The Romantic Stage: Holding the Mirror Up to Nature and Culture

By Crisafulli, Lilla Maria; Liberto, Fabio | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Romantic Stage: Holding the Mirror Up to Nature and Culture


Crisafulli, Lilla Maria, Liberto, Fabio, DQR Studies in Literature


The aim of this volume is to re-examine late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British theatre and drama in the belief that they were rich and innovative phenomena and that they made an essential contribution to the aesthetic and ideological complexity of British culture in the Romantic period. The theatrical event represented an important part of an "Englishman's constitution",1 and many intellectuals of the time, including P.B. Shelley and Leigh Hunt, maintained that dramatic representation had a close connection to social, political and ethical conduct,2 as it "encourages and refines [the audience's] humanity".3 William Hazlitt's was, arguably, the voice that synthesized in the most suggestive way this intimate connection between the theatre and the British culture of the day. In the Preface to A View of the English Stage (1818), a volume collecting some of his most notable reviews, Hazlitt affirms:

The Stage is one great source of public amusement, not to say instruction. A good play, well acted, passes away a whole evening delightfully at a certain period of life, agreeably at all times; we read the account of it next morning with pleasure, and it generally furnishes one leading topic of conversation for the afternoon. The disputes on the merits or defects of the last new piece, or of a favourite performer, are as common, as frequently renewed, and carried on with as much eagerness and skill, as those on almost any other subject .... [P]lays and players ... are "the brief chronicles of the time," the epitome of human life and manners. While we are talking about them, we are thinking about ourselves. They "hold the mirror up to Nature;" and our thoughts are turned to the Stage as naturally and as fondly as a fine lady turns to contemplate her face in the glass .... Yet how eagerly do we stop to look at the prints from ZOFFANY'S pictures of GARRICK and WESTON!How much we are vexed, that so much of COLLEY CIBBER'S Life is taken up with the accounts of his own managership, and so little with those inimitable portraits which he has occasionally given of the actors of his time! How fortunate we think ourselves, when we can meet with any person who remembers the principal performers of the last age, and who can give us some distant idea of GARRICK'S nature, or of an ABINGTON'S grace!4

In this passage (and his further development of this argument in the Preface) Hazlitt is indeed presenting a view of the English stage, but most importantly he is establishing an interplay between the theatre and everyday life, so that his outlook on the stage becomes a mirror or vehicle for his view of English culture and society at large: "plays and players ... are 'the brief chronicles of the time,' the epitome of human life and manners."5 Hazlitt's passionate description of how people would stop in the streets only to contemplate better the beautiful theatrical conversation pieces portraying Garrick and other celebrities in character; or his annoyance at Colley Cibber on account of his decision to devote only two chapters of his voluminous autobiography to the actors that he knew; or, again, the fascination that one could receive from meeting not a real actor, but even somebody who was lucky enough to have seen the actors of his day in person: these are all expressions of the Romantic writer's fascination with the theatre and of his belief in its social centrality.

Nevertheless, the Romantic Theatre has been the object of critical prejudice for decades, if not for two centuries. Even modern criticism has helped promulgate the general opinion according to which the Romantics had an aversion to the theatre. George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy (1961), Peter Brooks' The Melodramatic Imagination (1976) and Jonas Barish's The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1981) have contributed in various degrees to portraying nineteenth-century Britain in a way that often collides with the passionate descriptions of early nineteenth-century writers such as Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Hunt. …

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