Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"I Will Wear My Heart upon My Sleeve": Haunted Stages in Frances Burney's Camilla

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"I Will Wear My Heart upon My Sleeve": Haunted Stages in Frances Burney's Camilla

Article excerpt

There's no question about it: chapter 8 of book 4 of Frances Burneys Camilla is one of the funniest scenes in her entire oeuvre. In this incident, the protagonist and her company attend a presentation of Othello as performed by a group of traveling players. As the shambolic representation unfolds, every aspect of theatrical illusion is violated-costumes, sets, acting style, and especially the actors' hilarious regional accents-all reveal the players' complete ineptitude as performers. The audience's response is part of the satire, as Sir Sedley in particular provides an irreverent yet comical running commentary on what appears to be a very silly theatrical scene.

But at the risk of ruining the fun, what if the scene were not merely funny, but also masking some very real concerns about the nature of performance, concerns felt not only by Burney and her audience, but by modern readers as well? In other words, as we are often tempted to do when we read Burney, what if we ask "what are we actually laughing at?" This article explores what may be at stake in this scene, both for the novel and for a wider historical consideration.1 This scene exposes a failed theatrical spectacle in which everyone-the actors and audience alike-is haunted by past performances, unsettled by the ghostly remains of past representations, past behaviors, and past attitudes. The players mirror back to the audience, in exaggerated and hyperbolic fashion, the impossibility of their own deep, true, and "authentic" selves and they remind Burneys readers of the very real stakes of any performance on the public stage.

This article will explore the scene in three ways, each deploying a slightly different, yet overlapping theoretical lens. First, using intertextualism, we will see how Burneys characters are ghosted by their connection to Othello, the very play we observe in performance. Second, resorting to the concept of "haunting" as defined by Martin Carlson in The Haunted Stage: the Theatre as Memory Machine, we will recognize how Burneys strolling players are necessarily haunted by past performances that are both acknowledged and unacknowledged in the novel.2 These past performances could take a variety of shapes and forms, including the presentation of national themes. As we shall see, for Burney and her contemporaries, the performance of Shakespeare in particular seemed to hold out the promise of stabilizing a nascent sense of national identity. Presenting Shakespeare, it was hoped, could promote a "deep" Englishness to be felt and experienced by all. Yet here that promise is never met, and the actors on the stage only reinforce a textual anxiety concerning the nature of the characters' own "true" and consistent British identities.

Third, then, situating Burney's novel within the broader parameters of intellectual history will help us to explore how the entire scene is haunted by a pre-existing mode of self-presentation that threatens to impede-if not subvert altogether-the modern "self." Here Dror Wahrman's definition, that is, a concept of subjectivity that "stands for a particular understanding of personal identity, one that presupposes an essential core of selfhood characterized by psychological depth, or interiority, which is the bedrock of unique, expressive, individual identity" will prove useful (Wahrman xi). This section will take its cue from Derrida's theory of the specter, which can be defined as the ghostly presence that haunts all textuality-not merely a textual unconscious, but all the meaning that any text, dramatic or otherwise, denies or represses.3 At stake in this reading is an admittedly ambitious claim: Burneys comedy takes us to some much darker ideas concerning her protagonist in particular and human subjectivity more broadly. As well see, once the topic of an inadequate performance is brought to the fore, Camilla continually experiences herself as multiple and divided. Try as she might to be who she "really is," she is continually haunted by another version of herself-in a sense, by someone who only "plays" at being her without maintaining a consistent, core identity that can be called "authentic. …

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