This essay offers the phenomenon of theatrical points to consider the transformative power of these multi-sensorial highpoints in metropolitan Georgian theater. Defined by the OED as a gesture, vocal inflection, or some other piece of theatrical technique used to underline a climactic moment in a speech, role, or situation, points often coincide with a play's textual highpoint, which they also surpass by temporarily stopping the show and shifting attention to the embodied significance of words. They are brief, stunning, and highly anticipated moments and thus add to the suspension and extension of time as experienced in theater.
Julie A. Carlson
University of California, Santa Barbara
1. I offer the phenomenon of “points” experienced in Georgian London patent theater as an example of brevity presenting itself as a central concern of Romantic thought and culture. “Points” are those avowed highpoints in theater entertainment when the audience breaks into applause, shouts, tears, or displays other signs of transport in response to a significant moment of acting on stage. They are highly anticipated in that they are both electrifying and expected, and are said both to transport audience members out of themselves and, more than any other aspect of the evening’s entertainment, guarantee their return another day. Points often coincide with textual highpoints which, by virtue of their being enacted, are heightened but also surpassed in becoming a point, whose power resides in its multi-sensorial and multi-mediated nature. As the OED states, a point is “a gesture, vocal inflection, or some other piece of theatrical technique used to underline a climactic moment in a speech, role, or situation; a moment so underlined” and cites as its first instance on 4 October 1822 this sentence in a letter written by the famous comic actor Charles Mathews: “I don’t know an instance of a point failing which I considered to be really good myself” (“Point”).
2. The date given is curious, since the phenomenon and term existed more than a century earlier, even if its precise usage is difficult to stabilize and seems to move on a continuum from tableau to show-stopper. Usually points are ascribed to the transformative acting style of David Garrick, but Joseph Roach spots them in the “phenomenal success” in 1708-09 of Cavaliere Nicolini Grimaldi, whose “mastery of physical expression” inhered in his capacity to “stand motionless for a moment in an exceptionally expressive pose,” an “attitude” that he held “until he had made his point” (69).  But the OED definition is useful for my inquiry in characterizing a point both as a moment underlined and as a growing concern to commentators on Romantic-era theater. It continues: “frequently derogatory, suggesting a histrionic or exaggerated style, or with the implication that the integrity of the performance as a whole is being subordinated to the desire for immediate applause.” These derogatory implications have carried the day. The phenomenon itself has died out as a desired feature of a legitimate theater experience, and the histrionic and anti-poetic aspects of points capture in a nutshell why Romantic-era drama and theater were neglected as valid aesthetic objects until the 1980s. Those days have passed, leaving us to reconsider afresh what points tell us about aesthetic moments as experienced in the theater of this era. Taken out from under the weight of a Romantic ideology in criticism that still sidelines theatrical analyses of reality in general discussions of Romantic thought and culture, my focus on points considers how this “moment so underlined” in theater affects period discussions of transformation, both psychic and socio-cultural.
3. Probably the two most famous examples of a point, in terms of their immediate and lasting effectiveness, are David Garrick’s Hamlet first encountering the ghost of his father and Sarah Siddons’s Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene. Descriptions of both highlight the basic constituents: (1) “painting” a passion “to the life” through the (2) skillful integration of the actor’s body / language as measured by (3) the rapturous responses of audience members. These descriptions also underscore the fundamental paradox that makes theater so difficult to integrate into discussions of more exclusively print-based types of literature: turning the ephemeral into a lasting impression. In the case of these two points, the fame of their enactors was not only solidified through them but also guaranteed repeated descriptions of them, often graphically depicted—in biographies, memoirs of theater, and acting manuals. For example, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s famous account of Garrick’s Hamlet enlists a host of words to portray the body’s expressiveness and became a “stock in trade of German school anthologies”: “Garrick turns sharply and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with his knees giving way under him; his hat falls to the ground, and both his arms, especially the left, are stretched out nearly to their full length, with the hands as high as his head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, and the fingers apart; his mouth is open: thus he stands rooted to the spot, with legs apart[.] . . . His whole demeanor is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep even before he began to speak” (8). Such descriptions highlight the intense cross-fertilization (even chicken-egg circularity) of acting and painting in the eighteenth-century, as the growing popularity of portraits and engravings of actors depict them in point and as physiognomic depictions of individual passions are taken from acting and devoted to training new actors and rhetoricians.  Garrick is said to be the first to capitalize in his acting on its evocation of painting, and Siddons’s fame resides not only in being perceived as statuesque but also serving as the model in the first anatomically-informed manual of physiognomy. 
