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"The Dramatic Poet and the Unpoetic Multitudes": Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Allegorized Theatrical Commentary in Book IV of Aurora Leigh.

In an introductory note to the published papers of Manchester University's 1970 Victorian theater symposium, editors Kenneth Richards and Peter Thomson encapsulate the current state of this critical field and accurately predict its future, stating, "It is still fairly respectable to know nothing about the nineteenth-century theatre, but it seems unlikely that it will be so for long." (1) As they foresaw, the coming decades witnessed a resurgence of interest in the performances of the nineteenth-century stage--a justified reprisal that has invited the Victorians' own theatrical commentary back into the critical spotlight. In one such contemporary moment of theatrical criticism, Elizabeth Barrett (EBB) remarks on the current state of the "translation" of dramatic works for the Victorian stage in an 1842 letter to her confidante, the dramatist and fellow poet Mary Russell Mitford:
   In regard to the drama, I have been to the theatre--I have seen
   Shakespeare in London--but it was when I was a young child: and I
   admit to you willingly that in reading &. taking pleasure from the
   written Drama, my ideas of it never enter the theatre from first to
   last. I have a notion,--that the theatre interprets between the
   dramatic poet and the unpoetic multitude,--&. always where the
   poetry is high, desecrates it in translation. (2)

EBB's letter corroborates the commonly held critical belief--both contemporary and modern--that the early- to mid-nineteenth century was a dark age for the British theater. Implicit in this widely held opinion is an elitist hand-wringing over the inferiority of public taste that, as Michael Booth and others have noted, was becoming increasingly democratized as Victorian playhouses selected and adapted works to please the growing numbers of lower-middle- and working-class theatergoers. (3)

Indeed, in this letter to Mitford and many others, EBB seems to argue against the very idea of the popular theater itself, stating that she has formed a notion that the "poetry" of written drama can never be fully realized in performance for the "unpoetic multitudes" and that "high" dramatic art is always lost in translation. EBB's letters between 1842 and Aurora Leigh's publication in 1856 reveal not only her friendships with dramatists such as Mitford, Richard Hengist Home, and George Sand but also that she followed the London theater closely even after moving to Florence, both through this correspondence and through her following of the London newspapers. (4) As she expressed in some of her earliest letters to husband-to-be and sometimes-playwright Robert Browning, she held the dramatic genre in very high regard. For example, she states on February 17, 1845, that she "look[s] to our old dramatists as to our Kings &. princes in poetry." (5) In this letter, as in the one to Mitford three years prior, EBB expresses both her familiarity with and adulation for the "old dramatists"--whom she notably does not call "playwrights" (as this term would allude to the staging of their works)--including chiefly Shakespeare.

In this early correspondence, EBB also expresses in no uncertain terms her disdain for popular theater, admonishing Browning (albeit playfully) for "bearing to trust [his] noble works into the great mill of the 'rank, popular' playhouse, to be ground between the teeth of vulgar actors &. actresses" (Barrett to Browning, 27 February 1845). In her next letter, from February 27, 1845, she clarifies that she does not mean to "blaspheme the Drama"--just that the contemporary theater "vulgarizes" the work of noble dramatists such as himself, as it has "no altar" and "the thymele ... is replaced by the caprice of a popular actor." (6) Here again EBB alludes to and valorizes a bygone era of the stage (this time it is ancient Greece, which will prove significant in my argument) in order to condemn the contemporary theater and elevate written over performed drama. Significantly, later in this same note, she also shares with Browning that her "chief intention just now is in the writing of a sort of novel-poem"; it seems that at the very time she is articulating her opinions about popular theater versus written drama, she is also formulating the project that was to become Aurora Leigh.

Critical notions on art such as the ones expressed in these letters to Mitford and Browning are indeed the subject of EBB's "novel-poem" that was to become her most acclaimed work, Aurora Leigh. In its dedication, the poet describes the semiautobiographical verse novel as the "most mature of [her] works," declaring that in this kiinstlerroman, she has imparted her "highest convictions upon Life and Art." (7) Such a lofty claim has attracted much critical attention to her magnum opus; however, despite the current interest in the Victorian stage and the evidence of EBB's strong opinions about it, no one has yet noted EBB's embedded theatrical commentary throughout Aurora Leigh and especially in Book IV. For instance, Adrian Poole's authoritative Shakespeare and the Victorians skips over Book IV and mentions only Book V, in which Aurora declares that she will not write drama because Shakespeare and the Greeks had already mastered the now-declining artistic mode. (8) Likewise, although W. David Shaw mentions the Brownings' correspondence regarding Hamlet in his 2014 The Ghost behind the Masks, he also fails to mention EBB's theatrical allusions in Book IV of Aurora Leigh, and his approach is purely textual rather than performative. (9) In a 2006 article, Gail Marshall offers abundant literary and epistolary evidence of EBB's particular affinity for the Bard, even going so far as to state that "Shakespeare's words ... inhabit" the verse novel; however, Marshall's analysis of Shakespeare's presence in Aurora Leigh focuses on the poets' similarities in poetic style and thematic concerns in Books I and VII, ignoring Lord Howe's direct references to Hamlet and Lear in Book IV. (10) Indeed, within the sizable field of criticism devoted to Aurora Leigh, not a single article has yet attempted to explain EBB's many allusions to the theater in the work's climactic wedding scene. Close examination of this passage not only reveals the poet's contemporary views on the state of the Victorian stage but also, as I argue here, allows for deeper understanding of those "highest convictions" regarding the relationship between social reform ("Life") and (dramatic) poetry ("Art") that are central to the work.

