A Graduate Seminar on Restoration to Romantic Drama

"Teaching the Teachings of the Stage: A Graduate Seminar on Restoration to Romantic Drama"

Emily Hodgson Anderson, University of Southern California

The theatre is a school in which much good or evil may be learned.
—Joanna Baillie, "Introductory Discourse," 1798

1.        This essay addresses two questions that motivated the design of my new graduate seminar: why I extended the survey to include romantic drama, and why I believe romantic drama is particularly suited to a discussion of the pedagogical process. In the introduction to Romantic Pedagogy Commons, the editors explain that

this journal presents articles about how teaching works. Occasionally, in an essay about teaching, the writer of the essay will say, 'Then I get students to see that . . . .' Sometimes whatever follows the 'that' is in fact less significant than what has been elided. What's missing is an answer to the question, HOW? How do you get students to see what you see in a text? (Mandell)

This apt observation underlines that, when we teach or talk about our teaching, it is much easier to focus on our goal, what we want to teach our students, than on the process by which we achieve that goal. Pedagogy defies definition, in part because our teaching truly is a performance—scripted to a certain extent, but dependent on mood, on audience, on time—and so bounded by the rules of performance. Our teaching can never be repeated exactly the same way each time we do it, and the act of teaching is always slipping determinedly into the past. We emerge from a good class, or a bad one, with a record of what we have conveyed yet only a memory of how we have done so.

2.        Of course, none of these factors mean that we cannot discuss how we teach (only why these discussions are difficult), and I have always found that teaching drama gives me a model for how to reflect on my own teaching practice. Teaching a genre contingent upon performance reminds me that we cannot understand "what" without talking about "how." Teaching drama trains me to comprehend theory and practice simultaneously, and as a result I'm more ready to bring this approach to the subject of teaching itself. But recently, as I began to work more with those plays classified as "romantic dramas," I discovered that drama could be more than a model. Romantic drama in particular seems interested in how theatrical practice works as a pedagogical strategy, so that the "what" these plays are all about becomes the "how" that we as scholars and teachers tend to efface. For instance, when Marjean D. Purinton presents the metatheatrics of Joanna Baillie's comedy The Tryal as "a pedagogical strategy offering women an alternative relationship to power" (133), her statement suggests the point of the play rests not just in what women are taught, but in the method by which women are taught it: through theater. This focus then reflects metatheatrically on the function of Joanna Baillie's play, such that "The Tryal makes its own pretense as theatre ironically powerful as a teaching tool" (Purinton 133).

3.        So what should romantic drama teach us? "The Drama improves us by the knowledge we acquire of our own minds, from the natural desire we have to look into the thoughts, and observe the behaviour of others," Baillie states in the introductory preface to her Plays on the Passions (90). Baillie here seems to outline first a method and then a goal: by observing the "varieties of the human mind," by "examining others," we may in turn "know ourselves" ("Preface" 76, 74). Both her choice to write drama and her insistence that her plays were intended for the stage make sense in light of these methods, as the observation and examination of others would seem to be best fulfilled in the embodied realm of performance ("Preface" 108-9). [1]  But because of these methods, the "what" these plays are supposed to teach us—to know ourselves, to know our own minds—is a quantity always to be discovered, contingent as it is upon the infinite varieties and behaviors we can observe. More properly, Baillie is invested in teaching method: we learn from her plays how to know ourselves. When studied from this perspective, these plays reveal that self-knowledge, the pedagogical "goal" of Baillie and many other romanticists, is itself a process far more than a precept. And when studied from this perspective, Baillie's plays allow us to have methodologically oriented discussions that reflect more generally on the practice of teaching, itself.

4.        The links between subjectivity and pedagogy in the romantic period run wide and deep, and my graduate seminar builds to these links by situating Baillie's plays at the end of a historical survey of drama. The survey has a practical function—my class is perhaps the only course in eighteenth-century literature that my graduate students will take, and I feel responsible for providing coverage—but it has an intellectual purpose as well. I want my students to experience the liminal moments in literary history, to make connections among literary periods sometimes presented as distinct. The survey format also means that, by the time we reach romantic drama, we can discuss why plays that reflect on the pedagogical benefits of performance are also suited to explore the issues of subjectivity and self-knowledge with which they engage.