4. Depictions of Siddons’s sleep-walking scene portray the extremes to which audience transport can go but are no less exemplary in foregrounding that a point is realized—i.e., recognized as one—through responsiveness to it. On the occasion of her retiring from the stage (29 June 1812), her enactment of this scene literally ended the performance, “a nobly artistic audience insist[ing] that the curtain should there fall, so that the last grand impression might not be disturbed”—a rare instance in the period of a play being terminated as a sign of enthusiasm rather than protest (Baker 307). The fame attributed to Siddons’s enactment relates to her striking innovation of setting down the taper before engaging in hand-washing, a marked departure from Hannah Pritchard’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth, which Siddons took on against the advice and pleas of manager Thomas Sheridan (Campbell 186-87). This example underlines the epoch-marking function of points, whereby audience reception determines whether an aspiring actor can be said now to “own” the role, and where ownership inheres in fidelity to the points more than to the role altogether. Fidelity is not faithful imitation but a delicate balancing of novelty and expectation, where the most well-worn parts of a play appear suddenly novel.  This means, too, that a successful point is co-created by actor and audience members.
5. To the extent that they have remained visible as a desirable theatrical phenomenon in the Romantic era, then, points work to signify the artistry of individual actors and apprehension of the naturalness of their depictions of the passions through sight and visual culture. Though viewed as capable of threatening poetry, connection to artistry generally keeps points high. My interest is how their co-created nature becomes more leveling and more transporting once we re-evaluate the linkage between sensationalism and lower-class or juvenile tastes. The two most prominent features of a point—perception of the exquisite body / language of an actor and the transport occasioned by it—already suggest the coordination of what is often figured as an opposition between dramatic and theatric flow. That is, both the sign and immediate consequence of an actor’s captivation of audience attention is an outbreak in shouts, claps, tears, or stunned silence that interrupts the flow of the action. Press accounts note these outbreaks and sometimes assess the timing of them with varying degrees of approval but rarely with the implication that such disruptions are in themselves negative or that they damage the capacity to re-engage plot, poetry, or action for those so inclined. In this respect, points reinforce what recent scholars of late-Georgian patent theaters claim about audience psychology. Theater-goers were not expecting an artistically integrated experience nor were they seeking a unified emotional experience, given that, over the course of an evening, “a company may put forth nearly the full range of genres, from five-act tragedies and comedies to comic operas, farces, re-enactments of current events, and musical romances” (xv). Proof by contrast is found in the transcribed lament of actors performing on the same evening as Siddons “that farces that used to raise mirth in an audience after a tragedy now fail of that effect from Mrs. Siddons having so absolutely depressed their spirits that the best comic actors cannot dispel the gloom” (Baker 237).
