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  • Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers, and: Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship
  • Maureen A. Dowd
Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. By Catherine B. Burroughs. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997; pp. 264. $39.95 cloth.
Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship. By Judith Pascoe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997; pp. 256. $39.95 cloth.

Catherine Burroughs and Judith Pascoe provide complementary insights that will reconfigure our understanding of theatre and theatricality in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Both Closet Stages and Romantic Theatricality make a valuable contribution to Romantic period, feminist, and theatre scholarship by building upon the work of literary and dramatic critics such as Anne K. Mellor, Julie Carlson, and Jeffrey Cox, and of contemporary theatre and performance theorists like Sue-Ellen Case and Judith Butler. Burroughs elucidates dramaturgical and performance theory, while Pascoe explores the production of poetry as a theatrical event.

Closet Stages draws on various “offstage” (31) or private texts (journals, letters, and diaries) as well as “onstage” (31) or public documents (play prefaces, prologues, epilogues, celebrity memoirs, biographies of actresses.) Burroughs smoothly combines a practical knowledge of the theatre with postmodern feminist, performance, and queer theory to provocatively redefine “closet drama”; she also includes a useful appendix of selected texts. In an analytical move that decisively rebuts critical perceptions of Romantic antitheatricality, Burroughs reconceives closet space literally as an alternative theatrical site for women—a “small experimental theater” (11). This reconceptualization allows her to explore, for example, Mary Berry’s salon as a “social theater” (69).

The book provides insight into the implications of Romantic women’s theorization of the “performance of gender on social and theatrical stages” (17). The heart of this project involves tracing the gendered contours of this “oscillation” (108) between private and public stages for diverse women associated with Romantic theatre. Burroughs thus registers not only the sometimes conflicted stances of women like Hannah More, but also the empowerment afforded female performers and playwrights like Sarah Siddons, Elizabeth Craven, and Joanna Baillie from “moving ‘inside and out’ of closet ideology” (107). [End Page 134]

Burroughs examines the writings of these women as “social narratives” (41) that reveal early nineteenth-century cultural attitudes and that evince women’s rhetorical and performative negotiation of cultural stereotypes. Her analysis in Chapter 2 of the dialogues between Helen Maria Williams and Dorothy Jordan as a collaborative and “mutually supportive scene of theorizing” about acting and stage management (63) is especially perceptive.

Chapter 3 provides a necessary corrective to most Romantic criticism, which, until recently, has failed to appreciate, as Burroughs says, Baillie’s “unique contribution to dramatic history” (87). In her analysis of Baillie’s prefaces and plays, Burroughs demonstrates the importance of Baillie’s theatrical enactment of “the closeted moments of middle-class characters” (91) and of Baillie’s advocacy of a more spontaneous acting style and more intimate theatre lighting and architecture. Chapter 4 contains innovative interpretations of Baillie’s two most well-known tragedies, De Monfort (1798) and Basil (1798), situating the plays within the historical context of debates about improvisational acting methods later associated with Edmund Kean and exploring the “conflicted performance styles” (110) of masculinity and femininity enacted by the main characters.

The final chapter of Closet Stages focuses on Baillie’s comedy, which has traditionally been neglected or dismissed. Burroughs locates The Tryal (1798) and Agnes Withrington’s “improvisation” (154) of courtship rituals within the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rage for private theatricals. Linking the craze to changing concepts of household architecture, Burroughs argues that amateur theatricals allowed women, in “their role as organizers of domestic space” (150), to control to some extent the “ways in which their social identity was configured and represented” (150).

Romantic Theatricality draws upon a variety of historical, critical, and theoretical perspectives and uses such varied sources as the session papers of the Old Bailey, selections from Mary Robinson’s manuscripts, and caricatures and paintings by Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Like Burroughs, Pascoe focuses upon a writer whose works and life have only recently received renewed critical...

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pp. 134-136
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