In the first section of this article, I discuss the ways in which the physical space of the theater illustrated the rapidly changing class dynamics of the Victorian polis, both on- and offstage. Adopting a theatrical historicist approach, I contend that EBB metaphorically transforms the space of St. James's church into a typical Victorian playhouse, thus making Romney's wedding spectacle into a staged play; in my reading, EBB makes this move not only to depict the bridegroom's would-be wedding as more sociopolitical spectacle than loving union of equals but also to craft the scene into an allegory depicting the very "desecration" she sees occurring when dramatic poetry is translated on the Victorian stage for the "unpoetic multitudes." In this configuration, the dramatic poetry in question is Romney's democratic intention underlying his wedding--the "heroic part" he has written for himself to play on the altar at St. James's--and the desecration is its failure and overwhelmingly poor reception by the audience of wedding guests (I. 382). (11) Furthermore, by transposing the Victorian theater onto the space of St. James's, EBB has made it possible for the fictional wedding guests to (mis)interpret Romney's "play" in at least three different ways, depending on the class-dependent theatrical lenses they carry with them. As I argue, the expression and eventual outcome of these mis-readings depict EBB's lamentation over the downfall of the dramatic arts at the hands of the lower "classes" of theater--namely, melodrama.

In the second through fourth sections of the article, I explicate these three class-based interpretations of the wedding that are made by guests as they await the arrival of the bride. In the first of these, Lord Howe utters some of the most overt allusions to theater in Book IV. Standing metonymically for his aristocratic peers, Lord Howe compares the didactic message of Romney's wedding to those of Hamlet and King Lear--Shakespeare being, of course, the epitome of the Victorians' "legitimate" drama that was reserved for elite audiences. However, Lord Howe's allusions smack of bowdlerization--a sly moment of dramatic irony in which EBB can be heard bemoaning the Bard's defilement on the domesticated Victorian stage. The second interpretation is that made by Marian's wedding guests from the working-class neighborhood of St. Giles. Recalling the predictable plotlines and exaggerated class delineations of the melodramas they would have seen in their East End playhouses, these guests interpret Romney according to the familiar trope of the aristocratic rake. Surmising that he has murdered his bride-to-be and faked his jilting as a cover-up, these guests climactically mob the bewildered bridegroom. In my reading, this is an allegorical illustration of the consequences of making the art of dramatic poetry dependent on popular taste. Finally, the third interpretation of Romney's wedding is that of Aurora Leigh herself. Aligning most closely with EBB's own theatrical commentary, Aurora reads Romney's wedding through the lens of Greek tragedy, likening him in his ultimate failure to Orestes being tormented by the Furies in Aeschylus's The Eumenides. Ever the stand-in for her creator, Aurora reads Romney as noble but flawed, much like the art of dramatic poetry itself when it is translated to the stage. All of these interpretations work together to demonstrate the point that, as EBB stated in her letter to Mitford, no matter how "high" the poetry of drama may be, it will always be "desecrated" by the pandering of performance, ultimately allowing inferior tastes--regardless of class status--to overtake the London stage.

Setting the Scene: The Rise of the "Unpoetic Multitudes" in Victorian London's Sociopolitical Spaces

In order to properly transform Romney's wedding into a metaphorical play of social politics, EBB seems to have decided to convert the setting--the upper-class church of St. James's Piccadilly--into a figurative playhouse. The move is an easy one to make since Victorian churches, like theaters, were also highly classed public spaces; moreover, the particular church she chose for this "scene" may have already had a long-standing association with the theater in the Victorian mind. Writing in 1703, the diarist John Evelyn remarks that he finds St. James's to be a "Theatrical Church" because "the Ladys &. Women were so richly & wantonly dressed & full of Jewells." (12) Later in the century, the writer James Macky corroborates Evelyn's comparison, complaining that, although visitors could purchase a seat, "it costs one almost as dear as to see a Play." (13) These seats were being sold, it seems, because St. James's drew such enormous crowds of lower-class spectators who wished to marvel at the bejeweled congregation--deepening the association of St. James's with the comingling of the classes and the spectacular (Macky, p. 306). Further evidence that EBB means to directly invoke Evelyn and Macky is the attention she pays to the congregants' apparel. In order to encapsulate the differences between Marian's and Romney's guests, Aurora points to the disparity in their clothing: "Half St. Giles in frieze / Was bidden to meet St. James in cloth of gold" (11. 538-539). While Evelyn and Macky draw the comparison between St. James's and the theater for more pious reasons than EBB does, she nonetheless could have been self-consciously invoking their long-standing association in order to "set the scene" for her Victorian readers and alert them to the subtle theatrical commentary to come.

As EBB's letters to her sister and to Mitford demonstrate, living in Florence during the 1848 revolutions in Italy made the poet more aware than ever of the class inequalities plaguing Europe, and contrasting England with Italy made the former seem especially unjust and hierarchized. (14) Thus, Book IV's intrusion of the lower classes within the sanctified space reserved for London's social elite is a perfect illustration of the "substantial changes" taking place broadly across the continent but also within the political microcosm of the nineteenth-century playhouse--changes that had come to a head in the notorious "Old Price Wars" of 1809. (15) As Michael Booth notes, "one of the most striking things about the Victorian theatre is its faithful reflection of social class" in the arrangement of seating (Theatre, p. 2). While aristocratic, upper-class theatergoers enjoyed the comfort of private boxes, the working- and middle-class ticket holders sat in the pit, and the lower-class attendees were relegated to the gallery (Booth, "Early Victorian Farce," pp. 95-96); furthermore, each section had a separate entrance to the theater, "so that box holders would not have to rub shoulders at a common entrance with those headed for the pit benches or gallery" (Booth, Theatre, p. 2). In light of this arrangement, the higher prices and diminished quality of the pit and gallery seats that resulted from the 1809 remodeling of Covent Garden Theater Royal caused a well-publicized, class-charged uproar. The theater critic and Examiner cofounder Leigh Hunt was present for the grand reopening of Covent Garden on September 18, 1809, and he reports in a scathing review that, although theater managers extravagantly redecorated the interior in ornate Greco-Roman style, they "seem to have had no eye to the improvement of the public taste ... and consulted little but the comfort of the higher orders." The box seats had been well furnished and provided with spacious "anti-chambers," while those who sat in the pit and gallery paid higher prices for seats that allowed them to "neither see nor hear." Hunt reports that "the people felt this immediately," and when the otherwise popular Charles Kemble took the stage to play Macbeth, he was "instantly drowned in a torrent of execration" that drove him from the stage and continued "with an energy truly terrific the whole evening." (16)

