Editing Romantic Drama: Problems of Value, Volume, and Venue

By Cox, Jeffrey N. | DQR Studies in Literature, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Editing Romantic Drama: Problems of Value, Volume, and Venue


Cox, Jeffrey N., DQR Studies in Literature


As recently as fifteen years ago, the drama of the Romantic period remained largely unexplored, but today we are in the midst of a revival of interest in the drama and theatre of the Romantic period. Building on earlier work by Bernard Evans, Allardyce Nicoll, Michael Booth, and Joseph Donohue, scholars such as Paula Backscheider, Catherine Burroughs, Frederick Burwick, Julie Carlson, Thomas Crochunis, Tracy Davis, Michael Gamer, Jane Moody, Daniel O'Quinn, Reeve Parker, Judith Pascoe, Marjean Purinton, Alan Richardson, Gillian Russell, Michael Simpson, and Daniel Watkins have reawakened interest in the plays of major poets, the dramatic work of women writers, and the lively world of the late eighteenthand early-nineteenth-century stage.1 Special sessions on the drama and theatre are now regular features of academic conferences, the University of Texas hosted a meeting on "Romantic Drama in Place" in 1998, the 2003 meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism in New York City had a strong focus on the drama. Scholars have come a long way from the days when they could assert that there was no drama of interest produced during the Romantic period, when it was possible to understand Romanticism only in relation to the lyric.

This resurgence of interest in Romantic drama has also led to new editions of plays from the period. The plays of the canonical male poets have been edited usually as part of their complete poetical works rather than as dramas per se. There is much good new work on women playwrights: there are two editions of Joanna Baillie in print, a parallel text edition of Felicia Hemans' The Siege of Valencia,anda website devoted to British women playwrights around 1800 which offers online editions of writers such as Jane Scott, Mariana Starke, and Frances Burney. We even have two, quite different collections of period dramas, Five Romantic Plays, 1768-1821 and The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, to which we will return.2 Still, as opposed to the efforts devoted to works securely in the canon, or to large bodies of material canonical and otherwise from the classical, medieval or early modern periods, we have lacked a concerted effort to edit nineteenth-century drama so as to give us a complete picture of the dramatic and theatrical world during the Romantic era.

Let me give some anecdotal indications of the problems we face. First, looking beyond the fine discussions of electronic editing found on the "British Women Playwrights Around 1800" website, searches of the MLA online bibliography using terms such as "editing romantic drama" or "editing nineteenth-century drama" or "editing women romantic dramatists" yield only one piece (from 1976) that deals extensively with the problems that arise in editing these plays; while making many sensible suggestions, the author admits that an honest answer to whether there is a readership for critical editions of nineteenth-century plays and whether anyone would fund such editorial projects is - "no".3 A review essay in the early 1990s by one of the most important scholars of nineteenth-century theatre would seem to bear out this opinion. We are told that "In the area of texts [of nineteenth-century plays] we have moved backwards rather than forwards ... the number [of texts] available today is pathetically few, and there are fewer collections now in print than there were in the 1970s".4 The reviewer finds one bright spot in a Cambridge series of playwrights from the period that was, alas, cancelled around the time the review appeared. Finally, at a meeting of Romanticists, I ended up in a conversation about editing Joanna Baillie's key play De Monfort and about the difficulties of sorting out the play's textual variations, including one scene that appears in three radically different versions. A distinguished Romanticist, central to the effort to recover women writers of the period including Baillie, expressed amazement that a grown scholar would waste time trying to figure out textual changes in what was, after all, literature of the second rank in which variations are of small concern - it was not, I was told, as if we were talking about Shelley's Prometheus Unbound or Wordsworth's Borderers. …

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