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Teaching Romanticism XXV: Drama, part 1


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.

Dana Van Kooy (Michigan Technological University): Introduction

Teaching Romanticism has always posed its challenges, and as Romanticism expands in unprecedented ways, its elasticity—as a historic period and an aesthetic movement—has given way to a plurality of Romanticisms, which continue to proliferate in exciting and unanticipated ways. As the many recent edited collections and monographs about Romanticism make clear, the twentieth-century conception of Romanticism has been unmoored from its weak foundation that focused on six male poets, and the generic forms of lyric and romance. When Romanticism is brought into conjunction with drama, performance, and the theatre, the possibilities for alternative pedagogical practices as well as new questions for research and scholarship multiply exponentially.

Historically, theatre and drama, Fred Burwick writes, have been “swayed by the currents of social and political change affecting the theatre-going public. In the Romantic period the theatre audience grew more rapidly than at any previous period in British history.”[1] Observations like this have prompted some of the most resonant portraits of the period’s drama and theatre that we have. Much of the most recent work in this area has challenged both the traditional historiography that privileged the page over the stage as well as the cultural relevance of “high” forms of tragedy and comedy over the “low” forms of melodrama, pantomime and other “illegitimate” dramatic performances.[2] As the study of Romantic-period drama continues to evolve, scholars focus on performance history and the performative (re-)construction of personal, gendered, racialized, and national identities.[3] Other scholars have concentrated the materiality of performance, including its music and scenography, as well as the architectural and construction expertise required to build scale models of ships, to reinforce the stage floor for trampling horses and elephants, or to divert the Thames into a holding tank where famous sea battles were staged.[4] Media studies, celebrity and authorship, mass culture, censorship, and the politics of Britain’s Patent system of theatres have also driven recent studies of Romantic-era theatre and drama. With these complex matrices in play, the horizon for classroom discussion is increasingly expansive, spanning from the local and the material to the global and the ideological.

As Gillian Russell notes in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830, the

theatre existed in close proximity, literally, ideologically and in terms of textual production, with other spheres of Georgian public life in which politics dominated, particularly the newspaper and periodical press and print culture in general. [It also functioned as] a kind of Grand Central Station of […] cultural and social networks, a place of meeting for individuals but also of ranks, circles and genders.[5]

The crucial significance of theatre in this period cannot be overstated, and yet, it often proves difficult to convey succinctly to students the many levels of its intersectionality. Russell’s description of the theatre as “a kind of Grand Central Station” helps us picture the vital role played by theatres, which linked commercial interests with political concerns. As several of these essays demonstrate, performance and print culture were integrated in dynamic and complex ways: from Blake’s composite art forms and commercial playbills to theatrical adaptations of popular stories in periodicals and novels. Moreover, Daniel O’Quinn has argued that theatres in the period staged governance[6] and played a significant part in structuring the emergent forms of national, colonial, and imperial governance. Theatres were volatile cultural spaces, and the government exerted control over performances through its patent system, which granted government-patented theatres (Theatres Royal) a monopoly to perform legitimate or spoken-word dramas. While this system privileged theatres like Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket in London, it also subjected these performance scripts to pre-performance censorship. All other theatres—by far the majority—were rendered venues for illegitimate performances: circus acts, musicals, and pantomime, for example. Finally, as an assemblage of people who were working as managers, actors, writers, scene painters, and musicians, theatres linked provincial and metropolitan populations throughout Britain to a variety of cultural media and commercial enterprises that constituted what can be viewed effectively as a global network of performance sites.

Given this inherent level of complexity, how do we make the politics, the history, and culture of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century drama and theatre relevant to undergraduate and graduate students in the twenty-first century? For our students, what is exciting about “the dynamic web of performance sites,”[7] which link and interface various geographical sites and diverse populations, around the world? How can we demonstrate the parallels between the historical past and the present in ways that are pertinent to students? Or foster in our students ways of thinking and working that are cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary? This special volume of Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780-1840 brings together seven essays, all of which offer compelling approaches to thinking about and teaching Romantic-period drama.

Diane Piccitto’s opening essay, “Teaching Blake’s Illuminated Books Performatively, or How to Do (Dramatic) Things with Blake,” offers readers a compelling conception of Romantic-period drama and its myriad forms of hybrid performances. Piccitto invites us to explore the possibilities for teaching Blake’s Illuminated Books as dramatic and performative texts and recounts some of her classroom experiences of teaching Blake in drama-oriented courses. Citing Austin’s foreclosure of drama and the theatre in his early remarks on performativity and then turning to Judith Butler’s more comprehensive theory of performativity, Piccitto transitions to a discussion of Blake’s poetry.  As Piccitto notes, her purpose in this essay is to “examine the pedagogic potential for teaching the dramatic nature of the Illuminated Book, a composite art form that Blake employed for much of his poetic output, through the lens of performativity.” Through her detailed analysis of specific plates and her comparison of the extant copies of Urizen, Piccitto makes a compelling case for interpreting Blake’s poem as the staging of a theatrical spectacle that has the potential to open “our senses fully to the spectacle” of life.

