Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers

By Catherine B. Burroughs | Go to book overview

I. “The Value of Our Criticism”:
Constructing Women’s Theater Theory

The critic, even of his own works, grows honest, if not acute, at the end of
twenty years. The image, which he fancied glowed so brightly when it came forth
fresh from the furnace, time has quenched; the spirits which he thought fixed
and essential, have evaporated. … We not only discover that what we thought
we had invented we have only remembered; but we find also that what we be-
lieve to be perfect is full of defects; in what we had conceived to be pure gold,
we discover much tinsel. For the revision … is made at a period when the eye is
brought by a due remoteness… which disperses “the illusions of vision,” scatters
the mists of vanity, reduces objects to their natural size, restores them to their
exact shape, makes them appear to the sight, such as they are in themselves, and
such as perhaps they have long appeared to all except the author.

—Hannah More, “General Preface” to The Works of Hannah More (1835)

I have never believed in a single truth. Neither my own, nor those of others. I
believe all schools, all theories can be useful in some place, at some time. But I
have discovered that one can only live by a passionate, and absolute, identifica-
tion with a point of view.

However, as time goes by, as we change, as the world changes, targets alter and
the viewpoint shifts. Looking back over many years of essays written, ideas spo-
ken in many places on so many varied occasions, one thing strikes me as being
consistent. For a point of view to be of any use at all, one must commit oneself
totally to it, one must defend it to the very death. Yet, at the same time, there is
an inner voice that murmurs: “Don’t take it too seriously. Hold on tightly, let go
lightly.”

—Peter Brook, The Shifting Point, 1946–1987 (1987)

For those who would expand the picture of pre-twentieth-century Western theater history to include a range of women’s writings about the stage, these passages written by Hannah More, a late-eighteenth-century playwright (1745–1833), and Peter Brook, a late-twentieth-century director, remind us that revision is a constant of the critical enterprise. Yet to expect that More and Brook would today be spoken of together as theorists of theater requires a revision of theater history as traditionally formulated. Not only has the gendering of criticism until very recently ensured that early modern women’s generalizations and speculations about the theater arts would either be ignored or devalued, but it has also often caused us

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