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Romanticism and the Dramatic Subject

Until the nineteenth century, most European playwrights drew their tragic plots from ancient myths or legendary history and their comic material from a repertory of stock characters and attitudes. These choices of dramatic subjects reflect the priorities that endured from the days of Periclean Athens to the middle of the eighteenth century. On the one hand, these choices demonstrate a belief that truly important things happened only to those who were high on the social scale; on the other, they show that artists tested their abilities not so much through innovation as by imitation. Thus familiar plots and characters continued to be worth writing about; new talent revealed itself by finding new ways to dramatize old truths.

By the l750s, however, the same changes that were brewing political revolution began to affect the drama. More and more plays began focusing on the trials and tribulations of those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. From this so-called bourgeois drama emerged a transformation that culminates in one of the great periods of theatrical activity, the modern era, which begins around 1870.

Interest in the experiences of ordinary people reached a high point with Romanticism and its exaltation of the commonplace. The poor invited little notice in pre-eighteenth-century literature; when nineteenth-century writers turned their attention toward these lives, they began by "romanticizing" them. However dirty and boring common life was, the Romantic artist saw in it a trace of Edenic innocence. Lives not lived in palaces were somehow perceived as being unspoiled.

If the dramatic subjects chosen by the early Romantics were wider ranging than those chosen by the ancients, the treatment the subjects received, as we have suggested, was far from realistic. The tendency to idealize the poor also led to the glorification of the outlaw, a sign of the revolutions that were to come. Added to this, a newly self-conscious nationalism found expression in a variety of historical dramas that extolled two often-lost causes, liberty and nationhood.

A New Theoretical Basis for Drama

Romantic ideas emerged early in Germany in the work of three major playwrights: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Christophe Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. These writers articulated new theoretical justifications for their choice of dramatic material. As admirers of Shakespeare, to whom the neoclassicists had condescended on account of his indifference to rules, Lessing and Schiller in particular championed diversity and freedom in theatrical texts.

The most prolific playwright of the three, Schiller especially widened the range of theatrical plots. When he turned to the past for his subjects, he did not select the mythological figures who attracted Goethe, but rather the patriots of relatively recent European history. Prime among them are Joan of Arc, to whom the title The Maid of Orleans (1801) refers, and William Tell, the Swiss national hero (1804).

The Closet Drama

At the height of the Romantic period, just as more elaborate theatrical performance became possible, many poets turned to neo-Shakespearean dramatic verse to write plays that they never expected to see performed. Inspired by the Romantic quest for unreachable goals, these writers preferred not to concern themselves with the practical problems of staging plays and sought instead to explore philosophical issues in poetic dialogue that would have defeated credible acting before an audience. Such plays, written to be read rather than performed, are known as closet dramas. Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron all wrote in this form.

Changes in the Methods of Theatrical Production

Nineteenth-century playwrights proved as eager as nineteenth-century novelists to emulate the camera, but major innovations in technology were required before photographically accurate scene pictures could be mounted on stage. By the early 1800s, theatres could be equipped with substantial backstage storage space and revolving turntables; no longer did plays have to be presented against a single generalized painted backdrop. Gas lights were introduced into some theatres in the 1820s and by mid-century, lighting effects could be overseen by a technician stationed at a central control board. Sunlight could become moonlight and summer turn into fall in the course of a single performance; specific geographical locales could be reproduced on stage and shifted with ease.

At first, these resources were exploited in only a few extravagant productions. A famous early treatment of Schiller's Maid of Orleans recreated the French countryside and churches of Joan's childhood, most spectacularly in a coronation scene that had hundreds of actors and musicians on stage in full view of the audience. A London production in the l850s of Sardanapalus, written by Lord Byron, the English Romantic poet, actually set up on the stage a replica of an ancient Babylonian palace that seemed to be consumed by fire at every performance, thanks to intricate scenic construction and lighting devices.

In other words, the stage in the mid-nineteenth century was capable of providing audiences with the large-scale panoramas that we associate with historical films. The embrace of limits that had fueled the imagination of earlier dramatists had been eclipsed by a fascination for decorative effect. This era of extravagant staging is notable as well for a new emphasis on the actor as celebrity, for star performers quickly learned to exploit the sophisticated lighting boards by commanding spotlights to follow their every movement onstage. Offstage, actors hired railroad cars and crossed Europe and America in hugely publicized personal tours. Stage image and star power drew so much attention that an entirely new theatrical professional, the director, emerged. The director's job was to coordinate the performances of self-absorbed actors and to oversee every detail of the expensive and complicated productions audiences increasingly demanded.

