Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Seeing Things ("as They Are"): Coleridge, Schiller, and the Play of Semblance

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Seeing Things ("as They Are"): Coleridge, Schiller, and the Play of Semblance

Article excerpt

1

COLERIDGE IS NOT BEST KNOWN AS A PLAYWRIGHT, OR EVEN AS A THEORIST of the stage, in spite of his sustained critical assessment of late eighteenth-century theater--itself familiar to readers chiefly through his lectures on Shakespeare (this is to gesture toward the alleged "anti-theatricality" of his general position). Nevertheless, Coleridge did make serious attempts to write plays, largely, it seems, in response to the abysmal state of English drama in the 1790s, as it was then perceived not only by Coleridge but by other public commentators as well, such as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. Contemporary plays were often dismissed as sentimental, gothic, formulaic, and highly melodramatic--or, as Wordsworth famously declared in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, "sickly and stupid german tragedies." These comments need to be understood in terms of a highly idealized sense of what theater could accomplish, in political as well as dramatic terms. To reinvigorate the productions of the English stage would be not only to elevate it again to the level of its "golden age," in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, but to fulfill an agenda related to a nationalist impulse that, if not explicitly revolutionary, was politically reformist. (1) Thus the familiar narrative of Coleridge's involvement in the theater begins with his early radicalism (evident in so much of his work in the 1790s, not least in his 1797 play Osorio, and in The Fall of Robespierre, co-written with Robert Southey), and with a sense of the theater as an ideal space not only to represent and engage current events (chiefly of course the French Revolution and the English reaction to it, and with it, issues of freedom and censorship), but also to educate the public response to those events. On the other hand, the political ambivalence of Coleridge's maturity, and the critical pronouncements he would later make on the state of the theater, did nothing to counter the general sense that "highbrow" Romantic theater was either fixated unproductively on old models (classical or Shakespearean), or obsessed by subjects that were fundamentally unsuitable for the stage--fit only for the closet, or specimens of what Byron was to call a "mental" theater. (2)

It is in this loosely-sketched context, though, that we may now consider the following event. In 1813, Coleridge's play Remorse, a highly successful revision of his 1797 play Osorio, was performed to considerable acclaim, and ran for nearly three weeks at Drury Lane. As far and away the most financially rewarding production of Coleridge's career (he is thought to have made 400 pounds out of it), this turn of events was remarkable enough. But more remarkable still, though rarely mentioned in discussions of Coleridge's theory of dramatic illusion, is how a play, written by such an adamant critic of Georgian stage-craft could unreservedly accept and deploy its conventions. (3) The paradox here draws from Coleridge's assertion that while Shakespeare's stage was effectively bare--merely "a naked room, a blanket for a curtain"--his appeal to the imagination fitted it out as "'A field for monarchs.'" (4) Theater productions of Coleridge's day, on the other hand, including those of Shakespeare's plays, appealed not to the imagination, but to the senses, through an emphasis on visual display and special effects, and were thus deemed inappropriate not only for Shakespeare's genius, but for any serious drama. Meanwhile, the 1813 production of Coleridge's own play, at the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was state of the art: the theater itself had been re-equipped with the latest in lighting and stage technology, and for Remorse, there were to be lavish sets and startling effects, in keeping with the kind of exotic popular fashion created by Byron's Eastern tales (Holmes 321, 325). The play may have been vilified by many critics for its awkward emphasis on description in place of action (what we might construe as an emphasis on the written over the visual) and for its attendant abstractions, but it was unanimously appreciated for its stage effects, and particularly for the "coup d'oeil" of the famous "sorcery" scene. …

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