It is important to note that, unlike the theater's hierarchical seating arrangement, Romney's wedding situates his aristocratic and working-class guests in equal status on either side of the aisle at St. James's--a representation of the growing balance of their influence on the performing arts. Further balancing the authority of Romney and Marian's guests is Elaine Hadley's assertion that the theater was a space in which the upper and lower classes had an equal voice according to "theatrical law." (17) As ticket holders, each audience member had an equal right to express his or her opinion about the action onstage, and as demonstrated in the Old Price Wars, the audience even had "more freedom of speech than the players" (Hadley, p. 37). Especially in the melodrama that would have played in the neighborhood of St. Giles, audience members were not only allowed but expected to respond as participants in the action onstage (Hadley, p. 67). Within the context of theatrical law, then, the violent reaction of Marian's guests to Romney's jilting is just as valid a response as the hushed composure of Romney's guests. With the majority "vote," the mob rules that Romney must have killed Marian, thus casting him as villain in the melodrama they see unfolding. What EBB seems to be suggesting is that, when the theater becomes democratized, the "inferior" genres preferred by the rising uneducated classes--such as melodrama--overtake the London stage and desecrate the dramatic arts.

This authoritative voice illustrates the rising influence of the working class not only on the theater in the first half of the nineteenth century but also in the city of London itself. As Booth notes, the population of London grew from 900,000 in 1801 to 3,000,000 in 1851 due largely to industrialization's luring of laborers from country to city, and accordingly the 1851 census reports that 79 percent of the swelling population was working class (Theatre, p. 4).

Among the many necessary changes to the city's infrastructure, this population growth also called for the building of more theaters in growing neighborhoods that "catered primarily to their local populations, which were very largely working and lower middle-class." These "minor" theaters were not only considered to be lower in status because of the class of their patrons but also because they were not granted patents to play "legitimate" drama such as tragedy and comedy and instead offered "illegitimate" forms such as burlesque, "light comedy," and melodrama. Thus, not only did the seating arrangement of London playhouses reflect the changing social dynamics of the early nineteenth century, but the types of drama performed also became inextricably linked with class and what (or who) counted as "legitimate" in and outside of the theater space (Booth, Theatre, pp. 4, 6).

Because of the difficulty in regulating the theatrical patent system, the question of defining "legitimate" drama and determining which theaters were allowed to play it became a growing concern; in order to address these issues, Parliament assembled a special select committee. The resulting report of the 1832 Select Committee on Dramatic Literature anticipates EBB's remarks ten years later to Mitford about the deplorable state of public taste and dramatic poetry. The report contains transcripts of interviews with theatrically involved individuals such as theater managers, playwrights, and actors, as well as the committee's subsequent suggestions for theater reform. The opening line of the report reflects the long-held critical opinion of nineteenth-century theater stating, "In examining the Laws affecting the interests and exhibition of the Drama, Your Committee find that a considerable decline, both in the Literature of the Stage, and the taste of the Public for Theatrical Performances, is generally conceded." (18)

Although the committee acknowledges the difficulty in defining "legitimate" drama, as Julia Swindells has pointed out, "allusions to William Shakespeare pervade the report as if he, like Heathcliff to Cathy, is always, always in the minds of both interviewers and witnesses." (19) Indeed, even EBB herself mentions Shakespeare as her representative experience of the London stage--and the defilement of dramatic poetry that occurs there. As the testimony of Charles Mathews, among others, demonstrates, when the committee solicited from examinees a definition of "legitimate" drama, it was often given instead a list of "legitimate" playwrights headed by Shakespeare: "2983. [Question:] How would you define the regular drama?--[Answer:] Decidedly the works of our greatest dramatists or poets, Shakspeare, Otway, Rowe, and in modern times in comedies, Sheridan, Colman and others" (Report from the Select Committee, p. 166). Swindells explains that, to the aristocracy and educated members of nineteenth-century British society, "over-riding attachment to Shakespeare is a part of that high culture which constitutes an important part of their education and consciousness as members of the ruling class" (p. 34). Appreciation of Shakespeare was, in other words, a mark of social class, a fashionable attribute of London's educated elite. As such, the educated, upper-class Select Committee ultimately upheld the status quo, forbidding minor theaters from playing the works of the Bard or any other drama deemed "legitimate" by the Lord Chamberlain. However, the minor theaters eventually overthrew their major, patent-holding counterparts (including Covent Garden) by pressuring Parliament to pass the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843--the year after EBB's letter to Mitford--effectively democratizing the London stage and allowing all playhouses to produce the "legitimate" drama (Booth, Theatre, p. 6). If EBB thought the state of the drama was deplorable before the Theatre Regulation Act, then this opinion surely only deepened in the years leading up to her composition of Aurora Leigh. As I discuss next, all of this parliamentary procedure regulating the dramatic arts not only reflects the growing anxiety over blurring class lines on the stage but also directly informs EBB's work, as is evident in the character and dialogue of Lord Howe in Book IV.