5.        The stated rubric of my course is that eighteenth-century plays depict identity as both metaphorically and literally theatrical. Our readings from the eighteenth century, texts from The Rover, to The Beggar's Opera, to The Belle's Stratagem, illustrate that an awareness of actual theatrical practice informs the way characters stage their identities in the "offstage" regions of these plays. I want students to think about how these observations resonate in provocative ways with contemporary theories of gender and identity construction, and I also want students to think about how current scholars are using terms from theater history in more theoretical ways. I therefore pair our primary readings for each week with a specific keyword, taken from theater / performance / gender studies, that reinforces in some way the themes of the text. Every student must choose one such word, research its theatrical and theoretical applications, and share a brief essay on their findings with the class. Keywords range from "ritual," to "masquerade," to "spectacle." By the time we get to "performativity," students recognize that we have already been using the word, in its current theoretical sense of acts or behaviors that construct the state of being they purport to express, to describe many acts of theatrical performance explored within these eighteenth-century plays. For example, we discuss the way a comedy such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem explores the idea of pre-existing social roles by having its title character move through a series of different and overtly theatrical roles onstage. These connections between "performativity" and "performance" (and I have the presenting student read at least the introduction to the Parker and Sedgwick collection of essays on this topic) encourage us to read the ideas about subjectivity considered in these plays in terms of evolutions—or continuities—in theatrical practice. I then pair our final keyword, "theatricality," with Baillie's Plays on the Passions, so that students will question the closeted nature of her plays and discuss to what extent theatricality can still characterize texts that are not actively performed.

6.        Thus, as we move into our romantic plays and challenge their delineation as "closet dramas," we also create the potential for more continuity between eighteenth-century and romantic conceptions of subjectivity than is currently assumed. [2]  Dror Wharman's recent book The Making of the Modern Self offers one version of the kind of polarized view we challenge. In this book, Wahrman argues that "selfhood" in the short eighteenth century (the version of the century that eschews the romantic period) was understood as something Protean, superficial, something Wahrman calls "socially turned" (168). Not until the end of the century, he claims, did identity come to be understood as something more essentialist and interior—the romantic idea of the self. [3]  Yet Wahrman mistakenly invokes eighteenth-century theater as illustrative of, even responsible for, this shift. He claims that "the [eighteenth-century] actor…was expected to believe in his own actual metamorphosis in order to achieve the ideal dramatic effect," so that if an eighteenth-century audience witnessed an actress in a breeches part, it would read the performance as indicative of "a playful splitting of identity, a splitting literal rather than metaphorical" (172, 176). Contrary to Wahrman's assertions, the necessary identification of an actor with his or her part was in fact the subject of much debate in the eighteenth century, as our reading from Diderot's Paradoxe sur le comédien makes clear. At the same time, our dramatic readings showcase characters who do identify with the theatrical roles they adopt, but for very different reasons, and with very different results, than the ones Wahrman suggests. Many of our plays include characters who adopt parts and put on roles, not always in an effort to reinvent themselves (Wahrman), nor with the ability or desire to retain some theatrical detachment from the role they take up (Diderot), but in a conscious effort to convey sentiments that would otherwise be inexpressible. Cowley's Letitia Hardy fits into this characterization, as do Behn's Hellena and Goldsmith's Kate Hardcastle. As these characters flit from persona to persona, their roles are connected by a consistent, self-defining emotion that the various roles allow them to convey. Indeed, the Goldsmith and Cowley heroines make students think back to Eliza Haywood's heroine Fantomina, the titular character from one of the few non-dramatic pieces we read. In all these cases, the theatrical "splittings of identity" emerge as a characteristic performance strategy that creates a link, not simply a gap, between self and persona, with a relationship between the two that is not necessarily deceptive.

7.        The eighteenth-century "self" seems much less Protean in this context, much less superficial, and much more associated with the sense of coherence and interiority that accompanies later romantic models of subjectivity. By the same token, these characteristics of romanticism emerge as a continuation of, not a deviation from, the ideas about subjectivity embodied on the eighteenth-century stage. Yet within this continuum any sense of interiority is constructed by the reiteration of theatrical acts, a rather un-romantic revision of essentialism. Imagine, for instance, how a student coming from a survey of eighteenth-century plays would read the following passage from Baillie's tragedy De Monfort, the moment at which Lady Jane De Monfort has tracked her conflicted brother to his friend Count Freberg's residence. Desperate to learn why De Monfort has fled their home, Jane takes Freberg's advice and veils herself, so that she may accost her brother while her own identity is obscured:

Jane (to Freb.):
Pardon me this presumption, courteous sir:
I thus appear, (pointing to her veil,) not careless of respect
Unto the gen'rous lady of the feast.
Beneath this veil no beauty shrouded is,
That, now, or pain, or pleasure can bestow.
Within the friendly cover of its shade
I only wish unknown, again to see
One who, alas!—is heedless of my pain…
…he who has, alas! Forsaken me
Was the companion of my early days,
My cradle's mate, mine infant play-fellow…
…he is my brother.
De Mon: And he forsook thee?—No, I dare not curse him:
My heart upbraids me with a crime like his.
Jane: Ah! Do not thus distress a feeling heart.
All sisters are not to the soul entwin'd
With equal bands; thine has not watch'd for thee,
Weep'd for thee, cheer'd thee, shar'd thy weal and woe,
As I have done for him.
De Mon: (Eagerly.) Ha! Has she not?
By heaven! The sum of all thy kindly deeds
Were but as chaff pois'd against the massy gold,
Compar'd to that which I do owe her love.
Oh pardon me! I mean not to offend—
I am too warm—but she of whom I speak
Is the dear sister of my earliest love;
In noble virtuous worth to none a second:
And tho' behind those sable folds were hid
As fair a face as ever women own'd,
Still would I say she is as fair as thee.
…Forgive, I pray you! O forgive this boasting!
In faith! I mean you no discourtesy.
Jane (Off her guard, in a soft natural tone of voice.): Oh no! nor do me any. (2.1.195-244)

Jane's conduct in this passage is at once theatrical and experimental, as she dons a mask in an attempt to assess "the temper of [her brother's] mind" (2.1.104). But the effect of Jane's disguise is surprising, for it prompts De Monfort to compare her to the person she actually is. Her face, behind those sable folds, is exactly as fair as the face that De Monfort imagines, her kindly deeds measure up precisely to the obligations her brother praises. Jane's disguise also means she belies herself when she claims "all sisters are not to the soul entwin'd / with equal bands." The sisters she describes are actually only one sister, the bands she describes exactly equivalent. All sisters conflate within her sable folds, so that De Monfort when confronted with her veil may see—correctly—the sister of whom he speaks.

8.        Her performance says much about the evolution and nature of romantic subjectivity. First, students will recognize that Jane takes her cue from a slew of earlier dramatic heroines. Like Letitia's or Fantomina's acts of disguise, Jane's masking becomes an expressive not an obfuscating act, and De Monfort would be better served by taking her at face value than by seeking to see something different beneath her veil. But Jane's veil is expressive in that it is evocative of the self upon which it is layered. The theater's use of costumes and vizards provides a physical source for the metaphorical layering that occurs in theatrical presentation, so that as theatrical presentation provides a surface, it simultaneously suggests an element of depth. Theatrical performance becomes an efficacious form of expression in this scene as it offers up the very surfaces that reinforce a subject's depth and dimensionality; selfhood in this model remains internalized, even as its interiority is perpetuated by the theatrical acts that confirm it.

9.        Jane's masquerade also has a clear teaching purpose that reinforces this reading of subjectivity as consistently multi-layered. She may speak as a sister in this scene only because she is veiled, and thus only because De Monfort assumes he is not the brother of whom she speaks. She may express her familial feelings precisely because they are articulated during a performance, which suggests that even when the masks characters don are expressive and not obfuscating the interiority-producing layer of the mask is essential to maintain. Furthermore, it is crucial to De Monfort's reaction that he be "caught up in the act" without quite knowing that he has become so. Jane's theatrical display encourages in her brother neither catharsis nor even vicarious sympathy. De Monfort experiences something more psychoanalytic, as the act of witnessing Jane's performance brings his own latent passions to the surface and forces him to come to terms with them. [4] 

10.        Yet performance becomes pedagogical only under specific conditions. As the wronged sister, Jane consciously adopts a role that communicates her own feelings. She performs her part with an unexpected emotional honesty, and her ultimate influence over her brother derives from the fact that she is not only like the sister of whom she speaks, but she is the sister herself. De Monfort, on the other hand, does not know he is participating in a performance until Jane unmasks. In Baillie's play, acts of performance shift from entertaining to instructive when they are crafted so that their specific didactic purpose is somewhat obscured, and so that the intended student audience (in this case, De Monfort) is at least temporarily unaware of the scene's crafted nature. [5]  For the typical theater audience tucked safely behind a fourth wall, the conditions of performance are both more apparent and less interactive. Yet by incorporating models of pedagogical performance within themselves, plays like De Monfort reflect suggestively on their own pedagogical function. Indeed, by framing pedagogical moments within the play as covertly didactic, the play reclaims its own generic conventions as advantageous to its didactic project. The broader convention of the stage, which seems to require that the theater audience observe yet not participate in the dialogues they witness, also insists that the play's pedagogical claims on its external audience be at least temporarily disguised. (In this model, Baillie's "Introductory Discourse" becomes akin to the explication of Jane's unmasking.) The theater audience thus shares a position with DeMonfort, as both are unaware of exactly how they are engaged and implicated in the didactic project of the performance before them, while this temporary suspension of awareness is encouraged by and crucial to the pedagogical program outlined within the play itself.

