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Teaching Romanticism XXVII: Drama, part 3

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This eight-part issue was edited by Dana Van Kooy.


Deven M. Parker (University of Colorado at Boulder): Speaking through Spectacle: What Beyoncé Can Teach Us About Romantic Drama

Abstract: This essay argues that we can harness our students’ literacy in popular visual media to teach them to read Romantic plays, especially those popular “illegitimate” productions that substitute visual signifiers for spoken dialogue. Proceeding from the assumption that visual spectacles open the door to cultural analysis, I pair Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016)—the example par excellence of a popular visual narrative—with a sampling of both high and low Romantic plays, including Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remorse (1813). Analyzing Beyoncé’s visual album gives students a critical framework to interpret the interplay of visual signs and language in Romantic drama, an unconventional pairing that also invites them to reflect on the relationships between intermingled visual and verbal media. The difficulty of teaching Romantic-period drama is that we experience its visual effects only through the mediating lens of print, which necessarily affects how we interpret its narratives of visual performance. In contrast, Lemonade’s incisive cultural critique more fully displays its enmeshing of cinematic and musical elements.

 

The London theater scene in the Romantic period anticipated our modern entertainment industry in a number of ways, from highly-publicized sex scandals—like the affair between actress Dorothea Jordan and the Duke of Clarence—to the unpredictability of the box office, as when Lord Byron’s highly anticipated Marino Faliero (1821) received a lukewarm reception from audiences and failed to turn a profit. Yet above all else, Romantic theater shaped an enduring taste for visual spectacle, exploiting the public’s desire for sensory stimulation by introducing onstage explosions, waterfalls, and thunderstorms that thrilled audiences long before CGI. Lest we forget, more than two hundred years before Disney gave us an unending slew of Pirates of the Caribbean sequels or a Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phillip Astley put horses on the stage of his Amphitheatre in 1803, and Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) installed a water tank at Sadler’s Wells for a live-action battle reenactment, The Siege of Gibraltar (1804). The legacy of the Romantic stage is, among other things, the visually-saturated entertainments of the present.

The parallels between these respective cultural industries are worth exploiting in our classrooms in order to spark interest in and to teach Romantic drama to undergraduates. Our undergraduates are perhaps uniquely positioned to appreciate the period’s theater because of the visual products they consume—movies and television—and the visual platforms—Instagram, Vine, Snapchat—they use to mediate their identities and construct narratives about themselves. I believe we can harness our students’ literacy in visual media to teach them to read Romantic plays, especially those popular “illegitimate” productions that substitute visual signifiers for spoken dialogue. Indeed, if we limit our teaching of the period’s theater to spoken drama, we neglect the bulk of what was happening on its stages. In the same way that critics like Jane Moody have shown us that pantomimes and melodramas are worth taking seriously because of the tremendous insights they provide about the culture that produced and consumed them, I believe there is value in putting these dramas on our syllabi and teaching our students to decipher their complex visual vocabularies, especially because they are already primed to analyze visual media.[1] Proceeding from the assumption that visual spectacles open the door to cultural analysis, I pair Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016)[2]—the example par excellence of a popular visual narrative—with a sampling of both high and low Romantic plays, including Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802), George Colman the Younger’s Quadrupeds of Quedlinburgh (1811), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Remorse (1813), Isaac Pocock’s The Miller and His Men (1813), and Charles Farley’s Harlequin and Friar Bacon (1820). I have found that analyzing Beyoncé’s visual album first gives students a critical framework to help them access and interpret the interplay of visual signs and language in Romantic drama. This unconventional pairing also invites students to reflect on the relationships between coexisting visual and verbal media. The difficulty of teaching Romantic-period drama is that we experience its visual effects only through the mediating lens of print, which necessarily affects how we interpret its narratives of visual performance. In contrast, Lemonade’s incisive cultural critique more fully displays its enmeshing of cinematic and musical elements.

Traditionally, we have taught the period’s closet dramas and published plays not intended for the theater without considering the visual dimensions of live performance. This raises the question of how to teach a species of drama that evades language. It is difficult to imagine how there might be a “print culture” of any value for teaching what Jeffrey Cox terms the “large stretches of nineteenth-century drama where action, sets, and music displace language.”[3] One option is simply to ignore this kind of drama that relies heavily on visual spectacle and music (melodrama and pantomime, for example) in favor of dramas that offer complete textual scripts, but we miss something even in these plays by neglecting the visual aspects of the stage. It is worth noting that even Coleridge’s Remorse, the most popular spoken-word drama of the nineteenth century, achieved its hold over audiences thanks in part to some impressive pyrotechnics in its third act. For this reason, it is important to put Remorse and other legitimate spoken dramas in conversation with pantomime, melodrama, and other kinds of drama that created the demand for visual spectacle and eventually found its way into Coleridge’s play. Teaching these heavily visual works necessitates using contextual materials like performance reviews, illustrations, and toy theater sheets to supplement the playtexts, and demonstrating to students how the visual aspects of performance, including special effects, serve as central communication media rather than accessories to language in these plays.