"I should have been a poet": Lord Howe and Victorian Shakespeare

Perhaps the most overt dramatic allusions contained in Book IV of Aurora Leigh are those made by Romney's friend and wedding guest Lord Howe in reference to the two Shakespearean tragedies that the wedding calls to his mind: Hamlet and King Lear. As discussed earlier, Shakespeare came to be synonymous with "legitimate" theater to the upper classes, and Howe, "a born aristocrat," also happens to be a member of the House of Lords (1. 710). In the diegetic world of the verse novel, then, it is likely that Lord Howe would have been familiar with the report of the Select Committee on Dramatic Literature compiled by the House of Commons in 1832. Moreover, as a member of the aristocracy, he would share the committee's (and EBB's) opinion that the public taste in theater had declined and that the Shakespeare played in the Theatres Royal reigned supreme as the exemplum for "legitimate" drama. Thus, it is no surprise that Howe alludes to the Bard to explain his interpretation of Romney's intentions in marrying Marian. In his reference to Hamlet, he declares to Aurora,
   There's one true thing on earth,
   That's love! he takes it up, and dresses it,
   And acts a play with it, as Hamlet did,
   To show what cruel uncles we have been,
   And how we should be uneasy in our minds
   While he, Prince Hamlet, weds a pretty maid
   (Who keeps us too long waiting, we'll confess)
   By symbol, to instruct us formally
   To fill the ditches up 'twixt class and class,
   And live together in phalansteries. (11. 747-756)

In Howe's interpretation, he relates Romney's wedding to the scene in Hamlet in which the vengeful Dane orders court entertainers to act out a play revealing the secret murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, Claudius. Lord Howe intends to compare the upper classes to Claudius and Romney to Hamlet in order to remark on the injustices that the upper classes have enacted on the people beneath them in the social hierarchy; however, in a brilliant example of dramatic irony, Howe's allusion to a secret murder plot is unwittingly reminiscent of the melodramatic interpretation happening across the aisle at St. James's. In likening this aristocratic reading of Romney's play to that of the working-class guests, EBB calls attention to the melodramatized versions of Shakespeare that have tainted the Victorian stage. Thus, although Lord Howe deems himself a poet, he demonstrates that even the aristocracy has become part of the "unpoetic multitudes" lamented by EBB.

Lord Howe's allusion to Hamlet is misguided in more ways than one. Not only are Romney's intentions behind his "play" far less diabolical than Hamlet's, but also Howe's Hamlet goes on to wed "a pretty maid," presumably Ophelia. Anyone at all familiar with Hamlet would know that Lord Howe's speech is erroneous; Hamlet does not take up the cause of love at all but rather neglects and abuses his fiancee, Ophelia, who in turn commits suicide. Lord Howe's misinterpretation of this relationship forces a true comparison with the marriage couple--further revealing EBB's embedded irony. One could argue that as Hamlet neglects Ophelia, so too does Romney neglect Marian, using her as a pawn in his sociopolitical play to unite the classes. As Marian herself states when prompted by Aurora, Romney does not seem to love her specifically, but he "loves all": "And me, of course. He had not asked me else / To work with him forever and be his wife" (11. 173-175, emphasis added). First, she articulates that he loves "all" before he loves her--the logic being that she is merely one of the "all," and therefore he loves her too. Marian continues to reason that, if he did not love her, why would he have asked her to work with him and to be his wife. The order of her statements and the nature of her logic reveal a business-like, or at best diplomatic, understanding between them--and it is because of this flawed intention for marriage that EBB portrays the wedding as a spectacle and dooms her lead actor/dramatic poet to the rage of the mob.

As if this erroneous reference to Hamlet was not enough, Howe goes on to make another incorrect allusion, this time to King Lear. In a second attempt to interpret the wedding and its union of social classes, Howe looks across the aisle to describe Marian's guests:
   The terrible people, old and poor and blind,
   Their eyes eat out with plague and poverty
   From seeing beautiful and cheerful sights,
   We'll liken to a brutalized King Lear,
   Led out,--by no means to clear scores with wrongs--His
   wrongs are so far back, he has forgot,
   (All's past like youth;) but just to witness here
   A simple contract. (ll. 770-777)

Besides the fact that it is Gloucester, not Lear, who is blinded in Shakespeare's play, Lord Howe has made another error that reflects a misunderstanding of the original dramatic text. In describing Marian's guests as "a brutalized King Lear," Howe does manage to correctly acknowledge that the lower classes have experienced "wrongs," but unlike Lear, the St. Giles guests have not "forgot." Further into his speech to Aurora, Lord Howe goes so far as to suggest that the trying everyday lives of Marian's peers have so far deteriorated their minds that, like the grief-maddened Lear at the end of the play, they are scarcely aware of their surroundings. Because of this, they do not have the mental strength to recall the past injustices dealt to them by the aristocracy, whom Howe likens to Regan and Goneril. Howe concludes, "What could such lovely ladies have to do I With the old man there, in those ill-odorous rags, / Except to keep the wind-side of him?" (11. 784-786). Assuming that the poor are too downtrodden and empty minded to be bitter about their fate, Howe releases himself and his aristocratic peers--the "lovely" Regan and Goneril--from any fault. It is again both a gross misinterpretation of the text and a gross underestimation of the wits of the working class (as he will soon find out), and through this allegorical stand-in for the aristocracy, EBB again condemns even London's elite as being part of the unpoetic multitude.

