- "The Dramatic Poet and the Unpoetic Multitudes":Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Allegorized Theatrical Commentary in Book IV of Aurora Leigh
In an introductory note to the published papers of Manchester University's 1970 Victorian theater symposium, editors Kenneth Richards and Peter Thomson encapsulate the current state of this critical field and accurately predict its future, stating, "It is still fairly respectable to know nothing about the nineteenth-century theatre, but it seems unlikely that it will be so for long."1 As they foresaw, the coming decades witnessed a resurgence of interest in the performances of the nineteenth-century stage—a justified reprisal that has invited the Victorians' own theatrical commentary back into the critical spotlight. In one such contemporary moment of theatrical criticism, Elizabeth Barrett (EBB) remarks on the current state of the "translation" of dramatic works for the Victorian stage in an 1842 letter to her confidante, the dramatist and fellow poet Mary Russell Mitford:
In regard to the drama, I have been to the theatre—I have seen Shakespeare in London—but it was when I was a young child: and I admit to you willingly that in reading & taking pleasure from the written Drama, my ideas of it never enter the theatre from first to last. I have a notion,—that the theatre interprets between the dramatic poet and the unpoetic multitude,—& always where the poetry is high, desecrates it in translation.2
EBB's letter corroborates the commonly held critical belief—both contemporary and modern—that the early-to mid-nineteenth century was a dark age for the British theater. Implicit in this widely held opinion is an elitist hand-wringing over the inferiority of public taste that, as Michael Booth and others have noted, [End Page 309] was becoming increasingly democratized as Victorian playhouses selected and adapted works to please the growing numbers of lower-middle- and working-class theatergoers.3
Indeed, in this letter to Mitford and many others, EBB seems to argue against the very idea of the popular theater itself, stating that she has formed a notion that the "poetry" of written drama can never be fully realized in performance for the "unpoetic multitudes" and that "high" dramatic art is always lost in translation. EBB's letters between 1842 and Aurora Leigh's publication in 1856 reveal not only her friendships with dramatists such as Mitford, Richard Hengist Horne, and George Sand but also that she followed the London theater closely even after moving to Florence, both through this correspondence and through her following of the London newspapers.4 As she expressed in some of her earliest letters to husband-to-be and sometimes-playwright Robert Browning, she held the dramatic genre in very high regard. For example, she states on February 17, 1845, that she "look[s] to our old dramatists as to our Kings & princes in poetry."5 In this letter, as in the one to Mitford three years prior, EBB expresses both her familiarity with and adulation for the "old dramatists"—whom she notably does not call "playwrights" (as this term would allude to the staging of their works)—including chiefly Shakespeare.
In this early correspondence, EBB also expresses in no uncertain terms her disdain for popular theater, admonishing Browning (albeit playfully) for "bearing to trust [his] noble works into the great mill of the 'rank, popular' playhouse, to be ground between the teeth of vulgar actors & actresses" (Barrett to Browning, 27 February 1845). In her next letter, from February 27, 1845, she clarifies that she does not mean to "blaspheme the Drama"—just that the contemporary theater "vulgarizes" the work of noble dramatists such as himself, as it has "no altar" and "the thymele . . . is replaced by the caprice of a popular actor." 6 Here again EBB alludes to and valorizes a bygone era of the stage (this time it is ancient Greece, which will prove significant in my argument) in order to condemn the contemporary theater and elevate written over performed drama. Significantly, later in this same note, she also shares with Browning that her "chief intention just now is in the writing of a sort of novel-poem"; it seems that at...