Enter Beyoncé. Thanks to her album’s unique intertwining of audial and visual media—which can also be experienced independently—Lemonade gives students the critical framework to more deeply appreciate the narrative power of visual effects, a framework—I have found—that helps them consider the unfolding visual narrative in Romantic drama. First, I ask them to listen to the complete album and to trace its lyrical narrative of romantic betrayal. The narrative moves from the speaker’s initial suspicion of infidelity (“Pray You Catch Me” and “Hold Up”) to realization and anger once the betrayal is revealed (“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sorry,” and “6 Inch”), to a blend of insecurity, resentment, and fear (“Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”), and finally to halting forgiveness, hope, and empowerment (“Forward” and “Formation”). Students then listen to the complete album again, this time with the accompanying movie, and track the story a second time. This time things are more complicated; what was initially a story of an individual’s experience of betrayal and healing is now a larger narrative about violence inflicted on black women and a call for this group to claim power and agency. Beyoncé is still at the story’s center, but her personal narrative is positioned as part of this larger one. When students are asked to write down the album’s narrative, they tend to begin with slavery in the American South—suggested by images of Spanish moss and black women dressed in what appears to be Civil War-era clothing—rather than romantic betrayal. Next, because the movie shows Beyoncé destroying city property with a baseball bat, many students read her destruction of property as revenge for the horrors of slavery (depicted in the previous scene). In contrast to the gradual feelings of hope and healing students noticed in the musical progression of the album, many found that the visual narrative offered no such resolution: juxtaposed with the track “Forward,” a song seemingly about moving ahead and seeking solace, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner stare into the camera while holding pictures of their murdered sons. While the visual album offers glimmers of hope—a home video of Jay-Z’s grandmother, Hattie White, speaking about inner strength—students found that its recurring images of slavery serve as a continual reminder of historical and contemporary violence. Its images undercut the narrative resolution of the music and offer a much darker alternative.

In her review of Lemonade, bell hooks deconstructs the album’s visual narrative, writing that it

offers viewers a visual extravaganza—a display of black female bodies that transgresses all boundaries. It’s all about the body, and the body as commodity […]. From slavery to the present day, black female bodies, clothed and unclothed, have been bought and sold. What makes this commodification different in Lemonade is intent; its purpose is to seduce, celebrate, and delight—to challenge the ongoing present day devaluation and dehumanization of the black female body.[4]

In revisiting the narrative of violence that began with slavery, the album’s journey visually rewrites that narrative, bypassing the white gaze with images that depict a “powerfully symbolic black female sisterhood that resists invisibility, that refuses to be silent.” The album uses visual excess to radically reimagine both the narrative of slavery that hooks identifies and the personal journey of the speaker contained in the lyrics. Like many current artists—including her husband, Jay-Z—Beyoncé uses music and video in equal measure to convey her album’s coexisting and sometimes contradictory narratives.

Analyzing Lemonade’s visual narrative primes students for the media landscape of Romantic drama, in which visual effects and music often outweigh or displace speech as narrative medium. Turning to the Romantic stage, my students begin by considering its historical and material contexts: specifically, the political and technological conditions that gave rise to popular genres like pantomime and melodrama, including the 1737 Theatre Licensing Act, which prohibited spoken drama in unlicensed theaters. The three Theatres Royal or patent theatres in London were Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and in the summer, the Haymarket. “Unlicensed” theaters popped up around the city and helped popularize many varieties of nonverbal drama, some of which, like the pantomime, would eventually find their ways into licensed theaters. The popularity of these productions motivated some theater owners like Richard Brinsley Sheridan, owner of Drury Lane after 1776, to expand the size of their theaters in order to increase audience numbers and to better accommodate elaborate scenic effects, like the life-size lake and stream that graced the stage for a production of Macbeth at Drury Lane in 1794. For audiences at the end of the eighteenth century, stage effects like explosions, dog tricks, and waterfalls were as much if not more of a motivating factor to buy tickets than the plays themselves. Yet, as in Lemonade, visual spectacle in these productions was not devoid of meaning, but rather served as an important narrative register.