In all likelihood, Howe's misrememberings of Shakespeare may not have been so at all; another explanation is that, like the rest of the population, he was mainly familiar with the bowdlerized versions of the plays that had overtaken the nineteenth-century London stage, and it was to these that he was correctly alluding. As Gail Marshall has pointed out, it is ironic that a society so devoted to the practice of "bardolatry" was also guilty of so drastically altering Shakespeare's work for the stage. (20) For example, the most popular production of King Lear in the late eighteenth century was the version penned by Nahum Tate, completely stripped of Shakespeare's original verse and with a happy ending for Cordelia and Lear. It could easily have been this version that Lord Howe was referencing, but even further domesticated versions of the text appeared in the 1820s. J. S. Bratton discusses a melodramatized version titled "The Lear of Private Life, or, Father and Daughter, founded on the famous novel by Mrs Opie." Based, as the title indicates, on a novel by Amelia Opie, this production portrays Cordelia as a girl seduced into elopement; she returns home an unmarried mother to find her grief-stricken father broke and mad from her absence. In keeping with the audience tastes of the time, this adaptation focuses on the titular character more as father than as king. The filial version of Lear penetrated the Victorian concept of the character and, as Bratton argues, created the desire for a happy ending for him. (21)

Had Lord Howe (or EBB) been familiar with this version of the text, then Howe's casting of Marian's wedding guests as the grief-stricken father Lear and Marian herself as the seduced and abandoned daughter Cordelia means that once again Howe unknowingly corroborates the St. Giles guests' interpretation of the scene as domestic melodrama; for a second time, "legitimate" and "illegitimate" drama--as well as the classes they represent--blend into one. The scene serves as an allegorical demonstration of "legitimate" drama's desecration at the hands of inferior translations. EBB effectively issues a warning to her upper-class readers that a loss of the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare and other masters due to popular stage translations will end as disastrously as Romney's wedding--and the inferior genres preferred by the rising middle and working classes will take over the national stage for good.

"A wicked man, I say, a wicked man!": Melodrama and the Mischaracterization of Romney Leigh

Upon receipt of Marian's letter explaining that she cannot marry him, the dejected Romney must announce to everyone gathered at St. James's that there will be no marriage after all. To his and his upper-class peers' surprise, he is promptly mobbed by Marian's guests, who act in response to this rallying cry from a St. Giles woman:
   I did misdoubt, at first,
   The fine lord meant no good by her or us.
   He, maybe, got the upper hand of her
   By holding up a wedding-ring, and then . .
   A choking finger on her throat last night,
   And just a clever tale to keep us still
   I ask you,--would a girl go off, instead
   Of staying to be married? a fine tale!
   A wicked man, I say, a wicked man! (11. 827-831,11. 836-838)

In this interpretive outburst from the wary crowd of Marian's guests, Romney is accused of seducing and murdering Marian and then staging his own jilting to cover up the crime and to appease his victim's family and friends. Typical of the melodramatic plots Marian's guests would have been accustomed to seeing on their neighborhood stages, this interpretation ultimately wins the day as Romney, Aurora, and their aristocratic peers are shocked into silence and the mob over takes the bridegroom. In this working-class uprising at the end of the wedding scene, I argue that EBB allegorizes the "melodramatic monster" that she believes is sure to consume the English theater and destroy the poetry of drama if nothing is done to reform the misdirected tastes of the "unpoetic multitudes."

The predominant form of theater in Victorian England, melodrama appealed largely to the lower classes as a form of "cheap" entertainment. Often played in the minor theaters of working-class neighborhoods, melodrama "replaced] the high canonical forms of tragedy and comedy" with something more accessible to the uneducated (Hadley, p. 35). The genre was met with con tempt from critics and upper-class elites alike. Hadley reports, "frequently labeled 'monster melodrama' because it was a form of 'illegitimate drama,' it was the result of mixed breeding, the contested bastard to 'legitimate drama' ... [and] a monstrous combination, the offspring of 'exotic associations' between Shakespeare and Harlequin and between English and French dramatists" (p. 63). Like the often-used term "illegitimate" to describe melodrama and its lowly theatrical brethren, Hadley's characterization of melodrama as "the result of mixed breeding" is especially apt in the context of Romney and Marian's wedding--a mixing of lower and upper classes that would result in socially "illegitimate" children of the upper-class Leigh family. Jeffrey Cox, too, describes melodrama as the "bastard offspring of high literature"; (22) from this frequently used, socially charged terminology, it is clear that the genre was a source of anxiety in upper-class Londoners, who felt the rising influence of the working class impinging on their authority in matters of public taste and, what they felt was worse, their social standing itself.

Furthermore, Cox goes on to describe melodrama as a form of theater that had been "accelerated" for the newly industrialized society--one that appealed to the working classes with cheap spectacles and base emotionality (p. 174). Booth affirms this characterization, stating, "Melodrama contains every possible ingredient of popular appeal: strong emotion, both pathetic and potentially tragic, low comedy, romantic colouring, remarkable events in an exciting and suspenseful plot, physical sensations, sharply delineated stock characters, domestic sentiment, domestic settings and domestic life, love, joy, suffering, morality, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice" (Theatre, pp. 150-151). Beyond merely appealing to the masses for entertainment value, Booth posits that melodrama exists as a "dream world" for the working classes, an "idealization and simplification of the world of reality,... the world its audiences want but cannot get,... uncomplicated, easy to understand, and immeasurably exciting." (23) This "accelerated," oversimplified form of theater did not challenge the audience intellectually; it made interpretation explicit and one-dimensional. Free of the complexities of character and plot found in tragedy, melodrama offered stock characters who could be easily identified even at their first appearance onstage and whose roles followed predictable trajectories in the formulaic plots to ensue (Booth, English Melodrama, p. 14). Thus, with no evidence at all, Marian's guests easily cast Romney into the familiar role of aristocratic villain--indicative of the gross mistranslation that EBB sees happening to "high" dramatic poetry at large.

