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  • Spectacle and Revolution in 1790s Tragedy
  • Barbara Darby (bio)

The French Revolution provided British writers, painters, and caricaturists with a wealth of images and subject matter for their work, from the icon of the ancien régime, the stormed Bastille; to the execution of Louis XVI; to scenes of frenzied crowds. These images and the plots of upheaval and insurrection connected with them were depicted overtly or mapped onto the characters and stories of history. 1 The perception of the effect of the French Revolution on the English stage has been skewed, however, by three trends in discussions of the tragic drama of the last quarter of the eighteenth century: a general dismissal of tragedy; 2 a contemporary bias favoring ironic, pro-revolutionary plays; and an interest in canonized writers. Although Allardyce Nicoll urges critics to strike a balance “between a chronicle of pseudo-classic traditions and a chronicle of romantic revolt,” the latter chronicle has dominated dramatic history to the detriment of those plays that may not immediately pique an interest because they are conservative and cautionary rather than seductively covert. 3 That the conservatism of post-1789 tragedies is seldom discussed raises the issue of how politics and theater intersected then, as they do now, where the spectacle of the Revolution was and is concerned.

It is certain that any depiction of revolutionary events that favored upheaval required that its messages be covert or coded. As Nicoll notes, “with the stirring events across the Channel audiences became unduly sensitive, and many authors, with no hidden meaning, had their works condemned because of supposed satirical or allegorical intent.” 4 Jeffrey N. Cox similarly concentrates on what was suppressed, censored, and hidden in plays when he observes that sympathetic representations of rebellion had to be indirect because of the fear that revolutionary sentiments on the stage [End Page 575] would reproduce rebellion in the streets. He writes that “the dramatizers of the revolution moved . . . from the direct representation of actual events, through the displacement of revolutionary acts into parallels found in neoclassical tragedy and Gothic romance, and finally to the recreation of the Revolution in mythic terms.” 5 Ronald Paulson suggests that “the plays that went seriously, although clumsily, at the real issues and took sides were prohibited and never performed. Even so, the surviving texts show that they generally took the allegorical way out through parallels in earlier English history or in Roman or Swiss history.” 6 What few readers there are of the serious drama of the last decade of the eighteenth century might understandably believe that the drama of the decade of revolution was uniformly crafty, subversive, and intrigue-ridden, if not censored beyond political relevance.

An alternative perspective that might better contextualize works in the English theater in the 1790s may be found in the work of anthropologists such as Victor Turner and John J. MacAloon, who discuss multimedia cultural performances or spectacles that include within them varied and interdependent subgenres and that have a reflexive relationship to the societies that present them. For Turner, performance includes formal drama and such things as wedding ceremonies and festivals. He argues that “by setting aside times and places for cultural performances . . . people become conscious, through witnessing and often participating in such performances, of the nature, texture, style, and given meanings of their own lives as members of a sociocultural community.” 7 These performances can be “active agencies of change, representing the eye by which culture sees itself,” the place where new social relationships are forged and explored. 8

MacAloon describes a spectacle as an event (or a series of performances) that “takes the ‘realities’ of life and defuses them by converting them into appearances to be played with like toys, then cast away,” but also one that “simultaneously rescues ‘reality’ from ‘mere appearance’ and re-presents it in evocative form as the subject for new thought and action.” 9 Spectacle is primarily visual, immense, and grand; it builds upon the roles of actors and audience; and it is dynamic, “demanding movement, action, change, and exchange on the part of the human actors who are center stage, and the spectators must be excited in turn.” 10 (MacAloon’s example...

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pp. 575-596
Launched on MUSE
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