Queen and My Thesis

This idea for a post came to me during a run. Around the twelfth kilometre, as the endorphins were kicking in and the village of Coton disappearing behind me, Queen’s 1991 hit, The Show Must Go On came up on my playlist, and it struck me that the lyrics of the song – recounting Freddie Mercury’s efforts to perform even as he died from AIDS – were susceptible to a reading in light of some of my recent thinking about theories of performance and actors. Here is the original music video, followed by a mix of my analysis and the words sung by Mercury, apparently recorded – much to the surprise of a concerned Brian May – in a single take after a large swig of vodka and the exclamation, “I’ll fucking do it, darling!”

Click on the picture to see the video (Hypotheses does not allow iframes apparently)

Empty spaces, what are we living for?
Abandoned places, I guess we know the score;
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero, another mindless crime;
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime;
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?

This opening question, asked over a subdued synth line whose repetitions and tempo help to build anticipation, is open to several readings. Who are “we”? On one level, “we” designates the performers, asking why they do what they do, over and over again. On another, “we” is much more inclusive, and covers everyone, performer and audience, asking, essentially, for nothing less than the meaning of life. Both readings of this are possible because of the long-held tradition that “all the world’s a stage” – Totus mundus agit histrionem, as they carved into Shakespeare’s Globe. It is a tradition that offers several possibilities: that the performer can represent real experience, that real experience can be explored through performance, and, most importantly of all, that there exists the potential for a deep, even personal connection between what is performed and what is lived.

What are the “empty spaces”, the “abandoned places”? The rhyme connects them, and I can see two interpretations. First, they designate the theatre and (by building on the ‘world as stage’ metaphor) the world of everyday experience as well. In both cases, these arenas are denigrated, called “empty” and “abandoned”: the magic, we are given to understand, happens elsewhere. This is something Diderot would have approved of, since his Paradoxe sur le Comédien argues that true imaginative construction occurs during the performer’s preparation, and all that occurs in front of an audience is the empty, mechanical execution of predetermined plan. The second interpretation of the “empty spaces”, however, sits in tension with this, and generates the pathos of the opening: the “empty spaces” and, especially, the “abandoned places” represent the performer’s view of his world, and thus express a deep melancholy in line with such existential questions as “What are we living for?” The theatre (and the world) only *seem* abandoned because of the performer’s emotional state. In the official video, Mercury sings these lines as we see images of screaming crowds or elaborate stagesets, in other words, very full and certainly not abandoned places: the emptiness and abandonment are within.

Diderot famously proposed that the best performers were the least feeling, coldly executing outward displays of emotion constructed from memories. What The Show Must Go On registers, however, is something more primitive: the desire to know what lies behind performance, the desire to lift the curtain. This gives us such lines as the couplet “Another hero, another mindless crime; / Behind the curtain, in the pantomime”, again rich with melancholy, and crucially indeterminate as to whether it is describing the content of the show or the real life experience of the actor. We can lift the curtain because all that lies behind it is another kind of show. The “pantomime” is both “behind the curtain” and in front of it: everything is a performance, so one can be a spectator of real life as much as the show, albeit at the price of abandoning the idea of an authentic, non-performed, ‘natural’ self, and opening oneself to the grim thought of Macbeth, “life’s a poor player.” When the verse asks its third question – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – the ambiguities of “we” are stated more forcefully: this is not just “any” performer, but “anybody” whatsoever. The show is everywhere, and we are caught up in it.

This explains the force of the chorus:

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah!
Inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on.

There is no explanation for why the show must go on, just the articulation of a desire to keep going. This becomes even more powerful as the song continues. As before, the lyrics let us into the personal side of the performer, and draw their pathos from the disjunction between external signs and internal emotions. As Hamlet puts it, he has “that within which passeth show”. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner, commented that the lines “My make-up may be flaking / But my smile stays on” were the most potently autobiographical line of the song. As well as this, they are amongst the most powerful because they break the image of outwardly-brilliant and internally-suffering performer by suggesting that, tragically, the hidden state of the showman can no longer be fully kept from those around him. The illusion is failing, and soon there will be no more curtain left to lift.

Such urgency propels us into the desperate logic of the next verse.

