Monday, September 30, 2019

Romanticism and Theatrical Experience

I recently read Jonathan Mulrooney's book Romanticism and Theatrical Experience. It provides an excellent analysis of the actor Edmund Kean, the critic William Hazlitt, and the poet and playwright John Keats. It also delves into how each of these three figures in turn influenced one another.

The first part of the book is divided into two sections, one on theater and the daily news, and another on Britain's theatrical press during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. As Mulrooney observes, the eighteenth century had always had people writing about the theater in periodicals, but it wasn't until the end of that century that audiences were able to read day after day the events that had just taken place in the playhouses at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

According to Mulrooney, the role of the reviewer shifted from being an advertiser to being an independent reporter. Reviews became longer and more substantial. A watershed moment came with the Old Price Riots, when audiences at Covent Garden disrupted performance night after night to protest an increase in ticket prices. After that, reviewers took to both giving their aesthetic judgments on plays and reporting how they saw audiences respond during the evening. Even people who were not there that night could then participate in the performances vicariously.

Mulrooney next details the different theatrical periodicals available in London from 1800 to 1830. The Theatrical Gazette, for instance, though it didn't last long, was able to give accounts of both Drury Lane and Covent Garden throughout the 1815-1816 season, focusing on alternating houses each night. Of more lasting importance was the Examiner, founded by Leigh and John Hunt. Mulrooney finds the Examiner to be "the most innovative periodical to publish theatrical criticism in the Romantic-period" because it represented theater "as a public experience equal to politics and commerce."

Perhaps no figure in Romanticism was as much a creature of the theatrical press as Edmund Kean, who created a sensation after he appeared at Drury Lane as Shylock in 1814. Mulrooney sees Kean as troubling class differences, since he came from and appealed to the working class. According to Mulrooney, he "embodied a kind of theatrical bad taste, a mobile, sexually ambiguous, working-class and even Cockney subject." Unlike the great John Philip Kemble, Kean avoided stately orations and statuesque gestures. Instead, his acting seemed natural, almost improvised. This made his performances best viewed from the pit, not the expensive boxes.

The same year Kean took to the stage at Drury Lane, Hazlitt began working as critic for both The Examiner and The Morning Chronicle. Mulrooney sees Hazlitt's writing as playing a role in the shift not just from the acting style of Kemble to that of Kean, but in "a fundamental change in the understanding of what a 'mental state' is, what a self is, and how that self is to be represented on stage." Hazlitt focused on cultural receptions to performances. Kean's class-defying performances in turn allowed him to write not just about theatre in the hallowed halls of the patent theaters, but also about jugglers, boxers, and other entertainers not generally covered in the press.

Kean influenced Keats, as well, as can be seen in his famous "negative capability" letter written in December of 1817. As Mulrooney notes, "the letter begins with Kean" and "represents a vital connection between Keats's theatrical experience and his poetry." Keats also wrote three substantial theater reviews in the Champion, covering for his friend John Hamilton Reynolds when he was out of town. Though some critics see Keats as a bit of a social climber, his championing of Kean firmly allies him with the working class.

Unfortunately, the list price for the book is almost $100, but that's what libraries are for, after all. If you get a chance, it's a compelling read for anyone interested in Romantic drama.