Piccito’s essay and Deven M. Parker’s “Speaking through Spectacle: What Beyoncé Can Teach Us About Romantic Drama” highlight the language of visual spectacle in Romantic-period performance. Parker pursues the question of how to teach popular “illegitimate” productions—melodramas and pantomimes—for which we may have texts and/or librettos for the songs, but very few means of conveying the staged interplay of audial and visual spectacles to students. Emphasizing the continued cultural influence of the period’s theatrical performances on the modern entertainment industry, Parker underscores these cultural parallels for students through the unconventional pairing of Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade (2016) with, among other plays, Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802), Coleridge’s Remorse (1813), and Charles Farley’s Harlequin and Friar Bacon (1820). As Parker points out, traditional classes about Romantic drama often assign published plays, many of which were never performed. If we restrict our teaching to spoken-word drama and/or legitimate, patent-house performances, we ignore the period’s most commercially successful theatre and miss an opportunity to “harness our students’ literacy in visual media to teach them to read Romantic plays.” Lemonade, Parker demonstrates, “primes students for the media landscape of Romantic drama” by providing them with familiar material, which, as they discover, shares many characteristics in its production and its content with pantomime and melodrama.

Franca Dellarosa provides another striking approach to teaching students about illegitimate theatre in “Teaching the Illegitimate: A London Street Scene and Other Stratagems.” Taking inspiration from Jane Moody’s groundbreaking work in Illegitimate Theatre in London (2000), Dellarosa directs attention to John Orlando Parry’s watercolor painting, A London Street Scene; or, The Poster Man (1835). Dellarosa identifies this painting as “a hyperrealist picture of London’s early nineteenth-century theatrical life, and a repository of illegitimate culture,” noting that “it offers an important historical and imaginative underpinning for students to visualize” the vibrant landscape of  “illegitimate culture” that evolved around and in response to London’s theatres. Dellarosa’s close reading of Parry’s painting foregrounds the spillover of theatrical culture into the street, the exhibition hall, and, by extension, into private collections of paintings, which featured prominent actors in their most celebrated roles. This essay represents the type of classroom discussion that develops more fully our student’s capacities for critical thinking in rewarding and relevant ways. When teaching literature courses about drama, it is sometimes difficult to slow down and focus on paintings, playbills, and sound recordings, but these material artifacts highlight the innovative and cross-cultural nature of theatrical productions that made illegitimate performances so popular in the Romantic period. Piccitto’s, Parker’s, and Dellarosa’s contributions recognize and illustrate the discursive and cultural entanglements of  “high” and “low” culture in the period’s theatres. Parry’s painting, like the nightly playbills posted outside theatres, illustrates the generic fluidity and the frequent interplay of legitimate and illegitimate theatrical forms. This lattice-work of performances linked pantomime, melodrama, tragedy, comedy, burletta, and dance into a cultural continuum of theatrical production.

Elisa Beshero-Bondar’s “Mary Mitford’s Troubles with William Macready and the Vexed Catastrophes of Romantic Tragedy” makes clear how undergraduate and graduate students can benefit from the increasing number of fascinating digital projects. The Digital Mitford collates materials—letters, multiple versions of dramatic texts and other cultural artifacts—and will soon bring online a dramatic module. This project makes more visible the interconnected and complex human relationships that evolved between actors and writers, which, in turn, problematizes students’ assumptions about authorial genius and an author’s individuality. Beshero-Bondar’s essay also draws attention to the interpersonal and financial complexities of writing for the theatre in this period. Mary Mitford, like other dramatists, was encouraged initially to write for the theatre by watching an inspiring performance of one of the period’s celebrity actors, in this case, William Macready. But, as Beshero-Bondar makes clear, writers were also driven by financial necessity. Moreover, performance manuscripts like Mitford’s were collaborative efforts, involving friends, actors, and managers, all of whom could and did make substantial changes, often altering the conception of a character, a scene, or the entire composition. Textual revisions, as Beshero-Bondar makes clear, were extensive and motivated by commercial interests as well as interpersonal power dynamics within the theatre. Mitford, Beshero-Bondar reminds us, devoted “considerable energy to mollifying the competitive actor-managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden in order to achieve her status as a leading tragedian of the 1820s.” Mitford’s experiences reflect those of many female playwrights in the period and help students recognize the significant role played by women in the theatres as professional playwrights, performers, and celebrities.

Wendy Nielsen explores the challenges and the possibilities of teaching both parts of Goethe’s Faust (1808-32). Finding a good translation is a concern when teaching Faust, and Nielsen provides pragmatic information about available texts. Today’s students are less familiar with either the story or the character of Faust, and yet, it remains culturally relevant. Like many popular stories, Faust has been adapted into tragedy, puppet shows, opera, and the novel. From Marlowe’s tragedy to Thomas Mann’s novel, Faust has been characterized consistently as a “restless hero” on a “demented quest.” As Nielsen points out, Goethe’s Faust influenced “Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic” and played a critical role in nineteenth-century literary criticism. A leading figure in the late eighteenth-century Sturm und Drang movement, which is characterized by it emotional tension and its rejection of neoclassical forms, Goethe inspired many of the British Romantics. Byron’s problematic heroic figures, particularly Manfred and Don Juan, and both Mary Shelley’s and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Promethean characters in Frankenstein and Prometheus Unbound are related to Faust. Nielson’s essay also highlights the issue of gender and how Goethe’s Faust problematizes the tradition of bourgeois tragedy.

