-known examples of Romanticism's antitheatrical prejudice. But while the Great Names of Romanticism sometimes shunned the stage, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a time of explosive growth in the number and variety of public theatres and of radical experimentation with dramatic form. A trio of new books devoted to Romantic drama and theatre history offer an exciting, revisionist look at this neglected material.
Catherine B. Burroughs' Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers is, simply, an excellent book. Her goal is not just to reclaim Baillie and other Romantic women as objects of study, [End Page 109] but also to read Romantic "closet drama" like Baillie's in terms of present day feminist and queer approaches to literature and performative subjectivity. Burroughs defines "closet drama" in two ways: as plays primarily experienced as text, and as the unwritten, but heavily scripted, gender performances that take place in the closet, the home. This dual definition enables Burroughs to examine a previously unrecognized body of theoretical work by Romantic women about theatricality and performance. Feminist theatre history is made difficult by the relative dearth of texts written by theatrical women. Burroughs deals with this problem by casting a wide net. Some of the texts she discusses are not essays per se, but as she points out, neither are Keats' letters, yet they are regarded as important critical documents. Discussing Mary Berry's theories, Burroughs draws on both Berry's published work and on her private letters and journals. The result is an informative juxtaposition of Berry's private grumblings about the necessity of gendered performance on the domestic stage with her public criticism of tragedians like Lillo who write tragedies that are set in the domestic scene. Burroughs concludes that this juxtaposition "reminds us to look closely at how Romantic women writers drew upon their experiences of closet stages in order to analyze their relationships to public theater" (73). Her discussion of Sarah Siddons' theory of acting is especially useful, since it links Siddons to Baillie in the belief that effective dramatic characters must arouse a "sympathetic curiosity" in spectators. Less useful, however, is the section on Helen Maria Williams' interviews with Dora Jordan, which has more to do with how Williams managed to draw out Jordan's "theory" than it has to do with that theory itself.
In the third chapter, Burroughs turns to Joanna Baillie, whom she considers to be the most important Romantic woman playwright and theorist. Burroughs' discussion of Baillie focuses on the preface to Plays on the Passions (1798) and on the three plays published with it: The Tryal, De Montfort, and Count Basil. Two points about the preface are especially important. First, although these plays first appeared in print, not on the stage, Baillie clearly wished for them to be staged. Second, the plays must be considered "closet drama" in Burroughs' dual sense of the term: because they were experienced initially as text andbecause...