- The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice
Romanticism is famous for its obsession with loss: of unenclosed pastures, wild forests, innocence. Romantics can even feel loss for things they anticipate losing, such as the sound of their greatest actress's voice, which "thrilled the air with melodious tones" (7), transported audiences into the realms of the sublime, and induced swooning in the theater stalls. As Judith Pascoe brings to our attention in The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, the Romantics were the last generation to live without recording devices. If you weren't around to hear Sarah Siddons in the flesh, you never heard her. And you never will.
Thus, from the start, Pascoe's quest to listen to the voice of Sarah Siddons is doomed: how is a scholar to go about studying voice in the age prior to mechanical reproduction? Joining forces with what she dubs the "society of retrospective listeners" (14), an influx of studies attentive to the soundscapes of places and past eras that counter the visual turn in recent Romantic scholarship and in theater history more generally, Pascoe conducts her journey, ill-fated as it must be, with gusto and returns with insights into eighteenth-century dramatic repertoire and acting technique, theater architecture, and theatergoing practices re-examined through sound rather than sight. And, in a valuable reversal of the usual hierarchy of poetry and theater in the Romantic era, she finds that the much-maligned theater shaped Romantic poets' aural aesthetic. Richly informed by archival research and theories of new media supplemented by first-hand experimentation, and written in a lively, first-person voice, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files is a vibrant and sure-to-be-influential work of scholarship.
Pascoe, the author of Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Cornell University Press, 1997) and The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (Cornell University Press, 2005), had frequently encountered the figure of Sarah Siddons while writing about Romantic-era performativity and cultural obsessions. Yet, she confesses now, she had secretly wondered what all the hype was about. The fawning praise and unabashed adulation of Siddons's admirers seemed out of proportion to the hulking and haughty, if majestic, appearance of the woman in the portraits, until Pascoe began noticing, in the process of reading fans' comments, that it was Siddons's voice that mesmerized them—a voice that is silent to her.
Taking a page from the immersion journalism playbook, she enrolls in a "Voice for Actors" class in an attempt to get closer to Siddons's voice by imitating her breathing technique and vocal inflections, and alongside comical discoveries of her own shallow breathing and nasal voice, Pascoe narrates archival findings [End Page 103] about Siddons's voice over the course of her career. The failure of her 1775 debut at Drury Lane, for instance, can be attributed in part to Siddons not having a voice strong enough to fill the house. (The increasing size of theaters throughout her career would be a burden to her and a rare source of complaint from her audiences, as Siddons declared she would not ruin her voice to be heard in the distant galleries of the cavernous new halls.) If she did not naturally possess a powerfully loud voice, she would figure out a way to create a uniquely compelling one. This leads Pascoe to consider the "aural architecture" of theater spaces, considerably changed since then, so that even when we produce plays from the era, we cannot know how the voices in them were experienced: "the kind of reverberation that once gave theaters like Drury Lane distinct acoustic signatures has been reconceived as noise and erased by acoustic materials aimed at stopping sounds from careening around a room and reinforcing a voice with echoey ghost versions of itself" (64).
Consider that failed Drury Lane debut again: the role was Portia in The Merchant of Venice, never one of Siddons...