British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Lilla Maria Crisafulli (Università di Bologna)


Theatre and Theatricality in British Romantic Constructions of Italy

The Italian stage and the theatricality of Italian everyday culture are crucial features in Romantic-period
descriptions and evaluations of Italy. What a country puts on stage in theatres large and small, as well as what it
performs in its streets, places of worship, and parlours is part of its identity, customs, and beliefs. In addition,
Romantic-period writers recognize and celebrate the contribution of the theatre to the creation of a national
identity. Within the wider context of the Grand Tour, this essay discusses the theatre and theatricality of Italy as
perceived, construed, and assessed by British travellers between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the
nineteenth centuries. Through the travel accounts of Mrs Piozzi, Leigh Hunt, Lady Morgan, Lord Byron and many
others, it demonstrates how, for Romantic-period commentators, Italian theatre and theatricality became a social
and political arena which mattered not so much for the artistic quality of what was offered on stage, but rather as
spaces on to which intellectuals could project their own preconceptions and preoccupations.

It is not easy today to talk about the Grand Tour because everything seems to have been said already, and there is always the fear of falling into the trap of banality. However, once you have accepted that you can, and must, still talk about it, then you discover that in effect the Grand Tour gives us the opportunity to re-read our own history. It helps us to decipher our past and reconsider a period in which Italy was becoming a nation and was beginning to take on the modern form that we know all too well, but with which we sometimes have difficulty identifying. This is particularly the case if, within the context of the Grand Tour, we speak of the theatre, and if, in addition, we believe theatre has played an important role in the formation of national consciousness. The British travellers of the Romantic period discovered this as well, yet they had been preceded by the great authors of classical Greece and Rome, the bold dramatists of the Italian Renaissance, and, most of all, William Shakespeare. In Great Britain alone, many authors and commentators took up the idea of the vital role played by theatre in shaping a nation: Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and then, later and with greater insistence, William Butler Yeats, all of whom were committed to building a national theatre that would be able to give a voice and an identity to their countries.

After all, what a country puts on stage in theatres large and small, what it performs in its streets, places of worship, and parlours are its ‘habits’, both in the general sense of its customs and beliefs and in Bourdieu’s more specific sociological sense of habitus.1 On

1 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). On Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, see also Bridget Fowler, Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations (London: Sage, 1997), and Derek Robbins, The Work of Pierre Bourdieu: Recognizing Society (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991).

-149-

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