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Chapter One Staged Identities It's just a Question of Character It is certain that if we look all round us and behold the different Employments of Mankind, you hardly see one who is not, as the Player is, in an assumed Character. Richard Steele, Spectator, No. 370, May 5, 1712 In Spectator No. 370, Richard Steele asserts the "certainty" of the slogan totus mundus agit histrionem-the whole world acts the player.1 Underlining the apparently theatrical texture of eighteenth-century life, Steele charges: "Consider all the different Pursuits and Employments of Men, and you will find half their Actions tend to nothing else but Disguise and Imposture; and all that is done which proceeds not from a Man's very self is the Action of a Player." While Steele's confident gesture echoes commonplace observations, it also marks his own willingness in this instance to gloss over some of the most troubling concerns raised by that commonplace in eighteenth-century social and cultural life. In particular, Steele fails to address widespread anxieties over how to distinguish between those actions that proceed from a "Man's very self" and those that proceed from the "Action of a Player." Indeed, his banal insistence that the stage and the world "reciprocally imitate each other" frustrates the possibility, held out at the beginning of the essay, of a more probing inquiry into the relationship sustained between these distinct realms of experience. More importantly, it begs the question that forms the central concern of this study: if the "whole world act[ed] the Player," how did the player act the world? How, in short, did the stage position itself in relation to the increasingly performative culture of eighteenthcentury England? As I have already explained briefly in the Introduction, this study argues that the stage located its response to this situation not in representations of the "subject " as did the novel, but rather in representations of identity that fell under the rubric of "character," as it was specifically conceived and understood in the eighteenth century. In this chapter, then, I begin to address the questions I have raised above by exploring the semantic resonance of "character" in the eighteenth century and by describing the logic governing the dynamic model of identity that it supported. In the course of this discussion, I offer specific observations on the temperamental affinities between this model of identity and the material conditions that held sway over theatrical performances and representations. I thus provide an account of how character functioned as the rubric for shaping identities on the eighteenth-century stage, and I indicate the ways in which the concept of character was implicated in contemporary debates over economic value and epistemological authority I argue that by representing identity as an effect of character, writers for the stage capitalized upon, rather than compensated for, anxieties over the stability of personal and social identity and thus gained a strategic position from which they could claim to offer a more sincere and trustworthy perspective in those debates. To make these abstract claims more concrete , I turn at the end of this chapter to john Gay's The What D'Ye Call It? (171411715) to illustrate how the multifaceted concept of character was deployed in dramatic representations and to demonstrate how genre was situated as the epistemological frame for construing this contingent mode of personation. I conclude this chapter by offering a discussion of genre as the ordering principle of the eighteenth-century stage and the social identities it produced. Before we turn to the stage, however, it may be useful, first, to examine how other narrative forms responded to the uncertainties occasioned by what one critic discussed below has termed the "theatricalization ofsocial relations" and, second, to analyze the form of represented identity to which these compensatory strategies gave rise2 Theatricality and Identity in Nondramatic Representation A number of influential critics of eighteenth-century literature and culture have touted theatricality as both the governing metaphor of social life and the primary filter of psychic perception in the period. Not insignificantly, they have generally done so, without referring either to actual theatrical practice or to the play texts through which that practice was drawn. Three prominent examples will suffice to illustrate this pattern. In Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in AngloAmerican Thought, 1550-1750, jean Christophe-Agnew bypasses eighteenthcentury drama by asserting, "Once the English stage divested itself of its sociologically heterodox audience, as it did after the Restoration, the source...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812201949
Related ISBN
9780812236392
MARC Record
OCLC
606607593
Pages
312
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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