One specific subgenre of the so-called monster--"domestic melodrama"--contains a plot formula and stock characters that are particularly reminiscent of the wedding scene in Aurora Leigh, and it is this form of melodrama that likely informs the interpretation of the events at St. James's of Marian's guests. Domestic melodrama, Booth explains, takes place in the "the world of factory, slum, dirty crowded streets, hunger, and cold" that would have been a part of the everyday lives of the working-class audience (English Melodrama, p. 120). One of the more common plot formulas of domestic melodrama involved a lower-class heroine being seduced by the charm and perceived devotion of an upper-class gentleman, who in turn woos her to her downfall with promises of marriage. (24) This is the exact scenario that Marian's guests imagine has happened--that Romney "got the upper hand of her / by holding up a weddingring" and then murdered her with "a choking finger on her throat" (11. 829-831). This type of drama championed the morality of the commoner over the upper class, focusing on family values to evoke a sentimental, highly emotional reaction from the audience. Furthermore, the predominant emotion evoked by this type of play was "anger, not pity," according to Maurice Disher, because this was the emotion that "Cockneys liked to feel" (p. 183). This, combined with melodrama's encouragement of audience involvement, accounts for the violent reaction of Marian's wedding guests upon Romney's jilting and the larger epidemic of poor taste that EBB sees infecting the dramatic arts (Hadley, p. 67).

Another element of domestic melodrama that contributed to the highly emotional reaction in the audience and is a clear part of the mob's interpretation of Romney's wedding is the stark contrast between the innocence of the stock heroine and the inherent evil of the stock villain. The heroine is, according to Booth, "the heart of melodrama," and it is a "cardinal rule" that she begins to suffer almost immediately (English Melodrama, p. 24). Dripping with pathos, she is put through misery after misery at the hands of the villain, whose fundamental desire is either to possess her or to prevent the hero (or anyone else) from possessing her by killing her (pp. 18, 26). The villain, then, is the catalyst of all melodramatic action, because his sole objective is to enact evil that the other characters must avoid at all costs; he embodies "the darkness and violence of melodrama" (p. 18). The treachery of the upper-class villain of domestic melodrama makes this subgenre particularly class charged, as it is marked by "the portrayal of the upper classes as heartless oppressors and seducers" (p. 123). In Aurora Leigh, this characterization of would-be bride and groom as melodramatic heroine and villain is clear in the text; while it is obvious that Marian's guests consider the bride their beloved heroine, calling her a "girl ... poor and of the people," Romney is declared to be "a wicked man, I say, a wicked man!" (11. 842, 845 [emphasis added], 838). Even EBB employs this melodramatic plot device in the diabolical Lady Waldemar: it is her sabotage that causes the jilting in the first place and propels the story forward as the innocent Marian is tricked into prostitution, impregnated, and eventually rescued by Aurora. Thus, even a text that laments the melodramatic tastes of public opinion unwittingly falls victim to the conventions of the loathed genre.

Or perhaps this nod to melodrama is not unwittingly made after all. EBB's choice of Marian's surname, Erie, may be a sly, conscious allusion to a real-life domestic melodrama that could very well have been familiar to the St. Giles guests (and EBB herself): Michael Erie, the Maniac Lover, or, the Fayre Lass of Lichfield. Written by Thomas Egerton Wilks and produced in 1839, this iteration of the domestic melodrama begins shortly after the tragic ruin of Michael Erie, a tradesman of Lichfield whose would-be wife, Ellen, has been seduced by an upper-class rogue and whose broken heart has thrown Michael "into a deep melancholy, which eventually terminated in idiotcy [sic]." (25) Michael, now known to the town as "the Maniac Lover," wanders the streets of Lichfield by day and sleeps in the neighboring grove by night. It is here in his forest dwelling that he prevents the heroine, Mary, from succumbing to the wicked intentions and false marriage promises of Lord Philip D'Arville; the similarity of circumstances to his own Ellen's seduction snaps Michael back into lucidity just in time to defend Mary's honor. Michael rescues Mary once more when Philip attempts to kidnap her for a second time, and before dying, he manages to clear her name so that she may be reunited with her fiance, Miles, who, although a shopkeeper, "in virtue and honour ... is fit to be a lord" (Wilks, p. 10). Not only is this play an exemplum of the type of plot Marian's guests see unfolding at St. James's, but also the surname that Marian shares with the Maniac Lover could signify her to the St. Giles guests as the real-life embodiment of Michael Erie's would-be wife who has been seduced and cast aside by an upper-class villain. In addition, Michael and Marian Erie play similar roles in their (perceived) shared stock plot: their respective downfalls serve as cautionary tales against believing the promises of the "heartless" and dishonest upper class (Booth, English Melodrama, p. 123). Because of this interpretation by the St. Giles crowd, in an ironic turn of events Romney is overtaken by the mob of guests he had wished to elevate socially through his marriage; in my reading, this ironic ending portrays the downfall of the dramatic arts themselves at the hands of the powerful "monster" of melodrama.

"Beware the tragic mask": Romney's "Heroic Part" in Aurora Leigh's Greek Tragedy

The third and final dramatic interpretation of Romney's wedding in Book IV of Aurora Leigh is that of Aurora herself, who summons images of Greek tragedy to analyze Romney's democratic intentions behind his wedding. As Jeffrey Richards has noted, the Victorians lauded ancient Greece as the pinnacle of civilization that "was central to the intellectual life of Victorian Britain"; (26) Greek was taught in boys' schools and mastered by England's elite at Cambridge and Oxford. Although much of nineteenth-century Britain subscribed to the "cult of Hellenism," extensive knowledge of the classics was reserved for aristocratic men; thus, Aurora's knowledge of this privileged body of work could be considered one of EBB's sly feminist arguments in favor of women's education. Moreover, in my metapoetic reading, I argue that Aurora (and EBB) finds Romney's intentions in marrying Marian to be the very embodiment of dramatic poetry--noble on the page but flawed in practice.

