The Power of Words : A Study of English Romantic Drama

Sema Taskin

Hacettepe University

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.

Share with me, Friend! the wish
That some dramatic tale, endued with shapes
Livelier, and flinging out less guarded words
Than suit the work we fashion, might set forth
What then I learned, or think I learned, of truth,
And the errors into which I fell (The Prelude, xi, 282-7)
Wordsworth's wish for writing a play in order to share his first-hand observation of the changes through which the French Revolution passed resulted in the writing of his first and last play The Borderers (1796-97), which he himself describes as: "The study of human nature suggests this awful truth, that, as in the trials to which life subjects us, sin and crime are apt to start from their very opposite qualities " (Selincourt 342-43). He admitted that he had not originally intended this play for the stage:
  For myself; I had no hope nor even a wish - that he [Thomas Harris, then manager of Covent Garden] should accept my performance; so that I incurred no disappointment when the piece was judiciously returned as not calculated for the Stage (Selincourt 343).
"What encouragement has a man of Education and the feelings of a Gentleman to write either Comedy or Tragedy for Drury Lane?" (Griggs 4: 721). As for Coleridge things were different, Coleridge, together with Southey, wrote The Fall of Robespierre (1794), which was also inspired by the French Revolution; it was an historical drama in which as Coleridge said, "it has been my sole aim to imitate the empassioned and highly figurative language of the French orators, and to develope the characters of the chief actors on a vast stage of horrors" (Coleridge 2: 495). Although he was so much excited with his collaborated play when his own play Osorio (1797) was rejected by Sheridan, then manager of Drury Lane, he admitted that he had already grown bored with this kind of writing: "In truth, I have fagged so long at the work, & seen so many imperfections in the original & the main plot, that I feel an indescribable disgust, a sickness of the very heart, at the mention of the Tragedy .." (Griggs 1: 356). But it is interesting to note that he never lost his interest in drama, and he either translated plays or revised his own plays constantly sending them to Covent Garden and Drury Lane.
  it is indisputable that the highest perfection of human society has ever corresponded with the highest dramatic excellence; and that the corruption or the extinction of the drama in a nation where it has once flourished, is a mark of a corruption of manners, and an extinction of the energies which sustain the soul of social life (Reiman 492).
These were the ideas on Shelley's mind when he created his plays Prometheus Unbound (1819) and The Cenci (1819) which were also inspired by the French Revolution; Shelley discussed liberty, politics, tyranny and crime which were hotly debated topics in those days. He admitted that he never intended Prometheus Unbound for the stage but for The Cenci he had hopes to see whether it succeeded because it was "expressly written for theatrical exhibition" and it was "singularly fitted for the stage" (Jones 2: 102,181). So Shelley must have been disillusioned when, as he put it, "the very Theatre [Covent Garden] rejected it with expressions of the greatest insolence", although according to Mary Shelley, the manager "expressed his desire that he would write a tragedy on some other subject, which he would gladly accept (Hutchinson 337). Just like Coleridge, Shelley never gave up writing dramas.

"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:

Then the Scenes I had to go through - the authors and the authoresses - the people from Brighton - from Blackwell - from Chatham - from Cheltenham - from Dublin - from Dundee - who came in upon me I - to all of whom it was proper to give a civil answer - and a bearing - and a reading (Marchand 9: 35-36).
It seems that Byron's experience at Drury Lane was one of the factors which disillusioned him in theatre and propelled him towards the ideal conditions of what he later thought of as mental theatre which resulted in two powerful plays Manfred (1817) and Cain (1821).

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;

When confusion rages, when the field is in a flame,
When the cries of blood tear horror from heav'n,
And yelling death runs up and down the ranks,
Let Liberty, the charter'd right of Englishmen,
won by our fathers in many a glorious field,
Enerve my soldiers; let Liberty
Blaze in each countenance, and fire the battle.
The enemy fight in chains, invisible chains but heavy;

Their minds are fetter'd; then how can they be free?

(i, 6-14)

This is King Edward addressing his nobles and soldiers on the coast of France just before he ordered the army to march against the enemy. So the beginning of the play makes it clear that Blake aims at discussing this popular issue of his time but then he lost his interest and never finished his play. There is no evidence whether he intended his play for the theatre or not.

"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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