Showing and telling on stage and page.
In the early pages of her intriguing study, Anne F. Widmayer ponders the dearth of critical attention to the relationship between drama and the early novel, especially given the participation in both forms of literature by significant early novelists. Sensibly, she asks,
How could years of writing for the theatre--considering how a 'scene' should be set up visually, where the actors should be placed in relation to each other and the sets, what gestures would be most visible to the theatre audience, and how dialogue should be paced to move the action along--not influence the way a writer created episodes in prose? (1)
And she is right. Playwrights must know how to craft a scene and how
to establish and develop character, and so must novelists. It is, as Widmayer points out, rather amazing that little sustained attention has been paid to the role of drama in the emergence of the novel at least vis a vis the dominant reading of the early novel as defined by formal realism. While the work of Emily Hodgson Anderson and Terry Castle (to name two) might lead us to the conclusion that Widmayer is overstating her case at the outset, I find her book's emphasis on staging, discovery, and prospect on the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage and in the pages of the early novel to truly be, as she asserts, a significant chapter added to the history of both genres.
Readers of the early novel, as Widmayer says, would have been attuned to dramatic structure and scene through their experience in the theatre as well as their participation in a generally theatrical culture where one was often on display or watching others who were--at dances, fairs, court, church, and street venues. They were also avid readers of play texts (a lively part of the print trade) and, therefore, accustomed to thinking in terms of scenes and characters. It is no coincidence, Widmayer points out, that many early novels involve a scene or several scenes in a theatre or at a puppet show or some other public dramatic event where the relationship between the two narrative genres is explicitly interrogated. The early novelists, their involvement in the adumbration of formal realism notwithstanding, seem deeply invested in the meta-textual. Widmayer is correct to draw our attention to the fact that references to the dramatic world are an essential component of the self-consciousness of the early novel. Her study concerns Behn, Manley, Congreve, and Fielding, but her insight is pertinent to Sterne, Mackenzie, Burney, and Scott (at the bare minimum) as well.
One of the most interesting aspects of Widmayer's study is her focus on the use of stage space by the four authors. Behn and Manley use the entire stage--but to different effects. Behn tends to set up scenes in which there is an audience, emphasizing the specialness of the characters on display or at the center of attention, both on stage and in the novel. In The Rover, Part 1, for example, Angellica Bianca appears on her balcony before a number of the other characters. A similar set-up occurs in Behn's novel Oroonoko when the African prince arrives in Surinam and is presented to the Europeans and the other slaves. On stage, Behn groups her characters, creating various focal points; in her fiction, she draws attention to the theatricality of episodes when she wants to move the reader between perspectives.
One extended example provided by Widmayer is the scene in Oroonoko in which Imoinda dances before the king and others in the Coramantien otan. Behn describes the scene as though it is constructed on a large stage, with enemies (the King and Oroonoko) on opposite ends and Imoinda dancing in the middle. Such placement of characters and visual creation of tension, Widmayer points out, was a convention of the Restoration stage (heroic drama, in particular). Our attention, as readers of Behn's fiction, is directed narratively as it would have been theatrically. We are introduced to the large visual content of the story--and then directed to various groups: Onahal and Aboan, Oroonoko and his friends, the king and his entourage. For Widmayer, the significance of Behn's emphasis on spatial placement in this scene (and also in the scene of Oroonoko's arrival in Surinam) is the novelist's individuation of the African characters. In a profitable contrast to Thomas Southerne's stage adaptation of Behn's narrative, Widmayer meticulously illustrates that, unlike Behn, Southerne groups all blacks (and Imoinda, whom Southerne rewrites as a white slave) together in stage space that indicates their membership in the category "slave"--yielding quite a different reading of the title character, in particular: "In Behn's novel, Oroonoko's distinctive qualities as a leader and his difference from the other slaves are emphasized not only through the words he speaks, but also through the way [he is presented] to the reader" (37).
Behn's groupings in her novels are influenced by the way she used stage space, and Widmayer's discussion of the similarities as well as the differences is nuanced and persuasive. Particularly interesting is her treatment of the problematic use of theatricality with regard to the narrator of Oroonoko. Though we have long recognized the fact of the narrator's potential unreliability and the troubling aspects of her responses toward the Royal Slave, Widmayer grounds these points in the theatricality of the narrator's self-presentation. In a theatre, we see characters and watch plot unfold on a stage. It is the viewer's prerogative to judge characters based on what is seen and heard. On the pages of a novel, the narrator can intrude and guide the reader's response, but, in so doing, she can also subvert her own authority. Certainly, Behn does in Oroonoko. It is a strength of this study that the subversion of the narrator is shown to begin with the parallel theatrical scenes of Oroonoko's introduction to Surinam and the narrator's visit to the Indians.
Delarivier Manley, like Behn, was adept at using the entire stage (forestage and scenic stage) for her dramatic productions. She was especially fond of the scenic reveal--the discovery of a character or characters in states of high emotion. In her plays, Manley employs the discovery scene in highlighting the feelings of her characters. In her prose, Manley is able to reproduce and even extend the emotional engagement of the theatre by descriptive language that reflects the complex relationship between the external image of the character, the internal conflict, and the resulting behavior. Thus, Widmayer concludes, the reader "is predisposed both to engage and identify" with emotions (even negative emotions such as anger) and to "excuse... subsequent actions" arising from the feelings on display (121). Widmayer begins with the first and perhaps the most famous dramatic scene in The New Atalantis: the discovery of Germanicus lying on a bed filled with flowers in a sexually suggestive posture, gazed on by the Duchess de L'Inconstant and, through her eyes, by the reader. In her late works (The Power of Love and The History of Europe), Widmayer points out, Manley reserves such displays for her women characters, and because she does so "women's emotions, both good and bad, are validated" (122).
