English Romantic drama belongs to a period of revolutionary thought
and action so the plays written in this period are based on the historical
and social milieu of the time. The War of Independence in America (1776)
and the Revolution in France (1789) - especially the latter - were two
historical events which were very influential on the Romantic poets William
Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley,
John Keats and George Gordon Byron all of who wrote plays and used a dramatic
form in order to explore their creativity in a different genre from poetry
for which they were accepted as masters.
"I am acquainted with no immaterial sensuality so delightful as good
acting (Marchand 4:115). This is Byron who admired the famous actor Edmund
Kean as Iago. Byron was delighted when he was invited to join the management
committee at Drury Lane, and he worked there for a while. But when he recalled
this period later, he said:
Blake seems to be interested in drama and theatre less than the other
Romantic poets. His play King Edward the Third (1783) was an historical
drama though incomplete giving us a good idea of Blake's approach to liberty,
the subject which never lost its importance with the Romantics;
Their minds are fetter'd; then how can they be free?
"Two or three such Poems … written in the course of the next six years … they would nerve me up to the writing a few fine. Plays -my greatest ambition- when I do feel ambitious" (Rollins 2: 234). In the pursuit of this goal Keats wrote two plays which were intended for the theatre. Otho the Great (1819) and the fragmentary King Stephen (1819), are historical dramas which reflect Keats's approach to tyranny and power. Keats sent Otho the Great to Drury Lane where it was "accepted, with. a promise … to bring it forward during that very season" and Edmund Kean "desired to play the principal character" (Rollins 2 : 66-67).
This brief outline suggests a number of interesting conclusions: Firstly, although these poets had so little direct connection with the theatre - with the exception of Byron - the quantity of plays is quite surprising. Secondly, most of the plays were not intended for the theatre; they were Closet drama though it was accepted that theatre was wildly popular at that time. Thirdly, the poets, though disillusioned, never gave up writing plays when their plays which were intended for the theatre were refused by Covent Garden and Drury Lane.
Then comes this question: Why did the Romantics write plays especially Closet drama?
The Romantic approach to drama was that theatre embodied and enabled national unity by arousing patriotism, morality and sympathetic identification (Watkins 5). If the contents of the plays are taken into consideration, in an age of revolutions, such plays can easily serve this purpose. This can be a satisfactory answer for their preferring to write plays; but why Closet drama?
A Licensing Act governed the period between 1737-1843, and Drury Lane and Covent Garden which were England's two prestigious theatres, were the only ones permitted to produce legitimate drama from September through June; these theatres were politically controlled and censored. Although most of the Romantics sent their plays to these two theatres hoping to see them on the stage, they were well aware of the fact that because of the political and the social contents of their plays, this was not likely to be possible. As a. result of this, Closet drama was the best genre for their purpose to express revolutionary themes within an artistic framework. The plays were staged in the theatre of the mind. They believed that the act of reading was a creative process, an intellectual journey of discovery not subject to the distortion of sensory appeal that the spectacle of staging presented. Thus, the drama was more effectively staged in the reader's minds than in any auditorium (Heller 37-42). The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance. So the Romantics preferred the imaginative and exploratory opportunities reading a text offered: the mental theatre rendered impressions of some external reality during the reading process; the experience of reading drama stimulated actively imaginative responses more fully than seeing a performance- They accepted reading as a theatrical activity. They found within their own minds the drama that they fashioned into a literary experience which could be apprehended only privately by an individual reader (Webb 40-45).
For the Romantics the primary source and subject matter of a play are
the attributes and actions of the poet's own mind, or if they are aspects
of the external. world, then these can only be expressed as they are converted
from fact to drama by the feelings and operations of the poet's mind (Wang
xvi). So the Romantics wrote Closet drama which had as its aim the expression
of the inner life of the author instead of the representation of an object
in the external world.
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