6. Judith Pascoe’s inspired construction of The Sarah Siddons Audio File portrays points as peak experiences that strengthen connections between playgoers’ memories and pleasures. Characterizing points as the “condensation of the romantic theatrical experience to a collection of emotionally, visually, or sonically intense scenes,” she notes how “audience members anticipated these particular moments, watched them play out, and compared them to versions they had already experienced or even enacted themselves” (72). Her emphasis on the “imprinting” of plays on the memory is fostered, I would argue, by two aspects of the condensation that points embody, both of which feature audiences as active. One involves distillation, points reducing the length, variety, and tedium of a play to a series of highlights, each intensified by this focalization. Points understood as peaks both require a sense of the whole and acquire a life of their own, this switch-word phenomenon being part of their efficacy. In their integrative function, points manifest the interdependence of text, speech, body, and mind; they relate part to whole in the multiple senses (role, body part, speaking part, part-object) on which theater draws and through the multiple senses that theatergoing activates. Moreover, these readings of mind-body integration also often are literal reading experiences, playtexts brought to and sold in the theaters so that spectators can read along, coordinating written to spoken and embodied word. The “Advertisement” prefatory to the first volume of [John] Bell’s Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays as they are now performed at the Theatres Royal in London notes that, because “the THEATRES, especially of late, have been generally right in their omissions” of offensive scenes and passages in Shakespeare’s plays, “we have printed our text after their regulation” so that “those who took books to the theatre will not be so puzzled themselves to accompany the speaker; nor so apt to condemn performers for being imperfect, when they pass over what is designedly omitted” (11). At the same time, distillation makes points detachable and highly portable, key to their longevity and status as a negative disruption of drama. As play part-objects, points break free from their dramatic context and assume an independent life in theater as a “prelude or coda to other dramas” or as inspiring the “subgenre of thespian mimicry,” where one actor performs another actor performing a certain role (Pascoe 72). Outside of theater, their breaking-free occasions all kinds of repetition, both creative and banal, strengthening the theatrical dimensions of subjectivity and offering phenomenal analyses of the spaces and degrees to which transport moves one.
7. Pursuing this dimension departs from the unifying function of condensation in both senses of departure. In the moment of perceiving a point in theater, the unity accorded to body and mind, hearing and viewing is apprehended by the audience’s reaction that in turn grants a picture of its collective responsiveness to a common humanity. In this regard, I take at face value hyperbolic and clichéd assertions in press accounts that “everyone” felt, wept over, or applauded a point as ratifying what their depiction in physiognomic manuals means to underscore: that points are studies in affect whose basic claim is that the body’s expressiveness has a special way of forming and uniting persons. But the phenomena of points viewed as Romantic-era affect studies register two further observations. Voice is a highly moving gesture. As Aranye Fradenburg writes, seeing precedes speaking in an infant’s development but sound precedes sight and is the sense through which space first becomes perceptual (240). Pascoe’s project to recover Siddons’s voice, inspired by Joseph Severn’s description of her “deep touching voice whose tones . . . were like the finest music,” the “grain” of which, according to Pascoe, made highly familiar speeches sound new and thus startling, underscores a general reality in theater that has worked to Romantic-era theater’s disadvantage: words are sensational (7, 45). The semiotic features of poetic language that are said to intensify the beauty of poetry are correlated with “dumb-show” in theater and thus perceived as threatening drama and poetry. A second observation is that the “truth” of our common humanity exemplified in points show recognition of it to be a fleeting, unpredictable, and highly mediated proposition.
8. Both the integrative and detachable aspects of condensation affect forms of agency that we can attribute to theatergoers as a collectivity and as separate individuals. Here is where the unity concretized in a point breaks apart in multiple directions. The most obvious relates to the audience’s differentiation from actors and occasional exertions of power over them—for the actor’s ownership of a point competes with theatergoers’ own senses of proprietorship over them. Exercised collectively within the theater, audience ownership runs the gamut from refuting an actor’s claim to a role, to hissing at this or that point but calling for the play’s repetition, to ratifying a new reign.  “Woe to the actor,” summarizes W. B. Worthen, “who, under the misguided influence of an original conception of his character, scanted the public’s keen anticipation of Hamlet’s or Jaffeir’s or Sir John Brute’s familiar points” (72). One of the headiest audience pleasures of witnessing an actor in a new role is anticipating the possibility of crowning someone and thus overthrowing another—a visceral enactment of the power of the people when unified. Revealed as well is the rarity of such unity in this setting where entrance and seating arrangements enforce strict class distinctions and where audience attention is scattered across an array of theatrical stimuli.