Whatever happens, I’ll leave it all to chance;
Another heartache, another failed romance;
On and on, does anybody know what we are living for?
I guess I’m learning (I’m learning, learning, learning…)
I must be warmer now:
I’ll soon be turning (turning turning turning…)
Round the corner now.
Outside the dawn is breaking,
But inside in the dark I’m aching to be free.

Here, the resignation of leaving “all to chance” is mixed with a variation on the “another hero, another mindless crime” lines from before. Again, the “heartache” and the “failed romance” are either the contents of a show or the realities of the performer’s life (or both). Yet, pairing these events with such resignation offers a more subtle response, one that fully recognises the flaws of the previous desire to “hold the line”. The simple statement, “I guess I’m learning now” draws on what Diderot saw as the irrefutable proof of the actor’s power over himself during performance, the ability to modify it according to on-stage circumstance (a dropped object, a missing prop, etc.). A limited version of this self-consciousness, made possible by the resignation of the opening line, is present in these lyrics. The singer may not know what’s coming, but he knows where he is, and can see a little in front: he knows he should be “warmer”, that he’ll “soon be turning”, that a new day “is breaking”. And yet, the final line reveals how double-edged such consciousness proves to be: the performer knows above all that he is “aching to be free”. Before, the problem was expressed in a general – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – now things are more personal. The response, however, remains irrational, potent, and rich with emotion.

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah yeah!
Ooh, inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on

Yeah yeah, whoa wo oh oh!

This brings us – with a key change – to the final section of the song.

My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies,
Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die:
I can fly, my friends!

The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…) yeah yeah!
The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…)
I’ll face it with a grin!
I’m never giving in!
On, with the show!

Ooh, I’ll top the bill, I’ll overkill,
I have to find the will to carry on,
On with the show…
On with the show!
The show, the show must go on…
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on…

If we moved from the general (“does anybody want to take it any more?”) to the personal (“I’m aching to be free”), we now step even deeper into the performer’s own internal pantomime, the show within the show, where even the “soul” is “painted”. This is, in my view, the richest line of the entire song: “My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies” not only marks the deepest point of the descent into the performer, it also reaches out the furthest. We could go back, for example, to Ancient Greece, and the way that the word psyche meant both “butterfly” and “soul”, which suggests the tautology that “my soul is painted with the wings of [souls]”, i.e. that performance is what the performer is, right down to his core. Alternatively, we could remember that once a butterfly’s wings emerge it only has a short time to live; or, to evoke menace in a different way, it shouldn’t be forgotten either that a butterfly’s wings often act as camouflage from predators. If I wanted to bring all these different threads together, I suppose the best bet would be something like the idea that by accepting performance, by performing at every level of his being (from painted face to painted soul), the performer may not live long but will also stand a chance at escaping oblivion. Such a reading seems to be confirmed by, first, the next line’s “fairytales of yesterday will grow old but never die”, and, second, the surge of exclamations beginning with “I can fly my friends!”

In the final seconds of the song, the main vocal line stops, and we hear only the repetition of “go on”. In a way, this is apt: finishing on a bang would not be appropriate for a song that is about both decline and artistic survival; further, though, the disappearance of the main vocals makes for an extremely haunting conclusion. So late in the track, the listener is deeply involved with the main singer, having been led to step over the barriers between internal and external that Diderot anatomised. When this presence vanishes, we are left with a doubt: for a little over four minutes, we have been plunged into a life where everything appears a show, both within and without; when we hear that ‘the show must go on’, we now understand that the show must go on because the show is everything and everything the show; and yet, hearing the faint “go on”, we know that such an aspiration can never be realised as fully as we would want it to. The show must end.

Three Plays by Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, painted by Karl Anton Hickel in 1793.

Left with a bit of spare time after handing in a draft of a conference paper, I decided to refamiliarise myself with some of the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. I’d picked up the Penguin Classics The School for Scandal and Other Plays secondhand in Oxford, on the basis that I probably should own copies of not just The School for Scandal, but The Rivals and The Critic too, as at least two out of three of these plays (sorry, The Critic) are amongst the vanishingly small pieces of eighteenth-century drama still taught and studied nowadays. This post will give my responses to all three plays, largely as they occurred to me.

