Between Page and Stage: The Happy Medium for Romantic Drama

Drawing on three collaborations between New York City’s Red Bull Theater and the New York University Department of English—the staging of Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (2012), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (2013), and Lord Byron’s Manfred (2017)—I argue that Romantic closet plays can benefit from a special kind of performance and performer: a staged reading by professional actors and directors. I contend that this type of performance offers what I call a happy medium: a compromise between a full staging and a private reading, which is suitable to the needs of this particular genre of minimal dramatic action, heightened poetic language, and metaphysical or “mental” subject matter. As a happy medium, the staged reading blurs the rigid binary between the stageable and the unstageable, permitting a means of bringing to performative light works typically limited to solitary or classroom reading practices. In addition, this type of performance provides a heuristic through which to explore the theatricality of these works, thereby carving out a new interpretive space for expanding our critical discourse on Romantic drama, theater, and performance.

Between Page and Stage: The Happy Medium for Romantic Drama

1.        Despite Lord Byron’s claim that he “rendered [Manfred] quite impossible for the stage,” his “dramatic poem” is actually a work that contains dramaturgically rich scenes (BLJ IV:52-5). Among these is the exchange between Manfred and the Chamois Hunter on the Jungfrau, which includes the moment that Manfred’s plans to plunge to his death are thwarted by the hunter who restrains him. The second act, in particular, offers most of the play’s theatricalizing potential with the rapid, intense exchanges between Manfred and the spirits in the Hall of Arimanes, the collective chanting that occurs during its introductory hymn, and the mysterious, climactic dialogue between Manfred and the Phantom of Astarte. The play closes with the appearance of the haunting “infernal god” who brings Manfred presumably upon his death to the nether regions from where the spirit originated (III.iv.63). Such portrayals suggest that Byron invested his drama with scenes that invited theatrical presentation.

2.        At the same time, the play presents dramaturgical challenges. It contains several extended soliloquies, many of which reveal Manfred’s private thoughts through elevated and often dense poetic language. Such lengthy monologues take up far more of the play than any of its dramatic action. The play’s unusual narrative sequence poses yet another challenge, as Manfred lacks a traditional plot scheme of clear exposition and rising action. The classic elements of tragedy, such as agnorisis and peripeteia, have already happened, and therefore Byron denies the audience the conventional experience of catharsis. For these and other reasons, Manfred is typically considered an unstageable play. Byron even proposed that his work was “of a very wild—metaphysical—and inexplicable kind” (BLJ V:169-70); Byron later used the term “metaphysical” to describe his experimental drama, Cain (1821). Manfred was part of a genre that Byron called “mental theatre,” a term for a special class of poetry that, as Alan Richardson has contended, became a dominant mode of writing among many Romantic writers (BLJ VIII:186-7). [1]  The play was seemingly intended for the theater of Manfred’s mind, as it were, rather than the actual stages of prominent London theaters such as Covent Garden or Drury Lane. [2] 

3.        In this essay, I wish to propose that, despite its limited performance history since its publication 200 years ago, Manfred can be staged successfully. A case in point is Red Bull Theater’s April 2017 staging of the drama in New York City. What made this production “playable” is owed in part to the atypical nature of the performance method employed. It was not a full-on staging of elaborate sets; there were no displays of intricately tailored costumes or arrangements of professional lighting and musical ensembles. Neither was the play experienced as a silent, private, individual reading of text. Instead, the performance was a hybrid experience, a mixed theatrical event that wed the page to the stage. On the bicentenary of its original publication, Manfred was performed on the NYC stage by bringing the printed text together with trained actors who dramatically read its lines aloud from scripts. This was achieved through the rare collaboration between a professional director, professional actors, and literary scholars, who served as resident dramaturges during rehearsals.

4.        In what follows, I draw on three collaborations between NYC’s Red Bull Theater and the NYU Department of English—Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (2012), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (2013) and Lord Byron’s Manfred (2017)—to argue that these ostensibly unplayable Romantic dramas, which have typically been referred to as closet plays, can indeed benefit from a special kind of performance and performer: a staged reading specifically implemented by professional actors and directors. I contend that this type of performance provides a “happy medium”: a compromise between a full staging (with set designs, costumes, elaborate lighting, and rehearsed movements and gestures) and a private reading, which is suitable to the needs of this particular genre of minimal dramatic action, heightened poetic language, and metaphysical or “mental” subject matter. As a happy medium, the staged reading collapses the binary between the stageable and the unstageable, permitting such works typically limited to solitary or classroom reading practices to become performances in their own right. Moreover, it provides a heuristic through which to explore the theatricality of these works, thereby carving out a new interpretive space for expanding our critical discourse on Romantic drama, theater, and performance.


5.        I will begin by briefly contextualizing the history of these scholarly-artistic collaborations. In the Fall of 2011, a couple of my colleagues and I sought out Red Bull Theater to co-produce a fully-staged performance of Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus. [3]  We wished to reexamine the theatrical potential of period plays by conducting a type of research outside of the academy beyond what a classroom or library could offer. This aspiration drew on the work of scholars such as Frederick Burwick, Jerome McGann, and Murray Biggs who had overseen stagings of these plays over the decades. [4]  We reached out to Red Bull Theater because they expressed interest in the “rediscovery of neglected classics” (Red Bull Theater). The fact that these plays had been so rarely performed attracted the Red Bull team to this project; they were also intrigued by the kind of critical debates that these plays fostered.