The Collapse of Revolutionary Ideals

Earlier chapters have mentioned that the great hopes of the early Romantic period and of the early days of the French Revolution were dampened, and for many drowned, in the events of the Reign of Terror, the reaction, and the Napoleonic Wars. Generous liberal principles and gestures of the early revolution faded away in war and ultimately were defeated. Romantic hopes that the Revolution would unite the downtrodden vanished as ideological differences among conservatives, liberals, and radicals instead divided classes, groups, nations, and individuals.

In the decades after the defeat of the Napoleonic forces at Waterloo (1815), European politics swung like a pendulum between conservative and liberal poles. The great powers (Prussia, Russia, Austria) used their armies to repress any sign of liberal ideas or politics both in international affairs and in the internal affairs of nations they could control, such as the German or Italian states.

In France especially, the conflicts between different visions of society and government were acute, and intensified as industrialization led to a new class of urban workers who were drawn to the talk of radicals, republicans, and democrats who remembered -- and romanticized -- the French Revolution. Hoping that the power of the vote would force government to end joblessness and homelessness, crowds of Parisians forced the deputies to grant universal manhood suffrage and a republican form of government in 1848. The dream of "the people," as their supporters called them, became to their detractors the terror of the "mob." The brutal repression of demonstrating workers in "the bloody June days" by the army signified a new alliance between conservatives and even many liberals -- landowners, factory owners, the Catholic hierarchy -- and small business against the democrats, republicans, and early socialists in the Second Empire.

Presiding over it all was Napoleon III, whom partisans of the defeated ruling families of France, the Bourbons and the Orleanists, considered the epitome of the social climbers who had replaced them. This alliance, it will be recalled, was built on new money, much of it banking or financial fortunes, not on aristocratic birth and landed wealth. The most impressive achievement of the nouveaux riches was the modernizing of Paris, turning a crowded medieval city into a glamorous urban model.

The new Paris, with its stately and beautifully laid out architecture, was the perfect backdrop for a complacent new class eager to show off its success in attention-getting dress and behavior. The intention of urban planners, however, was not merely to beautify; for the new layout of the city made Paris easier to police. The same wide boulevards where the fashionable could promenade also provided quick access for the municipal authorities if crowds had to be controlled. Neighborhoods were newly segregated by class, with the working poor shifted to the outskirts or moved six and seven flights upward, often into dark inner courts of quadrangle buildings. The extravagantly expensive public buildings attracted tourists from the whole of Europe who were eager to see the town where anyone and everything were for sale.


Boulevard Theatre

Mid-nineteenth century Europe luxuriated in the profits of industrial progress; not only in France, but also in England (where this period is named after the long-lived Queen Victoria) and elsewhere on the continent, new ruling classes based on wealth rather than intellect or inheritance wielded power. The theatre, always a barometer of social change, celebrated its achievements, and monied audiences gloried in a style of drama that catered to their tastes. Since Parisian tastes were especially crucial to the development of modern drama, we will focus here on the evolution of the French theatrical scene.

Playwrights themselves became entrepreneurs in this climate, giving the public a saleable product. Unlike the realist novelists of this period who satirized the bourgeoisie, the dramatists Eugène Scribe (1791-1861), the younger Alexandre Dumas (1824-95), and Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) pandered to it. Scribe, Dumas, and Sardou wrote literally hundreds of plays that exemplify Boulevard Theatre.(1) This term, like the comparable American designation, Broadway Theatre, denotes plays written less for art than for profit.

In place of myth and history, of tragic heroes and nationalist firebrands, Boulevard dramatists and other playwrights of the mid-nineteenth century focused on comfortable middle-class lives. Drama in the pre-Romantic era, as we have seen, had begun to extend the range of subjects to include sympathetic portraits of humble and ordinary people.(2) In the conservative middle of the century, however, melodrama, farce, and what were called well-made plays concentrated on the upper middle-class world of privilege funded by money and power rather than birth. The nouveaux riches were both envied and disdained by the old aristocrats, who responded with a heightened snobbery and avoided the gathering places where the new elite went to amuse themselves.

Well-made plays actually were the ancestors of the contemporary television series. Rarely exploring character development, the genre deployed instead stock figures involved in intricate plots that lead to last-minute dramatic revelations. Sacrificing human probability for theatrical effectiveness, these plays typically include a series of unbelievable coincidences that bring long-lost relatives together, or compromising letters that expose a villain's true motives. In other words, after an initial fright, true love and virtue (easily recognized categories in the relatively simplistic moral universe of melodrama and the well-made play) are rewarded in the end.