The Rivals

I knew about Lydia’s mother, Mrs Malaprop, before I’d ever read this play, as I’d seen the term ‘malapropism’ used to describe (anachronistically) the verbal bungles of such Shakespearean characters as Elbow and Dogberry. It’s possible that Sheridan was in fact inspired by Shakespeare for Mrs Malaprop, but there are many other potential sources for her verbal oddities. As well as being very funny on stage, and still pretty comic on the page, I was also struck by how close the malapropisms were to being irony, those moments where the manifestly wrong word might also be the right one. When telling Sir Anthony Absolute (father to Lydia’s lover Captain Jack Absolute, or Beverley) of the dangers of Lydia’s affection for the apparently low-born Beverley, Mrs Malaprop says, “[Lydia] should have be mistress of orthodoxy [i.e. orthography], that she might not misspell, and mispronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend [i.e. comprehend] the true meaning of what she is saying.” As well as the irony of Mrs Malaprop raging against mispronunciation, the error of “reprehend” for “comprehend” is heavily ironic in that, as far as Mrs Malaprop is concerned, if Lydia comprehended what she was doing, she would have reprehended herself.

Elsie Leslie as Lydia Languish, 1899.

Soon after this scene, Sir Antony leaves, and, upon Mrs Malaprop’s departure, it is left to the servant Lucy to close the act. She does so with a machiavellian soliloquy on the subject of “to what account I have turned my simplicity recently”, lifting her “mask of silliness” to end this part of the play with a flourish. Such a revelation also fits with previous events, where character after character has spoken to us of deception, whether it be Fag revealing how Captain Absolute has disguised himself as Beverley, or the strange case of Mrs Malaprop signing herself as ‘Delia’ in letters to woo Sir Lucius. This way of ending an act with a bang fits with eighteenth-century stage practice, where up to four intervals (and their entertainments) would severely disturb the course of the show – all the more so if audiences couldn’t remember how the last act ended. Thus we have Lucy telling Fag that Sir Antony wants to force his son to marry the very woman Captain Absolute has been wooing in disguise at the end of second act, while the last lines of the third and fourth acts all look forward to oncoming action.

Such endings to each act are part of the pacing of the play, and I was struck as I read by how long Sheridan makes us wait before we witness a scene with ‘Beverley’ in it. This is similar to the length of time we have to wait to see Charles Surface in The School for Scandal, and in both cases, the wait allows anticipation (not to mention the moral stakes) to rise, as we listen to various reports on the character’s activity. After having made them wait for a ‘Beverley’ scene, Sheridan then toys with the audience again by having the collapse of Captain Absolute’s disguise occur in the fourth act, well before the dénouement of the play. This is a stroke of genius, in that it is not expected, and in that it allows a great development of the character of Lydia, whose first response to the fact that both the man she loved and the man she has to marry are the same is, “[sullenly] So! – there will be no elopement after all!”

While the main plot of The Rivals always keeps you on your toes with its (collapsing) layers of deceit, I still find the Julia-Faulkland subplot weak. Neither character is interesting, and the mockery of sentimental gentlemen in the character of Faulkland has little bite. The best example of what I mean occurs in the final few lines of the play, as the two happy couples (Captain Absolute and Lydia, Julia and Faulkland) stand on stage:

ABSOLUTE: Well, Faulkland, we have both tasted the bitters as well as the sweets of love – with this difference only, that you always prepared the bitter cup for yourself, while I –
LYDIA: – Was always obliged to me for it, hey! Mr Modesty? – But come, no more of that – our unhappiness is now as unallayed as general.
JULIA: Then let us study to preserve it so: and while hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss, let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting. When hearts deserving happiness would unite their fortunes, virtue would crown them with an unfading garland of modest, hurtless flowers; but ill-judging passion will force the gaudier rose into the wreath, whose thorn offends them, when its leaves are dropped!

Lydia and Absolute are lively, joking, knowing; Julia comes off as sententious and sentimental. Of course, the speech can be played for laughs, but only at the expense of Julia’s character. At least it shows that she and Faulkland are suited to each other.

