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

By Catherine B. Burroughs | Go to book overview

4. Conflicted Performance Styles
in Baillie’s First Volume of
Plays on the Passions (1798)

Conflicts over acting style in Joanna Baillie’s early tragedies, De Monfort and Basil, reflect some of the tensions that were central to late-eighteenthand early-nineteenth-century theater artists, whether their spaces for performance were located on social or professional stages. Although these plays depict the private/domestic sphere as allowing the improvisational approach to performance that Baillie’s theoretical discourse would seem to advocate, both also tie fears about improvisation and excessive theatricality to fears of effeminacy. When Gay Gibson Cima observes that “acting styles reflect, enforce, and critique cultural models of behavior” (I), she directs us to look at some of the ways in which the dramaturgy of De Monfort and Basil draws on eighteenth-century and early Romantic modes of performance to criticize restrictive gender roles. Both plays suggest parallels between the main male characters and actual mid-eighteenth-century male actors, who, in Kristina Straub’s words, were associated with “sexual ‘deviance’” and who considered “sexually other to dominant masculinity” (“Actors and Homophobia” 259). De Monfort is especially striking in featuring one man’s search for a style of social performance through which to express his wildly bewildering responses to another man.

In order to critique the repression of De Monfort’s desire to let his passionate responses to Rezenvelt show all over his body, the play sets in opposition two styles of performance that competed for audience attention during this era and that, as Richard Hornby observes, still characterize debates over acting theory in the late twentieth century (143): the mode of statuesque stasis cultivated by the French neoclassicists and the emotive school of acting characteristic of German Romanticism, or—to put it differently—styles of performance that derived from “the war between Sentiment and Calculation” (Sennett 114).1 Another way of dichotomizing these approaches is to think of them in the context of what Martin Meisel identifies as “the rise of a new pictorial dramaturgy” in the early nineteenth

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