The final two essays in this collection demonstrate the importance of drama and theatrical performances in shaping and subverting Britain’s imperial fantasies. In “Teaching Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro and the Politics of Mediation,” Juan Sanchez presents readers with a “case study for exploring the politics of staging colonial history.” Sanchez begins with an astute overview of recent criticism about Sheridan’s Pizarro (1798). Much of the criticism about the play has focused on how it reflects Britain’s anxieties about its imperial expansion in the East, especially in the aftermath of Warren Hastings impeachment trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors” committed in India. This framework, as Sanchez observes, disregards the Spanish contexts of the play as well as the continued “Anglo-Spanish rivalry in the Americans throughout the eighteenth century.” Like Deven Parker, Sanchez utilizes the contemporary art forms with which students are more familiar to introduce them to the complex visual spectacles produced by Sheridan. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) are, Sanchez argues, examples of films that rely on emotional rhetoric associated with revenge and sacrifice. These films offer students a means of comprehending “Sheridan’s dramatization of Spanish colonial violence against the Peruvians in the fifteenth century” and demonstrate how this play can both censure imperial expansion in the East while encouraging and redirecting British imperial desires towards the West.

Dana Van Kooy’s concluding essay, “Teaching George Colman the Younger’s Inkle and Yarico: Theatrical Adaptation and the Changing Cultural Landscape of the New World,” brings this exploration of  teaching Romantic-period drama to a close with a discussion of George Colman the Younger’s theatrical adaptation of Richard Steele’s story of “Inkle and Yarico.” Van Kooy emphasizes the historical and aesthetic relevance of adaptation in Romantic-period drama and how Colman capitalized on Steele’s popular story. As Van Kooy observes, classroom  discussions of Steele’s short story in conjunction with Colman’s adaptation can help “students more fully trace the early modern cross-cultural exchanges that structure Romantic-period drama: the historical interplay between the page and the stage; the relevance of theatrical spectacles in portraying racialized, class, and gender differences; and the performativity or emplotment of misogyny and racism into the variant spaces of cultural production.”

Collectively, the essays in this special edition of Romantic Textualities are thought-provoking and inspiring. Each maintains the cultural relevance of the drama and the theatre to our evolving definitions of Romanticism by representing the many points of intersection between our research and what we teach. These essays model innovative classroom discussions and practices while providing suggestions for course materials that will help readers supplement their own pedagogical and scholarly practices. In addition to highlighting the skills and benefits of close reading, analytical thinking, and reflection, these essays consider how to expand our students’ conception of the disciplinary and historical boundaries of Romanticism. Moreover, they prompt us collectively to rethink the possibilities for critical pedagogies and a public humanities that reaches from inside the concrete walls of the classroom and the university out into our students’ lives and the larger communities in which we all live.



Altick, Richard. The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1978.

Baugh, Christopher. “Scenography and Technology.” In The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830.  Eds. Jane Moody and Daniel O’Quinn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 43-56.

Bolton, Betsy. Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Burroughs, Catherine B., ed. Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1842. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Burwick, Frederick. “The Romantic Drama.” In A Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 323-332.

Cox, Jeffrey N., ed. Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation. Vol. V Drama. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

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

— and Daniel O’Quinn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to British theatre, 1730-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

O’Quinn, Daniel. Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

—. Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Russell, Gillian. The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793-1815. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

—. “Theatrical Culture.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830. Ed., Thomas Keymer and John Mee . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Swindells, Julia and David Francis Taylor, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Valladares, Susan. Staging the Peninsular War: English Theatres 1807-1815. New York: Routledge, 2015.



[1] Frederick, Burwick, “The Romantic Drama” in Duncan Wu (ed), A Companion to Romanticism (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 323.

[2] Jane Moody’s groundbreaking Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) remains one of the most relevant accounts of London’s theatres as a vibrant and complex cultural institution.

[3] Jeff Cox, ed. Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, Vol. V Drama (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999), Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Daniel O’Quinn’s Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011),

[4] For example, Richard Altick’s The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1978); Christopher Baugh’s “Scenography and Technology,” in Jane Moody and Daniel O’Quinn (eds) The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 43-56; Betsy Bolton’s Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Catherine Burroughs’s edited collection, Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790-1842 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Daniel O’Quinn’s Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Gillian Russell’s The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793-1815 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

[5] Gillian Russell, “Theatrical Culture,” in Thomas Keymer and John Mee (eds), The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 110.

[6] I am referring to O’Quinn’s book, Staging Governance.

[7] David Francis Taylor, “Introduction,” in Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor (eds), The Oxford Handbook of The Georgian Theatre, 1737-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.

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