David O'Shaughnessy. William Godwin and the Theatre.
David O'Shaughnessy, ed. The Plays of William Godwin. London: Picketing and Chatto, 2010. lix + 285 pp.
William Godwin (1756-1836) will be chiefly known to the readers of this journal as the founder of philosophical anarchism in Britain and author of the famous Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1st ed., 1793). He was in addition the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein (1818), often regarded as the founding text of modern science fiction, is sometimes read as a critique of her father's more outlandish ideas, notably his flirtation with ideas of immortality in Political Justice and the later novel St Leon (1799). Political Justice inspired Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, and other youthful enthusiasts of the French Revolution to consider the optimal outcome of the revolution as a retreat to small-scale rural self-subsistence agriculture, the sharing of property on just principles, and the practice of government according to pantisocratic principles. Later a confidant of Robert Owen, Godwin outlived the period of his greatest popularity (to circa 1805) by many decades, eking out a living as a children's author, novelist, and pamphleteer but often perilously close to the breadline in his later years.
Godwin has been generally better served by historians of English literature than analysts of intellectual history. An older literature, dominated by Charles Kegan Paul's two-volume life (1876), began, however, to be supplanted after World War II. There are now good studies of Godwin's intellectual trajectory, notably by Peter Marshall (1984) and Mark Philp (1986), and a splendid collection of Godwin's political writings, also available from Pickering and Chatto, edited by Mark Philp, with a further edition of the collected novels and memoirs from the same publisher. An edition of Godwin's correspondence is now under way, edited by Pamela Clemit, volume I of which, covering the years 1778-97, has appeared from Oxford University Press (2011). Godwin's influence on the literature of the 1790S, notably through writers such as Charlotte Smith, Robert Bage, and Thomas Holcroft, is now well documented. Much of the nitty-gritty of Godwiniana was charted in a magnificent and exhaustive bibliographic study, Burton Pollin's Godwin Criticism. A Synoptic Bibliography (1967), which remains the indispensable starting point for any contextual approach to Godwin's influence.
Godwin's career as a playwright has been much less well documented, by contrast, and these two volumes are hence a welcome addition to Godwin scholarship. Having begun life as a Sandemanian Baptist minister, Godwin slowly shed his religious beliefs and turned to penny-a-line journalism in the 1780s and then political pamphleteering and literature. Much of his work of this type in the early years is fairly forgettable and remains largely forgotten. His great successes in these areas lay mainly in the novels of the 1790s and particularly Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which was transformed into a play the following year. The stage, thus, was never far from Godwin's intellectual interests or ambitions in this period: social satire as well as revolutionary principles could for a short time, at least, be found here as readily as on booksellers" stalls. The plays reprinted in O'Shaughnessy's collection are St Dunstan (1790), Antonio (1800), Abbas, King of Persia (1801), and Faulkener (1807). All are historical tragedies. None was terribly successful; though Godwin loved the stage and loved the performance aspects of preaching, his enthusiasm was not transferred in equal measure to his own productions. His speeches were too long, critics complained, his arguments convoluted, and intellectual interventions too rarely interspersed with action. Unlike Caleb Williams, sometimes regarded as the first thriller, and replete with swift changes of scene and dramatic effect (it was itself produced as a play entitled The Iron Chest, by George Colman the younger), the plays were overly didactic. Godwin knew many other playwrights, attended the theater regularly, and was a passably acute critic. But these failed to provide a recipe for his own success.
St Dunstan appeared just as the debate over the French Revolution was beginning in Britain. Godwin was at this time almost constantly in the company of Thomas Holcroft, himself a successful dramatist. Godwin chose as his topic here a tenth-century conflict between church and state, taking up the cause of the dissenters excluded from much of British public life since the Restoration of 1660. In 1787 efforts had been mounted to repeal the Test and Corporation acts, which limited civil rights to Anglicans. Godwin was himself involved in agitation to repeal the acts (which failed) but could not find a buyer or producer for the play.
Antonio was commenced in 1797, interrupted by Wollstonecraft's death that year, completed in early 1799, and finally produced at the Drury Lane theater in December 1800. Godwin was at this stage at the height of his notoriety, under heavy attack from many sources for, essentially, poisoning the morals of the middle-class youth of the period, who were uneasy with the plebeian road to revolution indicated by Paine and Thelwall but happy to consider the more individualistic rebellion associated with the evident antinomianism, and even sexual liberation, of some parts of Godwin's ethics. Unable to put his name to the piece, Godwin used subterfuge, to no purpose, to disguise his association with it. The key themes here, appropriately, are marriage and infidelity. Again, however, critics found the piece unduly heavy, and the taint of Godwinism soon fouled its reputation. One review noted that the play "drew no tears, except those of the author and his friends."
Undeterred, Godwin set about composing Abbas, King of Persia, hoping to capitalize on the fashionable taste for orientalism. He failed again. Faulkener, loosely based on Daniel Defoe's Roxana (1724-26), was, however, finally produced in 1805 after a number of false starts. A young man's adventurous pursuit of his long-lost mother is the key theme here, and there is much less philosophy and rather more action. The reviews were more favorable, but Godwin still failed to achieve the degree of success he sought.
These developments are introduced in the volume of plays and exhaustively analyzed in O'Shaughnessy's detailed study. Modern readers are unlikely to be attracted by the plays themselves despite recurring interest in the period and in some of Godwin's novels in particular. The momentousness of Godwin's impact upon the dominant utopian ideals of the period-we recall that he was with Condorcet the chief target in the first edition of Malthus's Essay on Population (1798)--is utterly lost here. The meaning of these overwhelmingly unsuccessful attempts to bring life to political ideas on the stage was much greater for Godwin himself than for anyone else either then or now. Nonetheless this edition and study show us another dimension of the man, and students of Godwin, at least, will be thankful for their appearance.
Gregory Claeys, Royal Holloway, University of London
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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