Romantic Revolutions in Europe: Suggestions for Teaching Drama

"Romantic Revolutions in Europe: Suggestions for Teaching Drama"

Wendy C. Nielsen, Montclair State University

1.        In the past two decades, scholarship on British Romantic drama has illustrated the centrality of theater to understanding the era’s “geo-historical and geo-political” issues, and to appreciating women writers’ previously unacknowledged roles in public debates (Purinton, "On Teaching" 353). [1]  Key among these geo-historical and geo-political issues was the French Revolution. The dramatic events of the French Revolution shaped British Romantic writers’ thinking on social justice campaigns such as democracy, women’s rights, and abolitionism. However, our critical lens for these international crises often remains rather Anglo-centric, perhaps because dramas from Continental authors do not receive enough attention, except in contemporary translations. Oft-cited examples include Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows (1798), adapted from August von Kotzebue’s comedy Child of Love (Kind der Liebe) or Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro (1799), adapted from Kotzebue’s The Spaniards in Peru (Die Spanier in Peru) (Burwick, “German Romantic Drama” 157). This paper reflects on the pedagogical benefits of incorporating Europe and its drama into Romantic coursework. An eight-day teaching unit on "Romantic Revolutions in Europe" explores the international dimensions of Romantic drama.

2.        Recommending introductory reading about the French Revolution is a rather difficult task, and Matthew S. Buckley’s recent book, Tragedy Walks the Streets: The French Revolution in the Making of Modern Drama, explains why: the ostensible truth about the Revolution is as elusive as the tragic drama it evokes. As Buckley and others maintain, one can only understand the French Revolution by dissecting its theater. [2]  Republicans employed the methodologies of theater in order to broadcast Revolutionary propaganda abroad. These theatrical techniques also resembled those of the aristocracy and the Church, who communicated with the masses through allegorical parades and pictorials. Fêtes publiques (or public festivals) replaced religious feasts, and actors, actresses, playwrights, and artists such as Jacques-Louis David participated in their production. [3]  The first ever use of the term "theatricality" in English, as Tracy C. Davis points out, appears in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: a History (1837), and his accounts of festivals demonstrate the theatrum mundi sense of the word (Davis 132). The playhouses experienced a transformation as well. Strict licensing for spoken-word dramas disappeared in January 1791, and theaters reenacted the happenings on the streets of Paris with astonishing rapidity. After Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, theaters adorned their buildings with the bust of the “Friend of the People,” and dozens of productions recreated the event for spectators. [4]  New playhouses and authors were founded to meet the demand for these spectacles, although after 1792, Jacobins began to censor dramas that questioned the new order. For example, Jean-Louis Laya’s comedy, The Friend of the Laws (L’Ami des loix), faced scrutiny because it satirized Jacobins like Robespierre and Marat. [5] 

3.        The British press represented the French Revolution in similarly theatrical terms. Thus when Burke calls the Revolution “this great drama” in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he appears to mimic the Republicans’ rhetorical mode (74). Many critics have noted the histrionics in the following passage from Reflections on the Revolution in France: [6] 

A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with [her sentinel’s] blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment (71).

A Gothic cast of characters populates Burke’s melodrama: the vulnerable queen in distress, the chivalrous father/king, and the villainous masses seeking revenge. Burke evokes a domesticated ideal of the queen as wife and mother in order to lament the loss of chivalry. Other women, notably the tragic actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), reminded Burke about his true feelings for Marie Antoinette, whom he met in 1777. Recalling the “tears that Garrick formerly, or that Siddons not long since, have exhorted” from him, Burke admits to feeling “truly ashamed” for these “tears of hypocrisy” and “folly;” “that superficial, theatric sense of painted distress” hardly compares to exulting “over it in real life” (71).

4.         While Burke’s histrionic rhetoric has long puzzled and amused modern readers, we might compare it to the ambivalent theatricality of the Revolution. French theater, politics, and journalism—in some respects, one and the same entity—played with the lines between realism and abstract representation. Direct representation was a powerful tool of the Old Regime, which equated the royal body with divine right and power. So in broadsheets, Republicans advertised the death of the nation as corpus mysticum, or the mystical body. [7]  In his book Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution, Paul Friedland insists that French theatricality is not what it seems: “Theatrical actors were prevailed upon to represent their characters abstractly, in a manner that seemed realistic to the audience, rather than a manner that the actors experienced as real” (6). Politicians, according to Friedland, practiced this methodology as well: “unlike previous political bodies that had claimed to be the French nation, the National Assembly merely claimed to speak on the nation’s behalf” (6). So in fact, Burke’s sympathetic portrait of Marie Antoinette, that “Roman matron,” resembles the representational strategies of the Old Regime and the counter-revolution, which also rely on metaphors (Burke 72). Moreover, Burke’s portrait contrasts with Marie Antoinette’s reputation in France. Revolutionaries charged the Queen with incest, pornography, and other acts of debauchery. [8] 

