British Romantic Drama: Historical and Critical Essays

By Terence Allan Hoagwood; Daniel P. Watkins | Go to book overview

Introduction

THIS COLLECTION OF ESSAYS CELEBRATES A GROWING SCHOLARLY INTEREST IN the Romantic drama.1 For more than a century—and until the recent resurgence of historicist scholarship in Romanticism—literary opin- ion understood Romantic literature to be synonymous with short lyric poems; the intellectual and thematic content of the Romantic lyric was characterized by subjectivity and individualism. At the same time, and contradictorily, the ideology of the Romantic lyric was seen as a device for sublimating circumstantiality into abstractions exempt from time and space. The conceptual field of Romanticism, con- tained within the charmed but tiny spaces of lyric poems, was shaped by these interests: the mind of the individual subject and the spirit of the universe marked the limits of Romantic literature and imagination.

Preserving this traditional view of Romanticism involved exclu- sions, of course: Jane Austen’s novels were long understood as if they had been written at some time other than the early part of the nineteenth century; Scott’s novels have sometimes been treated as elephantine anticipations of Victorian novels of history; the Gothic romances of Lewis and Maturin, besmirched by popularity, have been thrillingly déclassé entertainments for the lower orders. Coleridge’s voluminous life’s work in prose, chiefly on political subjects, was often seen as a mere excuse for his insufficient productivity in short lyric poems or as an idiosyncratic symptom which presciently antici- pates the profound privacy of psychoanalysis. Other writers of prose—chiefly Hazlitt, Lamb, and DeQuincey—were long treated as a “quaint trio” of essayists, as John Kinnaird once observed.2

In such a climate of literary opinion, a genre so thoroughly public as the drama could hardly rise to the higher levels of critical appre- ciation. A phrase—“mental theatre”—which Byron used in a letter, with an entirely different sense, was seized as a category under which some verse plays (chiefly Manfred and Prometheus Unbound) could be retrieved. That rubric enabled readers to understand those plays as distended lyrics or collections of lyrics; those plays could thus be understood to confine themselves within the same concep-

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