Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

Synopsis

"Closet Stages" examines theater theory produced by middle- and upper-class British women-playwrights, actresses, and spectators-between 1790 and 1840. Shifting the focus away from the Romantic male writers to the journals, letters, and play prefaces in which women framed their relationship to the theater arts, Catherine Burroughs reveals how a concern with the performative aspects of daily life and the movement between public and private spheres produced a notion of theater that complicates the Romantic opposition between "closet" and "stage."

Excerpt

Fittingly for a literary critic who, by virtue of also being an actor, views the acting process as “the recovery of a ‘lost’ physical of reading” (Cole I), this study in its current form began with a physical sensation—my first experience of stage fright—that dry-mouthed, face-flushing, stomach-tightening feeling in which, because of an imagined or actual experience on stage, one becomes so paralyzed by fear of performing that even the thought of being onstage generates a physiological response. in the early 1830s, actress Frances Anne Kemble (1809–93), niece of Sarah Siddons (1751–1831), described her stage fright as follows: “a violent headache and side-ache … had made me so nervous that the whole of the day was spent in fits of crying. … [T]he last act of [The Gamester] gives me such pains in my arms and legs, with sheer nervous distress, that I am ready to drop down with exhaustion at the end of it” (Records of a Girlhood 246).

Although I have acted in many plays and am a member of Actors’ Equity Association, my first stage fright took place off the stage during a time when I had not done a show for several months. That is, I never experienced these feelings of tortured fear until the year I began to see some of my articles and reviews on Romantic theater and dramatic literature published in academic journals. As several pieces that I had written shortly after graduate school began to appear in print, I suddenly wished that I could revise my work even as it was irrevocably appearing on the printed page. Accustomed to working in a medium that makes revision its hallmark—the theater’s liveness allows for at least the illusion of remaking and unmaking work during each night a play is performed—I had difficulty confronting the idea that the criticism I was publishing could not also be tinkered with and eventually dismantled like the sets torn down at a theater strike.

Though in retrospect I realize that this revulsion at one’s own work is far more common than I then thought, I can still recall the physical sensations that seemed, at different intervals, to be trying to take over my body. I wanted alternatively to move in and out of the sanctuary of an imagined closet space: I wanted to write without showing my work to anyone, just as a “closet actor” might wish to perform a play without an audience.

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