5.        In the undergraduate classroom, sharing this theatrical history might help to clarify why the French Revolution remains such an opaque subject. Reading The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) alongside the United States' Declaration of Independence (1776) further orients students to the similarities between the American and French Revolutions (see Day 2 of my online syllabus for "Romantic Revolutions in Europe"). A wealth of information about the Revolution exists in standard anthologies, and students can learn a lot about the early 1790s in Britain and France by reading Helen Maria Williams’s Letters Written in France, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men, and William Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice alongside Burke’s text. However, sometimes when students attempt to decipher the complex events of the Revolution, they may become frustrated with the pointed rhetoric that writers like Burke and Wollstonecraft employ to debate the rights of man and woman. Whereas Paine writes with what my students claim is uncomplicated clarity, Wollstonecraft sometimes baffles these twenty-first century readers with her series of rhetorical questions, and Burke, likewise, carries a few of his metaphors so far that the impatient reader might mistake their meaning. [9] 

6.        Pedagogy rooted in the dramatic arts could very well lead to a deeper appreciation of the Revolution and its legacy in Romantic writing. As instructors, we can paint pictures of the different scenes of the Revolution. More importantly, students benefit from applying these dramatic techniques to their own writing. One creative writing exercise that works well is the following. Students write a dramatic sketch between Burke and Wollstonecraft in pairs. The setting is a London coffeehouse, where the two meet by chance and discuss the French Revolution. In another in-class writing exercise, students write on an online discussion board (see Day 4). In this exercise, half of the class adopts the personae of either Wollstonecraft, Godwin, or Paine, and the other half writes an anti-Jacobin response to A Vindication of the Rights of Men, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, or Rights of Man in the voices of a Church parson, Richard Polwhele, Edmund Burke, Hannah More, or another persona of their choosing. I strongly suggest using a discussion board, because students adapt easily to aliases online.

7.        These in-class writing exercises prepare students to write their final essay for this unit. One formal writing assignment, "Romantic Revolutionaries and their Personae", requires students to compose a creative writing piece and a critical introduction that analyzes their own work and one to three texts from the unit on "Romantic Revolutions in Europe." In addition to a version of the assignment described above, students are invited to convert a scene from a prose work into a dramatic sketch. Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative or Mary Prince’s History work well as potential screenplays since they feature episodic styles. The success of these creative writing pieces depends on how well students are able to construct their hypothetical audiences. Instructors might also support the writing process by requiring class participants to read and perform their dialogues and scenes aloud. These composition exercises serve two purposes. They prompt students to articulate the debate about the rights of men and women, issues evoked by events in France. Secondly, class participants adopt Romantic aliases, and this technique foregrounds authors’ attempts to construct ethos, or the invention of authoritative and ostensibly good personae. Of course, in A Vindication of the Rights of Men Wollstonecraft critiqued Burke on these very grounds, his apparent misuse of ethos: “My indignation was roused by the sophistical arguments, that every moment crossed me, in the questionable shape of natural feelings and common sense” (77). Rhetoricians have recently rediscovered the powerful role that persona, ethos, and creative writing can play in the English classroom. [10]  As Gary Thompson suggests, incorporating ethos into the English classroom transforms the process of writing into a type of performance: “Seeing writing as performance can direct attention to the nature of literacy as dialogic. All forms of communication involve recursion, and, ultimately, the socially constructed subject in dialogue with a wider audience” (89).

8.        These same subjects—writers and audiences—faced official scrutiny in the Romantic period. To teach Romantic drama and the Revolution means to teach about censorship. The Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays, John Larpent, censored most British dramas about the French Revolution regardless of their political viewpoint. [11]  This environment encouraged self-censorship even when dramas made no reference to Revolution but seemed nonetheless incendiary. The refusal of managers to produce Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) exemplifies this phenomenon. Friends also convinced Elizabeth Inchbald to withhold her only tragedy, The Massacre (1792), from print and the stage (see Day 5). Given current concerns about violence in entertainment, students appear ready to discuss why these tragedies could or could not be produced, and their essays might analyze the suitability of The Cenci and The Massacre for performance. Ostensibly set during the massacre of French Protestants in the late sixteenth century, Inchbald’s play actually refers to the slaughter of Parisians during August/September 1792. The leading man, Eusèbe, gets caught up in the violence offstage, and he fails to defend his wife and children, who are presented on biers in the final scene.