11.        In the classroom, we are much more attuned to the fact that we are teaching or being taught, though here too we can be subtle about how our goals are advertised or achieved. For instance, I publicize my graduate course as a course on "staging identity," though my publicized interest in subjectivity and my closeted interest in pedagogy ultimately align. A tenet that remains consistent among rationalist and romantic ideas of education alike is that the preceptor is not a dictator so much as a guide (Richardson). The student must learn how to learn; they must, as Maria Edgeworth puts it, learn to "think and reason for [themselves]" (297). The educator in this model does not disseminate facts so much as lead students toward personal discoveries, so that students have for themselves the experience of proving theorems, of testing precepts. And for the student—be he a doctoral candidate or the tormented De Monfort—to learn from experience, he must be able to react to a staged circumstance with his own emotions. The good teacher both creates and obscures the conditions that enable this emotional reaction to occur. In other words, teaching, when done well, obscures its scripted nature.

12.        What I have learned, then, in teaching romantic drama is that students need guidance, but that they also need to reach conclusions on their own. In the case of my graduate seminar, they need to experience for themselves the instructive, constructive relationship of performance to subjectivity. So in addition to having my students attend productions of Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera and a dramatic adaptation of Mansfield Park (which the USC School of Theatre very conveniently scheduled to overlap with my seminar), I have my class conclude with a student performance that coincides with their final reading assignment in Austen's novel Mansfield Park. As a class, they must agree upon one scene from all the plays we have read, cast the actors, decide on whatever props will be necessary, and rehearse to whatever extent they see fit. The preparation for the assignment asks them to review the plays and themes from throughout the semester, but it also asks them to mimic the process of decision and rehearsal that frames Mansfield Park's controversial home theatricals. We have shared an experience with the Crawfords and the Bertrams and should never read the novel in quite the same way, again.

13.        More specifically, the actual staging gives us a chance to discuss how performance intensifies one's experience of a scene and why performance, in the nineteenth-century context of Austen's novel, might be considered risky. As we discuss, Fanny's discomfort with the playacting in the novel responds on some level to the fact that Austen's characters pair off in a manner that reflects their real life affections, so that the rehearsals become a chance to act on the flirtatious impulses that might otherwise be kept in check. And as the strategic space between actor and role is lost, the personal expressions of these actors—more than theatricality itself—become the subject of Austen's critique.

14.        So unlike Baillie's play, in which the assumed discrepancy between actor and role provides Jane De Monfort the space and opportunity for self-expression, Austen's novel depicts an unmediated understanding of performance, and the theater in this novel is disbanded exactly when it has become recognized as an expressive more than a performative space. But as we approach this novel at the end of our survey of texts, and concurrent with our own attempts to choose and enact roles, we find ourselves discussing expression and performativity as dialectical, not antithetical, concepts. Our historical survey shows us instead that what varies from play to play is not the project of the theater, so much as the audience sensitivity towards one or the other potential of theatrical performance and, correspondingly, an author's manipulation of this sensitivity through his or her framing of the act of performance itself.

15.        Yet by ending our seminar with a novel, we also end with a question: if performance and the associated behaviors of observation and participation were so crucial to a romantic program of education, why is it that the novel and the closet drama (genres that do not require performance) become the dominant genres for conveying pedagogy? The rise of the novel in all its didactic glory is something critics acknowledge, and this is a genre we discuss at least briefly in our class. I also want to mention here the plethora of "academic dramas" that marked the end of the century, the proliferation of dramatic dialogues that were seen as "lesson[s] in the guise of play[s]" though plays that were never meant to be performed. Why does pedagogy become increasingly associated with the closet drama, increasingly detached from actual performance?

