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Betsy Bolton, Women, Nationalism and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780–1800, & Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790–1840, edited by Catherine B. Burroughs

Monday, April 1, 2002 - 04:58
Betsy Bolton, Women, Nationalism and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 46.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiv + 272pp. Illus.: 20 halftones.  $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-77116-1 ).
Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840. Edited by Catherine B. Burroughs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.  xv + 344pp.  Illus.: 1 halftone, 4 line diagrams.  $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-66224-9).

Reviewed by
Melynda Nuss
The University of Texas at Austin

The link between women and the Romantic drama has been unusually fertile in the past several years.  Perhaps because of women's association with theatricality, or perhaps because of the unusal number of women who made their mark as playwrights, actresses, and critics in the Romantic period, the new field of Romantic drama has focused a good deal of attention on women and women's concerns.  Even works which explore the works of the cannonical male playwrights, like Julie Carlson's In the Theatre of Romanticism, devote a good deal of time to the charismatic figure of Sarah Siddons, Joanna Baillie's work has already generated a full length study by Catherine Burroughs, and Elizabeth Inchbald, the actress and playwright who was also England's first major dramatic critic, has begun to make critics aware of the astonishing diversity of roles that women played in the Romantic theatre.  The two books under review here, then, represent something of a second generation of criticism on the role women played in the Romantic drama.  They not only expand the analyses of women in the Romantic drama beyond the small canon of Baillie, Inchbald, and Siddons, but they also represent a questioning of some of the field's initial assumptions--that women operated under severe constraints in the male dominated world of the theater, that women's work is always (or usually) progressive in terms of politics and gender, that women's writing is largely confined to the closet and their public impact limited to the body onstage, and that women were confined by certain domestic ideologies. Together, these two books provide a broader and more nuanced view of the way that women participated in the drama as playwrights, critics and actresses, and the way that the drama enabled women to participate in public life.

Public life is the focus of Betsy Bolton's Women, Nationalism and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800.  Bolton's central contention is that although the theater opened up a space where women could participate in public life--an "intermediate public sphere," somewhere between the public, male-dominated domain of coffee houses, newspapers, and parliamentary debate and the private feminized space of the bourgeois household--theatrical genres tended to script women into certain well defined political roles.  These roles, according to Bolton, were shaped by two notions of theater, which she calls the sentimental and the spectacular.  The sentimental theater tended to bring the nation together by cultivating sympathy; spectacular theater raised the spectacle of mob delusion and violence.  While both types of theater envisioned a crucial role for female performers, the roles that women were assigned were limited and highly sexualized.  The sentimental theater either emphasized women's vulnerability or portrayed politically powerful women as a danger to the nation; the spectacular theater emphasized the danger of relying too heavily on appearance and publicity (always the woman's forte). Cartoons and caricatures treated public women like the Duchess of Devonshire as actresses, and how popular sentiment associated both actresses and public women with demagogues.  Both women of the theater and men of the people "sought to influence public opinion while remaining professionally dependent on public favor" (2), and both, therefore, were dangerous to the nation.

The first section of Bolton's book, "Romancing the State: Public Men and Public Women," concentrates on the sentimental theater.  There, women's roles were largely scripted by male-authored romances -- both literary romances and the dramas that drew on them. Although the romance genre encompasses a broad range of readerships and political opinions, Bolton is able to sketch a typical dramatic romance plot, based on Garrick's Cymon and Coleman's Blue Beard, which first sets up a female political ruler, who often gains power through her sexual prowess and her identification with theatricality and spectacle, but then rejects and abjects the powerful female in order to reestablish the superior claim of the sentimental hero, who either marries the powerful female or deposes her.  Public women, Bolton argues, created life stories that drew elements from prose romance--protean role changes, miraculous recoveries, and an epic sense of England's destiny--but in the public's perception those romances fell into the dramatic romance pattern: the powerful female is exiled or clearly subordinated to the hero in order to be incorporated into the male version of the sentimental ending.  The first case she treats is Emma Hamilton's romance with Horatio Nelson.  Hamilton, herself a noted actress in private theatricals, used her talent for protean movements and striking poses to stage her own rise from an unwed, abandoned mother to the role of Lady Hamilton, the British ambassadress to Naples and a confidante of the Queen.  Her hyperbolic displays of patriotism essentially created Nelson's image as romance hero.  But her power was too much for the popular press, which abjected Hamilton's theatricality and her sexual morality, and ultimately reformed Nelson's heroic mythos into a homosocial vision of patriotism and power, a heroic mythos complete with a feminized theatrical (and spectacular) body.  The next chapter examines the way that Mary Robinson fell victim to the same variety of romance nationalism.  Like Emma Hamilton, Robinson's claim to power rested on her sexual charm.  Robinson, however, worked to reclaim her image by structuring herself as a romance hero--asserting her right to defend her reputation to the death, demonstrating female prowess in literature and history, and insisting on the justice of female dueling.  Bolton sees Robinson's own Lyrical Tales as a direct challenge to Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, and although Wordsworth never directly responds to that challenge, Bolton sees Wordsworth's portrait of the Belle of Buttermere (coincidentally also named Mary Robinson) and the painted theatrical mother in The Prelude as an attempt to tell the story of a woman corrupted and betrayed by the theater and by her own theatricality.  Ultimately, Bolton argues, Wordsworth's vision of the crowd at Bartholomew Fair stands as a nightmare depiction of the nation seduced and entranced by a corrupted, prostituted theatrical muse--the very picture of Mary Robinson.