6.        Rather than investing in full productions, however, they proposed co-producing staged readings as part of the company’s Obie award-winning Revelation Reading Series. According to their website, Red Bull’s series provided “a unique opportunity to hear these plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York” (Red Bull Theater). Through this option, actors do not memorize their lines but rather use music stands to read aloud from scripts. Though I was disappointed by the less ambitious option, the viability of this low-risk and low-budget alternative was not simply pragmatic, as the cost of hiring professional actors for a full production would have been challenging to fund. This decision also led to the fortuitous discovery of an alternate and promising medium for interpreting these plays. Throughout the five-year relationship, we co-produced five dramas: Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (2012), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (2013), Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort (2014), Frances Burney’s The Woman Hater (2015), and Lord Byron’s Manfred (2017).


7.        The staging of Sardanapalus in 2012 launched the collaboration with Red Bull by bringing one of Byron’s dramas to 42nd Street for the first time. The rehearsal and performance of Sardanapalus took place on November 12, 2012, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Though this play is not typically considered unstageable, its limited performance history made it an appropriate choice for our co-production. [5]  In this section, I will briefly discuss how this first experience laid the groundwork for the collaborations that ensued.

8.        During the five-hour rehearsal, which took place immediately before the performance, my colleagues and I were introduced to the theater team as literature researchers, and we expected to play a minor background role. As rehearsals progressed, however, the actors and director relied increasingly on us, instead of one of their own in-house professional dramaturges, for textual expertise. The Red Bull actors and director sought us out for contextual knowledge about the plays, including information about Byron’s biography and what they suspected might be its pivotal relation to the play’s content and themes; they also inquired about Sardanapalus’s reception history and about general background on the time period in which Byron wrote it. When we told them about Byron composing the play from Italy while in self-imposed exile, the actor playing King Sardanapalus, Amir Arison, drew connections between Byron’s biography and Sardanapalus’s lines on feeling alienated and “misplaced upon the throne—misplaced in life” (IV.332). Encouraged by their engagement with the text, we made some connections explicit for the team of actors. This included explaining the links between Byron’s philhellenism and his counter-imperialist leanings; this is made particularly evident, we stressed, through Byron’s choice in making the king’s lover a Greek (Myrrha) and slave to a despotic imperial state. We also pointed out that the play’s backdrop of the imminent collapse of the Assyrian Empire could be read as Byron’s commentary on the Ottoman Empire or perhaps what he saw as the future of the British Empire. In addition to seeking historical information from us, the cast and director turned to us for textual clarifications. This included paraphrases of complicated lines, along with proper pronunciations of names (such as Pania, Beleses, and Semiramis), places (such as Nineveh and Chaldea), or unfamiliar terms (such as satrap). During breaks, Sardanapalus’s director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, sought our approval for some of her dramaturgical decisions. Even though she was the expert in that space, she and the rest of the team placed significant value on our opinions.

9.        While sharing our knowledge with the actors and director, we conducted a form of ethnography that included observing the theater team’s impressions of and reactions to the text. First and foremost, Upchurch explained to us that, in order for Sardanapalus to succeed on stage, it had to be cut. [6]  Several of the actors, including Arison, expressed similar concerns about adapting the play’s lengthy, unwieldy verse passages for the stage. Upchurch eliminated what she classified as extended poetic descriptions and unnecessary repetitions that she thought stalled the play’s dramatic momentum. Upchurch also informed us that her priority was to keep the audience’s attention through a reasonable performance time. In the process, she hoped to deliver a clear plot sequence, while cutting down on passages of dense, allusive verse. See Figure 1 for a sample of such edits, displaying two of Upchurch’s major line cuts from Act IV in which King Sardanapalus recounts his stirring dream to Myrrha:

Sample of cuts made by Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Figure 1: Sample of cuts made by Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch

In the first major cut on the left, Myrrha’s speech is truncated half way through line 56. In order to preserve the iambic pentameter, therefore, Sardanapalus’s response in line 64 is cut, too. The adjustment maintains the poetic rhythm, while removing complex images, metaphors, and philosophical meditations. The second cut on the right follows this approach, eliminating one of Myrrha’s multiple avowals to the King and other less substantive phrases and hesitations that stand in the way of Sardanapalus’s retelling of his dream. Though not all edits maintained this type of continuity, Upchurch succeeded in most cases in ensuring smooth transitions between actors’ lines and preserving Byron’s poetic form.

10.        When the twelve-actor performance commenced later that evening, which included one actor who read Byron’s stage directions, Upchurch’s line cuts proved warranted, as the show still ran to a two-hour, twenty-minute performance (including one fifteen-minute intermission). The over 120 attendees responded enthusiastically. Many of them told us either during intermission or after the performance that the play presented an array of gripping elements: suspense, humor, romance, and themes of friendship and fidelity. According to audience members, some noteworthy moments included the pathos of Zarina’s loyalty to Sardanapalus as his wife and queen, despite the king’s betrayal and estrangement from her. Other absorbing elements included the heated and cross-cultural romance between the Assyrian king and his Greek lover as well as the play’s tragic yet spectacular finale: when Sardanapalus and Myrrha escape capture by the rebels by immolating themselves. Overall, the performance fostered the kind of responses—such as laughter and enthusiasm—that a talented cast and director were able to make possible. [7]  As King Sardanapalus, Arison generated laughter through amusing, hyperbolic poses in front of the mirror that suggested the king’s vanity (III.163-4). Arison commented that, despite his impotence as a monarch, incapacity to unite a divided Assyrian kingdom, and preference for soirees and libations instead of defending his realm and people from attack, the king’s character comes across sympathetically.

