Theatre and the Novel, from Behn to Fielding by Anne F. Widmayer (review)
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Theatre and the Novel, from Behn to Fielding by Anne F. Widmayer
Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2015.
xii+264pp. £60;US$76. ISBN 978-0729411653.

Anne F. Widmayer opens Theatre and the Novel with the significant and significantly true assertion that drama “has not received sustained critical investigation as one of the novel’s precursors” (1). Other scholars of note, such as Emily Hodgson Anderson (Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction [2009]) and Francesca Saggini (Backstage in the Novel [2012]), have recently explored the intersections of theatrical stagecraft and novelistic technique, but their studies focus, for the most part, on authors from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a period long after novel reading had emerged as a leisure activity to rival attendance at the playhouse. Widmayer’s major contribution is to draw us back in time to focus attention on playwrights who also contributed as prose writers to the development of the English novel at the crucial and early point of the form’s inception in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Opening her study with chapters on the works of Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley and moving from there to explorations of the plays and novels of William Congreve and Henry Fielding, Widmayer strives to illustrate how each of these authors “imported dramatic techniques into their early fictional work to provoke readers’ and authors’ meta-awareness of the constructedness of prose fiction” (2). As a consequence, she argues, “early novels that are influenced by dramatic techniques seem almost entirely uninterested in verisimilitude; instead, irony, hypocrisy, and characters who are knowingly acting for an audience highlight the artificial and false in fictional works” (3).

With this claim for the early novel, Widmayer’s study joins the chorus of other recent works that have looked to trouble the claims of Ian Watt’s dicta on the force of formal realism and instead celebrates the early novel as an experimental form upon which the category of “realism,” as we have come to define it, had little to no purchase, especially when compared to the fascination in these early novelistic works with how fictions may be formed. The study is at its best when it describes how various regimes of visuality were imported into the novel, noting in particular the ways in which the lessons the theatre taught its audiences about how to read the significance of the placement of characters on stage influenced playwright-novelists in designing and staging key scenes in their novels. Yet its understanding of how those regimes were not only imported into the novel but also transposed and then transformed by the genre is less convincing to me and leads to a great deal of critical confusion. Perhaps even more troubling, given [End Page 514] the book’s announced project, is the slippage that enters into the work early on between what Widmayer terms “dramatic techniques” and the hybrid that she labels “dramatic-narrative techniques,” a label that seems to be based less on any set of formal distinctions than on the chronology of a given author’s works. Thus, Congreve is characterized as using a “hybrid dramatic-narrative technique” for no other reason than that he drafted his novel Incognita before he finished his first play, The Old Bachelor. It became difficult for me to distinguish the direction of formal influence that Widmayer wishes to trace, and this problem was only exacerbated by her deployment of the term “dramatic” both to refer to specific theatrical techniques and to delineate moments of heightened tension or emotion. To say that a novelistic scene is “dramatic” in an affective sense is not necessarily to suggest that it draws on techniques that are specifically theatrical in nature.

Widmayer’s slippery distinctions sometimes lead to contradictory arguments and claims. For example, in the space of barely a page, she writes of Delarivier Manley’s use of “dramatic” scenes both that “these emotional interruptions in her prose works bring the audience closer to her female characters” and that “Manley’s use of dramatic techniques causes the audience to doubt the seemingly unmediated ‘reality’ of prose” (122–23). Does the use of this “dramatic...