Utopianism and Joanna Baillie
The Liberating and Debilitating Imagination in Joanna Baillie’s Orra and The Dream
William D. Brewer, Appalachian State University
Except for a two-act drama on hope, the third volume of Joanna Baillie’s Plays on the Passions (1812) is entirely devoted to the passion of fear. Whereas the protagonists of the previous tragedies in her series are all male, the title character of Orra “is a woman, under the dominion of Superstitious Fear” (Dramatic and Poetical Works 228). In The Dream, General Osterloo faces execution with a guilty conscience, and he is so horrified at “the prospect of being plunged almost immediately by death into an unknown state of punishment and horror” (Works 230) that he expires. Normally courageous, Orra and Osterloo are driven, respectively, to madness and extinction by their fearful imaginations. Obsessed by their visions of the world of death, they lose the ability to function in the world of the living. Baillie invites comparisons between these two tragedies on fear, which are both set during the fourteenth century in or near Switzerland and feature protagonists whose names begin with the letter O. Scholars have, however, tended to overlook the close relationship of these texts, and while a number of recent essays have focused on Orra, The Dream has been relatively ignored. In this essay, I consider these two plays on fear as complementary works that explore gender roles, the vulnerability of patriarchal power, and the capacity of the imagination to inspire utopian visions, awaken the conscience, or overwhelm with horror. Whereas Orra’s madness liberates her from conjugal bondage but compels her to kneel before a male character’s “powerful eye” (5.2.110), Osterloo’s terror paralyzes, emasculates, and kills him.
In both Orra and The Dream, Baillie challenges the traditional belief that women are more prone than men to paroxysms of fear. She explains in her address “To the Reader” that she chose to write a second tragedy on fear with a male protagonist because she was “unwilling to appropriate this passion in a serious form to [her] own sex entirely, when the subjects of all the other passions hitherto delineated in [her Plays on the Passions] series are men” (Works 229). She rejects the essentialist view that women are more vulnerable than men to “the dominion of Superstitious Fear” and contends that even an unsuperstitious man of the nineteenth century would succumb to terror if he were “lodged for the night in a lone apartment where a murder had been committed” and “circumstances [arose] to impress him with [the] belief” that “the restless spirit from its grave might stalk around his bed and open his curtains in the stillness of midnight” (Works 228). Moreover, she maintains that if “any person” in this Gothic situation were “entirely devoid of Fear, we should turn from him [sic] with repugnance as something unnatural—as an instance of mental monstrosity.” She points out that Orra’s fears “have nothing to do with apprehension of personal danger, and spring solely from a natural horror of supernatural intercourse” (emphasis mine). Although Baillie slips into essentialism when she writes that she does “not believe that women, in regard to uncertain danger, [ . . . ] are so brave as men,” she claims that experience has shown that “on the scaffold [ . . . ] women have always behaved with as much resolution and calmness” as their male counterparts (Works 229). She suggests that the “universal passion” (Works 228) of fear operates similarly in most individuals, regardless of their gender. In some cases, however, soldiers about to be executed have been overwhelmed by terror, whereas women in the same situation have behaved calmly (Works 229). During the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday (Jean Paul Marat’s assassin) and Marie Antoinette comported themselves with courage and dignity as they were conducted to the guillotine.
Although Orra is afflicted with medieval superstitiousness, her attitude toward gender roles is progressive for the fourteenth century and even for Baillie’s time. As an heiress, she objects to marriage because under coverture her husband would be master of her possessions and herself. Addressing two male friends, one of whom is a potential suitor, she complains that coverture requires her to “consign [her]self / With all [her] lands and rights into the hands / Of some proud man, and say, ‘Take all, I pray, / And do me in return the grace and favour / To be my master’” (2.1.3–7). Rather than accepting the subservient role of wife, she aspires to remain single, preside along with Theobald of Falkenstein as co-burger of Basle, and “hold [a] little, snug, domestic court” (2.1.142) during the winter with her female attendants. Recognizing that a marriage of equals is not possible during the fourteenth century (2.1.50–55), she chooses the relative freedom of spinsterhood. In fact, she tells her guardian Count Hughobert that she would rather wed a dead man, who would presumably be an undemanding spouse, than the Count’s boorish son (2.2.68–71). In refusing to obey her guardian’s demands and her father’s “dying will” (2.2.52), she defies two paternal figures and asserts her right to at least a degree of self-determination.