11.        Approximately thirty audience members remained for the post-show discussion, with many interested to find out about the benefits achieved through the partnership between a university English department and a theater company. They also asked questions about Sardanapalus’s production and reception history as well as about specific contextual issues such as the political parallels between the play’s ancient setting and the concerns of Byron’s own day. In an email to Upchurch and the actors the day after the performance, Red Bull’s Associate Artistic Director, Craig Baldwin, wrote:

Well they couldn't pronounce it - but they sure did LOVE IT! Sardanapalus was an absolute joy! It takes an extremely dedicated and talented group of theater artists to bring such a challenging text to life - and that is exactly what you did - you brought it to delightful, rapturous life.  Bravo! ("Re: THANK YOU")
Overall, it became clear that besides the superb acting Upchurch’s line cuts were theatrically effective. I suspect that both the dramatic reading and post-show discussion may have enticed some of them to explore more about Byron and his works in their own time.


12.        The unexpected success of Sardanapalus solidified the relationship between Red Bull and the NYU Department of English, making a staged reading of a Romantic drama an annual New York City event from 2012 to 2017. The positive reception prompted us to raise the stakes the following year by choosing Shelley's lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound, a play that has not only been mostly confined to print—with only a handful of copies even making it to the press in Shelley’s lifetime—but has also been brought to the stage only a handful of times (Barcus 3). [8]  In his preface to the 1820 edition of the drama, Shelley suggested that he did not intend it for performance, writing that its “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence” were best suited for “the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers” (209). The implication is that his drama demands a special “reader” instead of spectator. Indeed, Shelley’s inclusion of supernatural content, representations of cosmic-wide revolution, dense poetic effusions and images, and complex allusions present formidable challenges to staging it. The political allegorical heft and network of classical references of Shelley’s text are challenging enough to read: I wondered, therefore, how it would fare before a live audience.

13.        The conversations leading up to—and during—rehearsals resembled those from the previous year, with the exception that Craig Baldwin decided to direct Prometheus Unbound personally. In an interview prior to the show, he reminisced about his Juilliard “voice and speech class” days in which his instructor would require his students to perform Asia’s “enchanted Boat” song from Act II, scene five, as an exercise in reciting “expressive” and “rich” language and sound (Personal Interview). Even though that experience was Baldwin’s first and only exposure to the play prior to our collaboration, he welcomed the chance to direct it for two major reasons. The first was the draw of what he considered Shelley’s “ecstatically appealing” verse and ambitious attempt “to describe the indescribable.” Baldwin noted his interest in the play’s reach “for greater and greater transcendence . . . [through] massive and multilayered ideas and images” (Personal Interview). The second reason was Baldwin’s fascination with what he considered Shelley’s prescience about late 20th and early 21st century advances in theatrical technology. According to Baldwin, “Shelley liberated himself from writing in a theatrical tradition [of his contemporaries] and made precocious innovations” (Personal Interview). Baldwin argued that today’s elaborate technology used in Broadway or West End sets could bring many of the play’s spectacles to life, presenting features like Asia’s radiating light from Act II or the inter-animating visions of celestial bodies of Act IV as impressive visual effects. He also suggested that the play imagines what we would recognize today as a “Batman-like shadow world” with characters like Demogorgon as a “proto-Terminator” and the Phantasm of Jupiter arising from the lower depths like “scenes from X-Men.” He even suggested that Shelley’s drama could adapt well as a film or even opera-musical. [9] 

14.        As we expected, Baldwin admitted that the play would offer its share of staging difficulties. He particularly felt that the long poetic passages and minimal stage directions suggested that Shelley wrote it—not as an unstageable play but—without any idea of how to stage it. As with Sardanapalus, the text needed cutting, perhaps even more ruthlessly, in fact. Baldwin suggested considerably trimming the drama’s second half during the extended celebrations across the cosmos. [10]  In lieu of dramatic action, however, Baldwin determined to be crafty with what he considered Shelley’s “beautiful lyricism and musicality” (Personal Interview). One of his strategies for heightening the play’s sonoric experience included positioning actors beyond the stage throughout the entire space of the theater. During the actual performance, actors were positioned all across the stage as well as in the aisles. For example, in Act IV, while the actors playing Panthea and Ione described the redeemed world’s “inter-transpicuous” marvels from the stage, the dialogue between the Earth and the Moon took place throughout the orchestra aisles with audience members sitting directly between the speaking characters (IV.134).

15.        Baldwin also divided Shelley’s lengthy choruses to heighten the play’s dramatic effects. He split the lines up between several actors who would recite them either individually or in tandem from the aisles. See Figure 2 for an example of one of Baldwin’s adapted choruses, which I have positioned beside Shelley’s original text:

An Example of one of Craig Baldwin’s adapted
                    scenes of Prometheus Unbound

Figure 2: An Example of one of Craig Baldwin’s adapted scenes of Prometheus Unbound

Baldwin divided Shelley’s song among the characters in order to make the poetic text more dramatic. In doing so, he transformed the chorus into a style reminiscent of the witch scenes in Macbeth, creating a call-and-response effect. Yet such a choice simultaneously raised a paradox. Baldwin interpreted Shelley’s lack of stage directions as license for creating a precise design for the dialogue, “binding” back Prometheus, as it were, to a rigid structure. Perhaps this interpretive choice was antithetical to Shelley’s authorial intent. Nevertheless, the positioning of these characters in the aisles invoked their liminal status as spirits not fully within the material world. Moreover, Baldwin felt his choice created an opportunity for making a rich theatrical experience possible.

