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William Jewett, Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency and Michael Simpson, Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley

Monday, November 15, 1999 - 02:55
William Jewett, Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. xiv + 262pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8014-3352-5).
Michael Simpson, Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.  xiii + 469pp. 
$55.00  (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-3095-4).

Reviewed by
Catherine Burroughs
Wells College and Cornell University

In an age when anxieties about the political efficacy of institutional theatre are so palpable, it is no surprise that the question of why certain playscripts reside in "the closet" has proved a crucial line of investigation for scholars. Indeed, recent critical preoccupation with how the body and mind of any reader-spectator are implicated in both the acts of playreading and playgoing seems a poignant response to the desire to believe that theatre, broadly defined, can effect positive cultural change.

During the 1990s, Renaissance critics and Romanticists began to focus with increasing interest on the "closet play" in order to argue its historical significance and—more generally—to consider how drama "works." These critics were partially motivated by the trend in performance studies to de-center textual authority and to expand the category of "play" to include a wide range of performances in neglected and unexamined venues. Since plays never intended to be performed (or, for whatever reason, held back from the public or private stage) are often those that have historically violated and transgressed theatrical conventions and expectations in fascinating ways, the study of closet drama can draw attention to some of the ways that politics permeates the process of doing theatre.

In this context, William Jewett's Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency and Michael Simpson's Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley are important additions to the field of Romantic theatre and drama. Both argue for the centrality of Romantic (closet) drama in Romantic studies while admirably refraining from overstating the claims for the political import of their analyses. Jewett and Simpson each shift the focus of critical debate in closet drama criticism—away from either denigrating closet plays as static "virtual theatre" or celebrating them as excitingly innovative—to considering how the language of particular dramas foregrounds ways in which human beings wrestle with the problem of political action. In this sense, both Jewett and Simpson portray Romantic plays as resonant for our own age. As Jewett eloquently puts it, Romantic drama is a "glass in which we can see how we come upon empowering and disempowering beliefs about what we can do" (13).

The very liminality of the closet drama genre—poised between textuality and stage production—was and is a major factor in its ability to feature the moral problem of how "minds" may be, in Simpson's words, "transported from a contemplative situation to an active enterprise" (329–30). But to what extent can Romantic (closet) plays be read as actions in themselves, and to what extent can one can speak about the plays' authors as agents of action? How did particular dramatists use the closet play to express their own anxieties about agency?

These are some of the questions William Jewett explores in his subtly-argued and eloquent book, Fatal Autonomy, which persuasively demonstrates that Romantic drama was finely attuned to the moral problem of how to achieve political action during the prime revolutionary periods of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chapter 1 presents Coleridge's and Southey's collaborative "history play," The Fall of Robespierre, as representative of "the potential ambiguity" one finds in Romantic drama about the "sanctity of individuals"(29). Robespierre features a shift in dramaturgical and rhetorical structures with which to "attack the reduction of political history to the moral decisions and acts of autonomous subjects" and, paradoxically, envisions a concept of drama that would "dramatize without representing" "a new form of historical agency" (44, 42). Robert Southey's Wat Tyler enacts the paradox that political agency is achieved "whenever social energies can be 'embodied' by a man speaking on stage" (56); the "political agent" is the one—or anyone—who "wields" dramatic rhetoric (57). In Chapter 2, Jewett astutely argues that Wordsworth's The Borderers "shows how theatricality can lead to a misrecognition that denies historical differences" (79), and his analysis of Coleridge's Osorio in Chapter 3 describes the playwright as "interested not so much in diagnosing or defending the function of stagecraft in the liberal state as in using it to show readers how they dispose of their own living spirits" (126).

In the second section of the book, Jewett elaborates on these moral preoccupations described in Part One by turning to representative closet plays by Byron and Shelley produced in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. In Chapter 4, Jewett looks at The Cenci, in which Beatrice's "troubling awareness of what it feels like for a moral ideal to be stuck in a body" (140) suggests "how explicitly" the play addresses "the general problem of embodying ideas"(141); the "collapse of the dramatic" is part of The Cenci's "central" design (153). Chapter 5, which features "the theme of diffused agency" in Byron's Marino Faliero (176), argues that the play "functions as a mise en abime of historical reflection": Byron can be represented as looking "back into the mirror of Venetian history hoping to construct an image of his own condition as political agent, only to discover the doge of Venice likewise gazing into the mirror of history in order to anticipate his own recovery of political agency" (178). Similarly, Chapter 6 makes the case that Shelley's play, Charles the First, provides "an indispensable context" (209) for appreciating how Shelley's final poem, The Triumph of Life, sheds light on his "late understanding of history" (209). This "understanding" is integrally tied up with Shelley's move from one genre to another in the last stages of his life as this move reflected his interest in "blending" (220) the historical perspectives of both David Hume and Catharine Macaulay to convey "doubts about the skeptical suspension of judgment itself, particularly its power to disarm historical agents of the rhetorical means by which they adopt beliefs they can act upon" (240).

