A School for Hazlitt

I am not a Hazlitt specialist, but I do enjoy reading and studying his writing a great deal. So I spent Saturday 14th September at UCL listening to a series of lectures on ‘Hazlitt and the Theatre’. They were all good, and, as a consequence, there is no way I could summarise them all here. I’ll settle for noting that I learnt from Claire Sheridan some of Hazlitt’s techniques for criticising utilitarianism; from John Stokes, the correspondences between Hazlitt and Oscar Wilde; from Marcus Risdell, so much about ‘theatrical performance portraiture’; and from Peter Thompson, the curiously parallel lives of Hazlitt and the actor who so often inspired him, Edmund Kean: ‘Aut Caesar aut nihil’ as they both said, for example. I’ll now give the rest of this report to Tom Lockwood’s talk on reading and performance in Hazlitt’s lectures, which was the first of the day, and, as luck would have it, relevant to the work I’m currently doing for NEASECS 2013.

William Hazlitt, Self Portrait, c. 1802

The central point of the talk was that Hazlitt’s last lecture series ‘On the Dramatic
Literature of the Age of Elizabeth’ is remarkable for taking the relationship of page to stage as one of its topics and so containing no small element of self-scepticism. Because of this, the lines between reading and performance blur: how does Hazlitt read/perform his long quotations from Elizabethan drama? Does he sing the songs his lecture cites? We will never know, but what is clear is that so many of the comments he makes about the plays and their writers prompt reflections on the lecturer as well. The clearest example of this was the juxtaposition of the following two passages.

First, from an analysis of Webster:

The author’s power is in the subject, not over it; or he is in possession of excellent materials, which he husbands very ill.

Then from Hazlitt’s own exhausted conclusion to the lectures:

I have done: and if I have done no better, the fault has been in me, not in the subject.

Both quotations show, of course, the same ideas: a writer possessed of great material, but unable to make the most of it. Lockwood remarked that the year Hazlitt gave these lectures (1820) was also the last year Coleridge lectured, making it seem as if an era of criticism was ending. Looking back over the handout from the event, it certainly seems that way, so many of the passages quoted sound tired and drained: “I have half trifled with this subject”, “the great characteristic of the elder dramatic writers is, that there is nothing theatrical about them”.

That last citation brings me to the apsect of this talk, more than the others, that caught my attention: the overview Lockwood gave of Hazlitt (and Lamb’s) antitheatricality. Lamb is important here as he lent Hazlitt most of the materials for these lectures, not to mention corresponding about and talking through them with his friend. Perhaps as a result of the increasingly melodramatic acting style of the early nineteenth century, perhaps for other reasons, both Hazlitt and Lamb argue that many of our great plays are best appreciated as we read them and not as we see them acted. Another quotation is in order here, this time from Lamb, on King Lear

So to see Lear acted, – to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.

The master-stroke of Lockwood’s talk was to connect this hostility to the stage, the uncomfortable focus on the ‘walking stick’ and the worry about the actor, with the self-critical atmosphere of Hazlitt’s own lectures, as they blurred the distinction between reading and performing. A description of the lectures survives, for example, which has a similar balance of emotions to Lamb’s writing about Lear, the same nagging attention to the material. With it, I’ll end this report, conscious that I, like W.H. have perhaps been leaning too heavily on citations in this post:

He was not so nervous as he had been on the two prior occasions; but a person who was present tells me that he hitched up his knee-breeches continually in a very distressing manner, for they kept slipping over his hips through the want of braces, and disclosing bits of shirt.

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