Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Dramatic Discourse and the Romantic Stance in Joanna Baillie's Theatre

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Dramatic Discourse and the Romantic Stance in Joanna Baillie's Theatre

Article excerpt

The wide range of Joanna Baillie's output within the mainstream of Romantic drama displays a consistent creative itinerary which, starting from the series experiments in her Plays on the Passions (1798-1812), culminates in her conscious choice of a hybrid form in her last published, and never performed, play Witchcraft (1836).1 The aim of this essay is to highlight how certain aspects of Baillie's historical and cultural identity - while re-moulding eighteenth-century philosophical and moral traditions - take on a recognizably Romantic configuration, and at the same time are of primary importance in determining the changing forms of her dramatic discourse. Particularly relevant in this respect are her prefatory documents. Baillie's "Introductory Discourse" and various other prefaces prove an invaluable critical tool, both as evidence that her reflections on drama are integral to certain fundamental concerns of Romantic discourse, and as hermeneutic keys in exploring Joanna Baillie's dramatic world.

I will consider, in particular, her changing use of Gothic conventional appurtenances, by taking into consideration the various ways in which dramatic discourse and the theatrical codes which define its Gothic characteristics interact, sometimes questioning the Gothic sign in the very act of reinforcing it. To this end, I will take into consideration three of Baillie's plays: De Monfort (1798), her first and most successful "Play on the Passion" of Hatred; Orra (1812), her "Tragedy on Fear", and lastly, Witchcraft, a play in which Baillie's mature generic experimentation results in an illuminating selfreflection on the very nature of theatrical communication.2

Consider the following statement:

My care was almost exclusively given to the passions and the characters, and the positions in which the persons of the Drama stood relatively to each other, that the reader (for I had then no thought of the Stage) might be moved, and to a degree instructed, by lights penetrating somewhat into the depths of our nature.3

This passage might have been taken from any of Joanna Baillie's prefaces and notes to the numerous editions of her variously collected plays, with the possible exception of the parenthetical reference to the author's unease with respect to the stage: that is, the possibility of having the play actually produced. We recognize the language of Baillie's paratextual writings, her key words and concepts: "passions", mutual relations, "instruction" by insight "into the depths of our nature". In fact, the quotation is excerpted from the opening authorial note to The Borderers - the tragedy by William Wordsworth written between 1796 and 1797 and published only in 1842 - and serves as an indirect introduction to the subject of Baillie's place within the theory and praxis of Romantic discourse - whether it be poetic or dramatic, or both. The key text in this respect is the "Introductory Discourse" to the first volume of her Plays on the Passions (1798), in which a demanding and extensive creative project is announced, within a wide-ranging discussion on a series of issues, including a responseoriented reflection on genres, interspersed with acute observations on the theatrical practice of her time.

Baillie's concept of "sympathetic curiosity" is preliminarily established as the basis to "almost every species of moral writings, but particularly the Dramatic",4 and consists of a universal disposition of man towards his fellow-human beings. This tendency, Baillie argues, is integral to an instinctive need all men share for self-knowledge and self-recognition - "in examining others, we know ourselves" - and paves the way for self-improvement: "we cannot well exercise this disposition without becoming more just, more merciful, more compassionate". However, it is only the few endowed with a "contemplative character" who are allowed to perceive that which Baillie describes as interrelatedness of feelings: in other words, the complexity of psychic life. …

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