Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

No Way for a Victim to Act?: Beatrice Cenci and the Dilemma of Romantic Performance

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

No Way for a Victim to Act?: Beatrice Cenci and the Dilemma of Romantic Performance

Article excerpt

TWO PROBLEMS HAVE HISTORICALLY PREOCCUPIED READERS OF THE CENCI. First of all: what does this verse-play have to do with the theatre? If only by default, Shelley's drama occupies the liminal space between closet and stage. Shelley indisputably "wished The Cenci to be acted," picked out his lead actors, and even asked a friend to "procure ... its presentation at Covent Garden."(1) The play's subject made such a performance impossible. Yet, while the moral strictures against a play about incest had expired by 1886, the aesthetic judgment of The Cenci as "undramatic" (first voiced by Byron) has lasted considerably longer. Until recently, critics tended to view the dramatic form and stage destination of the play as contingencies to be overlooked in favor of its "poetic" aspects and/or its political subtexts, on the assumption that The Cenci makes poor theatre. This assumption derives in part, as Stuart Curran notes, from critical stereotypes of Shelley as an inward-turning poet who coveted the power of a stage performance while lacking a pragmatic grasp of the medium.(2)

But the traditional judgment against The Cenci as theatre is also deeply grounded in the text itself, and here we approach the second critical problem. At first glance, "unspeakable" incest aside, The Cenci seems to serve up just the sort of Gothic/melodramatic duel which pleased early nineteenth-century spectators. But the problem with this duel as melodrama or tragedy is that its sole survivor is finally neither heroic, nor even "sympathetic." Critics agree that Beatrice Cenci turns readers and spectators against her in the fifth act, where, under arrest for the murder of the father who raped her, she undertakes to save herself by lying about her role in the crime. Not content with having "a higher truth" on her side in court, Beatrice denies the petty facts of her story as well. "I know thee! How? where? when?" (to her hired assassin).(3) Worse still, perhaps, Beatrice fails to make the audience a party to her deceit. Unlike many a romantic antihero, she does not expose and deplore her own hypocrisy in soliloquy. Joseph Donohue observes that even jaded modern spectators of The Cenci are repelled by this breach of trust(4)--one which seems to implicate the author as well as his creation. (In the Preface, Shelley condemns the parricide but makes no mention of Beatrice's cover-up performance.)

Critics have expressed their own discomfort with Beatrice by charging Shelley with the aesthetic error of "inconsistency." Roger Blood pinpoints this reaction, even as he suggests that the supposed "inconsistency" between various moments in Beatrice's performance merely externalizes the deceit which is the basis of theatre. "[T]he inconsistency [in Beatrice] which all critics sense ... is not merely the result of a discrepancy between character and action ... but the absolute self-contradiction, the literal counter-statement of her public deceit, which mars her self-representation and self-justification after the murder."(5) Julie Carlson is more explicit about why Beatrice bothers readers and viewers who want a tragic victim-heroine. "The trial scene allows her to finally appear as what and who she `is': a commanding actress."(6) In short, and strangely enough, Shelley's heroine proves her own unfitness for the stage by acting.

Yet, is this (anti-)climax of The Cenci "inconsistent" with its beginnings? On the contrary, I contend that Beatrice's performance of "public deceit" is merely the most off-putting of the play's densely layered theatrical metaphors. From Cenci's declaration that his crimes are "a public matter" (1.i.71), to Beatrice's prediction that "the vain and senseless crowd, / ... that they may make our calamity / Their worship and their spectacle, will leave / The churches and the theatres as void / As their own hearts ..."(V.iii.36-40), The Cenci is a text which seems to refuse to let us forget that it was intended for the stage, and what such an intention entails. …

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