- Distance, Theatre, and The Public Voice, 1750–1850 by Melynda Nuss
By the end of the eighteenth century, London’s theatres had undergone massive architectural changes: they had grown enormously, with some seating nearly 4,000 spectators, in stark contrast to the intimate venues of a century prior. Without accompanying advances in visual technology, they relied more heavily upon spectacular display and exaggerated gesture. Audiences enjoyed these new grandiose sights and sounds, but also expressed nostalgia for the intimacy of the past. Melynda Nuss’s book takes this question of theatrical distance as its central concern. It argues that dramatic writings from the period actively experimented with manipulating [End Page 483] distance, expressed anxieties about coping with this new atmosphere, and attempted to fashion spaces in which they could overcome its limitations—all as ways of coming to terms with their shifting theatrical environment. However, Nuss’s central insight is that representing distance onstage stood in for a whole host of issues beyond conveying messages to a theatrical audience, and was a metonym for English culture’s navigations of an emerging mass public. In each of five compelling chapters, Nuss articulates how “in dramas both stage and closet, in theatrical criticism, and in theatrical situations imagined in print, authors experimented with different ways of connecting with readers separated in space and time” (3–4).
Distance, Theatre, and the Public Voice contributes to a critical landscape only recently investigating the connections between theatre and its physical setting during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book builds especially on works like Frederick Burwick’s Romantic Drama: Acting and Reacting (2010) and Daniel O’Quinn’s Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770–1790 (2011), which have demonstrated how the Romantic theatre offered a space in which writers could work out anxieties about shifting political, economic, and social landscapes in ways unavailable to other print genres. However, Nuss also engages in a sustained way with the relationship between print and performance during the period, putting professional playwrights like Elizabeth Inchbald and Thomas Didbin in dialogue with poets and essayists, including William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Hazlitt.
The volume oscillates between analyses of “more successful” negotiations with the problem of distance and “less successful” ones. Its first chapter, therefore, argues that pantomime was able to provide audiences with the spectacular entertainments of a large stage while also humanizing its characters. She demonstrates that such fantastical works as Thomas Didbin’s Harlequin and Humpo illustrate the transitional state of a theatre whose audience desired spectacle and intimacy simultaneously, while also presenting the possibility of successfully navigating this climate. A discussion of the closet dramas of Inchbald and Lord Byron in the second chapter reveals the dark side of such attempts to negotiate these competing demands. Nuss notes how, at the peak of their popularity, Inchbald wrote her only closet drama, while Byron penned his only plays meant for staging. Inchbald, a writer who had historically been famed for physical representations and bodily enactment, could experiment with nonphysicality while Byron desired to engage directly with an emerging mass audience, although he feared the limits of language’s constitutive power in the midst of rising commodification. For both writers, these attempts were met with painful rejection and a recognition of the limits of free movement between the proximate and the distant during the period.
Nuss trenchantly observes that distance was not simply a staging problem: chapters 3 and 4 treat, respectively, successful and failed attempts to incorporate this theatrical distance into an author’s poetic voice as well. She notes that Wordsworth’s play The Borderers is centrally concerned with combining spectatorship and personal, intimate contact, arguing that because this combination was impossible in the contemporary theatre, he incorporated it into his later poetic works, creating “a poetic persona as a hybrid actor-spectator” (60) who simultaneously describes from a distance and sympathetically shares in his readers’ experiences. Ultimately, his earlier dramatic experiment helped Wordsworth resolve these competing perspectives on distance in some of his most famous poems. In contrast, chapter...