A Conversation with Jerome McGann

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The following dialogue evolved in February 2007 from a series of email exchanges with Professor McGann. I was curious about the importance of Manfred in McGann's work and what his most recent thoughts were about Byron's devilishly enigmatic play. I had earlier queried McGann about the significance of Manfred and together we published our dialogue as the epilogue to Byron and Romanticism,1 but I wanted to push McGann to see exactly what he had in mind for staging Byron's notoriously unstageable play. Byron, we recall, said he had 'a horror of the stage'.2 As my conversation with McGann continued, I began to see how and why he wants to bring Manfred, and its author, out of the closet-drama and on to the stage.

JS In the time I've known you (roughly twenty years) you seem to have kept going back to Manfred, for one reason or another. What is so alluring about this work? What unfinished business do you have with it, and how is your current project in Stratford (Canada) related to the magnetic pull of Manfred?

JM You've lighted on a question you may come to regret - because I have a lot to say here. Yes, Manfred is for me the central Byronic text - as it was, I might point out, for the entire nineteenth century, even in England, which took such a fright from Byron and ran away from him until very recently. Swinburne, who had very harsh (and, I might add, just) things to say about Byron's verse skills - always excepting Don Juan - once wrote that Byron's forte lay in his 'sincerity and strength'.3 This seems to me right, at least in my understanding of Swinburne's comment. I translate him to mean that Byron's writing is like Yeats's Cuchulain fighting the sea. Until he takes up with Don Juan, his work is an assault on the impossible. He makes a drama of wanting to know things that cannot be known and saying things that cannot be said. Even knowing the impossibilities, or discovering them, he presses on. The first two cantos of Childe Harold lay down the pattern. They are an extraordinary, even a preposterous, failure - starting with the prosodic choice of the Spenserian stanza, a choice made in sheer technical ignorance of its resources. Carrying on with it forces him to fight with it, maim it - 'spoil' it, as Paul West long ago taught us to see.4 And out of the event comes Byron's first great success, his first great failure. (I might add, out of it comes as well a renewal of the verse form's technical possibilities.)

'Bloody but unbowed', we might say. But that idea scarcely gets at the situation and the textual event. Through his work, Byron's famous defiance emerges as at once sincere and hypocritical, his strength something that will persist to fall short. The consequence is a philosophic mind that settles for nothing except what is always 'beyond the fitting medium of desire' (CHP, III, 42).

Manfred comes on this scene to square Byron's account with this poetry of failure. Without Manfred, Don Juan could not have been written. Don Juan is Byron's masterpiece of the poetry of the impossible because with it he makes impossibility look so easy, so natural. 'In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing / The one is winning, and the other losing' (Don Juan, XIV, 12) - Don Juan is an extended gloss on Manfred's last prophetic words: 'Old man, 'tis not so difficult to die' (III, iv, 151).

I began studying Byron in 1963. By 1967 I had come to a very vague sense of what was entailed in Byron's sincerity and strength. Only with many more years of work did I find ways to talk about it that seemed, at least, not perfectly incompetent. 1967 was crucial because that year I and some friends at the University of Chicago founded an experimental theatre company - Cain's Company. Our purpose was to stage works that were regarded as unplayable (in a theatrical sense). We were much influenced by Living Theatre, by Artaud, by Stanislavsky, by Stein, by Brecht. The company was named after our first production, Byron's Cain. …