To terrorize Orra into submission, Count Hughobert and the treacherous Rudigere confine her to Brunier’s castle, which is reportedly haunted by a murdered hunter-knight. Before being imprisoned, Orra hears the tale of the hunter-knight from a servant and realizes that she is descended from the knight’s assassin: “in [her] veins there runs / A murderer’s blood” (2.1.185–186). In fact, her ancestor’s crime may have been committed in the chamber in which Rudigere incarcerates her (3.2.27–29). When Theobald, Orra’s misguided rescuer, enters the castle through an underground passage in the guise of the “spectre-huntsman” (3.4.78) and approaches her, she shrieks and loses consciousness. Her gender identity wavers and the boundary between the living and the dead dissolves in her mind as the deceased hunter-knight, like her a victim of tyrannical injustice, seems to materialize to seek vengeance against his killer’s surrogate. She identifies herself with both the male murderer, her ancestor, and his male victim. After she goes insane she veers between martial defiance and abject terror. Identifying Hughobert’s wife as an animate corpse, she glares at her fiercely. “Come not again,” Orra warns,
I’m strong and terrible now:
Mine eyes have look’d upon all dreadful things;
And when the earth yawns, and the hell-blast sounds,
I’ll ’bide the trooping of unearthly steps
With stiff-clench’d, terrible strength. (5.2.96–102)
According to the stage directions, after making this speech Orra holds “her clenched hands over her head with an air of grandeur and defiance” (Orra 162). She metamorphoses from a Gothic heroine passively awaiting deliverance to a hyperactive maniac who believes that she needs to protect men by dragging them away from “The fierce and fiery light” (5.2.45) and the imaginary legions of the advancing dead (Orra 164). Viewed within historical context, her momentary submission to Banneret Hartman is not necessarily an instance of feminine docility: as Frederick Burwick has pointed out, Hartman’s ability to subdue Orra with his eyes recalls Dr. Francis Willis’s ocular control over the insane King George III (63). In madness, she appears to have achieved a measure of freedom: Theobald vows that she will never “suffer [ . . . ] / The slightest shadow of a base controul [sic]” (5.2.117–118) over her. She has escaped the bondage of matrimony but not that of her paranoid visions.
Gender role shifts are more pronounced in The Dream, in which a female aristocrat and her serving-woman prove to be far more intrepid, energetic, and resourceful than the macho military protagonist. The tragedy begins in the monastery of St. Maurice where two monks claim that a mysterious male figure has appeared to them in recurrent dreams and delivered an ultimatum: unless a member of the imperial army is selected by lot to spend a night in the monastery and undergo “penances for the expiation of long-concealed guilt” (1.2.262) the entire community will die of the plague. Count Osterloo, an imperial general, arrives with his troops, agrees to the lottery, draws the black lot, and remains behind to suffer the penances. After the Prior has a large skeleton with a missing right hand exhumed from an unmarked grave in the monastery’s vaults, Osterloo remorsefully confesses that he killed the grave’s occupant, who turns out to have been the Prior’s brother. The vengeful Prior orders him to be decapitated, without absolution, before sunrise. Although courageous in the battlefield, the general does not possess the “passive endurance” that would enable him to withstand his terror not only of summary execution but also of “the awful retributions of another world” (Works 229). He deteriorates rapidly from a domineering and vigorous soldier into a feeble and fearful old man.