In much the same way, complex dilemmas are resolved handily in the length of time available (minus several minutes for commercials) in the half- and full-hour format of prime-time TV slots. Audiences in every era have found these exciting but unchallenging plays eminently satisfying, for they provide evidence -- if any beyond their own good fortune were required --that the deserving prosper in this world.

The Audience in the Theatre

The superior technical resources of the theatres built in the nineteenth century depended in large part upon the proscenium arch, which framed the stage and created a clean break between the playing area and the audience. Associated with the development of fixed perspective in Renaissance Italy, proscenium arches made possible the visually convincing realistic backdrops that proliferated in the 1800s. The first permanent theatre with a built-in proscenium arch was created for Cardinal Richelieu's palace in 1641. As new theatres were built throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, proscenium arches got higher and thicker and more imposing. Paradoxically, a device that originally promised to draw the viewer's eye into the playing area had the opposite effect of detaching audiences from the action.

The amphitheatres of ancient Greece, the thrust stages of Elizabethan England, the court theatre rooms of classical India or seventeenth-century Europe, indeed almost every theatrical structure that the world had known up until this time had flourished by uniting spectators and actors in dramatic performances with important consequences for all the participants. The nineteenth-century European auditorium, however, had evolved into a place where socially ambitious members of the audience had better views of each other than of the stage. Hoping to lure customers to their theatres, owners installed upholstered chairs in place of wooden benches and began selling tickets in advance for these comfortable accommodations. This apparent improvement actually meant that people began going to the theatre at times when they had committed themselves to do so rather than when they most desired to do so.

Furthermore, the most expensive seats often afforded the worst perspective for watching the play itself; patrons paid dearly to occupy walled-off boxes with movable armchairs and private anterooms that circled the auditorium in several tiers. On the extreme sides of the stage, often in box seats built into the proscenium itself and facing toward the central royal box rather than the performance space, expensively gowned and bejeweled women displayed themselves to the gaze of those who sat opposite them. Other theatregoers, also more intent on personal matters than dramatic production, could sit in the dark recesses of the box and whisper to each other. During the lengthy intermissions, visits were exchanged from box to box; when the next act began, viewers often had moved from their own seats to be near those they had really come to see at the theatre.

So commonplace were these games of musical chairs that a theatre scene became a staple of nineteenth-century novels. Authors used their characters' attitude toward theatrical presentation as gauges of moral worth. Tolstoy, for instance, signals that Ivan Ilych has learned to detect the falsity of materialism by showing him cringe when his wife and daughter leave him on his deathbed to go see the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Probably the ultimate theatrical form of the century was opera. In the size of its gestures and its direct appeal to the senses through music, dance, and spectacle, the opera filled ever-larger theatres. When Flaubert's Madame Bovary goes to see a performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, she is so swept away by the music and the melodramatic tale that she almost loses control of her senses. Indeed, it is no accident that many of the libretti (or scripts) of the greatest operas of the century were texts written by Scribe and Sardou, specialists in lifting their audiences out of humdrum reality, thrilling and flattering them at the same time.

The Challenge of the Proscenium Stage

The combination of the proscenium arch, the heavy curtain traditionally hung from it, and the darkened auditorium so segregated performers from audiences that the public's shift of attention from stage action to social interplay had become a formidable challenge to playwrights. Modern theatre artists have sought to restore the spectators' vital role in two diametrically opposed ways, either by disregarding the barrier separating audiences from actors or by insisting on it. Dramatic realists treat the space before the stage as the so-called fourth wall, with audiences in effect spying on the activities of their neighbors for the night, the actors appearing before them in essentially realistic settings. Other playwrights emphasize the gap between theatrical illusion and everyday reality. The early modern dramatists forced complacent and self-absorbed theatregoers to recognize the dilemmas of their own lives in the staged plays performed before them; the later modern dramatists force theatregoers to take account of the distance between them and the actors in front of them. In each phase of modern drama, however, the playwright strives to make theatrical experience integral to the life of the viewer and not simply a pleasant entertainment.


(1) The names derives from Parisan location, the Boulevard du Temple, which was home to several theatres from the late eighteenth century on.

(2) This tendency remained strong in Germany, the home of Schiller and Lessing. Indeed, the short-lived Georg Büchner (1813-1837), who concentrated on the downtrodden and raised difficult political questions in his three plays, Danton's Death (1835), Leonce and Lena (1836), and Woyzeck (left unfinished), is really the first modern dramatist. His work was neglected until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the revolutionary character of his subject matter and style was better appreciated.