- "A Sensation of the Action":The Inscription of Performance in the Verse Dramas of Augusta Webster
In an 1886 issue of the Athenaeum, the Victorian writer and political activist Augusta Webster wrote a tepid review of Lewis Morris's poetic drama Gycia, tactfully evading outright condemnation by ruminating on the genre more broadly. Webster, a writer of poetic dramas as well as a critic of them, penned this review a year before the publication of the last of her four verse dramas, and, therefore, her words speak to her own mature approach to dramatic writing. What Webster's critical consideration of Gycia makes clear is that poetic drama sets its sight on a rare—but important—kind of reader who revels in creating the world alongside the author, who possesses "the faculty of inward sight and hearing," and who seeks to inhabit the world of the literature he or she reads. Since the reader of drama desires "a sensation of the action" above and beyond "passive absorption" of novel reading, it is imperative, explains Webster, that such a work "need not, indeed should not, be written with any modifications of dramatic treatment to differentiate it from acting plays" and that authors of this genre remember that "the plays that act best read best."1 Her lackluster response to Morris's instantiation of this genre results from his subordination of the dramatic element of the piece to the poetic and, therefore, his failure to see the reader as one who desires to experience the physicality of the world of the play and to participate viscerally in its creation.
Webster's four full-length plays reflect her desire to blend stage drama and closet drama, and as Patricia Rigg has noted Webster drops abstract themes typical of closet drama for the sake of conventional dramatic structure and stage directions.2 However, Webster's works enact this hybridity with more than just a stage-worthy plotline; they also continually invoke the embodied nature of theatrical performance in the confines of the printed page both through references to Victorian stage practice and through uses of, what the linguist [End Page 39] J. L. Austin terms the "performative" functions of language. I argue that Webster, in her dramas, plays with the physical potential of language to remind readers of the embodiment implicit in the printed page and to encourage them to see the process of reading as an active, physical engagement with the text. By doing so, Webster redefines literature as inherently performative—the book is like a stage; its characters, the actors; its writer, the director; and the reader, its audience—and that, as a result, it is an enterprise of body as well as mind. Yet Webster's plays never advocate the superiority of the stage to the printed page; these literary dramas harness the visceral realities of performance to remind readers of their role as active consumers in print's seemingly unidirectional transaction and of literature's contributions to their embodied reality.
Webster's conception of literary drama that allows audiences to see the play "acted to them only in the theatre of their minds" alludes to but also provides a feminist reworking of the closet drama form conceived of by male Romantic writers such as Byron and Coleridge, who envisioned this genre as a safe retreat from the anti-intellectual stage. Webster invokes and challenges Byron's aesthetic choice to exchange the theatrical stage for "the mental theatre of the reader"3 and Coleridge's belief that Shakespeare's greatness lies in the fact that he wrote not for any stage so much as "the universal mind." 4 Byron's and Coleridge's words envision the reader's mind as a sufficient substitute for the stage (the mind, for both of them, is already a theater) and assume that there is a universal mental landscape, invariable across time and peoples. In contrast, Webster's characterization charges her readers to visualize that stage and re-create its spatial and temporal realities anew in each of their own minds. In an 1887 letter that Webster wrote to William Michael Rossetti, responding to his critique that the action in her final...