Unlike Behn, Manley wrote plays and prose fiction throughout her career; therefore Widmayer dubs the techniques Manley develops for engaging her audiences and readers with the emotions of her characters "dramatic-narrative techniques." I find the term clear, but somewhat tautological, coming this late in the book. In fact, I tend to find Widmayer's attempts to introduce specialized vocabulary unhelpful and distracting, in general. While in this instance I think the term simply unnecessary as it could be employed without the quotation marks and without the self-conscious linking of its significance to Manley (isn't this entire book about dramatic-narrative technique?), on other occasions I find the such terms distracting. A lengthy discussion early on highlights the concept of "parabasis" (derived from Paul de Man) when "self-consciousness" or "disruption" would be much clearer. Anyone reading this book knows that the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage featured regular references to the fact that one was watching a play (and the eighteenth-century novel generally features such self-conscious moments as well). We don't need a new word for this effect, and the periodic appearance of "parabasis" throughout the book is always more confusing than illuminating. "Dramatic-narrative technique" is clearer, but, again, seems to me to be applicable to all the playwright/novelists. That is a minor quibble, however, considering the overall strength of the chapter on Manley.
In her late prose narratives, Manley occasionally seems to be struggling for a new medium--neither stage nor page, but film. I was particularly struck by Widmayer's invocation of a section of Memoirs of Europe that depicts a character walking down a hallway, peering into the rooms he passes, each of which reveals a "scene of love" (241). Widmayer's comment is astute:
Since he has no guide to provide context for these mini-dramas, they function as discovery scenes would on stage, surprising the audience with an elaborate spectacle as the scenery slides apart. However, in Manley's own dramatic practice, she never staged discovery scene after discovery scene--probably...because Restoration and early eighteenth-century stages did not have deep enough scenic stages to accommodate such an extended sequence. (241)
Though Widmayer does not invoke the proto-filmic imagination, either here or in her next chapter on Congreve, I find her discussion provocatively suggestive of such. With Congreve, however, it is not the montage that is invoked but the two-shot.
Congreve wrote one novel, Incognita, which appeared in print shortly before his first stage production, The Old Bachelor. Widmayer finds both indebted to Scarron's Roman comique, particularly in the inclusion of an ironic narrator. In Incognita, it is the author-narrator who provides satiric commentary on the love story at the center of the narrative. In The Old Bachelor, Heartwell serves the same function. He can do so because of "Congreve's signature playwriting technique," his preference to present "action upon the forestage with pairs of characters" (129). As Congreve wishes to shift audience focus from one pair of characters to another, he simply moves the first pair deeper into the scenic stage and another to the forestage. The effect is to concentrate attention to dialogue--and to leave room for a character like Heartwell, who is unpaired, to make "satirical speeches about love" (157), rendering him also the butt of the play's satire when he himself succumbs to the passion. Widmayer's extended focus is on The Old Bachelor, but I find her comments intriguing with regard to Congreve's other plays as well, especially The Way of the World, in which, perhaps, Mrs. Fainall could be seen to serve as the author-narrator (at least until act 5). The discussion also makes me want to return to Etherege's Man of Mode to think about the staging and the role of Medley as satirist in that play's plot.
The final two chapters on Henry Fielding are solid, but not especially exciting in their treatment of the unreliable author-character and the meta-theatrical references in the plays nor the self-conscious, also unreliable, narrator and the meta-novelistic references in the fiction. I do think Fielding is the logical conclusion for this work, and Widmayer's observation that Fielding's novelistic use of "theatrical techniques illustrate just how diffcult it is to portray an un-ironic version of 'reality' in fiction" (226) is just and apt. However, to my mind, the great value of ending with sustained attention to Fielding's work is that he is placed in resonant conversation with his forebears, Behn, Congreve, and Manley. While I didn't emerge from reading the chapters on Fielding with a new sense of his dramatic-narrative art, I did come away with the realization that his art is rooted in or at least informed by the practices of writers with whom I don't usually associate him. The effect of the company Fielding keeps in Widmayer's monograph is to complicate (productively) our sense of his theatrical practices as well as his role in the shaping of the novel.
Widmayer's epilogue ponders possible directions of future scholarship on the relationship between the theatre and the novel, including the treatment of dialogue as performance, the pacing of action and structure of narrative in both genres, the rich (and under-examined) body of work that had both dramatic and prose narrative life, similar to the story of Oroonoko. I agree that the last topic, in particular, would be a fruitful and rewarding scholarly endeavor. In her final paragraph, Widmayer hopes that she has not "given the impression that modern estimations of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama should be established primarily upon their relation to the developing genre of the novel" (243). I can assure her that she has not given such an impression. In fact, this study makes the opposite point in many ways. If she has not quite proved that "the drama should be viewed as the more gluttonous and amoeba-like of the two genres, taking back into its corpus that upstart, the novel" (244), she has at least made us consider the possibility.
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|Title Annotation:||Theatre and the Novel, from Behn to Fielding|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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