One other thing at the end of the play, once all the excitement of the duels is over, caught my eye: the sad state of Mrs Malaprop, whose disguise as Delia collapses and leaves Sir Lucius appalled that he had been tricked by a pseudonym into writing to Lydia’s mother and not to Lydia herself. Sir Anthony offers a bone of comfort when he tells her, “Come, Mrs Malaprop, don’t be cast down – you are in your bloom yet”, but all he gets in reply is Mrs Malaprop’s judgement that “men are all barbarians”. This brief interchange balances the sweetness of the play’s conclusion: Mrs Malaprop may have been ridiculous, but her deceptions were still very similar to those of Captain Absolute’s; the difference between the woman’s fate and the man’s leaves much to mull over at the play’s conclusion.

The Critic

Compared to my jottings on the pages of The Rivals (I’m an inveterate annotator, so much so I was involved in a project to annotate the internet), there are vast areas of The Critic unadorned with my scribble. In the first act, I only picked up a particular way Sheridan has of showing Dangle’s ineptitude. As Signor Pasticcio and his daughters sing to the critics Sneer and Dangle, a stage direction informs us that Dangle is “beating out of time”. This doesn’t stop him exclaiming in pigeon-Italian, “Bravo! admirable! bravissimo! admirablissimo!” at the song’s conclusion.

Apart from this brief moment of brilliance, things only really warmed up in this short, three-act play, when the writer Puff comes on stage. He launches into an anatomy of ‘puffs’ (i.e. publicity):


Perhaps I liked this send-up of the eighteenth-century press because it reminded me of a passage from a Shakespeare play almost certainly known to Sheridan, As You Like It:

TOUCHSTONE: O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have books for good manners: I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheque Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If.

I guess Sheridan liked this device too, as he also uses it in The Rivals, when the hapless suitor Acres gives a theory of swearing:

[…] a commander in our militia – a great scholar, I assure you -says that there is no meaning in the common oaths, and that nothing but their antiquity makes them respectable; becasue, he says the ancient would ever stick to an oath or two, but would say by Jove! or by Bacchus! or by Mars! or by Venus! or by Pallas! according to the sentiment – so that to swear with propriety, says my little major, the ‘oath should be an echo to the sense’; and this we call the oath referential, or sentimental swearing.

Leaving this inspired mix of Pope, Shakespeare and an oaf behind us, but returning to Puff, I have to admit that this character is also responsible for much of the charm of the third and final act of The Critic. As Sneer and Dangle watch Puff’s bombastic tragedy, the writer keeps up a running commentary, containing such gems as the explanation that “by that shake of the head, he [the actor playing Burleigh] gave you to understand that even though they had more justice in their cause and wisdom in their measures […] the country would at last fall a sacrifice to the hostile ambition of the Spanish monarchy”. The very last lines of the play are also Puff’s, and make for a kind of reverse epilogue, in that – instead of appealing for the audience’s approbation of a finished play – they inform the public, through Sneer and Dangle, that the same play will appear again tomorrow in order to improve it. That this is one of the best lines of the entire work perhaps explains why I found it lacking.

Well, pretty well, – but not quite perfect – so ladies and gentlemen, if you pleae, we’ll rehearse this piece again tomorrow.

The School for Scandal

Miss Chester as Lady Teazle, 1828.

This play has the best prologue of all three in this edition, not least because it endearingly lays out the weaknesses of the work, namely that the “devil” of scandal “is sooner raised than laid”. Despite that, the author promises, as “young Don Quixote” to seek the “hydra” scandal, and, in a well-turned couplet, “fight – that’s write – cavalliero true, / Till every drop of blood – that’s ink – is spilt for you.” After this, the action begins in the house of Lady Sneerwell, to which – sooner or later – almost every character repairs in this course of the first scene. This makes for an efficient, if heavy-handed, exposition. Sheridan manages suspicion of artifice by having Maria despair that Crabtree and Backbite have followed her to Lady Sneerwell’s, an exclamation that transforms our awareness of the need to show all the characters into sympathy for Maria’s feelings of entrapment.