Jewett's argument works not to suggest that theatre is without power but rather to provide a new take on the customary criticism that Romantic drama is antitheatrical: perhaps closet plays from the 1790s and 1820s deliberately critique theatricality and the historical theatre of their day in an effort to problematize some of the ways that rhetoric about agency and action expresses a desire for a mode of embodiment on political stages neither realizable nor conceptually defined. As Jewett so convincingly argues throughout his book, the choice to write drama inevitably poses the question of "whether the bodies put on exhibit allow for the public articulation of private irony that might make irony do the political work of turning spectators into actors" (246). Yet the fact that "the drama's generic commitment to embodiment" is "inextricable" from the drama's "ability to draw on the political force of arguments" (249) does not ensure that political agency will be induced in spectators or readers. The "spectacle" of suffering bodies may serve as "an occasion for moral and political commentary," but any "political power claimed for writing runs up against the limit of bodily suffering" (253).

With this acknowledgment of the limitations of Romantic drama's political statements about history and agency, Jewett concludes his deeply thoughtful study on a sobering note. But, in arguing that the language of Romantic dramas often "act[s] out the problem they name" (97), Jewett provides theorists of Romantic closet drama with an important claim for its historical significance: the genre meets head on "the moral vortex generated out of the surrender of agency dictated by the circumstances of historical change" (98). Rather than being instances of a marginalized form, "dramas of dislocated agency contributed to the early development of Romanticism" (100).

Michael Simpson's Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley makes a similar point by focusing not on the way Romantic drama provoked (or may have provoked) actual individuals to act but by examining how it was structured to dramatize questions about political agency. His analysis of closet drama's generic features in the context of intellectual history permits him to argue that Shelley's and Byron's plays composed in Italy between 1816 and 1823 aimed to appeal to a group of historical readers by calling them to identify with "the individuated figure of the closet reader," a construct perfectly poised between "the threshold leading to both its own body and to the distasteful but sometimes unavoidable sphere of mere politics" (343). The result was the creation of "a largely passive public body whose political efficacy resides in its capacious being, its ability to embody and represent interests, rather than in its facility for action" (304).

Chapter 1 describes how narratives of the period conceptualized drama as "political" though privileging the power of the textual. Potential and actual productions threatened to challenge "an agreed cultural politics" (73), which Simpson represents in Chapter 2 by analyzing the emergence of a "new discourse that comes to be opposed to the institution of law and its consequent efforts to censor this discourse" (74). This analysis of how Jeremy Bentham and John Horne Tooke (among others) produced a political discourse that "constellates itself around the trope of language" (85) deepens our understanding of how the drama of the period was policed in ways that only indirectly had to do with the theatre monopoly and office of the Lord Chamberlain established by the Licensing Act of 1737. Thus situated in the context of a political discourse that was "interpellated" by a discourse about language and the constitution (89), Romantic drama emerges not only as more subtly political but also as more responsive to both the threats and liberatory spaces constructed by its culture.

By reading and re-reading several of the same dramas under a different set of questions in Chapters 3 and 4—Manfred, Sardanapalus, Prometheus Unbound, Marino Faliero, Hellas, Cain, and Heaven and Earth—Simpson argues "that the dramas mobilize internalized versions of themselves as a political assertion" (2). Their project is "re-inventing a suspended political discourse and trying to colonize [for "polite radicals"] its vulgar component" (112). That they perform this project as "closet dramas" allows the plays to "be read as recommending" a "directly political materialization of their texts' imperatives" paradoxically by both "denying themselves a material realization" and "projecting a realization of themselves" (2). While a number of the plays exert "a degree of self-censorship that works to preempt any hostile surveillance" (206), they also construct an audience sympathetic to their program through mocking and ironizing censorship itself (206). In this sense, these plays survive within "an economy of observance" by assuming an identity "between authoritarian self-critique and an ironic critique of that self-critique" (298).

Simpson's fifth chapter performs a reading of Byron's The Two Foscari and Shelley's The Cenci in the context of a provocative discussion of epistemological and architectural associations with "the closet" trope. Simpson's discussion of the "sociality of the closet" (310) lends support to recent attempts to reconceive the dichotomy between "private" and "public," especially in the context of nineteenth-century women writers, and his tracing of the historical and theoretical connections between the sexual and political closet is bound to advance the work begun on the similarities between Romantic closet plays and gay dramaturgy. Simpson's is the most extensive and serious attempt I've encountered to describe how closet drama functions.

Both Fatal Autonomy and Closet Performances do an excellent job of weaving together an astonishing number of intellectual, theoretical, critical, and historical strands in order to make a weighty and persuasive case for studying Romantic drama outside of the critical tradition that has reinforced its marginalized status. While readers of Jewett's and Simpson's studies might become impatient with the fact that both authors seem to claim so little for the plays to which they devote so much scrutiny, the effect of their determination to answer focused questions in almost exhausting and, at times, tedious detail is to make a very strong case for investigating what Romantic closet drama does—on the way to assessing what it has meant, and could mean. Certainly both Jewett's and Simpson's projects demonstrate that knowledge of the closet play tradition in British theatre history is indispensable for gaining a fuller picture of the margins and center of British culture between 1790 and 1840.