9.        The Massacre also exemplifies a critique of Burkean rhetoric about chivalry and its ostensible role in protecting women, and Daniel O’Quinn’s essay on this issue (readily available online alongside the text of Inchbald’s play on British Women Playwrights around 1800) makes these connections explicit. I like to point out to students that in the French original of the play (Jean Hennuyer, or the Bishop of Lizieux by Louis-Sébastien Mercier), the figure of the wife is invited to arm herself, but Inchbald alters this event; Eusèbe would not have his wife’s “feminine virtues” disturbed by engaging in violence (Inchbald 15). [12]  This commentary on women’s supposed defenselessness highlights Burkean rhetoric about the fragility of the female sex.

10.        Romantic drama also augments students’ study of slavery and abolitionism in the Romantic period. My syllabus recommends reading Olympe de Gouges’s Black Slavery or the Happy Shipwreck (L’esclavage des noirs ou l’heureux naufrage), which advocates emancipation and argues for the rights of illegitimate children. The plot of the short three-act play, available in English, is as follows. The ex-slaves Zamor and Mirza escaped to an island because their master’s steward made sexual advances on Mirza, and Zamor killed him. They save the French couple Valère and Sophie, who shipwreck on the island, but soon troops arrive and arrest the escaped slaves. Valère and Sophie help to free Zamor and Mirza by entreating the Governor, who turns out to be Sophie’s father (from a youthful liaison). Black Slavery was performed in the prestigious Comédie-Française (then called Théâtre de la Nation) in December 1789, before emancipation took effect. Among the play’s several production difficulties, the actors refused to paint their faces black and instead dressed as “Indians,” and lobbyists for the colonists probably influenced poor reviews in the press. [13] 

11.        The author of Black Slavery, Olympe de Gouges (1745-93), is a significant figure in women’s history as well. She wrote The Rights of Woman and Citizen a year before Mary Wollstonecraft composed A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. [14]  Gouges was guillotined not long afterwards, and her brief trial focused on the plot of an unfinished play, France Preserved, or the Tyrant Dethroned (La France sauvée ou le tyran détroné), because it featured the Queen as a character. Although Gouges’s politics upset her contemporaries (she advocated constitutional monarchy alongside her fight for human rights), she mirrored ideas prevalent in Romantic-era Britain. Like Mary Prince’s History of Mary Prince and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, Black Slavery addresses the painful but important topic of sexual violence against women of color. For an analytical essay topic, students can compare Prince’s History, Gouges’s Black Slavery, and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and argue which text would make Romantic audiences most sympathetic to the cause of abolitionism. Student papers on this subject might examine the role of violence in these three texts and address the effect of reading in the closet versus seeing a play in performance (see Revolutionary Violence and Romantic Drama).

12.        While several English dramas document the history of slavery and abolitionism, [15]  the case of slavery in France exhibits the far-reaching consequences of the Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen provoked rebellions in the Caribbean (such as the rebellion in Saint Domingue) when colonists refused to extend human rights to slaves. The French abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, but Napoleon revoked the ordinance in 1802. The inclusion of this French drama opens up discussion about slavery in the Americas. For example, in 1804, Toussaint l'Ouverture helped to found Haiti, the first free Black nation in the Western hemisphere. There is material online, a nineteenth-century biography of Toussaint l'Ouverture, for further research (see Day 7 of my syllabus).

13.        In Continental literary traditions, the term Romantic extends further into the nineteenth century than is the case within English Romanticism. [16]  French Studies reserves the label Romantic for writers like Alfred de Musset (1810-57) and Victor Hugo (1805-85), whose “Preface to Cromwell” (“Préface à Cromwell” 1827) announces the arrival of the movement. For Hugo and Stendhal, in Racine et Shakespeare (1823), “the proving ground of romantic doctrine” is not lyrical poetry, but rather historical tragedy, the genre that Shakespeare introduces to French audiences (Roussetzki 493). Thus Hugo’s accessible text demonstrates the impact of Shakespeare on literature beyond Britain’s borders, while acquainting students with key terms such as the Gothic, melancholy, and the sublime. Musset’s greatest drama, Lorenzaccio (1834) pairs well thematically with Shelley’s Cenci. Hugo’s Hernani (1829, prem. Paris Feb. 1830) echoes Schiller’s The Robbers (Die Räuber 1781, prem. Mannheim Jan. 1782) in its raucous reception. However, The Robbers’ theme of the outlaw hero ties it to Wordsworth’s tragedy, The Borderers (1795-96/1842), as well. At least two translations and performances of The Robbers appeared in London in the 1790s, and Matthew Lewis translated Schiller’s politically-charged comedy, Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe 1783/84), as The Harper’s Daughter (Covent Garden, May 1803). [17]  Other German dramas—notably Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772), Goethe’s Iphigenia (1787), and Kleist’s Penthesilea (1808)—resemble English she-tragedies because they feature female protagonists who sacrifice themselves for love and patriotism.

