Monday, January 8, 2018

End of MLA

Yesterday was the final day of the Modern Language Association conference in New York. I was pleased to be able to present two papers at the conference, one on Charles Dickens and the actor William Charles Macready, and the other on George Bernard Shaw and the Italian playwright Luigi Antonelli.

There were many interesting talks given this year. Frances Ferguson, speaking at the "Romantics at Two Hundred" program arranged by the Keats-Shelley Association of America, spoke about William Hazlitt's criticism in 1818. Hazlitt criticized the poet James Thomson, though he credited him with being the most popular poet among his contemporaries. Thomson was dead by 1818, but his poem The Seasons remained popular. According to Hazlitt, Thomson could not enter into the minds of others, which made him a poor playwright. Thomson's Tragedy of Sophonisba, which opened the same year as George Lillo's The London Merchant, is largely forgotten today.

Speaking of The London Merchant, Laura Rosenthal on Saturday gave a really interesting paper on Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton ghosting 18th-century tragedy. She drew parallels between Hamilton and The London Merchant, which both have scrappy protagonists trying to rise up in the world. In both plays, the protagonist is the victim of a set-up in which a conniving woman gets him to have sex with her, and he then has this event used to get money out of him. In Lillo's play, the protagonist tries to confess his sin to his master, but since Hamilton does not have a master, Rosenthal said, he confesses to the public. Ultimately, she said, Hamilton is sad, but not tragic, because the institutions Hamilton created endure, even as he dies ignobly.

Later on Saturday, Heidi Holder gave a wonderful paper about the popular Newgate drama Jack Shepherd. Shepherd was a real criminal who in the 18th century was arrested for burglary, but managed to escape from prison four times, sometimes with the help of female accomplices. Daniel Defoe wrote an account of Shepherd's life, and in the 19th century W.T. Moncrieff wrote a melodrama about him. William Ainsworth wrote a novel about Shepherd in 1839, which became the basis for numerous other plays, including one by John Baldwin Buckstone, which featured scenery by William Telbin in its original production. Eventually, authorities became concerned that these plays were encouraging crime, and in 1848 the government passed a formal ban on Jack Shepherd plays.

Sunday was the Shaw session I was a a part of, which also included Virginia Costello talking about Shaw and Emma Goldman, Martin Meisel talking about Shaw and Sean O'Casey, and Ellen Dolgin talking about Shaw and J.M. Barrie. It was an honor to join them!

Next year, the MLA conference will be in Chicago. We'll see if they can top the amount of snow we had at the conference this year!