In contrast, Leonora, a Marchioness Osterloo once loved, and her servant Agnes act courageously and decisively in their attempts to rescue him. Unlike Orra, Leonora has been “hurried into [an unwelcome] marriage” (2.4.270) and has performed the role of the proper lady, remaining faithful to her much older husband and preserving his children’s inheritance following his death. When she hears, however, of Osterloo’s predicament, she immediately resolves to rescue him, even if his deliverance costs all of her “jewels and everything of value in [her] castle” (2.4.271). Her attendant Agnes devises a plan to free the general: Leonora, dressed as a monk, will access his prison chamber through a secret passage and release him. This scheme recalls Theobald’s masquerade and rescue of Orra with male and female roles reversed. In her masculine garb, Leonora feels “an energy within [her] that bids defiance to fear” (2.5.271). When she enters Osterloo’s cell, he “seems absorbed in the stupor of despair” (stage direction 3.1.272). She can scarcely recognize him, and he mistakes her for a monk, but when she tells him that she has come to rescue him, he immediately regains his strength and energy. Osterloo, like Leonora, possesses what Baillie calls “great active courage in opposing danger” (Works 229). He breaks open a locked door with “Supernatural strength,” but after being recaptured he again becomes “feeble and listless” (3.2.273). The serving-woman Agnes is not, however, ready to despair: she informs Leonora that the imperial ambassador has arrived, and the Marchioness asks him to intervene on Osterloo’s behalf. She succeeds in halting the execution, but the general’s terror has already killed him. The tragedy’s most heroic figure, Leonora subverts the Prior’s theocratic tyranny by masquerading as a monk, penetrating into the monastery, and bringing in secular forces to prevent Osterloo's beheading (although not, it turns out, his death). Her swift evolution from a dutiful aristocratic widow and mother to an adventurous cross-dresser contrasts sharply with the general’s rapid decline from a powerful military leader to a bewildered valetudinarian. They exchange gender roles as Leonora becomes the intrepid rescuer and Osterloo, who helplessly “burst[s] into tears” in his cell (stage direction 3.1.272), finds himself in the position of an imprisoned Gothic heroine.
As Julie Carlson has pointed out, Orra “reveals not only the illusion of paternal law but the gullibility that founds [ . . . ] it” (211). Orra and The Dream suggest that patriarchal control was fragile even during medieval times: both tragedies feature subterranean passageways that allow characters bent on liberating a prisoner access to Bastille-like edifices. In Orra, Hughobert relies on the advice of “drones” who “cheat, deceive, [and] abuse [him]” (1.3.1–2). Verbally dominated by Orra and annoyed by her mockery of his son, he complains that “There is no striving with a forward girl” (1.3.114). Following the suggestion of one of his self-interested “drones,” he resorts to terrorism to impose his will. His co-conspirator Rudigere betrays him, however, and unsuccessfully attempts to force Orra to marry him rather than Hughobert’s son. Denouncing Rudigere as a “ruthless tyrant” (4.3.9), Orra courageously repels his advances, choosing to experience a night of terror rather than be the wife of a “Vile reptile” (3.3.93). Her superstitious fears, not Hughobert’s strength, give him what little power he has over her. The count fails, however, to coerce Orra into marrying his feckless son and only heir, who ultimately is slain by the dying Rudigere. After Orra goes insane, Hughobert recognizes his culpability and declares that “A murd’rer is a guiltless wretch” compared to him (5.2.103). The play ends with Orra’s dragging Hughobert and Theobald away from the living dead “in all the wild strength of frantic horror,” (stage direction Orra 164). Hughobert’s attempt to chart his ward’s destiny results in disaster for both of them, and he remorsefully repudiates his paternalistic ambitions.