14.        Another commonality between the study of British and European Romantic drama is the recovery of women writers. [18]  The canon of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German literature does not include many women writers, with the exception of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848, once a face on German money), Sophie von La Roche (1731-1807, author of one of the first female Bildungsromane), and more recently, her granddaughter, Bettina Brentano von Arnim (1785-1859). In fact, women played integral roles in eighteenth-century German theater. The actress Caroline Neuber (1697-1760) founded one of the first national, non-court-based theaters in Leipzig (where she produced Lessing’s first play), and Luise Adelgunde Gottsched (1713-62) translated several dramas for the stage. Gottsched—also commonly called by the feminine form of her name, “die Gottschedin,” in order not to confuse her with her playwright husband—struggled with a problem that plagued other female dramatists in Germany: anonymity. [19]  Gottsched’s most famous comedy, Pietism in a Whale-Bone Corset or the Learned Lady (Die Pietisterey im Fischbein Rocke; Oder die Doctormässige Frau, 1736), was attributed to her only after her death because it was published anonymously. The field is rich with under-researched female dramatists. Christine von Westphalen (1758-1840), Schiller’s sister-in-law Caroline von Wolzogen (1763-1847), and even Catherine the Great (1729-96) wrote tragedies in German. Writing under the pseudonym of Tian, Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) composed dramas that typify some of the Gothic and poetic tendencies of Romantic drama. Only a few of these dramas are available in English such as Gottsched’s The Witling (1745) or Charlotte von Stein’s dramatic sketch, Rino (1776). [20]  However, French theater appears to be more widely available for English readers. Elizabeth Inchbald even adapted Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis’s (1746-1830) The Child of Nature (1781, Zélie, ou l’ingénue) for the stage in 1788, and Thomas Holcroft translated some of her other dramatic works.

15.        At the graduate level, students can explore these connections further. I have taught a graduate seminar on the European inspirations for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We read one of the books the monster found, Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774). In addition to this text and Frederick Reynolds’s play, Werther (1796), seminar participants read Charlotte von Stein’s response to her young friend Goethe, Rino: a Play in Three Parts. Stein wrote this satirical piece for a matinee at the court in Weimar. [21]  The Faustian motifs of Frankenstein merit the inclusion of Goethe’s Faust (Part 1 prem. 1829 in Weimar) in such a seminar. Although Faust is written in verse (see Walter Kaufmann’s translation for an excellent rendition of Goethe’s style), theaters have recently attempted productions of both parts. [22]  Rousseau also influenced the writing of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. Seminar participants read portions of Emile (1762) and Letter to M. D’Alembert (1758). Rousseau’s Letter outlines theories on the theater and is useful for understanding some of the issues involving sympathy in Frankenstein. [23]  I also suggest reading Hugo’s previously mentioned “Preface to Cromwell,” since this text details Romantic theories of the grotesque. A graduate seminar with a unit on the French Revolution might also include Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s (1732-99) The Follies of the Day or the Marriage of Figaro (public premier Apr. 1784 in Paris), another translation by Holcroft. The Old Regime suppressed this sequel to The Barber of Seville (1775) for five years and sent its author to prison for mocking the corrupt behavior of aristocrats. The bilingual César database makes researching the performance history of plays like Figaro a rewarding experience; it includes a searchable catalog of performance dates, authors, titles, reviews and texts of eighteenth-century French plays. [24] 

16.        Scholars of British Romanticism have long recognized the central role that European letters played in the intellectual and cultural lives of contemporary authors. [25]  European Romantic drama offers many ways to make the past come alive in the classroom and to augment the study of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature and history. Moreover, when instructors internationalize the Romantic curriculum, they recreate the cosmopolitan flavor of London in the years around 1800. Romantic drama can play a powerful role in shaping students’ understanding of personae, and through creative writing and dialogue, class participants have the opportunity to achieve a new sense of their own writing voices and those of the Romantics.

