Character's Theater

Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Character's Theater
    Book Description:

    If the whole world acted the player, how did the player act the world? In Character's Theater, Lisa A. Freeman uses this question to test recent critical discussion of eighteenth-century literature and culture. Much current work, she observes, focuses on the concept of theatricality as both the governing metaphor of social life and a primary filter of psychic perception. Hume's "theater of the mind," Adam Smith's "impartial spectator," and Diderot's "tableaux" are all invoked by theorists to describe a process whereby the private individual comes to internalize theatrical logic and apprehend the self as other. To them theatricality is a critical mechanism of modern subjectivity but one that needs to be concealed if the subject's stability is to be maintained. Finding that much of this discussion about the "Age of the Spectator" has been conducted without reference to the play texts or actual theatrical practice, Freeman turns to drama and discovers a dynamic model of identity based on eighteenth-century conceptualizations of character. In contrast to the novel, which cultivated psychological tensions between private interiority and public show, dramatic characters in the eighteenth century experienced no private thoughts. The theater of the eighteenth century was not a theater of absorption but rather a theater of interaction, where what was monitored was not the depth of character, as in the novel, but the arc of a genre over the course of a series of discontinuous acts. In a genre-by-genre analysis of plays about plays, tragedy, comedies of manners, humours, and intrigue, and sentimental comedy, Freeman offers an interpretive account of eighteenth-century drama and its cultural work and demonstrates that by deploying an alternative model of identity, theater marked a site of resistance to the rise of the subject and to the ideological conformity enforced through that identity formation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0194-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: A Prologue
    (pp. 1-10)

    This book challenges at least two major premises of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies: first, that the study of eighteenth-century drama can contribute little to how we understand the literary forms and cultural contents of this period; and second, that the subject as figured in the novel emerged inevitably in the eighteenth century as the dominant discursive structure for modeling modern identities. In a genre by genre analysis, I argue not only that the stage functioned as a critical focal point in eighteenth-century cultural discourse, but that in deploying an alternative model of identity based on the concept of character,...

  4. Chapter One Staged Identities: It’s just a Question of Character
    (pp. 11-46)

    In Spectator No. 370, Richard Steele asserts the “certainty” of the slogan totus mundus agit histrionem—the whole world acts the player.¹ Underlining the apparently theatrical texture of eighteenth-century life, Steele charges: “Consider all the different Pursuits and Employments of Men, and you will find half their Actions tend to nothing else but Disguise and Imposture; and all that is done which proceeds not from a Man’s very self is the Action of a Player.” While Steele’s confident gesture echoes commonplace observations, it also marks his own willingness in this instance to gloss over some of the most troubling concerns...

  5. Chapter Two Plays About Plays: An “Abstract Chronicle”
    (pp. 47-86)

    In the opening scene of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (1779/1780), the lead character Dangle defends his addiction to theater and provides a justification for “affect[ing] the character of a critic” by arguing, “the stage is ‘the mirror of nature,’ and the actors are ‘the abstract, and brief chronicles of the time’ … pray what can a man of sense study better?”¹ Later, in the opening scene of the second act, Puff—a self-avowed “practitioner in panegyric”—declares, almost as if addressing Dangle’s prior claim, “No, no, sir; what Shakespeare says of actors may be better applied to the purpose...

  6. Chapter Three Tragedy’s Tragic Flaw: National Character and Feminine Unruliness
    (pp. 87-144)

    If eighteenth-century plays about plays held the line of defense against foreign invaders, then it was tragedy’s task to work the offense in an attempt to “liberate” the English nation. Plays about plays often made this point about the cultural work of this dramatic genre. Drawing an analogy between theater and nation, they figured successful tragedy as the antidote to both a faltering national stagecraft and an ailing national morality.¹ Indeed, they projected tragedy’s dignity and authority as an index for the nation’s strength and stability. The performance of tragedy was represented as a means to envision and to ensure...

  7. Chapter Four Constituting Parodies of Identity: Manners, Humours, and Intrigue on the Comic Stage
    (pp. 145-192)

    In this chapter, I turn to comedy as the genre most intimately associated with the representation of social relations. In contrast to tragedy, which, as demonstrated in the previous chapter, works toward the articulation of public virtue through the suppression of the private, we will see that eighteenth-century comedy works to investigate and expose the private social relations that made public life possible. Indeed, where eighteenth-century tragedies either pass over or subordinate the family to the imagined communities they project and publicize, we will see that comedies represent both the private negotiations among individuals and the public conditions that govern...

  8. Chapter Five Sentimental Comedy: Or, The Comedy of Good Breeding
    (pp. 193-234)

    While the last chapter explored what happened to comedies of manners, humours, and intrigue when comedy turned away from “Success in … Debauchery” as its primary end, this chapter will examine what happened to comedy when it forswore the ironic perspective that had dominated the comic tradition for so long.¹ For if sentimental comedies marked a departure on the English stage, it was a departure, as I shall contend, away from that ironic perspective and towards a rhetorical posture of sincerity. In this chapter, I want to explore what it meant for comedy to lay claim to sincerity in an...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 235-238)

    If there is an underlying premise that has guided the ideas of this book, it is that articulated by Victor Turner in the course of elucidating his theory of the relationship between performance and society:

    For me, the anthropology of performance is an essential part of the anthropology of experience. In a sense, every type of cultural performance … is explanation and explication of life itself…. [T]hrough the performance process … what is normally sealed up, inaccessible to everyday observation and reasoning, in the depth of sociocultural life, is drawn forth.¹

    Turner understands performance as an outlet for social concerns...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 239-274)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-290)
  12. Index
    (pp. 291-296)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 297-298)