Given the problems of romance, it comes as no surprise that the plays by female dramatists that Bolton finds most liberating are plays that take up farce. The history of early eighteenth-century farce emphasizes the form's subversive relationship to authority, whether that authority be theatrical, critical, or governmental.  Female dramatists used that "license" to question the assumptions behind sentimental visions of empire, nation and gender.  Hannah Cowley's Day in Turkey and Elizabeth Inchbald's A Mogul Tale and Such Things Are unsettle the boundaries between East and West by making their Eastern sultans either fools or enlightened Western style rulers, and unsettle the traditions of sentimental romance by dramatizing women's power over men in terms of love and courtship and by suggesting that even that power has its roots in women's enslavement.  But the mixed drama did more than simply unsettle existing notions of imperial and gender relations.  Bolton argues that Inchbald's Such Things Are offers a complex critique of sentimental benevolence and willing slavery, and that Wives as they Were, Maids as they Are shows women resisting colonial surveillance and economic inferiority by consciously managing both their language and their roles.  The farce, however, is a mixed blessing for women: "Truth appears, but disarmed of its potential to set free, to set at odds, or even to upset the status quo" (237).  Women grasp power, but only within the liminal space of the theater and only according to its rules.

Catherine Burroughs's essay collection Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840 echoes Bolton's concern with women's roles and women's power, but the essay format allows its contributors to explore a wider range of issues through a broader variety of critical approaches. The volume is divided into five sections--"Historical Contexts: Revolution and Entrenchment," "Nations, Households, and Dramaturgy," "Performance and Closet Drama," "Criticism and Theory," and "Translation, Adaptation, Revision"--but each of these essays shares an overarching concern with the ways that women adapted to the gendered circumstances confronting them as playwrights, actresses, translators, critics, theorists and theater managers.  The resulting essays not only show the range of options available to women in the theater of the time but also illustrate the difficulty of making generalizations about the "role" that women played in that theater.  Jeffrey Cox, for example, begins the collection with an essay arguing that our recovery of Romantic women in the theater has actually been hampered by a combination of two "dramatic ideologies": a traditional ideology that is "unable to conceive of women writers at this time as possessing significant aesthetic, cultural, and institutional power" (24) and a feminist ideology that tries to conscript any women writers found into the feminist cause.  Such ideologies, Cox argues, not only prevent us from seeing that women truly did exercise significant aesthetic, cultural and institutional power in the theater of the Romantic period, but also from seeing that the power those women exercised was often conservative.  Cox does an excellent job of showing that three of the most powerful women of the day--Joanna Baillie, Sarah Siddons, and Anna Larpent--were actually more conservative than critics would like to believe.  Whereas Baillie's work is often radical in terms of gender, it is quite conservative in terms of politics, Siddons's performances emphasized the traditional female values of fragility, passivity and domesticity, and Larpent, "like a Phyllis Schlafly of the Romantic era" (42), consistently used her power as the wife of the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays to keep politically radical and culturally disturbing plays off the stage.  Although Cox notes that he could have assembled a more radical slate of dramatic writers--Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Jane Scott are the three whom he mentions--the point remains that ideology should not blind us to the fact that women writers used their power in the service of a variety of political, cultural and social views, some of which we might find repugnant.