16.        The staged reading took place on November 18, 2013 at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City’s West Village. Despite the drama’s complexities, it appealed to many—though not all—attendees, as I discovered from speaking to audience members during intermission and after the show. Surprisingly, despite starting the performance with a full house of approximately 200 persons (maybe a record-breaking number in Prometheus Unbound’s limited performance history), the play resumed post-intermission with approximately half of its initial audience. Perhaps this was because of the density of Shelley’s poetry or what appeared to be the resolution of dramatic action before intermission at the end of Act II. In an email following the show, Baldwin wrote that the house appeared divided: “Many of them seemed bored by the incessant and complicated imagery and the long poetic tracts, quite a few even left at intermission. Others stayed the whole time and seemed very excited about it at the talkback” (Baldwin, "Re: Questions"). After much deliberation, I also came to the conclusion that the audience members—especially those unfamiliar with the play—might have believed that the second act’s dramatic conclusion was, in fact, the play’s finale. Despite the exodus at the interval, the number of dedicated attendees who remained perhaps reinforces Shelley’s caution about the play’s suitability for only a “select classes of poetical readers.”

17.        In addition to sparking a lively post-show discussion that explored both the challenges and opportunities of Baldwin’s adaptation, the event received positive reviews. On behalf of the Keats-Shelley Organization of America, Suzanne Barnett described the show as a “rare and unexpected delight” and “a lively and nuanced performance that was especially impressive given that the cast had only a single rehearsal that same afternoon” (Barnett). She elaborated:

The experience of hearing the choruses and semichoruses chant their intermingled lines from either side of the theater was both appropriate to the musicality of the source text and a canny solution to the limitations of a reading, as opposed to a full staging. It was also a delightful sensory experience, and it felt like a decision Shelley himself would have endorsed.
Despite the limited rehearsal time indeed, Baldwin succeeded at finding a cast talented enough to deliver Shelley’s complex artistic portrayals and rich language effectively. One of the best examples of this occurred during the Moon’s speech in the last act’s cosmic rejoicing, a high point that Barnett also noted. Adam Green (The Moon) read his lines so powerfully that Myra Lucretia Taylor (The Earth) broke out of her character to say “You just took my breath away!” before resuming her own speech (Prometheus Unbound). While scholars generally consider Act IV as both narratively and dramatically problematic, the performance appeared to succeed because of its emphasis on the aural pleasures of the poetry. In so doing, the production culminated with a depiction of Promethean cosmic renewal that also celebrated Shelley’s language in memorable ways. [11] 


18.        The Manfred staging reinforced many of the lessons learned a few years previously with Prometheus Unbound. In commemoration of the bicentenary of the play’s publication, it took place on the evening of Thursday, April 20, 2017 at the Loreto Theater at the Sheen Center of New York City. [12]  During rehearsals, Jerome McGann and I served as resident dramaturges, working in collaboration with the play’s director, Michael Barakiva, who adapted the script to accommodate a 12-actor cast.

19.        Barakiva was inspired by the many challenges posed by Manfred. He remarked at the onset of rehearsals that “the problem with the script dramaturgically is that we don’t get to see the relationship with Astarte.” He suggested that, in order to create a more “playable” drama, he would have instructed Byron to change the first act by including either additional plot action or more speeches that give background details. Yet Barakiva said that Byron’s language in Manfred is “thick like a good sauce,” noting not only its Shakespearean registers in lines such as “We are the fools of time and terror” (II.i.164), but also the “dramatic upheavals” of Byron’s usage of dashes throughout. [13]  Like his predecessors (Upchurch and Baldwin), Barakiva cut the play substantially, producing a short performance that lasted approximately 50 minutes. He wanted to create the most playable version of Manfred possible and therefore removed most of its dense poetry. In making his cuts, unlike Upchurch and Baldwin, he paid no mind to preserving Byron’s patterns of versification.

20.        Despite deferring to Barakiva without protest, McGann and I noted some of the director’s arbitrary decisions. He changed the gender of Byron’s characters, for instance, making all the immortals female (including Arimanes, Nemesis, and the other spirits) to distinguish them from the mortal male characters. When asked why he had come to the decision, Barakiva stated that the matter was personal, clarifying that he believed in “the superiority of women.” My skepticism was slightly allayed, however, when I later observed the—perhaps unintended—results of what he had achieved. As the performance unfolded on stage, his vision spoke to the play’s content and context. By dividing the characters in this way, the set up accentuated Manfred’s estrangement from either camp. Neither mortal nor immortal, Manfred (played by Jason Butler Harner) stood isolated on the stage throughout the entire performance, which stressed his status as an outcast caught in a liminal space between the human and superhuman worlds. Throughout the show, while the mortals (the Chamois Hunter, the Abbot of St. Maurice, Manuel, and Herman) sat upstage right behind Manfred, the immortals (the Spirits, the Witch of Alps, Destinies, Nemesis, and Arimanes) were seated opposite them upstage left. All the while, the audience was made continuously aware that Manfred could neither identify nor connect with any other being—not even the Phantom of Astarte.

21.        The stage production also emphasized the text’s gothic aspects through the actors’ use of vocal variation. A good example of this was in Act II, scene four when the Destinies, Nemesis, and Arimanes all appeared together on stage—aghast and indignant that Manfred, through the use of his supernatural power, had gained access into the Hall of Arimanes. When the actors read their lines either in unison or in rapid succession, the characters came across as a threatening and intimidating collective unit; whether the actors varied their tempo or pitch, they produced the haunting effect called for by the scene. Another moment that accentuated the text’s eerie features occurred when the actor who played Arimanes, Jacqueline Antaramian, uttered her first of only five words in the drama. In response to Nemesis, who asks “Great Arimanes, doth thy will avouch / The wishes of this mortal?” Antaramian sneered at Manfred for about ten seconds—in complete silence—before uttering “yea” in a prolonged, menacing, and chilling fashion (II.iv.80-1). Her manipulation of sound and facial expression as well as her distinctive delivery of the word itself signaled to me once again the benefits of translating this play from the page to the stage. Through her acting skill, she made evident that brevity can be as powerful on stage as one of Manfred’s lengthy monologues.

