- The Union of Eros and Thanatos
I recently attended a staged reading of Lord Byron's verse drama, Manfred (1816-1817). This was, despite my having been interested in the topic for almost twenty years, the first time I had actually seen a Romantic verse drama performed in any form. It was apparent, as Manfred appeared and began his first soliloquy, why this was the case: the play almost completely lacks plot, moves only with the whims of the protagonist, and features weakly-filled-out stock characters aside from said protagonist, whose motivations throughout are left largely mysterious.
Byron seems to have realized this about his own play, saying it was "mental theater", i.e. drama not meant for an actual stage, but rather a play to be imagined in the mind. If this is the case, why adopt the dramatic form? Byron had already enjoyed enormous success writing long narrative poems by the time of Manfred's composition; was he merely looking to shake things up, try on a new formal costume for his readers, or is there something else at work?
I would contend that verse drama, "mental theater," is the mode of poetical writing Byron and later Romantics turned to in order to address the issue eroticism, and more specifically, that of sexual perversity. In Manfred, it is hinted that the protagonist's motivating sin is an act of incest with a sister, a situation that closely mirrors Byron's own affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, rumors of which drove him into exile from England. Percy Bysshe Shelley's tragedy The Cenci (1819) deals similarly with the taboos of incest and parricide. The dramatic mode is ideal for treating on this subject because of its essentially voyeuristic nature. Even "mental theater" implies a distinction between actor and audience, creating the kind of distance that is characteristic of sexual fantasies. Thus mental theater lends itself naturally to the playing out of fantasies, to the sublimation of socially unacceptable forms of desire into literary art.
Freud postulated in an early version of his essay "The Ego and the Id" that in addition to libido, the erotic drive that he understood to be a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, there is a death drive, embodied in his concept of thanatos, that is possessed of a similarly coupled "death energy" that he called destrudo. Though he would later discard this conception of a kind of "death energy" in order to keep his focus more squarely on libido and to avoid what he worried was an unnecessary dualism, the notion in itself is still useful, in that certain artists seem to manifest exactly such an energy in their works; one thinks of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, the explorations of evil to be found in the Chants de Maldoror (1869) of Lautréamont, or even the skull-riddled paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The notion that this "death energy" might exist additionally presents the possibility that it might be confused with, or compounded into, the erotic drives of libido. For a contemporary of Lord Byron, the verse-drama became the medium for exactly such a conflation.
I am alluding to Thomas Lovell Beddoes, sublimely strange poet of eroticized death. His bizarre masterpiece, Death's Jest-Book (1849), is a verse drama seemingly ripped from the Jacobean era yet shot through with an even more superabundant perversity. Like Manfred, it was pragmatically unstageable in the era when it was written due to its content, and it has been seldom staged since, critics deeming it more a collection of interwoven monologues and convoluted plot twists than a proper play. Despite these objections, verses from the work display a curious erotic energy in their hymns to death:
"Song from the Waters"
The swallow leaves her nest,The soul my weary breast;But therefore let the rain On my graveFall pure; for why complain?Since both will come again O'er the wave.
The wind dead leaves and snowDoth hurry to and fro;And, once, a day shall break O'er the wave,When a storm of ghosts shall shakeThe dead, until they wake...