In response to Romney's declaration that he intends to wed Marian with "no mask," Aurora writes,
   Ay, masks, I thought,--beware
   Of tragic masks we tie before the glass,
   Uplifted on the cothurn half a yard
   Above the natural stature! we would play
   Heroic parts to ourselves,--and end, perhaps,
   As impotently as Athenian wives
   Who shrieked in fits at the Eumenides. (11. 378-384)

In particular, Aurora alludes here to Aeschylus's play The Eumenides. After the tragic hero Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in the second play of The Oresteia trilogy, he is tormented in the third play by the eponymous Eumenides, or Furies, punishers of matricide. In a footnote explicating the "Athenian wives" referenced by EBB in the preceding quotation, the editor Margaret Reynolds cites the popular story that, when Aeschylus's play premiered, a pregnant Athenian audience member miscarried from fright at the appearance of the terrifying Eumenides (Browning, p. 118nl). The passage, then, serves as foreshadowing of what is to come, warning that, although Romney would "play [a] heroic part" to himself in marrying Marian, he could meet a fate as disastrous as that of the poor, "impotent" Athenian woman. After all, Aurora is writing this passage in retrospect with full awareness of what is to come in Romney's story. Further, Aurora seems to be implicating Romney as the author of his own misery; in attempting to put on a play of social reform, Romney is staging the "dramatic poetry" of his intentions and thereby allegorically placing art at the mercy of popular opinion. Such a mistake, EBB seems to suggest, is worthy of torment by the Eumenides.

When Marian's letter arrives, Romney transforms before Aurora's eyes into a tragic hero of the ancient Greek stage. Slipping into a fit of silent horror, his face contorts with emotion into the white mask of Greek tragedy:
   Was that his face I saw? .. his .. Romney Leigh's ..
   Which tossed a sudden horror like a spunge
   Into all eyes,--while himself stood white upon
   The topmost altar-stair and tried to speak,
   And failed, and lifted higher above his head
   A letter, .. as a man who drowns and gasps. (ll. 797-802)

Like the Greek tragic mask designed to signal a character's emotion even from a distance, Romney's face has become unrecognizably transformed by grief. In addition to line 797 at the beginning of this passage, Aurora remarks twice more on Romney's pale, rigid expression, describing how his "masterful pale face" (l. 851) and "terrible calm face" (1. 869) seems to float above the tumult of the crowd. In her description of the transformation of his features "toss[ing] a sudden horror like a spunge / Into all eyes," Aurora is again referencing Aeschylus's Eumenides, whose most terrifying feature was the "blood and slime [dripping] from their eyes"--theatrically achieved through the use of a slime-soaked "spunge" (Browning, p. 118nl). Aurora suggests that the image of Romney's grief-stricken face is so powerful that it evokes a horror-stricken fury from Marian's wary guests, which radiates from their eyes like the dripping blood and slime of the Eumenides. From Romney's position "upon / The topmost altarstair," they appear horrifying to Romney, like the Eumenides to Orestes or to the "Athenian wives." Stunned, Romney can only manage to raise the letter above his head in a theatrical gesture as he "drowns and gasps" in despair and fear. Thus, the public interpretation of Romney's actions likewise drowns out the integrity of his poetic intent, as EBB believes any staged performance would do to a written dramatic work.

It is important to note that in Aeschylus's play, the Eumenides also serve another function: they are the Chorus. In Greek tragedy, the Chorus was positioned onstage with the actor(s) in order to participate in and comment on the action under way. In the loud participation and commentary of Marian's guests, it is fitting, then, that they take on this role--even more so in light of John Gould's comments on the Chorus. In discussing this particular component of Greek tragedy, Gould has noted that the Chorus is most often made "not of representatives of the citizen body, but precisely of those whom the democratic city of Athens and its institutional core of adult, male citizen-hoplites has defined as marginal." (27) In Aurora Leigh, the marginalized voices are those of the St. Giles congregation--the ones that Romney wishes to empower but that ultimately drown him in their fury. Aurora seems to recognize this irony and sympathize with her cousin, stretching her "unreasoning arms" toward him as he is rushed by the mob, "As men in dreams, who vainly interpose I 'Twixt the gods and their undoing" (11. 871-873). Unfortunately, she is unable to intervene in Romney's fate, and he is overtaken by the tumultuous crowd, his noble dramatic poetry lost in their melodramatic translation of his wedding.

Besides casting Romney as Greek hero pursued by the Chorus of Eumenides, Aurora's reading of the scene also transforms the space of St. James's yet again from a metaphorical Victorian playhouse to the setting of performance for Greek tragedy: the Theater of Dionysus. Within the framework of Greek tragedy, Romney's intention to unite the classes through his marriage is reminiscent both literally and symbolically of the Athenian tradition of the Dionysia--a seasonal festival in which all Athenian citizens came together to pay tribute to the god of wine and fertility. The festival included a performance of either tragedy or comedy at the Athenian Theater of Dionysus; as in Aurora Leigh, this performance was an important demonstration of unity among all citizens as they gathered together for a common patriotic purpose. (28) As Simon Goldhill has posited, "The Great Dionysia is in the full sense of the expression a civic occasion, a city festival.... [It] is a public occasion endowed with a special force of belief, ... fundamentally and essentially a festival of the democratic polis." (29) In the same way that the dramatic performance at the Theater of Dionysus is a part of this civic celebration, Romney's wedding ceremony is intended to celebrate and reunite the citizens of London--England's Athens. In conjuring up images of Greek tragedy, Aurora seems to recognize the similarity between Romney's wedding and this ancient celebration of democracy, but unfortunately she is the only guest to correctly translate Romney's work, which is otherwise trampled by the unforgiving stampede of public opinion.