22.        Another Barakivan eccentricity included communal readings of the stage directions: instead of having one person solely charged with reading them aloud, he randomly assigned each of them among all the actors. I appreciated this decision, as it resonated with the instabilities of voice and voicing so central to Manfred (as Diego Saglia has compellingly argued in his essay in this volume). Barakiva also had a triangle rung for any reference to Astarte. It was used, for instance, after the Shepherd’s pipe is “heard in the distance,” when Manfred confesses “Yet there was One” (II.ii.103). Such a choice worked well, since the consistency of the instrument’s sound emphasized Astarte’s significance to the plot whether she was present on stage or not.


23.        The co-productions of Sardanapalus, Prometheus Unbound, and Manfred were successful events for many reasons: the audience’s level of engagement, the fruitful collaboration between literary scholars and theater artists who came together through one common text of interest, and the opportunity to bring students in contact with these texts in innovative and exciting ways. These experiences also allowed the rare chance to hear the performance of Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry by professional actors who bring to life all theatrical aspects of the play, from the heated dialogue to the long, introspective monologues.

24.        During rehearsals and performances, the literary scholar assumed a different role outside the academy, becoming a resident dramaturge and textual expert in a local theater. We provided a service to both theater professionals during rehearsals as well as to members of the community who wished to know more about the dramas during the post-show discussion. As Baldwin noted after the performance of Prometheus Unbound, “it is certainly very helpful to artists to engage with scholars when dealing with classical text in the theater . . . [especially] for directors, whose understanding of the play has to extend to its context, the purpose for it being written, the other work being written at the time, the other work by that author, etc., in order to make choices about how the play is contextualized in production” (Baldwin, “Re: Questions”). The collaboration also allowed for some professional crossover, as Baldwin incorporated into his vision one of my own dramaturgical suggestions. At the end of the performance, as the actor playing Demogorgon, Mark Dole, read the lyrical drama’s final line, “This alone is Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory,” all of the actors on stage read it aloud in tandem with him as a gesture symbolic of the newly unified Promethean society (IV.578).

25.        These rewards were indeed mutual, as this opportunity opened up a stimulating interpretive space. The professional actors bring out certain aspects of the prosody that might not come across as forcefully on the page, offering the audience a communal interpretation of these texts that is markedly different from a private reading. Moreover, we discovered that close reading can also happen on stage in illuminating ways. I was pleasantly surprised to learn, for instance, that Baldwin recognized opportunities for humor in Prometheus Unbound. This occurs in Act I, for instance, when Mercury fails to persuade the obstinate Prometheus to succumb to Jupiter and reveal his secret knowledge to the god. For Baldwin, the actor playing Mercury’s minor, yet consequential, role could generate laughter by exaggerating his pitiable pleas and sense of self-defeat as the unsuccessful mediator between Prometheus and Jupiter. Baldwin pointed to the faun scene in Act II as another possibility for humor, particularly if the two actors emphasize the fauns’ fascination with the beautiful, ethereal, music-making spirits around them. Yet another opportunity for humor includes Jupiter’s lengthy monologue at the start of Act III, if the actor playing him succeeds at bringing out the melodramatic nature of the despot’s character. Baldwin offered Jupiter’s opening lines as an illustration of what he meant: “Ye congregated powers of heaven, who share / The glory and strength of him ye serve / Rejoice! Henceforth I am omnipotent” (III.1-3). He envisioned a talented actor reading these lines not only with a strong voice but also with an exaggerated “villainous laugh” to follow Jupiter’s ironic claims of omnipotence amid his crumbling empire. As a caricature of evil, according to Baldwin, Jupiter could offer the play’s greatest moment of comic relief with a skilled actor lending the appropriately hyperbolic inflections. [14] 

26.        The Manfred staging also highlighted the humor of Byron’s play, which might appear surprising for a cosmic drama that centers on the agony of its hero. A good illustration of this occurred during Manfred’s opening monologue, when he, in his attempt to conjure the spirits of earth and air, fails to summon them not just once but twice. Combine such writing with a talented actor who can use silence and bedazzled facial expressions to his advantage to yield a comical reaction from the audience. Consider also the moment in Act II when one of the spirits in the Hall of Arimanes remarks that, “Had [Manfred] been one of us,” he “would have made / an awful spirit” (II.iv.161-2). With this line, Byron perhaps intended to signal the awe-inducing presence of his Faustian hero, in accordance with the archaic meaning of the word, “awful.” Still, a contemporary audience cannot help but hear the term’s more familiar modern resonance: had Manfred been a spirit, in fact, he would have made a bad one. Needless to say, the crowd at the Loreto Theater roared with laughter. Along with many other similar opportunities, it became clear that the play has the capacity to be performed in a way that brings out light-hearted, humorous moments. As an audience member, rather than as a conventional reader, I took away from the experience that Byron—in addition to creating a “play” based on the scandalous affair with his half sister, Augusta, which had seized the imagination of a continent—was having fun with writing his drama. The performance pushed the generic expectations of Manfred by shedding light on its ambiguities as a hybrid work between the tragic and the comic. [15] 