There’s a lot to say about The School for Scandal, so I’ll focus here on one particular thread. As with The Rivals, this is a play about deception, but, at the same time, Sheridan seems keen to show how beneficial illusion might be. I’ll quote three examples. The returning Sir Oliver (like Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure – sorry, can’t help myself) puts himself in disguise to see how his wards, Charles and Joseph Surface, are getting on. Yet even before he meets Charles, he discovers that the very process of transforming into a moneylender reveals the baseness of his mentor, the usurer Moses, who counsels Sir Oliver unscrupulously to “ask double” interest on any loan he makes.

My second example comes from the famous farce in Act Four, when Joseph, enjoying an intimate meeting with Lady Teazle is interrupted first by Sir Peter Teazle and then by Charles Surface. With each new arrival, Joseph manages to hide the previous occupant somewhere in the room, until – inevitably – the entire deception collapses. Sheridan times this to perfection, and has Lady Teazle (who, since she was hidden the longest, has overheard the most) exclaim that she now sees straight through the duplicitous Joseph, since his “own arts have furnished her with the means.”

My final example of this strange phenomenon is Sir Oliver’s meeting with Joseph at the start of the fifth act. Sir Oliver is now disguised as Mr Stanley, a man down on his luck. Joseph fobs his requests off with a pack of lies, yet this deceit, since it is being deployed in the face of Sir Oliver’s own deception of Joseph, is turned to good: Sir Oliver is convinced of Joseph’s perfidity and Charles’ character is saved. Two falsehoods make a right.

This pattern, whereby one character’s deceptions lead to a larger revelation when confronted with a different kind of illusion, sits oddly with the play’s mockery of scandal, which is of course itself a kind of falsehood. There may be a larger point to make here about the correct and incorrect uses of falsity (given that Sir Oliver’s tricks are always moral, while few of the antics of others are), but Sheridan is wise enough to see the potential for comedy in those moments where illusion and misinformation are exposed. As rumours swirl of a gunfight, and the maiming of Sir Peter Teazle (not to mention policeman killed by a ricochet), who comes on stage but Sir Peter, “walking as if nothing at all was the matter.”

I’ll conclude this long post on Sheridan’s plays here, for – even more so than the way The School for Scandal neatly comes full circle to finish with Snake and Lady Sneerwell – the skill with which the simple entry of Sir Peter back onto the stage, with nothing at all wrong or unusual about him, has been made into such a great comic moment offers a strong argument for these plays still to be read today.

The Play’s the Thing

The first Covent Garden theatre (1728-1808), drawn for The London Microcosm shortly before it burnt down on 20th September 1808.
It’s been pointed out to me that I don’t read enough fiction nowadays. This is a fair point: a lot of recent work has been on acting manuals, editorial debates, press cuttings, pamphlets and so on. To remedy this, but also t improve my understanding of the eighteenth-century theatre, I decided to read more plays from the period. I started by rereading some Sheridan (post forthcoming), but soon decided on something more structured: to read all the plays put on in London in one theatre season.

I chose the 1753-4 season for this purpose. Not only were performances at this time helping John Hill to illustrate his new edition of The Actor, this season was also, to quote the editor of The London Stage, “one of the most ‘regular’ on record”. On top of this, 1753-4 also records the largest staff and the longest series of acting nights for Garrick since he had taken over the management of Drury Lane (in 1747), and contains the first performances of seven new plays there: Richard Glover’s Boadicia, Henry Crisp’s Virginia, William Whitehead’s Creusa Queen of Athens, Samuel Foote’s The Englishman in Paris, Henry Woodward’s Fortunatus, Theobald Cibber’s The Humorists and Catherine Clive’s The London Prentice. In contrast to this, Garrick’s rival manager, John Rich, only staged two new tragedies at Covent Garden: MacNamara Morgan’s Philoclea and Philip Francis’s Constantine.

I began with the intention of making a checklist of all the plays performed in the 1753-4 season. There were, however, too many, so I present here instead a list and a table, which all cover September and October 1753.