With Lemonade’s visual semiotics in mind, students read a sampling of the period’s most popular melodramas, such as Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery and Pocock’s The Miller and His Men. Both feature relatively formulaic plots coupled with special effects, where most of the narrative legwork is achieved by the latter. Dialogue is clipped and sparse while the real fun happens in the stage directions, which, sometimes spanning multiple pages, help us to visualize the elaborate scenery and action. Reading A Tale of Mystery, students can consider how the scenic alpine landscape helps restore moral order and punish the villain, Count Romaldi. We analyze scenes like the outbreak of a storm at the beginning of act three: the moment Romaldi’s treacherous past comes to light, “(The distant thunder is heard, and the rising storm perceived.)” At this foreboding cue, we are transported to “The wild mountainous country called the Nant of Arpennaz; with pines and mossy rocks. A rude wooden bridge on a small height from rock to rock; a rugged mill stream a little in the back ground.” At the opening of the scene, “the increasing storm of lightning, thunder, hail and rain becomes terrible,” as though trying to drive Romaldi from his hiding place amid the rocks. The villain thus emerges “from the rocks, disguised like a peasant, with terror; pursued as it were by heaven and earth.” Romaldi recognizes the futility of trying to hide in a place where nature itself pursues him, asking, “Whither fly? Where shield me from pursuit, and death, and ignominy? […] (dreadful thunder) The heavens shoot their fires at me! Save! Spare! Oh spare me!” He perceives the storm as actively punishing him, targeting him with lightning. Where Lemonade’s visual narrative broadens the album’s lyrical narrative, visual effects in A Tale of Mystery perform an active role, helping to reassert moral order when it is threatened.

The Miller and His Men also demonstrates the narrative power of spectacle with the explosion of a real working mill. I ask students to think about the play’s setting and its visual effects, especially the exploding mill, as though it were a character in the narrative: what are its motivations and aims? Like the storm in A Tale of Mystery, the visual scenery of Pocock’s play actively intervenes in the plot rather than serving as backdrop. Students discuss the stage directions at the moment of the explosion and think about the meaning of the final tableau. The mill’s explosion divides the cast of characters on the basis of good and evil: “the mill is crowded with banditti,” while the innocent characters “form a group as the curtain descends.” The stage scenery physically separates Grindoff and his gang from the group of innocents, ensuring the former group’s demise while the latter are protected from the localized explosion. Students write about the play’s dependence on stage directions, scenery, and effects, which I ask them to read as part of the text proper rather than as supplements to the dialogue.

Following the students’ analyses of Lemonade and melodramas that feature visual effects as active agents, we turn to Coleridge’s Remorse, which takes as its theme the emotional and narrative force of visual spectacle. We discuss why it is so important to Alvar that his brother and would-be murderer, Ordonio, exhibit visible signs of remorse for his crimes. What did writers like Coleridge believe about the connection between outward signs of the body and emotion? This discussion paves the way for analysis of the play’s famous third act, in which Alvar, disguised as a sorcerer, performs a mock incantation over a flaming altar in order to produce an illuminated painting of Ordonio’s attempt to murder him, in the hopes that the performance will produce an involuntary display of remorse in the villain. We discuss how, in scene’s stage directions, the text attempts to remediate the visual experience of the live performance, describing the “soft music from an instrument of glass or steel” and “the incense on the altar takes fire suddenly, and an illuminated picture […] is discovered” (3.2.40-50). The visual trick is crucial to both the plot and the lived experience of the play: in remediating the moment, the print text preserves the visual life of Coleridge’s drama.

As this small sampling of popular plays demonstrates, much of the period’s most exciting creative work happened on its stages. I believe it’s worth trying to convey Romantic drama’s excitement and vivacity to our students in order to get them to think critically about the economic, political, and aesthetic forces that define popular taste and inform literature both then and now. With its larger-than-life spectacles, Romantic drama—especially illegitimate forms but also more conventional plays like Coleridge’s—spoke to the anxieties and experiences of an audience who lived through a climate of war and political unrest in which, for many, life felt like an unending spectacle. Contemporary life feels no different as we are bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle and saturated with a constant flood of information and images. College students in particular are entrenched in visual media that sometimes feels more “real” than lived experience. Works like Beyoncé’s Lemonade speak to us because they deploy visual excess in order to reflect on important political and cultural issues. Tapping into students’ interests in and experiences with powerful visual narratives helps me teach Romantic drama to those with little or no formal background in reading literature, and to highlight the form’s relevance for the present.

 

Bibliography

Cox, Jeffrey. “‘Illegitimate’ Pantomime in the ‘Legitimate’ Theater: Context as Text,” Studies in Romanticism 54.2 (Summer 2015): 159-186.

hooks, bell. “Moving Beyond Pain,” 9 May 2016 http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/blog/2016/5/9/moving-beyond-pain Accessed on 29 November 2017.

Knowles, Beyoncé. Lemonade. Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2016. Mp3 accessed 12 December 2017.

Moody, Jane. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

 

Notes

[1] See Jane Moody, Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[2] Knowles, Beyoncé. Lemonade. Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records, 2016. mp3 accessed 12 December 2017.

[3] Jeffrey Cox, “‘Illegitimate’ Pantomime in the ‘Legitimate’ Theater: Context as Text,” Studies in Romanticism 54.2 (Summer 2015): 160.

[4] bell hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain,” 9 May 2016 <http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/blog/2016/5/9/moving-beyond-pain> accessed on 29 November 2017.


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