Sir Walter Scott and the Contract between Playwrights, Actors, and Theater Audiences

By Heller, Janet Ruth | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Sir Walter Scott and the Contract between Playwrights, Actors, and Theater Audiences


Heller, Janet Ruth, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Most critical studies of the works of Sir Walter Scott do not even mention his 130-page article for the Encyclopedia Britannica, "An Essay on the Drama" (1819). However, this essay contains important analysis of transactions between playwrights, actors, and audiences. Scott shares the distrust of elaborate stage spectacle expressed by S. T. Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, whose essays about the drama have received more attention from literary critics. He also agrees with Lamb and Coleridge that there is a binding contract of mutual respect between good writers and their public. However, Scott adds actors to this contract, thus broadening the creative community involved in generating dramatic excitement. Scott uses legal terms such as "contract," "treaty," "partnership," "compound," "license," and "legitimate" to emphasize the serious obligations that writers, actors, and audiences/readers have toward one another. His ideas about drama are related to his views of novelists and their readers. Like the other Romantics, Scott insists that his readers be active and imaginative. He also demands the same level of imaginative activity from actors in the theater.

Scott's literary criticism is scattered among his prefaces to novels and dramas, his book reviews, his biographies of earlier writers like Dryden, and his miscellaneous articles such as "An Essay on the Drama." Many of these works are out of print and languish in rare book rooms of university libraries, making it difficult for scholars to bring all of this material together and to examine the connections among Scott's writings in different genres. This is one reason for the neglect of his drama criticism. A scholarly edition of his nonfiction prose is badly needed.

Many British and European writers from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century expressed ambivalence about the theater because they distrusted the aesthetic taste of most audiences; felt that staging a work of literature could distort its characters, language, and themes; and worried that theater spectacles made an audience passive instead of imaginatively active. Thus we find Hazlitt, who worked as a drama critic for some time, insisting, "The reader of the plays of Shakespear is almost always disappointed in seeing them acted; and, for our own part, we should never go to see them acted, if we could help it" ("Mr. Kean's Richard II" (1815), A View of the English Stage, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 5.222).

Many critics contrast the act of reading, which exercises the mind and the imagination, with attending a play, which often appeals primarily to the senses. Reading can enable a person to transcend his or her egocentrism: By learning to sympathize with the characters in literature, we become socially aware and concerned about the morality of our actions (see Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism 2.147 and The Friend 2.217-18; Heller 51-52, 65). However, performances of good dramas, especially tragedies, demean the text because the characters, words, and ideas are lost in elaborate spectacles that stimulate the senses but deaden the mind. The British Romantic writers viewed themselves as mentors and friends of the reading public who could help their contemporaries interact with literature more dynamically. Thus, the Romantics design their own writings to activate the minds of their readers and help them to think more creatively.

Both Coleridge and Lamb argue that there is an implied contract between writers and their readers that emphasizes mutual respect and creative effort. A good writer is not afraid to take imaginative risks by exploring new subjects and by probing the human psyche and the emotions. Also, a good writer does not preach or lecture to readers: He trusts them to understand a subtle passage. Similarly, the astute reader must be open-minded to the writer's new ideas and techniques. This requires self-knowledge and introspection. …

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