First, the list of plays I will be reading, in order:

  1. The Beggar’s Opera
  2. The Lying Valet
  3. The Provok’d Husband
  4. The Lover his own Rival
  5. The Miser
  6. The Anatomist
  7. The Mock Doctor
  8. As You Like It
  9. The Chaplet
  10. The Suspicious Husband
  11. The Contrivances
  12. The Non-Juror
  13. The Devil to Pay
  14. Damon and Phillida
  15. The Revenge
  16. The Tragical History of Richard III
  17. The Careless Husband
  18. The Provok’d Wife
  19. The Busy Body
  20. The Shepherd’s Lottery
  21. The Funeral
  22. The What d’ye Call It
  23. Richard III
  24. Scapin
  25. She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not
  26. Much Ado about Nothing
  27. The Committee
  28. The Stratagem
  29. The Double Gallant
  30. The Orphan
  31. The Way of the World
  32. The King and the Miller of Mansfield
  33. Macbeth
  34. The Intriguing Chambermaid
  35. Romeo and Juliet
  36. Harlequin Sorcerer
  37. The Old Batchelor
  38. King Henry VIII
  39. The Funeral
  40. The Recruiting Officer
  41. Harlequin Ranger
  42. Oroonoko
  43. The Conscious Lovers
  44. The Country Lasses
  45. The Suspicious Husband
  46. A Duke and No Duke
  47. Othello, the Moor of Venice
  48. Hamlet
  49. The Lottery
  50. Queen Mab
  51. The Englishman in Paris
  52. Merope
  53. Lethe
  54. Venice Preserv’d
  55. The Fair Penitent

Second, a table to show what was performed where during September and October 1753-4. Also included are a few plays put on at Southwark Fair.

Date Theatre Main Piece Afterpiece

September 1753

Saturday 8th Drury Lane (DL) The Beggar’s Opera The Lying Valet
Monday 10th Covent Garden (CG) The Provok’d Husband The Lover his own Rival
Tuesday 11th DL The Miser The Anatomist
Wednesday 12th CG The Beggar’s Opera The Mock Doctor
Thursday 13th DL As You Like It The Chaplet
Friday 14th CG The Suspicious Husband The Contrivances
Saturday 15th DL The Non-Juror The Devil to Pay
Monday 17th CG The Miser Damon and Phillida
Tuesday 18th DL The Revenge The Lying Valet
Tuesday 18th Southwark Fair (SF) The Royal Slave The Witch of Endor
Tuesday 18th SF The Sham Physician The Distress’d Sailor
Wednesday 19th CG The Miser The Contrivances
Wednesday 19th SF The Sham Physician The Distress’d Sailor
Thursday 20th DL The Careless Husband The Chaplet
Thursday 20th SF The Royal Slave The Witch of Endor
Thursday 20th SF The Sham Physician The Distress’d Sailor
Friday 21st CG The Tragical History of Richard III The Lover his own Rival
Friday 21st SF The Sham Physician The Distress’d Sailor
Saturday 22nd DL The Busy Body The Shepherd’s Lottery
Saturday 22nd SF The Royal Slave The Witch of Endor
Monday 24th CG The Provok’d Wife The Devil to Pay
Monday 24th SF The Royal Slave The Witch of Endor
Tuesday 25th DL King Richard III Scapin
Wednesday 26th CG The Funeral The What d’ye Call It
Thursday 27th DL Much Ado About Nothing The Anatomist
Thursday 27th SF King Richard III The Old Witch of Endor or, Harlequin Turn’d Beau
Friday 28th CG The Funeral The Contrivances
Saturday 29th DL The Stratagem Scapin