In The Dream, Osterloo’s swift degeneration and the imperial ambassador’s sudden revocation of the Prior’s “seignorial power” (3.3.275) also suggest the vulnerability of patriarchal power. Although Osterloo “has been known to punish even his greatest favourites severely for a slight offense” (1.2.261), he has long escaped retribution for his premeditated ambush and murder of a one-armed man whose only offense was to have successfully courted the general’s beloved. His moral authority over his soldiers is fraudulent because to maintain it he must conceal his dishonorable crime, and his military authority evaporates when he sends them away and enters the monastery to undergo unspecified penances. Once he confesses to the murder of the Prior’s brother, he becomes completely subject to the vengeful clergyman’s will. As Regina Hewitt has explained, “Osterloo, like most prisoners, loses the ability to affect his fate. He becomes the object of others’ interpretations rather than a subject who joins in the creation of meaning” (81). The ruthless Prior who condemns Osterloo to death is another vulnerable patriarchal figure. He relies on a powerful matriarch, the Abbess Matilda, to provide troops to protect him and the monastery (2.2.269). The cross-dressing Leonora undermines his authority by impersonating one of his monks, entering his prisoner’s cell, and reporting his “treacherous and clandestine” activities to the imperial ambassador (3.3.275). His obsessional desire for vengeance, like his victim’s obsessional fear, is ultimately self-destructive. After Osterloo’s death, the imperial ambassador vows that the Prior will be punished for making “the general weal of the community subservient for [his] private revenge” and predicts that he will be replaced by the scrupulous and unsuperstitious monk Bernardo (3.3.276). Moreover, Osterloo’s men have sworn to avenge their general if he does not return to them safely. The Prior’s authority, like Hughobert’s, is illegitimate, transitory, and dependent on superstition and terrorism. In each tragedy, the abuse of patriarchal power recoils upon the patriarch.
As Baillie notes in her address to the reader, Orra’s and Osterloo’s fears are intensified to the point of hysteria by their powerful imaginations. According to her, individuals like Orra “who possess strong imagination, quick fancy, and keen feeling, are most easily affected by [superstitious] fear.” Osterloo succumbs to “the horror he conceives on being suddenly awakened to the imagination of the awful retributions of another world” (emphasis added, Works 229). As already shown, the protagonists’ highly suggestible imaginations make them acutely vulnerable to patriarchal terrorism. When combined with the passion of fear, the imagination acts as a powerful and destructive accelerant, but an individual who completely lacks a fearful imagination is, in Baillie’s view, “an instance of mental monstrosity” or of “unmanly and brutish stupidity” (Works 229–230).
Of the two fourteenth-century protagonists, Orra is clearly more imaginative and nonconformist. Before her incarceration, she imagines herself as the ruler of a matriarchal, benevolent, peaceful realm in which she is unmarried and autonomous, peasants are nurtured, and men forswear “military rivalship” (2.1.52). When she receives her inheritance, she proposes to make her castle a festive refuge for “way-worn folks,” “[be]nighted” and “noble travellers” (2.1.110–111, 122), neighbors, and unemployed and worn-out military veterans. She emphasizes that she and her ladies will not be “Solemn, and grave, and cloister’d, and demure” (2.1.124) and pictures a world without war in which old soldiers are honored, live in “cheerful freedom” (2.1.118), and pass the time reminiscing. Her plan to shelter “The worn-out m[e]n of arms” (2.1.113) addresses a serious social problem that literally haunts the neighborhood of Brunier’s castle, where Franko and other impoverished soldiers have been reduced to bandits frightening travelers away from their hideout with “wild-goblin-sounds” (3.1.32). When, however, Hughobert consigns Orra to Brunier’s castle, her imagination becomes more somber and martial. Her vision of retired men-at-arms frolicking in her house gives way to an ominous night sky in which she sees “The semblance of a warrior’s plumed head” leading a legion “Of fainter misty forms” (4.1.20, 24). A dystopian nightmare populated by the “spectred [sic] dead” (4.3.94) replaces her utopian fantasy of rural prosperity and peace (2.1.24–39), and her increasingly necrophiliac imagination creates a Gothic world that conflates hell and heaven: “the damn’d and holy, / The living and the dead, together are / In horrid neighbourship” (5.2.208–210). In the tragedy’s last scene it appears, however, that Hughobert will implement at least part of Orra’s progressive social agenda. He, Franko, and the other outlaws are reconciled (5.2.5–9), and Orra’s scheme to create a refuge for unemployed men-at-arms promises to become a reality.