9. When felt, then, this unity provides a glimpse of how theater’s artistry brings people together in a context that otherwise accentuates diversity.  That “everyone” is said to respond similarly for a moment merges the “fashionable” classes in the boxes with the “gods” in the upper galleries, a moment of merger then recalled in the next day’s news. Even if few viewers or readers were attending to the democratizing implications of this accord, it is portrayed and reasserted as “theater intelligence,” enacting the “extraordinary socializing potential” that Daniel O’Quinn ascribes to the developing “rapid feedback loop” of press and theater in this era (3, 1-42). What this unity also indicates is working people’s senses of ownership and differential experiences of it in theater. They too have particular collections of personal and class-meaningful points, whose “emotionally, visually, or sonically intense” modes of manifestation underscore that theater literacy encompasses an array of signifying practices that do not rely on or necessarily privilege being text-literate.  At the least, theater literacy casts a rage for spectacle as one of several reading competencies developed by theater. It also illustrates why it is foolhardy to ascribe any particular politics to theater’s democratizing and even radical tendencies. Like the riots that break out when the people take theatrical matters into their own hands, the agency affirmed by group or individual allegiances to points is deeply protective of tradition. At the same time, commitment to their conservation is central to the transformations that they are capable of effecting.
10. Taken to extremes, the custodial impulse results in a closeting of drama, where those who identify as poets can better maintain the fantasies of control ascribed to private reading over public viewing.  Oddly, this strategy, while it affirms the importance of points in the constitution of one’s aesthetic identity, undercuts how the phenomenon of experiencing points effects internal changes that are necessary but not usually sufficient to achieve changes in thought, behavior, or action. In linking the “aesthetic moment” to the “search for transformation,” Christopher Bollas examines condensation in its psychoanalytic function as the most important of the laws of non-discursive thinking, suggesting why points are both so group-charged and personally differentiating (40-49). Any one symbol brings together multiple disparate meanings and thus affective histories. Here one could say that the extent to which a person’s identity is felt to be formed by and invested in aesthetic objects affects the nature and level of change that an aesthetic moment experienced in theater activates. Conversions can be quite dramatic. Joseph Severn recounts how, knocked unconscious by the press of the crowd to see Siddons as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, he came alive at the sound of her first speech, sat “‘as one entranced and conscious of some new and vital influence in his life,’” and vowed from that moment to “live the life of an artist” (Pascoe 2). Accounts of the child actor William Henry West Betty cite his declaration at the age of ten that he “shall die” if not allowed to “be a player” after experiencing Siddons’s Elvira in Pizarro (Merritt 2). More commonly, changes are momentary, primarily conversational, but in this respect conducive to fostering the good-naturedness that critics like William Hazlitt characterize as the cultural benefit of theatergoing; “Whoever sees a play ought to be better and more sociable for it” (157).
11. Two features of Bollas’s argument heighten the transformative potential of theater’s sensationalism and the positive dimensions of its juvenile pleasure.  An aesthetic moment is known, i.e. felt, in its re-activation of the “first human aesthetic”—the rhythms, tones, touches, and pacing of infant-(m)other interactions—and this mixed media environment fosters the developing infant’s cross-modal perceptual capacities (Bollas 41).  Fradenburg notes how, from very early on, infants learn to coordinate gesture and sound and rely on this felt-coordination for their sense of well-being. Romantic-era theater draws adults as well as children back to the nonsense-makings of paralanguage and its developmental precedence over speech. Interestingly, all the avowed “low” points of Romantic-era theater run on this prioritizing, playing up what high-cultural playwright Joanna Baillie recognizes as the primal allure of theater: demonstration that “a love for active, varied movement in the objects before us; for striking contrasts of light and shadow, for splendid decorations and magnificent scenery” is as “inherent” in humans as the “interest we take in the representation of the natural passions and characters” of them (232). Moreover, since the former sets the conditions for emergence of the latter, appearance of character in theater is typically heightened, rather than nullified or denigrated, by paralanguage. No form in the period plays on this developmental reality as spectacularly as does pantomime, whose generic hallmark is the outstripping of language by dumb-show. While analysis of pantomime is beyond my purview, what I wish to emphasize is that its staging of transformation as a combination of technical ingenuity and magical thinking recaptures our earliest, most pleasurable modes of processing the world.