27.        Despite my initial skepticism about the limitations of being a passive spectator—of being subjected to the directors’ and actors’ interpretation of the text—I have embraced such readings, however idiosyncratic, as an opportunity. Even if I had disagreed with any particular actor’s reading style, the experience of hearing such an interpretation still proved fruitful, since it invited the immediacy of varying reactions and responses. For instance, when Gisela Chípe, the actor playing the Phantom of Astarte, read out her final word on stage, “Manfred,” before leaving him and disappearing from the scene altogether, she uttered his name with a heightened tone of desperation—as if she were beseeching Manfred to join her on the other side among the dead. For me, this interpretation seems to be a misreading. To my mind, the character of Astarte must exhibit both calmness and detachment, for she models the kind of stoic disposition that Manfred will fully acquire by the end of the play. Manfred and Astarte are, after all, like each other in “lineaments” and share the “same lone thoughts and wanderings” (II.ii.105-9). Nevertheless, the distinctive mode in which Chípe read her line prodded me toward such reflection in the first place. Her reading offered another way of interpreting Byron’s lines, inviting my reaction as well as adding to our critical discourse.


28.        In addition to the foregoing benefits, I wish to highlight the rewards of making these Romantic-era dramas come performatively alive through a staged reading, an auspicious alternative when a full production is not feasible. Despite my initial hope back in 2012 of producing full stagings of these works, it was through this unintended and initially less desirable medium, in fact, that I discovered an apposite vehicle for realizing even the most unplayable of these dramas as successful theatrical experiences. The staged reading is unusual in that it fuses the conventions of silent, individual, and private reading practices with that of communal and public performance. The medium permits actors, readers, spectators, and auditors to intersect in a space where all groups experience the text simultaneously yet differently. Actors perform by dramatically reading their lines aloud, while using minimal gesturing to evoke action, interaction, and movement. They serve as the intermediaries between the text and the audience members who absorb the drama as spectators and auditors.

29.        While having actors read aloud from scripts might appear to restrict the suspension of disbelief that audience members might enjoy in more traditional theatrical milieus, the austere, minimalist format of this performance style heightens the reading experience in some ways. That is, without the spectacle of scenery, elaborate costuming, or other visual effects, the staged reading emphasizes the sound and substance of the text’s language, as the text is felt to be more present. Through a staged reading, all participants are invariably reminded that two distinct populations—actors and audience members (rather than characters in a drama)—have come together to “read” a script in different ways. By this I mean that audience members are permitted the benefits afforded to them in a conventional encounter with a text, as the silent, individual reading practice transforms into an enhanced communal experience in which texts are read physically, interpetively, and imaginatively. Without the distraction of visual effects or actors’ bodily movement, audience members also participate actively by collaborating creatively in the group process. As they envision the dramatic scenes in their minds, they conduct an interpretation of text within an alternate and stimulating site for reading and analysis outside of the classroom or the library. This reading community also has its pedagogical advantages by being a pragmatic way to invite students into the world of these difficult dramatic works. The staged reading allows students to enjoy the pleasures of poetic language and sound as well as the synergy generated by actors responding to the text’s dialogic structure. In animating the text in such a way, the experience draws students into each writer’s artistic vision.

30.        Beyond the benefits for these diverse groups, the staged reading offers new ways to confront old challenges that scholars have identified in thinking about closet dramas. Catherine Burroughs, for instance, has written that the genre is “hybrid, oscillatory, and ambiguous,” contending that closet plays from the entire Georgian period (1737—1832) generally “blur the lines between voice and body, reading and staging, and gesture and speech” (445). [16]  For her, these works are unsuitable for elaborate theatrical productions. In Poetry and Politics of the Cockney School, moreover, Jeffrey Cox argues that works such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound attempted to remake contemporary melodrama by locating a “generic site” that “draws upon a strong theatrical tradition to imagine a stage beyond the theater” (Cox 124). He argues that Shelley, by seeking to negotiate “a proper balance between word and stage effect,” needed a theater other than what existed in the early nineteenth century (Cox 129).  In other words, Shelley’s “visions of embodied possibility” comprise an “imaginative theater” that seemed unreal in his day but might be realized in ours (Cox 145). [17] 

31.        As the actors performed by reading from their scripts during each Red Bull performance, they negotiated the balance between voice and gesture and between language and the body. They partook of an in-between or mediated space where speech and writing became interdependent. They employed a type of performance that addressed the needs of these generically hybrid and “oscillatory” works of poetic drama. What I am suggesting is that the staged reading converts theory into practice by transmuting this imaginative style of drama into the material reality of a theatrical space. It provides an alternative means of seeing these texts as performable objects, allowing for the integration of the hybrid “generic site” (that Cox identifies) into a cross-medial site between voice and print and between the stage and the page. As this mixed medium offers an experience between a private reading and the grandness of the full stage production, in which the spectator experiences the negotiation between “word and stage effect,” it allows such experimental, neglected works of theater to emerge with ease at long last from their closets.

