- The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice by Judith Pascoe
In The Sarah Siddons Audio Files, Judith Pascoe undertakes an impossible task: discovering what qualities gave nineteenth-century tragedienne Sarah Siddons’s voice—she of the last generation before recording technology was created—the reported resonance and power to “transfix and traumatize audience members” (89). Along the way, Pascoe unearths and excavates deeper questions about how we hear today and how technological intervention has changed how we listen. An engaging, fresh, and jaunty read, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files is the winner of the 2012 Barnard Hewitt Book Award from the American Society for Theatre Research and presents a playlist’s worth of fifteen short, eminently readable chapters, within which Pascoe can be found regarding a statue of Siddons in a noisy London cemetery, breathing hard while auditing a Voice for Actors class, and analyzing her own listening skills in an attempt to become a better receptacle for hearing Siddons’s lost voice.
Pascoe, a Professor of English at the University of Iowa, lists Romantic Literature and Culture as a primary area of research, and the tenets of Romanticism infuse Audio Files. Recalling an attempt to teach undergraduates about Wordsworth, Pascoe writes, “Romantic poetry is full of the ghosts of sounds, and frequently dramatizes poets’ efforts to capture or preserve them” (12). Romanticism further “suggest[s] that modes of listening are intertwined with modes of self-identity,” and Pascoe applies this insight to the broader question at the heart of Audio Files: “if I could figure out how Siddons sounded, I might also understand how people listened in the romantic period and how that style of listening influenced what they heard” (14). Pascoe zeroes in on loss and nostalgia, cornerstones of Romantic thought, as avenues of scholarly exploration. Bereft of traditional evidence of the emotive power of Siddons’s voice, she turns instead to contextual evidence for how Siddons’s voice might have resonated with nineteenth-century audiences, questioning how Siddons could have affected her noted sonic power “at a moment when it was growing increasingly difficult to hear actors, since they were performing in larger houses that placed new demands on actors’ voices,” (58). Deeply researched, featuring a rich, lengthy bibliography and endnotes, and eighteen stunning images, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files offers a materialist read of performance history and much for scholars, students, and fans of the theatre to enjoy.
In attempting to recapture what is lost, Pascoe provides an interdisciplinary methodology to make a notable contribution to the field of sound studies in performance—foregrounding the importance of the actor’s voice—and uses this methodology to explore theatre architecture, audience reception, and technology’s [End Page 106] inexorable shift of the human perception of, and relationship to, sound. Although Pascoe’s work is primarily historical research, the book’s theorizing about loss and nostalgia as related to performance have a relationship to work undertaken by Joseph Roach and Marvin Carlson. The tension between Pascoe’s historical research and performance theory is central to Audio File’s appeal, and allows Pascoe to intersect Carlson’s ghosting and Roach’s kinetic nostalgia with media theory and sound history, edging up alongside excellent archival research.
At the midpoint of the work, Pascoe articulates four of Siddons’s performances that stand as opportunities for “ecstatic listening,” a term borrowed from the opera “to describe how opera audiences anticipate opera high points…but theater audiences, too, often listen ecstatically for an actor to put a unique topspin on a line of text and loft it into the rafters” (67). Pascoe condenses the potential for ecstatic listening to four of Siddons most revered screams: 1) Belvidera (Venice Preserved); 2) Isabella (Southerne’s Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage); 3) Jane Shore (The Tragedy of Jane Shore); and 4) “Lady Randolph’s expected scream in John Home’s Douglas, which Siddons didn’t supply, thereby establishing her extreme originality” (68). From this reduction, Pascoe argues, Siddons’s...