Unlike Osterloo, Orra finds “a joy in fear” (2.1.174) and revels in “stories [ . . . ] of ghosts and spirits” (2.1.144). For her, fear is a stimulant as well as a weakness. Her “joy in fear” recalls Edmund Burke’s famous definition of the sublime, which he asserts “is built on terror” and engenders both “delight” and pain in the person who experiences it (134). According to Burke, sublime objects strain the percipient’s eye: “the whole capacity of the eye, vibrating in all its parts[,] must approach near to the nature of what causes pain, and consequently must produce an idea of the sublime” (137). In the tragedy’s last scene, Orra’s “restless eye-balls move” (5.2.172) incessantly to take in her panoramic nightmare vision. Her joyful terror enables her to experience the sublime and thus engages her aesthetic sensibility even as it dissociates her from reality. The sublime is produced by obscurity as well as terror, and Osterloo’s “Incomprehensible and dreadful” (3.1.272) conception of his judgment before God is “dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree” (Burke 59). As Burke explains, obscurity is far more “affecting to the imagination” (emphasis Burke’s) than “clearness of imagery” (60). But although extreme fear allows Orra and Osterloo to experience the sublime, it compromises their receptivity to words, which, Burke points out, can produce poetic ideas of the sublime. Terrorized by the prospect of Brunier’s castle, Orra tells one of her suitors that she “hear[s] [his] voice, but not [his] words” (2.2.128), and after her trauma in the castle language becomes virtually indecipherable to her. Desperately trying to awaken her from her swoon, Theobald exclaims that “Words are vain!” (5.1.172) and discovers that she no longer recognizes his voice (5.1.167; 5.1.181). As the play closes, Orra imagines a legion of blind, “lipless,” uncommunicative cadavers who “clatter” their jaws in a “mockery of speech” (5.2.220–221). Facing execution and, he believes, God’s imminent judgment, Osterloo cannot understand what is being said to him. He hears meaningless “words through a multitude of sounds” and then “many ringing sounds” (3.3.275). For Orra and Osterloo the realm of sublime terror features visual rather than verbal signs and thus separates them from human intercourse.
Whereas Orra has no fear of dreams, which she regards as indistinct and incoherent (2.1.224–230), but dreads the incursion of the dead into the living world, Osterloo is terrified by the monks’ recurrent dream and events in the afterlife. Osterloo, like Orra, becomes obsessed with the dead that “hover near” (The Dream 2.3.268), but his imagination is less vivid, more theophobic, and more paralyzing than hers. His conception of his post-execution encounter with the “assembled host” of the dead is elliptical and sublimely obscure: “Oh, the terrible form that stalks forth to meet me! the stretching out of that hand! the greeting of that horrible smile! And it is thou, who must lead me before the tremendous majesty of my offended Maker! Incomprehensible and dreadful! What thoughts can give an image of that which overpowers all thought!” (3.1.272). Osterloo’s murder victim is reduced to an undefined “form” with an outstretched hand and “horrible smile” and his reference to his judgment before God is abstract and imageless. Orra’s apocalyptic vision, rendered in blank verse rather than prose, is much more graphic and pictorial. “In grave-clothes swath’d are those but new in death,” she informs her horrified audience, “And there be some half bone, half cased in shreds / Of that which flesh hath been; and there be some / With wicker’d ribs, thro’ which the darkness scowls” (5.2.214–217).
Neither Orra nor Osterloo are able to pray or find religious consolation (Orra 4.3.40–41; The Dream 3.1.272), but unlike Orra, the general is terrified of his “offended Maker,” a stern patriarch whose judgment he believes will be as harsh and unyielding as the Prior’s. For Orra, “the Lord of all existing things” (4.3.32) is, for some unknown reason, inaccessible to her during her imprisonment, and her account of the damned consorting with the holy is inconsistent with Christian theology. Terrified by her vision of the living dead, Orra becomes hyperkinetic, twice dragging male characters backwards to protect them, shrinking in horror from the Countess, kneeling, and running up to console Hughobert. In contrast, Osterloo becomes increasingly infirm and immobile, losing his ability to interpret words, express himself, and see before he passes away on the executioner’s block. Physically indomitable, he proves to be mentally fragile.