16.        This shift reveals, I believe, that the key to romantic pedagogy is not embodiment, per se, but mediated experience: physical observation or interaction is ultimately less crucial to romantic pedagogies than the notion that we learn about ourselves through others. This claim offers an alternate reading of romantic drama, one that reveals the pedagogical potential of theater to rest in more than just its ability to encourage audience observation of embodied roles. If we go back to Baillie's play, we see that Jane's physical presence is actually less important to De Monfort's epiphany (indeed, he does not know that Jane is present) than the means by which she communicates with her brother: from behind a mask, and by directing her explanation for the mask—not to her brother, for whom both mask and explanation are clearly meant—but to Count Freberg, the very man who advocated the disguise. In this scene, Jane highlights a key component of all playacting, and a characteristic of theatricality: not embodiment, but mediation. The act of acting is by definition the act of conveying ideas or thoughts via intermediate roles. And yet, on the stage this process is often all too overt, especially if the theatrical nature of a performance must be obscured for it to function in a pedagogical manner. Closet drama (and, I would argue, a novel such as Mansfield Park, which juxtaposes its own generic conventions to the current unmediated conventions of the Bertram's theater) interrupt what Martin Puchner calls the "unmediated theatricality of the stage" (22). The closet drama insists that the theatrical process itself be mediated; paradoxically enough, it restores the theatricality to drama and thus drama's pedagogical potential.

17.        I therefore believe that romantic drama can teach us much about teaching and even more about why we teach literature, of any genre or period. As students, teachers, and lovers of books—a body of people who often struggle to define the value of theorizing about imaginary heroines, dead authors, and subjective readings—we learn from romantic drama to focus on the benefits, indeed the necessity, of learning about ourselves through others. Additionally, these plays remind us that teaching is not about a set of definitions but about shared methods, experiences, and a collective process of discovery. We are passionate about what we read and teach because we have felt the benefit of emotional and intellectual engagement with what we read and teach. And we know that literature, as that which provides such an experience, can teach us something about ourselves.

Works Cited

Baillie, Joanna. Plays on the Passions. Ed. Peter Duthie. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2001. Print.

Carlson, Julie. In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Edgeworth, Maria. Essays on Professional Education. London: J. Johnson and Co., 1812. Print.

Mandell, Laura. "Introduction to Innovations." Romantic Pedagogy Commons (January 2005). Print.

Moody, Jane. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Parker, Andrew, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. "Introduction: Performativity and Performance." Performativity and Performance. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Puchner, Martin. Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. Print.

Purinton, Marjean D. "Women's Sovereignty on Trial: Joanna Baillie's comedy 'The Tryal' as Metatheatrics." Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840. Ed. Catherine Burroughs. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice in 1780-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Straznicky, Marta. "Closet Drama." A Companion to Renaissance Drama. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. XXX: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. Print.

Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004. Print.


[1] Despite the vexed performance history of her plays, Baillie insists she wrote them to be performed. According to Catherine Burroughs, the playwright's stated intention disqualifies her plays as "closet dramas." I'm citing Burroughs' talk "The Persistence of Closet Drama: Theory, History, Form," given at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, March 4th, 2006. BACK

[2] Julie Carlson and Jane Moody are among the recent critics who have helped trouble the delineation "closet drama." BACK

[3] For Wahrman, "identity" and "self" become interchangeable in the later eighteenth century, as the point at which "identity became personal, interiorized, essential, even innate." Once identity is something internalized, "it was made synonymous with self" (276). BACK

[4] This, to me, is what Baillie means by her idea of "sympathetic curiosity" or "sympathetic propensity" (73, 76). Unlike Adam Smith, who claims that sympathy enables us "change places with the sufferer," to gain some sense of his torments, Baillie asserts that "in examining others we know ourselves" (74). BACK

[5] Elizabeth Inchbald's 1797 comedy Wives as They Were, Maids as They Are and Maria Edgeworth's 1798 home theatrical Whim for Whim (recently published by Pickering and Chatto in volume 12 of The Novels and Selected Works of Maria Edgeworth) also illustrate this concept, though we do not have time to read them in my class. BACK

[6] The term "academic dramas" is from Marta Strazinicky, 426; the quoted phrase is from Hannah More's closet drama A Search after Happiness (composed 1763; published 1773). For examples of these "lesson[s] in the guise of play[s]," see (among others) C. Short, Dramas for the use of young ladies (1792); Elizabeth Pinchard Dramatic Dialogues, for the use of young persons (1792); Charlotte Smith, Rural Walks…Intended for the use of young persons (1795). I thank Catherine Burroughs for sharing these references with me. BACK