And indeed, all of the essays in the section that Burroughs has entitled "Nations, Households, and Dramaturgy" seem to answer Cox's call for a more complex view of women's political involvement.  Although all three essays argue that women used the dramatic form to comment on politics, each of them recognizes that women's politics go far beyond the contemporary feminist vision, and often occupy spaces that are indefinable in our terms.  Katherine Newey, for example, argues that female dramatists like Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, Frances Burney, and Mary Russell Mitford use historical tragedy to trouble the boundary between fact and fiction that demarcates the "male" space of political activity from the "female" space of the novel.  But although Newey finds Hannah More surprisingly radical in matters of politics--at least in Percy--she recognizes that women's writing does not always conform to a "triumphalist feminist" (96) narrative even when women transgress their traditional boundaries in terms of agency and performance.  Jeanne Moskal's essay on Mariana Starke complicates the issue of politics still further.  Although Starke's The Sword of Peace (1788) comments on two of the most controversial events of the late 1780's, the Warren Hastings trial and the abolition of the slave trade, the complex nature of Starke's response to these events leads Moskal to conclude that "the labels 'radical,' 'liberal,' and 'conservative' may themselves be instruments too blunt for continued use in our recovery of women writers of the Romantic period" (126).

But whether women's playwriting was conservative, radical, or a mixture of the two that is hard to define, there is no doubt that women were subjected to gendered standards, and some of the best essays in the volume illustrate how women worked around the constraints of the theater that confronted them.  Greg Kucich's essay "Reviewing women in British Romantic theatre" finds male critics surprisingly welcoming towards the works of women writers, but, at the same time, finds that that "welcome" actually made the stage into "a feminized space for affirming established codes of gender appearance and behavior while simultaneously controlling strenuous, potentially uncontainable, threats to those very models of gender propriety" (56).  Male reviewers praised women's beauty, their morality, their "softness and suffering" (57), and their general adherence to duty and propriety, but complained when women made unwonted incursions into the masculine realm of politics and when they violated propriety by exploring antisocial areas like Gothic horror.  Many male reviewers took it upon themselves to instruct these scribbling women in the proper forms of writing and to re-impose proper standards of gender norms and conduct onto the public stage.  These norms could be particularly restrictive for women who ventured into the traditionally male realm of criticism, as Marvin Carlson and Thomas Crochunis show in the book's section on "Criticism and Theory."  Both essays deal with Elizabeth Inchbald, who, as Carlson notes, was "not only the first British woman to present a series of critical prefaces for a wide range of dramatists, current and classic, but [also] the first British critic to do so" (210).  Carlson notes the way that Inchbald develops her critical authority is by carefully referencing Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson and drawing on her own experiences as an actress and playwright.  She implicitly justifies her own position as a female dramatist by noting that women are often forced to assume "the masculine enterprise of an author" (216) by necessity, not by choice.  And she develops a critical voice that is both learned and self-deprecating in order to establish simultaneously authority and deflect criticism.  Thomas Crochunis takes up where Carlson leaves off by suggesting that both Inchbald and Baillie offer a complicated series of "authorial performances" in their plays and prefaces: the performed play, the published text, and the theoretical and critical commentary all work together to create the author's public persona, and the various personae created in the closet and on the stage alternately complemented, reinforced and competed with each other to create a number of different readings of both plays and performances.

Crochunis's essay also suggests another major theme of this collection: the tension between closet drama and stage drama.  Women dramatists have often been seen as creatures of the closet, particularly after Catherine Burroughs' excellent Closet Stages, which argues that privatized theatricals were actually quite liberating for female authors.  But the essays here argue for a more creative tension between the private world of the closet and the public world of the stage.  Susan Bennett argues that instead of seeing an opposition between closet drama and stage drama, we ought to see the boundaries between stage and closet, and between public and private spaces, as contested and in flux.  Marjean Purinton's essay "Women's sovereignty on trial" suggests an interesting application of this theory.  Purinton argues that the two leading women in Joanna Baillie's The Tryal stage a series of mini-dramas, or "trials," which trouble the boundaries between public spaces and domestic spaces so as to confuse and expose the artificiality of spaces identified as public and private.  These dramas within dramas transform the economy of courtship and marriage into an economy of speech and expose the ideologically charged structures that "reify gender performativity designed to restrict female agency to the appearance of domestic concerns" (150).  Performance, then, as Bolton argues, opens up a space where women can participate in public life, even though Baillie's play was actually confined to the space of the domestic closet.  Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey are even more sanguine about the role that female dramatists could play onstage in their essay on Jane Scott's Camilla the Amazon.  Bratton and Bush-Bailey workshopped Camilla with a group of honors students in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Media Arts at the University of London, and their essay details some of the ways in which the performance process exposed the sophistication of Scott's use of convention and the transgressiveness of her view of gender.  Students learned how some of the "stagier" melodramatic conventions, such as melo and costumes, could actually enhance their characters' emotions and how staging some of the moments of power and powerlessness in the play could enhance or undercut gender relations as they appeared in the script.

