Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

Synopsis

If the whole world acted the player, how did the player act the world? In Character's Theater, Lisa A. Freeman uses this question to test recent critical discussion of eighteenth-century literature and culture. Much current work, she observes, focuses on the concept of theatricality as both the governing metaphor of social life and a primary filter of psychic perception. Hume's "theater of the mind," Adam Smith's "impartial spectator," and Diderot's "tableaux" are all invoked by theorists to describe a process whereby the private individual comes to internalize theatrical logic and apprehend the self as other. To them theatricality is a critical mechanism of modern subjectivity but one that needs to be concealed if the subject's stability is to be maintained.

Finding that much of this discussion about the "Age of the Spectator" has been conducted without reference to the play texts or actual theatrical practice, Freeman turns to drama and discovers a dynamic model of identity based on eighteenth-century conceptualizations of character. In contrast to the novel, which cultivated psychological tensions between private interiority and public show, dramatic characters in the eighteenth century experienced no private thoughts. The theater of the eighteenth century was not a theater of absorption but rather a theater of interaction, where what was monitored was not the depth of character, as in the novel, but the arc of a genre over the course of a series of discontinuous acts.

In a genre-by-genre analysis of plays about plays, tragedy, comedies of manners, humours, and intrigue, and sentimental comedy, Freeman offers an interpretive account of eighteenth-century drama and its cultural work and demonstrates that by deploying an alternative model of identity, theater marked a site of resistance to the rise of the subject and to the ideological conformity enforced through that identity formation.

Excerpt

This book challenges at least two major premises of eighteenthcentury literary and cultural studies: first, that the study of eighteenth-century drama can contribute little to how we understand the literary forms and cultural contents of this period; and second, that the subject as figured in the novel emerged inevitably in the eighteenth century as the dominant discursive structure for modeling modern identities. in a genre by genre analysis, I argue not only that the stage functioned as a critical focal point in eighteenth-century cultural discourse, but that in deploying an alternative model of identity based on the concept of character, it marked a site of resistance to the rise of the subject and to the ideological conformity enforced through that identity formation. in elucidating the social, political, economic, and cultural resonances of the various dramatic genres of the period, I illustrate how those dramatic genres manipulated markers of identity such as gender, class, and nation for representation on the eighteenth-century stage. in this introduction, I describe the materials and ideas that inform this project and delineate both its range and its bounds.

To date, the study of eighteenth-century drama has been dominated by what I call the taxonomic impulse, a sustained effort to divide, subdivide, and divide yet again the genres of dramatic production. This taxonomic impulse has been matched by a complementary encyclopedic charge to produce nothing less than a complete historical account of the plays: their plots, their sources, their production and acting histories, their reception, and their box-office receipts. Driven by these dual imperatives, dedicated scholars have amassed a vast historical record of eighteenth-century drama which eclipses that for any other popular form in the period, including the novel. Let me begin, then, by acknowledging that this book would not have been possible if it were not for the work of those dedicated scholars. the vast store of information that has been compiled in multivolume reference works such as The London Stage, 1660–1800: a Calendar of Plays, Entertainments and Afterpieces and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, as well as in a number of histories of eighteenth-century drama, provides the necessary foundation for a factually grounded, historically oriented critical study

At the same time, however, many of the scholars involved in these projects have turned a dubious eye toward the content of their subject matter and have . . .

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