Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Anticipating Histories: Emotional Life at Covent Garden Theatre, February 1811

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Anticipating Histories: Emotional Life at Covent Garden Theatre, February 1811

Article excerpt

The winter of 1811 figures prominently in canonical accounts of Romantic theater. The dispute over the infiltration of hippodrama into Covent Garden Theatre is central both to Jane Moody's argument about the triumph of illegitimacy and to Jeffrey Cox's and Michael Gamer's influential Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama: their careful presentation of Blue Beard, Timour the Tartar, and The Quadrapeds of Quedlinhurgh has enabled thorough discussion of the cultural debates surrounding the suffusion of illegitimate genres in the patent houses. (1) I am returning to this archive with different historical objectives and questions. In her recent book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant asks a crucial question for cultural analysis: "How can it be said that aesthetically mediated affective responses exemplify a shared historical sense?" (2) If we transpose Berlant's question to the theater it suggests that the affect instantiated by performance enacts historical knowledge. Rather than consigning emotional reaction and investment to a negligible zone of inchoate individual response, Berlant's question asks us to think about how "Affect's saturation of form can communicate the conditions under which a historical moment appears as a visceral moment, assessing the way a thing that is happening finds its genre." (3)

Everything we know about the late Georgian playhouse points towards precisely this affective saturation of form. The emotion activated by Siddons, the emergence of melodrama, the complex elaboration of pantomime, the cult of Kean: all of these phenomena are integrally tied to heightened affective bonds between audience, player, and theatrical technology. Furthermore the theater of Romanticism is a wartime theater whose extraordinary level of generic experimentation both in and out of the patent houses constitutes a response to the overwhelming social crises of war and social unrest. (4) Significantly, the history of how these crises were aesthetically mediated in performance was bifurcated by radical transformations in theatrical space. Just as performance venues proliferated beyond Westminster, the vast expansion of Co vent Garden Theatre resulted in a crisis of its very own--i.e., the Old Price Riots--and suddenly changed not only what kind of emotional transactions were viable in the theater, but also what form historical consciousness would take. (5) The OP riots can be understood as the sign of a complex modulation from one kind of affective economy to another. The close proximity that had previously enabled intimate affective bonds between player and audience was a thing of the past and thus the process of collectively engaging with historical crisis required generic innovation. The emergence of melodrama and new forms of spectacle more suited to the expanded space of Covent Garden engaged emotion in substantively different ways than the performance of interpersonal ties so crucial to five-act comedy and tragedy. As we will see, this new form of affective engagement supplemented or even bypassed the representation of social relations to target the bodily, visceral lives of the audience.

The turmoil surrounding the staging of hippodrama in Covent Garden can be traced to this fundamental shift in the space of performance. As Moody argues, the decision to stage an equestrian Blue Beard arose from a need to offset lost revenues following the success of the OP riots, and Blue Beard netted over, 21,000 [pounds sterling] in 41 nights. Horses dominated Covent Garden's program from the opening of Blue Beard on 18 February 1811 through the even more inflammatory hippodramatic production of Timour the Tartar that opened on 29 April 1811. As Moody states, these productions "came to symbolize the decadent triumph of theatrical illegitimacy." (6) The Morning Chronicle demanded that Blue Beard "be transferred to its proper sphere, which is Astley's Amphitheatre." (7) But this assumes that there was something appropriate to the newly expanded sphere of Covent Garden. …

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