The book's final section contains two excellent psychological studies of women in the Romantic drama.  The first, Jane Moody's "Suicide and translation," examines the ways that translation offered female playwrights like Elizabeth Inchbald and Anne Plumptre a sort of plausible deniability behind which the playwright could experiment with plot and character without being "blamed" for the final outcome of the play.  Moody shows how Plumptre used the veil of translation to illuminate the complexities of Pizarro's mistress Elvira in Kotzebue's Pizarro and how Inchbald emphasizes the vices of the rake and augments the distress of her heroine in The Wise Man.  But what is even more fascinating is the psychological effect of translation on the female translator.  Moody finds Inchbald's characters wrestling with the dilemmas of translation--"Where does the authority of the original end, and self begin? What is myself? How do we belong to one another?" (273)--and ultimately experimenting with self-annihilation in the form of suicide, as if the annihilation of the author/translator within the text necessarily entailed questions of self-slaughter.

The second essay takes a somewhat different course:  Julie Carlson revises the thesis of her 1994 In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women to take into account the way that female writers deal with the dynamic of remorse that she treats in her larger work.  In the Theatre of Romanticism argues that the first generation Romantics--most notably Coleridge--responded to the threat of Godwinian rationalism by making the theater a space of the mind, focusing on imagination, illusion, and dreams to counter the threat of heartless necessity.  This led to a theater where remorse takes the place of revenge--where thinking and feeling present a superior alternative to action--and where women become marginalized actors, individuals who act without thinking, or who cannot think without going mad.  The present essay complicates that thesis by looking at the ways that two powerful theatrical women, Elizabeth Inchbald and Joanna Baillie, dealt with the theater of remorse.  Carlson finds that women were much less quick to give up Godwinian rationalism, largely because the alternative for them was chivalry.  Instead of being bogged down by remorse and revenge, their project was to remake love, with all of its emphasis on appearance and illusion, into a more rational emotion.  For these women reason and illusion are not inconsistent.  Instead, they work to make illusion and beauty consistent with reason--to glorify independent women in middle age who have no interest in falling for men and no interest in being saved.  Carlson's thesis also leads to some interesting reflections on time.   These women realize that the world that they live in is not ready for this type of love, so their plays deal with the question of what it means to live in the mean time--ow women might deal with revising cultural attitudes towards change and historicize the practice of illusion that underlies their exhibition in the theater.

If these two books have a fault, it is the general fault inherent in recovery work.  As Cox's essay suggests, there is still a sense of discovery in these essays--a sense of surprise that women participated in the theater in such numbers, that their work gained such acceptance, that women used the theater to comment on politics, and that women authors expressed such a range of political views.  But there is also a sense in these essays that it is time to move beyond recovery.  Now that we have established that women had power in the Romantic drama, where do we go from here?  The answer, I believe, is to go beyond the range of the drama and establish these women's significance to Romanticism as a whole.  If, as Cox argues, "it has become impossible to conceive of a Romanticism that does not take into account Charlotte Smith or Mary Robinson or Felicia Hemans"  (23), it is not because of the number of essays asserting their popularity, their politics, or their power. It is because very early on critics worked to integrate these women's concerns with the general concerns of Romanticism.  It is crucial for scholarship in the Romantic drama to take a similar direction.  Despite the excellent scholarship that has been done on Romantic drama in the past ten years, it still remains possible to conceive of a Romanticism that does not include The Borderers or Remorse--not to mention the work of Elizabeth Inchbald, Joanna Baillie, and so many others.  There is much in these volumes to make the case that our vision of Romanticism ought to include these women.  Bolton's excellent reading of a Day in Turkey and Moody's canny analysis of translation in Inchbald and Plumptre go a long way towards proving that these women ought to be considered in our thought about authorship and imperialism.  But to consider them that way involves a change in emphasis.  These plays are not important because they were written by women; these women were important because they wrote these plays.