Thursday, June 23, 2016

British Romanticism

British Romantic writers were frequently inspired by what their colleagues were doing in Germany, but they also created their own version of Romanticism.

The watershed moment for the Romantic movement in Britain was William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge publishing their joint poetry collection Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Before publishing Lyrical Ballads, however, both Wordsworth and Coleridge read German writers of the Storm and Stress movement, and incidentally enough, both wrote their own plays, hoping to have them produced in London.

After being rejected by Covent Garden, Wordsworth seems to have ceased to have ambitions for the stage, not publishing his drama The Borderers until 1842. Coleridge, on the other hand, clung to his play Osorio, recycling two passages from it to provide the poems "The Foster-Mother's Tale" and "The Dungeon" in Lyrical Ballads. Later, he rewrote the play as Remorse, getting it finally staged at Drury Lane in 1813.

For both Englishmen and observers on the European continent, the soul of British Romanticism was expressed in one extraordinary person, George Gordon, known as Lord Byron. Byron was instrumental in getting Remorse staged at Drury Lane, and he undoubtedly influenced Charles Robert Maturin's tragedy Bertram, which features a dark, brooding hero-villain, perhaps modeled after Byron himself.

A month before Bertram's premiere in 1816, however, Byron had left England, never to return. After the break-up of his marriage (which unfortunately occurred not long after the wedding) Byron was dogged by scandals about his sex life, including his probable incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. To avoid the scandal, Byron fled to Switzerland, where he proposed the famous ghost story contest that led to the creation of both Frankenstein and the first literary vampire tale in English, The Vampyre.

In Byron's drama Manfred, published in 1817 but not performed until after the author's death, the title character exclaims: "My Spirit walked not with the souls of men, / Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes." This super-human attitude came to be ascribed to Byron himself. Byron, in turn, admired the acting of the English tragedian Edmund Kean, and likely had him in mind when he wrote the role of Manfred.

Indeed Byron was the most theatrical of all the British Romantics. Though only one play of his (a rather minor work called Marino Faliero) was performed during Byron's brief lifetime, his entire life was a piece of theatre, watched breathlessly by all of British and European society.

After leaving Switzerland, Byron traveled south to Italy, where in addition to writing Marino Faliero, he composed a trio of important dramas published in 1821, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain. The young English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley followed Byron from Switzerland to Italy, where he composed his own drama The Cenci, about the fall of a powerful Roman family during the Renaissance. Though the play was not performed until the end of the nineteenth century, The Cenci influenced later theatre and came to be considered the greatest Romantic tragedy in English.

Sadly, the most talented playwrights of the era did not feel comfortable remaining in England, largely due to crackdowns on political dissent in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Shelley drowned while sailing off the coast of Italy, and Byron went to help the Greeks obtain independence from the Ottoman Empire. Instead, he died of disease in Missolonghi in western Greece on April 19, 1824.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes represents the final stage of Romanticism in Britain. While still a precocious teenager at Pembroke College, Oxford, Beddoes published The Bride's Tragedy, a verse drama that garnered favorable reviews, but no productions. Beddoes left England for Germany in 1825 in order to study anatomy, and it was there that he wrote his masterpiece Death's Jest-Book.

The play pays homage to Jacobean revenge tragedies, but with absurd twists and morbid devices that go beyond anything in the work of Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton, or John Webster. However, Beddoes's uncompromising portrayal of characters descending into death and madness has led some critics to consider it one of the first major responses to English Romanticism, anticipating the modernist movements to come. Sadly, Beddoes committed suicide in 1849, and the play was not published until after his death.