32.        This take on the possibilities of the staged reading expands upon similar reflections recorded in the last few years with regard to other Byron productions. Writing about her own production of Cain in 2010 at the University of British Columbia, Fannina Waubert de Puiseau has argued that the staged reading offered her production an opportunity to “look beyond the traditional stage” in order to inhabit a “transitional space between page and stage” (427). In his review of a ‘rehearsed reading’ of Manfred at the King’s Head Theatre in London (performed on March 11, 2007), Michael Simpson noted that such a collective performance dramatizes the “act of reading a text” (44), while the spectator’s and reader’s “imagination [is] conducted within a collective world of print” (51). Simpson further suggests that this theatre of print “short-circuits the critical polarity of stage versus page” (48). In “theatricalizing text,” he contends, the rehearsed reading also “traces the glamorously infamous scene of reading” at Villa Diodati in the Summer of 1816 that gave rise not only to Byron’s Manfred but also to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and John Polidori’s The Vampyre): two works that Simpson argues are preoccupied with animation and resurrection. As it pays homage to the 1816 occasion that gave it life, the staged reading also reinforces the fact that Manfred is not simply “isolated in poses of egotistical sublime”; he is also “beset by external forces” (48). Byron’s text is a mixture of profound monologue and “intensely competitive dialogue,” as the staged reading honors the oscillation that, as Burroughs reminds us, is an integral part of the peculiarities of such dramas (48).

33.        In the end, the success of these staged readings became possible because of a series of negotiations and compromises between literary critics and theater experts. The Red Bull team showed that professional talent, direction, and even adaptation can animate even the most experimental and rhythmically dense among these dramas. The staged reading enabled us to meet on middle ground—to discover a happy medium between poetry and drama, theater artists and scholars, art and criticism, theory and practice, page and stage, and the public and private spheres. Through Red Bull’s commitment to staging “under-performed” plays, this joint project has permitted the New York City theatergoing community to experience Romantic works as performances rather than as poetry in a private reading or classroom: Romanticism on the stage rather than on the printed or digitized page. At the same time, this collaboration has drawn attention once again to the Romantic fascination with the mixing of genres. In the spirit of the period that gave us the lyrical ballad, the historical novel, and the lyrical drama, another hybrid form—the staged reading—can be included as both an interpretative and performative possibility for these dramatic works.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Craig. Personal Interview. 2 Nov. 2013.

---. "Re: THANK YOU from Red Bull Theater." Email message to Actors and Director, 13 Nov. 2013.

---. "Re: Questions." Email message to [author of essay], 21 Jul. 2014.

Barcus, James. Percy Shelley: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1975.

Barnett, Suzanne L. "Staged Reading of Prometheus Unbound the First Since 1998." Keats-Shelley Association of America (, 2 Dec. 2013.

Biggs, Murray. "Notes of Performing Sardanapalus." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 31, no. 3, 1992.

---. "Staging ‘The Borderers’: Dragging Romantic Drama out of the Closet." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 27, no. 3, 1988, pp. 411-17.

Burroughs, Catherine B. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

---. "The Stages of Closet Drama." The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre, 1737-1832, edited by Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor, Oxford UP, 2014.

Burwick, Frederick. Romantic Drama: Acting and Reacting. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Sardanapalus. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Broadview Press, 2003.

---. "Byron to Murray, of Manfred, 9 March 1817." The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, edited by R.E. Prothero, vol. 4, London: John Murray, 1898-1901, pp. 71-72.

---. The Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome McGann, 7 vols., Clarendon Press, 1986.

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

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and their Circle. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Cox, Jeffrey N. and Michael Gamer. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Broadview Press, 2003.

Ferber, Michael. The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Langan, Celeste, and Maureen N. McLane. "The Medium of Romantic Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, edited by James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, Cambridge UP, 2008.

"Manfred Follow-up: Omar F. Miranda." Keats-Shelley Association of America (, 3 Aug. 2017.

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

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. The Theatre of Shelley. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Prometheus Unbound by Percy B. Shelley. Director Craig Baldwin. Produced by Red Bull Theater Company. Lucille Lortel Theater, New York. 18 Nov. 2013.

Quillin, Jessica K. "‘An Assiduous Frequenter of the Italian Opera’: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa." Romanticism and Opera, edited by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, May 2005. Romantic Circles Praxis.

Red Bull Theater. ( n.p. 30 Jun. 2014.

Richardson, Alan. A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age. Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.

Sardanapalus by Lord Byron. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, The Red Bull Theater Company, Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York, 12 Nov. 2012.

Shelley, Percy B. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W.W. Norton and Co., 2002.

University of Pennsylvania. "Unbinding Prometheus at the University of Pennsylvania." Email press release, 1 Aug. 2014.


[1]See Alan Richardson’s A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988). BACK

[2] Frederick Burwick’s essay in this volume, "Staging Manfred," examines Alfred Bunn’s 1834 production of Manfred at Covent Garden. BACK

[3]I owe enormous debt to Randie Sessler and Veronica Goosey, who joined me on this endeavor in its early phases and have remained invaluable interlocutors on the subject. Without them, neither this collaborative project nor this essay would have been possible. I also wish to thank the Department of English at New York University for generously co-funding this initiative over the years. BACK

[4] Scholars have previously turned to the stage to examine questions of “performability,” especially for period plays with little or no performance history. For example, Jerome McGann’s theater group, Cain’s Company, brought Byron’s Cain and Heaven and Hell to the theater in the 1960s. Murray Biggs’s 1988 production of Wordsworth’s The Borderers gave the poet’s only drama a performance history. His later production of Byron’s Sardanapalus at Yale University in March 1990 for an international conference on Romantic drama gave Byron’s play a long overdue revival among literary scholars. In 2000, Charles Rzepka produced two performances of Obi; or Three-Finger'd Jack at Playwrights Theater at Boston University in July and at the conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) in August at the University of Arizona. Rzepka’s NASSR production marked the first of what has now become a tradition of staging Romantic dramas at these conferences; this performance was directed by Jerrold Hogle. Furthermore, Frederick Burwick has also directed a number of Romantic plays, including works by Hannah Cowley, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Joanna Baillie. In 2001, he directed a production of Thomas Beddoes’s Death’s Jest Book whose adapted script was created by Jerome McGann and was performed at the NASSR conference, as well. Finally, it should be noted that readings of plays have occurred at many literary scholarly conferences, as well, including at the NASSR and the Wordsworth Summer Conferences. A reading of Byron’s Cain, for instance, took place at the 2010 NASSR conference, Romantic Mediations. BACK