Considered together, Orra and The Dream present a quasi-medieval world in which terrifying situations affect individuals according to their temperament rather than their gender, the power of a guardian, count, general, or prior can evaporate in an instant, and the fearful imagination can be easily manipulated into creating its own nightmares. Baillie portrays the imagination ambivalently: this potent and transformative mental faculty enables Orra to envision a matriarchal and pacifistic utopia and a rewarding civic career as a co-burgher but also inspires her nightmare of the living dead. It awakens Osterloo’s slumbering conscience but also annihilates him. In Orra, the protagonist’s untrammeled imagination reinforces her determination to avoid the constriction of aristocratic medieval marriage and pathologizes her manic-depressive tendencies and her fascination with terrifying visions. Her madness frees her from matrimony but enslaves her to her sepulchral fantasies. Although Osterloo’s imagination temporarily sharpens his moral vision by compelling him to reflect on the enormity of his crime, in the end it enervates him and extinguishes his selfhood. Baillie’s tragedies on fear present the imagination as a dangerous but potentially enlightening faculty that magnifies an unconventional woman’s preexisting tendencies and reveals the fragility and the humanity of a conscience-stricken imperial general. In the struggle against patriarchal power, alert pragmatists like Leonora and Agnes are more effective than fantasists like Orra and Osterloo, whose obsessional fears transform them, respectively, into a maniac and a corpse.
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———. The Dream: A Tragedy, in Prose, in Three Acts. The Dramatic and Poetical Works. 260–276.
———. Orra. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer. Peterborough: Ontario: Broadview P, 2003. 134–164.
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1 Orra takes place “Towards the end of the 14th century” and is set in Switzerland and “on the Borders of the Black Forest in Suabia [Swabia],” a region in southwest Germany (Orra 134), and The Dream is set in “the middle of the 14th century” and in Switzerland (Dramatic and Poetical Works 260). The exclamation “O!” and its homophone “Oh!” are, of course, common expressions of fear.
2 Regina Hewitt’s analyses of these two tragedies are atypical: she briefly discusses Orra after a more extended treatment of The Dream (78–86). Sean Carney’s examination of Adam Smith’s influence on Baillie’s plays contains the only recent extended comparison of Orra and The Dream (238–243). His analysis, unlike mine, does not consider the role of gender in the works.
3 All quotations from Orra are taken from The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, ed. Cox and Gamer, rather than from The Dramatic and Poetical Works. I have used The Broadview Anthology rather than Works for Orra because I prefer using a carefully edited version of the play with numbered lines (Works is a compilation rather than an edition and lines of verse are not numbered in it). A modern scholarly edition of Baillie’s complete works is sorely needed.
5 Baillie does not supply a rationale or evidence for her theory that women are more fearful than men of “uncertain danger.” Possibly she believed that women are more prone to magnify potential danger through their imaginations, or that women are less sanguine than men regarding the outcomes of possible threats. In her later play The Phantom: A Musical Drama (1836) the heroine encounters a “real” ghost and conducts a somewhat nervous but rational conversation with her (1.4., Works 578-79). This scene appears to contradict Baillie’s claims about the universal terror of ghosts in her 1812 address “To the Reader,” but it should be noted that the phantom is the heroine’s deceased friend and thus relatively unthreatening, and the heroine falls into a swoon when the spirit departs.
7 Baillie clearly had the French Revolution in mind when she wrote her address “To the Reader.” To support her claim that Osterloo’s death from fear at the scaffold “is not entirely invention,” she cites “Miss Plumtre’s [sic] interesting account of the atrocities committed in Lyons by the revolutionary tribunals” (Works 230; see vol. 1 of Anne Plumptre’s A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1802-5 ). For an account of Corday’s trial and execution, see Schama 737–741; for a brief description of the Queen’s execution, see Lever 304–305.
8 Carlson points out that “Orra’s preference for ghosts expresses a feminist indictment of the inadequacies of living men who are inherently warlike and scheming, and contingently stupid (Glottenbal) and base (Rudigere)” (212). Orra does not appear, however, to indict Theobald.
10 Since The Dream is a prose drama, parenthetical citations will refer to act, scene, and page number from Works (rather than to line numbers). Scenes 4 and 5 in Act 2 are misnumbered in Works as 3 and 4; my citations correct these errors.
12 Bernardo notes that the dream was revealed by one monk to another, and the monk who originated the “dream” derived it from the deathbed confession of the man who buried the murder victim (2.2.266).