October 1753

Monday 1st CG She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not The Lover his own Rival
Tuesday 2nd DL The Orphan The Chaplet
Wednesday 3rd DL Macbeth The Intriguing Chambermaid
Wednesday 3rd CG The Committee The What d’ye Call It
Thursday 4th DL Romeo and Juliet The Lying Valet
Friday 5th DL Romeo and Juliet The Shepherd’s Lottery
Friday 5th CG The Double Gallant The King and Miller of Mansfield
Saturday 6th DL King Henry VIII Scapin
Monday 8th CG The Way of the World The King and the Miller of Mansfield
Tuesday 9th DL The Recruiting Officer Harlequin Ranger
Wednesday 10th DL Oroonoko Harlequin Ranger
Wednesday 10th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Thursday 11th DL King Henry VIII The Chaplet
Thursday 11th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Friday 12th DL The Conscious Lovers Harlequin Ranger
Friday 12th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Saturday 13th DL The Suspicious Husband A Duke and no Duke
Saturday 13th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Monday 15th DL The Orphan Harlequin Ranger
Monday 15th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Tuesday 16th DL Hamlet The Anatomist
Tuesday 16th CG The Miser Harlequin Sorcerer
Wednesday 17th DL The Careless Husband Queen Mab
Wednesday 17th CG The Old Batchelor Harlequin Sorcerer
Thursday 18th DL The Way of the World Queen Mab
Thursday 18th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Friday 19th DL Romeo and Juliet Queen Mab
Friday 19th CG The Funeral Harlequin Sorcerer
Saturday 20th DL The Provok’d Husband The Englishman in Paris
Saturday 20th CG Beggar’s Opera The King and the Miller of Mansfield
Monday 22nd DL The Revenge The Englishman in Paris
Monday 22nd CG As You Like It Harlequin Sorcerer
Tuesday 23rd DL Merope Lethe
Tuesday 23rd CG Romeo and Juliet  
Wednesday 24th DL The Old Batchelor The Englishman in Paris
Wednesday 24th CG The Country Lasses Harlequin Sorcerer
Thursday 25th DL Venice Preserv’d The Devil to Pay
Thursday 25th CG Romeo and Juliet  
Friday 26th DL King Richard III Queen Mab
Friday 26th CG The Provok’d Wife Harlequin Sorcerer
Saturday 27th DL The Old Batchelor The Englishman in Paris
Saturday 27th CG Othello the Moor of Venice Harlequin Sorcerer
Monday 29th DL Venice Preserv’d The Lottery
Monday 29th CG The Committee Harlequin Sorcerer
Tuesday 30th DL The Old Batchelor The Englishman in Paris
Tuesday 30th CG Hamlet The Lottery
Wednesday 31st DL The Fair Penitent The Rehearsal
Wednesday 31st CG The Recruiting Officer Harlequin Sorcerer

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

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.


Yale in 1786.

I just found out that I’ve been awarded a John O’Neill bursary to cover (some of) the costs of attending the Northeastern American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference in Yale next month. I’ll be speaking as part of a panel marking the tricentenary of Diderot’s birth, with my chosen topic as Diderot and Shakespeare, offering an improved version of some work already done in my first year.

Whilst in New Haven, I’m also going to try and meet Professor Joseph Roach, whose Player’s Passion book has been a big influence on me. By staying a few days after the end of the conference, I’ll be able to have a snoop in the Beinecke too, which holds a pamphlet of particular interest to me, given recent work on the Pope’s attitudes to actors:

A screengrab of the Beinecke's library catologue.
A screengrab of the Beinecke’s library catologue.

For the curious, here is a copy of my paper proposal. I’ll post responses to it after the event.

Diderot and the Unperformable Shakespeare

Between 1770 and 1820, the perceived relationship between stage and page changed radically. Throughout the career of David Garrick, his performances were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after the actor’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This paper will use Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien and a series of articles written by James Boswell for the London Magazine in 1770 as exemplars of new currents in eighteenth-century thought that seem to offer an explanation for this reversal.

Beginning with a brief overview of both French and English writing about performance in the period, I will then focus on Diderot’s Paradoxe to show its roots in a particularly cosmopolitan mix of ideas that grew up around and in spite of the Seven Years’ War. Not only did Garrick’s virtuoso displays provoke new thinking on both sides of the Channel, the work by Sticotti whose errors first prompted Diderot to write the Paradoxe was a re-translation of John Hill’s English reworking of Sainte-Albine’s Le comédien.

Although Lamb and Hazlitt are unlikely to have known Diderot’s Paradoxe, this paper studies the Frenchman’s work as a particularly vivid articulation of larger shifts in the way performance was theorised, shifts also found, albeit less clearly, in Boswell’s writing about actors. By arguing for the actor’s mental preparation for and control over his performance, these two writers, I suggest, open a path for the actor to become a model for thinking about all human activities. The price to pay for such appreciation of the actor’s pre-performance preparation is, however, the denigration of the status of performance itself. In this way, the thought of Diderot helps to bridge the gap between eighteenth-century and romantic attitudes to performance of Shakespeare