Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Weeping Mothers Shall Applaud": Sarah Yates as Margaret of Anjou on the London Stage, 1797

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Weeping Mothers Shall Applaud": Sarah Yates as Margaret of Anjou on the London Stage, 1797

Article excerpt

Recent studies of Romantic theatre have drawn attention to the need for the drama to be studied as a genre distinct from that of written literature. In her study Glorious Causes (2001), Julia Swindells points out that scholars "of the drama have attached too much significance to the written text," while failing to recognize that "in relation to any play, there are production as well as performance values to consider." (1) Writing twelve years later, David Worrall indicates the persistence of this problem: he considers that "insofar as literary studies can be described as a branch of theatre studies (or vice versa), a situation of critical asymmetry has arisen, in which playwrights and play texts have provided the primary context for scholarly enquiry." (2) By analyzing the drama at a purely textual level, continues Worrall, accurate insight into the performance's contemporary reception is prohibited, as performance meanings are always distributed in the theatre, "rather than residing principally in the fixed status of the authorial text." (3) Both authors draw attention to the numerous paratextual factors influencing theatrical reception: these include the geographical and temporal location in which the performance occurs; the visual, oral, and aural elements accompanying the performance; and the actors chosen to embody the dramatic roles. It is this final factor with which my study is centrally concerned. Appreciating that the play text is "only a signifier, a witness to a greater idea, which can only be realized through the interpretation of production," this study demonstrates the decisive role played by casting choices in determining the relationship between dramatic characters' written and performed identities by assessing a performance of Margaret of Anjou staged in London in 1797. (4)

Margaret of Anjou, the French-born warrior Queen of Lancastrian England, found frequent representation on the late eighteenth-century British stage. Margaret's notoriety in Britain was owed centrally to Shakespeare, who had famously presented the figure in his historical tragedy Henry VI. (5) Shakespeare had emphasized the "amazonian" tendencies of his "warlike Queen" and described her in thoroughly masculine terms, as "stern, obdurate, flinty, rough," and "remorseless." (6) Recently, scholars including Worrall and Dror Wahrman have contended that the "She-wolf of France" popularized in Shakespeare's tragedy underwent a radical transformation in late eighteenth-century British dramas. (7) Wahrman proposes that despite the preservation and even intensification of Margaret's obduracy and military prowess in early eighteenth-century dramas, "when Margaret returned to the stage" at the end of the century, "gone was the feisty Amazonian behavior, gone (almost) was the intrepid female warrior charging to battle, gone was the woman who disguised nature in order to encourage the men to fight." (8) In place of her formerly amazonian and manipulative characteristics, continues Wahrman, precedence was now given to Margaret's strong maternal sentiments, which "completely eclipsed any other aspect of her performance." (9) While Wahrman identifies the "gender panic" sparked by the American Revolution as the catalyst for Margaret's theatrical reformation, Worrall argues that Margaret's feminization on the British stage reached its apex in the 1790s and responded to events in revolutionary France. (10) During this period, theorizes Worrall, dramatizations of Margaret's captivity and separation from her husband "spoke powerfully of the fate of Marie Antoinette," who had become an object of compassion in Britain following her suffering at the hands of the Jacobins. As a result, Margaret's character was sentimentalized in British dramas in order to enhance audiences' sympathies for the real life Queen of France. (11)

Instances of Margaret's transformation in late eighteenth-century dramas from brutal warrior to sentimental mother are observable in plays including George Colman's The Battle of Hexham (1789); Edward Jerningham's "Margaret of Anjou: An Historical Interlude" (1777), revised for Covent Garden in 1793; and Richard Valpy's The Roses: Or King Henry VI (1795). …

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