12. David Mayer’s identification of a shift over the course of the eighteenth century in how change is concretized and operationalized in the harlequinade suggests the visual affective-cognitive heightening that these low points both enable and require. Unlike Harlequin’s “trickwork, which required backcloths or built-up pieces abruptly transformed at the slap of his bat, Clown’s visual similes were elaborate ‘tricks of construction,’” where from an initial “hodgepodge of items,” usually stolen, Clown would assemble some new creation (“a grotesque human form, a carriage, a travesty of a military uniform, a sailing vessel”) that Harlequin would then animate (39-40). The fact that this shift in clowning technology is performed by the incomparable Joseph Grimaldi is a further example of how points at once enable distinctions between high and low and render them unsustainable, though therefore repeatedly asserted. Besides stressing that Clown’s assemblages are produced in real time and before a live audience, Mayer’s description introduces two further deliberate boundary confusions at which pantomime specializes and that seeing it disseminates: the role of props in expressivity, and their dependence on print mediation for legibility as recognized properties of a “human” done “to the life.” In the case of a “high” point, as we have seen, integration is asserted by the immediate multi-media perception (itself mediated by memories of prior renditions) and mediated print accounts of it, in both the next day’s news and theater history. To return to my initial example, part of the sensation attached to Garrick’s Hamlet was the debut of a fright-wig, engineered by one hair-dresser Perkins, that made his hair actually stand on end at the sight of the ghost—a contraption that was not portrayed as countering the naturalness of Garrick’s depiction of Hamlet’s fear (Roach 58-59). By contrast, the low-highs of Grimaldi’s Clown’s “tricks of construction” begin from dis-articulation, persons and things starting as component, often mechanized parts, whose appearance of unity is made live and thus revealed as temporary, a coming-together that is cobbled, not pre-existent, and that is forged through visual simile.
13. Print mediation is even more crucial to rendering these highly ephemeral, minimally textual moments visible and legible. In the day, playbills often gave them top billing, and, thanks to Mayer’s and Jeffrey Cox’s painstaking efforts to decipher highly cryptic stage directions, we are gaining a rudimentary picture of how up-to-the-moment many of these scenes were, both in terms of technology and topical commentary. In attending to these scenes of transformation, I wish to highlight Mayer’s cross-modal “visual simile” as an apt description of the affective-cognitive processing that theater literacy cultivates. Call it wonder. Sometimes, the connections being forged in these scenes are before-unapprehended because both tenor and source signify “the new,” sets presenting the latest styles, trends, shops, and fashions in what Jeffrey Cox calls “an early version of product placement” (Cox, “‘Illegitimate’” 174). Sometimes, the simile is visual in order to escape apprehension by the Licenser of Plays, allowing pantomime, because of its circumventions of speech, to offer the most biting satire on stage (Mayer 50). In any case, these techno-magical transformations underscore O’Quinn’s and Gillian Russell’s claim that Georgian theater is a “multi-layered performance event, occurring on stage and in the auditorium” that is “mediated throughout the print public sphere,” and whose chief function is to reconvey the lived experience of cultural change (338 ). In either case, such sophisticated, under-articulated cross-modal live connection-making operations have remained unapprehended as poetry.