Although EBB's comments to Mitford concerning the "dramatic poet" and the "unpoetic multitudes" may seem today to be troublingly elitist, EBB corroborates the prevailing intellectual attitude of her day and imparts these "convictions" on written versus performed drama into the masterwork of her poetic career, Aurora Leigh. The metaphorically theatricalized would-be wedding scene in Book IV not only serves to highlight the climactic failing of Romney's democratic intentions that he must reform before uniting with Aurora in the work's denouement but also functions as an allegory for the state of the dramatic arts in Victorian London as seen by one of the most highly respected literary voices of the day. The three (mis)interpretations of Romney's poetic intentions represented in Aurora Leigh constitute the author's warning to readers about what will happen if the art of the drama continues to be judged based on its ability to draw a crowd to the London playhouse: "legitimate" genres such as Shakespeare will continue to be desecrated by poor adaptation and bowdlerization, and "illegitimate" genres such melodrama will infiltrate dramatic artists' works and dominate the stage.

Interpreting Book IV of Aurora Leigh through the lens of EBB's views on Victorian theater opens up new implications for her commentary on "Life" and "Art." Given critics' reinvestment in the nineteenth-century stage in recent decades, this new perspective offers a new area for analysis within the well-trod ground of Aurora Leigh scholarship. Building on the reading of EBB's allegorized theatrical commentary I have here laid out, further consideration could be given to the relationship of Book IV to Book V, in which Aurora continues her discussion of drama and decides to "take for a worthier stage the soul itself" (Book V, 1. 340). Further analysis could also be conducted through the various theoretical lenses of performance studies, perhaps invoking the work of Erving Goffman or Judith Butler to elucidate EBB's fundamental disbelief in the integrity of "translation" or "interpretation" of drama from page to stage. Ultimately, what I hope to have achieved in this article is a new reading of a passage within this familiar and beloved work of Victorian England's chief woman poet--another reaffirmation that her "highest convictions upon Life and Art" remain resonant even centuries later.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Albert Pionke of the University of Alabama for his continued support and guidance during the writing of this article.


(1) Kenneth Richards and Peter Thomson, introduction to Essays on Nineteenth Century British Theatre (London: Methuen, 1971), p. vii.

(2) Elizabeth Barrett to Mary Russell Mitford, 4 July 1842, in The Brownings' Correspondence: An Online Edition, ed. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson, National Endowment for the Humanities, 22 June 2016,

(3) Michael Booth, Theatre in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 4.

(4) Elizabeth Barrett to Henrietta Moulton-Barrett, 24 June 1848, in Brownings' Correspondence, =88221&returnPage=l.

(5) Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 17 February 1845, in Brownings' Correspondence,

(6) Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 27 February 1845, in Brownings' Correspondence,

(7) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 4. All future quotations from the verse novel refer to this edition.

(8) Adrian Poole, Shakespeare and the Victorians (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004), p. 156.

(9) W. David Shaw, The Ghost behind the Masks: The Victorian Poets and Shakespeare (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2014), p. 254nl.

(10) Gail Marshall, "Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: Translating the Language of Intimacy," VP 44, no. 4 (2006): 470.

(11) Unless otherwise noted, all line numbers refer to Book IV.

(12) John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn, 6 vols., ed. E. S. de Beer (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955), 5:542.

(13) John Macky, A Journey through England: In Familiar Letters from a Gentleman Here, to His Friend Abroad (London: J. Hooke, 1722), p. 306.

(14) See Elizabeth Barrett to Arabella Moulton-Barrett, 15-17 April 1848, in Brownings' Correspondence,; and Elizabeth Barrett to Mary Russell Mitford, 15 April 1848, in Brownings' Correspondence,

(15) Michael Booth, "Early Victorian Farce: Dionysus Domesticated," in Richards and Thomson, Essays on Nineteenth Century British Theatre, p. 96.

(16) Leigh Hunt, "The Reopening of Covent Garden and the Commencement of the OP Riots, 1809," in Romantic and Revolutionary Theatre, 1798-1860, ed. Donald Roy et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 139-140.

(17) Elaine Hadley, "The Old Price Wars: Melodramatizing the Public Sphere in Early-Nineteenth-Century England," in Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), p. 37.

(18) House of Commons, Select Committee on Dramatic Literature, Report from the Select Committee on Dramatic Literature: With the Minutes of Evidence (London: House of Commons, 1832), p. 3.

(19) Julia Swindells, "Behold the Swelling Scene! Shakespeare and the 1832 Select Committee," in Victorian Shakespeare, 2 vols., ed. Gail Marshall and Adrian Poole (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 1:32.

(20) Gail Marshall, introduction to Marshall and Poole, Victorian Shakespeare, 1:3.

(21) J. S. Bratton, "The Lear of Private Life: Interpretations of King Lear in the Nineteenth Century," in Shakespeare and the Victorian Stage, ed. Richard Foulkes (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 132.

(22) Jeffrey Cox, "The Death of Tragedy; or, the Birth of Melodrama," in The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre's History, ed. Tracy C. Davis and Peter Holland (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 161.

(23) Michael Booth, English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965), p. 14.

(24) Maurice Disher, "A Cottage Girl Is as Respectable as a Queen," in Blood and Thunder: Mid-Victorian Melodrama and Its Origins (London: Frederick Muller, 1949), p. 178.

(25) Thomas Egerton Wilks, Michael Erie, the Maniac Lover, or, the Fayre Lass of Lichfield: A Romantic Original Drama in Two Acts (Boston: William V. Spencer, 1856), p. 11.

(26) Jeffrey Richards, The Ancient World on the Victorian and Edwardian Stage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 6.

(27) John Gould, "Tragedy and the Collective Experience," in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, ed. M. S. Silk (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1996), p. 220.

(28) Nancy Rabinowitz, "Tragedy and the Polis: Performance Setting," in Greek Tragedy (Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2008), p. 44.

(29) Simon Goldhill, "The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology," in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, ed. John Winkler and Froma Zeitlin (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), p. 114.
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Author:Williams, Anna
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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