- The Romantic Actor as Artist
"For after all acting must be the perfection of art."—Mary Robinson1
The Romantic age was the age of the actor. If this statement feels provocative or even perverse, that feeling is both a remnant of the Romantic ideology and a marker of the fact that we have yet to recognize fully the creative contributions of late eighteenthand early nineteenth-century stage performers. The theater was the cultural center of late Georgian and Regency life, and actors such as Joseph Grimaldi, Dorothy Jordan, John Philip Kemble, Edmund Kean, Charles Mathews, Eliza O'Neill, and Sarah Siddons were at its core. These actors attracted, moved, and inspired the period's authors and artists: Joanna Baillie, Lord Byron, Maria Edgeworth, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Lawrence, John Keats, Joshua Reynolds, Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley, among them. But scholarship has only just begun to ask how and why.
Since the 1980s, a number of scholars have recovered the significance of romantic theater—both high and low—as a site of generic, literary, and cultural innovation, as an instrument of revolutionary sentiment and nationalist propaganda, as a vehicle for "illegitimate" or otherwise marginalized forms of expression, as a producer of ideologies of race and gender, as a place that featured female playwrights and portrayed female agency, as a testing ground and guide for linguistic and oratorical practices, as a key player in identity politics, and as a locus of celebrity culture. Romantic theater, in its myriad forms, is no longer sidelined, and its shaping influence on the literary and cultural life of the period is becoming widely recognized. In addition, we have learned that "Romantic drama" proper, as it was authored by the likes of Baillie, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, was hardly closeted or divorced from the stage, but written with stage production and, given the star system, with specific actors in mind. [End Page 166]
They knew, as we do now, that once a play hits the stage, its impact is due largely to actors, for it is they who have the power to attract and galvanize spectators. Scholars, myself included, have shown how celebrity culture, popular media, and portraiture drew heightened attention to actors and made them and their performances, on and offstage, objects of intense public scrutiny. Analyses of Romanticperiod actors via celebrity ephemera, portraits and engravings, critical reviews, and audience responses are beginning to yield a much better picture of the contemporary importance of the stage performer, but we still have much to learn about a profession that drew over 1,000,000 spectators per year (in London alone), that was central to both patent and non-patent theaters, that was part of complex performance networks, that was linked to a vast body of literature on performance theory and practice, and to which, according to an 1827 estimate, "six thousand individuals" lay claim.2
As Denis Diderot revealed in his Paradox of the Actor (1773/1830), acting is a craft requiring intense focus and practice. The best actors are able to hone their craft to such a degree that their actions and emotions become convincing; spectators no longer see the technique but the truth. Achieving the appearance of truth was something that many Romantic actors strove for, and the methods they used to do so warrant our attention. The most skilled actors were more than cultural icons and stylists; they were innovators—artists in their own right, who developed fresh and exciting ways to portray the passions and humors. In an age that privileged the expression of feeling, the actor's drawing power was not just a social phenomenon but a direct outcome of their onstage artistry—a poetics of the body. Conceiving of actors in this way productively expands the Romantic pantheon, opens up [End Page 167] new opportunities for formal analysis, and can enhance our understanding of writers from Baillie to Byron, who, in their engagements with and reflections upon the theater, were changed by it.
Terry F. Robinson is Assistant Professor of English and Drama at the University of Toronto, where she is finalizing her monograph Reading...