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[1] Regarding British Romantic drama and international politics, see monographs by Matthew S. Buckley, Julie Carlson, Jeffrey Cox, Daniel O'Quinn, Jane Moody, Gillian Russell, and George Taylor. BACK

[2] Paul Friedland, Marie-Hélène Huet, Mona Ozouf, and Susan Maslan all dissect theater in order to explicate the Revolution. BACK

[3] On Revolutionary festivals, see Ozouf and Nielsen ("Staging Rousseau's Republic"). BACK

[4] On productions of Marat's assassination onstage in France, see Marie-Hélène Huet's book. BACK

[5]L'Ami des loix premiered 2 Jan. 1793 and played through 15 January before being suspended against the will of the public. See Susan Maslan, esp. 61-64. BACK

[6] Some reflections on Reflections include those written by Steven Blakemore, Paul Hindson and Tim Gray, Jacqueline M. Labbe, Ronald Paulson, Elizabeth D. Samet, and Linda M. G. Zerilli. BACK

[7] Dorinda Outram has brought this type of iconography to light. BACK

[8] Lynn Hunt documents the Republicans' attack on the morality of the Queen. BACK

[9] An example of Burke's use of extended metaphors is the following: "When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honour, and the honour of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle" (Reflections 74). BACK

[10] On composition and creative writing, see Starkey's collection. On ethos, see Gonçalves. BACK

[11] An example of this arbitrary censorship is Edmund John Eyre's The Maid of Normandy; or, the Death of the Queen of France (1793), which sympathizes with the royal family (see Nielsen, "Edmund Eyre's The Maid of Normandy" and L. W. Conolly, esp. p. 93). George Taylor and Jane Moody also provide excellent references on censorship. BACK

[12] I discuss the French roots of The Massacre elsewhere (Nielsen, "A Tragic Farce"). BACK

[13] Marie-Pierre Le Hir provides strong evidence for the influence of colonists on the reception of Black Slavery (see esp. pp. 81-2). BACK

[14]The Rights of Woman and Citizen is available in English online as well. See Day 4 of my syllabus. BACK

[15] See Jeffrey Cox and volume five of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation. BACK

[16] It is also worth considering Romantic drama as a genre after 1830. After all, the Danish Romantic writer Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850) influenced Henrik Ibsen's early historical plays. The Warrior's Barrow (prem. Sept. 1850 in Christiania, now called Oslo) resembles Romantic drama more than Ibsen's later Naturalist plays. BACK

[17] G. G. and J. Robinson Keppel published a translation of The Robbers in 1795. Keppel Craven's translation of The Robbers (Die Räuber, 1781) was performed at Brandenburgh House Theatre in 1798 and published in 1799. Perhaps that is the same translation that appeared at the Haymarket on 21 August 1799. For Schiller's connections to Coleridge, see Carlson. BACK

[18] The work of Catherine Burroughs, Thomas C. Crochunis, Ellen Donkin, Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Judith Pascoe, and Marjean Purinton reminds us of some of the important scholarship on female dramatists. BACK

[19] Susanna Kord wrote a compendium that traces the multiple pseudonyms of over 200 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female dramatists. On censorship of women dramatists in Germany, see Becker-Cantarino and Kaiser. BACK

[20] English translations of German women writers are available, although these feature more prose and fiction than drama. See Blackwell's and Zantop's collection Bitter Healing and the online database, Sophie: a Digital Database of Works by German-speaking Women. BACK

[21] Charlotte von Stein (1742-1827) knew Goethe because she grew up in the court of Weimar. Stein also wrote a tragedy, Dido (1794), translated partially by Goodman, p. 86-88. BACK

[22] See Cyrus Hamlin's review of Peter Stein's three-day-long production of Faust, Parts 1 and 2, in Berlin in 2001. In New York City, the Classic Stage Company produced a six-hour-long version of both parts (May 2006, trans. Douglas Langworthy and dir. David Herskovits). BACK

[23] See David Marshall for a comparison of Shelley and Rousseau. BACK

[24] Géraud de Lavedan, Martin Nadeau, Anastassia Sakhnovskaia, and Jean-Philippe van Aelbrouck edit César: Electronic Calendar of Plays during the Old Regime and during the Revolution (calendrier électronique des spectacles sous l'ancien régime et sous la révolution), a collaborative research project begun in 2001. BACK

[25] For comparative studies of Romanticism, see Frederick Burwick, Angela Esterhammer, Michael Ferber, Lillian Furst, Gerald Gillespie, Gregory Maertz, Martin Meisel, and Virgil Nemoianu. BACK