Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840

By Backscheider, Paula R. | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840


Backscheider, Paula R., Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Catherine Burroughs, ed., Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xvi + 344.

Romantic drama provides the ground for some of the most exciting and innovative scholarship in recent theatre studies. Working at the intersections of performance history/reception/theory, cultural studies, feminist criticism, and literary and theatre history, the scholars in this relatively new field have published an array of meticulously researched and often revisionist books and journal articles. They are also generous, eager to welcome, help, and mentor each other and new converts. This collection, Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1840, edited by Catherine Burroughs, is a worthy addition to the field; it demonstrates the best kind of work being done, the collegiality of scholars in this area, and some of their commonalities in methodology and lines of inquiry. The volume also includes an excellent twenty-three page bibliography.

The title, Women in British Romantic Theatre, calls attention to the fact that the authors are as devoted to the study of women critics, translators, managers, and theorists as they are to the more traditional examination of playwrights and actresses. The book is divided into five sections, 'Historical Contexts: Revolution and Entrenchment'; 'Nations, Households, Dramaturgy'; 'Performance and Closet Drama'; 'Criticism and Theory'; and 'Translation, Adaptation, Revision.' It is tempting to pause to complain about the obvious - that eleven essays in so many sub-fields give us a seriously incomplete idea of each topic, fragmented views of a number of major women, and too many small pieces of information. A more judicious and fair statement is that the essays illustrate the richness of the field, the kinds of work being done, and the work that remains - even needs - to be done. In her introduction, Burroughs emphasizes the continuities in contemporary research on Romantic drama and gracefully reminds readers of the corrections scholars have made and continue to make. For example, almost nothing said about Joanna Baillie before 1990 has stood up to the recent and intense study of her life, work, and situation; we may now know more about her work in drama than we do about that of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or even Byron. Susan Bennett's contribution here, the excellent Outing Joanna Baillie,' provides the coup de grace to the myth that Baillie was a mere closet dramatist. Bennett demonstrates definitively how seriously Baillie attempted to get her plays to the attention of managers and how persistently she grappled with the realities of contemporary staging practices and audiences. Burroughs' own work and continuing interest in the connections between closet performances and theatre on the one hand, and text and performance on the other, are prominent in the introduction and many of the essays - for example in Marjean Purinton's beautifully argued 'Women's sovereignty on trial: Joanna Baillie's "The Tryal" as metatheatrics.' Elizabeth Inchbald's status as the text/ performance case par excellence is variously treated in these essays, and they do her justice, perhaps ironically by collectively making her a somewhat more enigmatic, even contradictory personality and artist.

The lead essay is 'Baillie, Siddons, Larpent: gender, power, and politics in the theatre of Romanticism' by one of the men who vie for the title of father of contemporary studies of Romantic Drama, Jeffrey N. Cox. Cox's In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany, England, and France (1987), his edited collections such as the Drama volume in Pickering and Chatto's highly useful collection Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (1999), and essays such as 'The French Revolution in the English Theatre' (1990) suggest the range and depth of his knowledge of the period. …

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