- A Matter of Life and Death: The Auditor-Function of the Dramatic Monologue
Notwithstanding the critical consensus to agree to disagree on the definition of the dramatic monologue, the question of the auditor’s function in the genre seems more central to our understanding of the form than has hitherto been acknowledged.1 As the critical history of the auditor shows, the auditor is a defining feature of the dramatic monologue not only because how one theorizes the genre depends significantly on how one theorizes the auditor-function, but conversely because how one theorizes the auditor-function significantly alters one’s theory of the dramatic monologue. For instance, where the genre is defined as gratuitous speech serving the monologist’s purpose of self-understanding or the genre’s purpose of self-revelation, the auditor is deemed to be superfluous. This is as true of theories that define the genre by its effect of ironic character revelation—that is, the unintended revelation of the speaker’s hidden self or true character—as it is of theories that define the genre by its challenge to that view of a hidden, essential, and authentic self. For the latter, the genre is defined not by its revelation of the speaker’s self, but by its revelations about the speaking self: that it is not the unified, autonomous or sovereign subject of the Cartesian “I” or the unconstrained lyrical “I” of the Romantic ideal, but the fragmented and contingent product of text and context.2 For both, the auditor is superfluous, since it is the discrepancy between what the speaker says and “what he intends to say” or “set[s] out to mean” that produces both types of self-revelation.3 This definition of the genre thus depends on the superfluity of the auditor as much as this view of the auditor is determined by this definition of the genre. Likewise, where the auditor is defined as the necessary immediate and active interlocutor of the monologue, the theory of the genre must change: the dramatic monologue becomes a form of rhetorical performance, whether for the purpose of communication (Dorothy Mermin) or transformation, be it through apostrophic swerves of voice (W. David Shaw) or performative acts of speech (Cornelia Pearsall).4 Thus, the critical split between the view of the auditor as superfluous to the form and [End Page 19] the view of the auditor as entirely necessary should not be regarded as simply a difference of opinion; the different theories of the genre that result reveal that at stake in the question of the auditor is the very question of genre: what the dramatic monologue is, what it does, and how it does it.
Focusing on the poetry of Augusta Webster, a poet distinguished in the nineteenth century for her dramatic monologues and in the twentieth for her unconventional auditors, this essay reopens the question of the auditor’s function in the genre, but answers it by a different method.5 Where previous studies have focused on the canonical dramatic monologues and the so-called “major” Victorian poets, their theories of the auditor-function have turned on the distinction between the immediate or empirical auditor and the implied or ideal, between auditors that are “human, adult, alive, awake, physically present, and able to hear and respond,” in Mermin’s useful definition, and those that are not.6 For instance, Robert Langbaum had famously argued that the auditor’s physical presence in the poem is superfluous since the speaker speaks ultimately to himself—“ultimately across the dramatic situation and across the ostensible auditor to some projection of the speaker”—while Loy D. Martin effectively doubled the auditor’s superfluity by arguing that the auditor was not just superfluous when present, but implied even when absent. For Martin, “[a]ll dramatic monologues at least fantasize a listener,” else, as T. S. Eliot had put it, “why should a man put on fancy dress and a mask only to talk to himself?”7
For Mermin, in contrast, an auditor that is physically present and capable of responding shifts the genre’s purpose from the ironic character revelation posited by earlier theories, where the auditor’s...