14. Reconsideration of points in Romantic-era theater should change that. Even when prized as the peaks that constitute a star, a point is a feedback loop offering multiple vectors of flight. Some heighten drama and/or the transports envisioned in and through aesthetic moments experienced collectively as an individual. Some are taken to the streets, fostering conviviality, consumerism, spouting clubs, inventions, protest or agitation. Some heighten or depress private theatricals. Especially when viewed as peaks of ingenuity and cross-modal processing, points at whatever height recall an attractive feature of juvenile minds, belief that following this path, or that, could be interesting.
Baker, Henry Barton. Our Old Actors. London: Richard Bentley & Sons, 1878.
Bollas, Christopher. “The Aesthetic Moment and the Search for Transformation.” Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott. Ed. Peter L. Rudnytsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 40-49.
Bratton, Jacky. New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
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Campbell, Thomas. Life of Mrs. Siddons. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972; first published London, 1839.
Carlson, Julie A. “Hazlitt and the Sociability of Theatre.” Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain 1770-1840. Eds. Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 145-65.
Cox, Jeffrey N. “‘Illegitimate’ Pantomime in the ‘Legitimate’ Theater: Context as Text.” An Illegitimate Legacy: Essays in Romantic Theater History in Memory of Jane Moody. Guest ed. Kevin Gilmartin. Spec. issue of Studies in Romanticism 54.2 (Summer 2015): 159-186.
--- and Michael Gamer, eds. Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. London: Broadview Press, 2003.
Fradenburg, Aranye. Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2013.
Hazlitt, William. “Our National Theatres.” Selected Writings. Ed. Jon Cook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. 155-57.
“Introduction.” Georgian Theatre in an Information Age: Media, Performance, Sociability. Guest eds. Daniel O'Quinn and Gillian Russell. Spec. issue of Eighteenth-Century Fiction 27:3-4 (Spring-Summer 2015): 337–340.
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“Introduction.” The Lichtenberg Reader: Selected Writings of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Trans. and ed. Franz H. Mautner and Henry Hatfield. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.
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London Times 20 July 1815.
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Nussbaum, Martha. Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
O’Quinn, Daniel. Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
Pascoe, Judith. The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
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Public Advertiser, 11 January 1786.
Roach, Joseph. The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.
West, Shearer. The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble. London: Pinter Publishers, 1991.
Worrall, David. Theatric Revolution: Drama, Censorship, and Romantic Period Subcultures 1773-1832. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Worthen, William B. The Idea of the Actor: Drama and the Ethics of Performance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
 See Frederick Burwick (pp. 83, 100-02) on the scientific advances marked by Charles Bell’s The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression (1806) and the centrality of Sarah Siddons in it. One of Siddons’s most famous points is the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale. BACK
 For example, a review that compares Dorothy Jordan unfavorably to Abington, Wilson, and Mattocks describes “two points which praise cannot pass over” as “all her own” (Public Advertiser, 11 January 1786). BACK
 For example, this review of a new actor from Edinburgh in the role of Richard III suggesting also the nation-solidifying function of points: “The multitude view with the jealousy of a lover every rival to the object of their election, more especially whom they have recently crowned with the palm of universal suffrage. [Meggott’s] greatest defects were palpably an excess of emphasis in many points, a too lengthened duration of his pauses, and chiefly in our opinion a deficiency of tact in seizing the disposition of the house, and conforming himself to their tumultuous dictate” (London Times, 20 July 1815). BACK
 See Martha Nussbaum’s articulation of how past theaters strengthen democracy and “civic reflection” by seating members in lighted spaces where they “saw across the staged action the faces of their fellow citizens” (260). BACK
 On “intertheatrical” reading practice that “includes speech, scenery, costume, lighting but also genres, conventions, and memory,” see Jacky Bratton 36-8. On working people’s experiences of theater, see David Worrall. BACK
 The negative ascription of “juvenile pleasure” with a thirst for “distinctness” that hampers “illusion” is in Charles Lamb’s “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” I:98. BACK