[5] Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer have commented on the performance history of Sardanapalus: “Sardanapalus apparently had its first performance in Brussels in January 1834. It opened in London in a production by Macready at Drury Lane on 10 April 1834. With fine sets and great scenic effects, the play was a success, running for twenty-three nights. Drawing upon recent excavations in Nineveh and Babylon for his settings, Charles Kean revived the play in 1853 in a production that achieved ninety-three performances in two seasons; another production in 1875 was performed more than two thousand times across England within two years” (Cox and Gamer 262). BACK

[6]It was no secret to Upchurch and Red Bull’s directors that we initially resisted removing any lines at all out of integrity and for our research purposes of determining the theatricality of these plays based on how they were created. In his 1990 production of Sardanapalus at Yale, Biggs also noted that “cutting [the text] was essential in order to fit the play into the two-and-a-half hours beyond which a student performance is apt to become intolerable. The 2833 lines of the original were trimmed to 2128, but by a process of surreptitious thinning rather than lopsided and visible excision. No cuts were made, moreover, except by trial and error some way into rehearsal. The lines least playable (by our cast) were the ones to go, but only after they had entered fully into the company’s awareness of the author’s complete undertaking” (Biggs, "Notes on Performing Sardanapalus" 379.). BACK

[7]In Biggs’s notes on the production of Sardanapalus, he explains how he initially sought out a “seasoned New York actor” for the role of the king, since none of his “student actors seemed ready for it” ("Notes of Performing Sardanapalus" 380.). He settled on hiring Brian Price, a trained actor in his mid-twenties who Biggs described as having “a high and somewhat querulous voice and an inconspicuous physique. Not obviously an auspicious choice; yet he proved a revelation.” Biggs attributes his finding to Price’s “spontaneity,” an attribute of comedy and levity that he believes Byron wrote into the lines and character of the king. For Biggs, King Sardanapalus appears to “be improvising his text as the character is improvising his rule,” and we believe that Arison also seized upon the improvisational effects that inhered in the Byronic text. BACK

[8]Here Barcus explains: “Shelley himself thought it would sell no more than 20 copies, and John Gisborne remarked that Prometheus Unbound was never intended for more than five or six persons” (3). In April 1998, Rude Mechanicals, a renowned theater company in Austin, Texas, put on what they claim to be the “original world premiere” of Prometheus Unbound as a full staged production at the University of Texas in Austin. It was directed by Madge Darlington and produced by Theresa M. Kelley and Michael Simpson. ( BACK

[9] In his brief exposure to the full text, Baldwin came to conclusions about (unbeknownst to him) the dramaturgical potential of Shelley’s play that some literary scholars have already identified elsewhere. Jacqueline Mulhallen, for instance, has analyzed Shelley’s lyrical dramas, both Prometheus Unbound and Hellas, as “rooted in actual theatrical practices” (Mulhallen, Theater 16). According to her, Shelley’s lyrical drama “accord[s] with his theory of drama sufficiently to suggest that he thought them performable." Mulhallen’s book aims to show Shelley as an effective dramatist for the play’s “song, scenic effect, or suggestions of dance.” Jeffrey Cox has also argued that the play “is insistently directed toward dramatic traditions . . . [with an] entire range of drama from tragedy to melodrama” (Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 142). In their writing about Romantic mediality, moreover, Celeste Langan and Maureen McLane have recognized the play’s “stunning materiality,” “outsoarings,” and fascination with “conveyance” ("The Medium of Romantic Poetry" in The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry, ed. James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 256). They argue: “Shelley’s imagined revolution . . . was incessantly audiovisualized, its movements virtually kinesthetic, propelling spirits and readers ever onward in a shared dream in an optative mode . . . [the drama] pictures revolution as a stunning sound-and-light show: curses, songs, ringing voices, personified voices in the air, visions rolling on brains, light illuminating reconstructed man” (257-8). BACK

[10]While Baldwin made substantial line cuts, he compromised with me by re-inserting particular passages that I believed were crucial to understanding Shelley’s work. Some of these re-insertions included the Furies’ visions of French Revolutionary terror from Act I and the Spirit of the Hour’s observations on women’s new-found equality in the new Promethean universe at the end of Act III. BACK

[11]Michael Ferber has stated, for example, that “many readers have disliked [the fourth act], and have borrowed the last two words of Act 3, ‘intense inane,’ to describe it” (204). BACK

[12]For many parts of my analysis of the performance of Manfred, I draw on my interview with Keats-Shelley Association of America, which was published on their site on August 3, 2017 ("Manfred Follow Up"). BACK

[13]See Jane Stabler’s "The Dashes in Manfred" in this volume for a thorough discussion on the subject. BACK

[14]Cox and other critics have analyzed the features of masque and melodrama in Shelley’s play, and such comedic effect would further support these lines of inquiry. BACK

[15] As Alice Levine and Jerome McGann contend in this volume, the play is not only a work of tragedy and stoicism but also a comedy. BACK

[16] In our staged reading experiences, the actors would complement their speech with gestures of action rather than engaging fully in codified movements. BACK

[17]Agreeing with Cox, Quillin also suggests: “the poetic form of Prometheus Unbound defines the dramatic action, making the reader complicit in a closet drama that is nonetheless theatrical in origin” (21). BACK