Dear friends and readers,
A final blog on this year’s ASECS meeting in Cleveland. Two plenary lectures, one by Felicity Nussbaum defending 18th century tragedy by way of the salacious mocking epilogues associated with key actresses of the age; the other by Julie Hayes on French women moralists and marriage. Then a miscellany: a session on later 18th to early 19th century drama & novels, one on women’s attitudes towards Rousseau. Sessions on music: I went to one on 18th century opera as performed, now, in the 21st century. Tourism and art. Finally, most delightful, a session where people read aloud their favorite poems and for once revealed why they enjoyed them so much.
Saturday, 11:30 to noon, In “Unaccountable Pleasures: the Subject of Tragedy,” Felicity Nussbaum began with the admission many of the plays of the era were poor; if tragedy is central to an era, how explain the aesthetic failure of tragedies when they were so popular. Radical shifts in ways of performing and the new central roles for women make for a different kind of drama: actresses made visible a new kind of bonding whose goal was to flatter and to enable their audiences to escape. She went over the careers of actresses, gave readings of several centrally popular 18th century tragic plays (not all today considered great masterpieces like Arthur Murphy’s The Grecian Daughter), read aloud numerous of the epilogues & and then explicated them and discussed how they were enacted to suggest they were meaningful as performed for their audiences.
One of the sessions, on Thursday, 9:45 am (18, “The 18th century repertoire) can be aligned with Nussbaum’s speech. All three papers were about the radical content of the plays of the 1790s; what unites them with the previous topic is on the face of it these have been seen as poor plays, rewrites of earlier plays or apparently naive recountings of earlier political events. Daniel Gustafson spoke of the rewriting of specific Restoration libertine plays (a revival where they were rewritten and famous Restoration historical figures brought before the public again, i.e, Rochester, Charles II); these manifest a preference for acting out contemporary (early 19th century) politicized ideals. Later plays have characters of lower rank; the earlier time of history is itself de-politicized. Daniell O’Quinn (quoting John Barrell) showed how plays got through the harsh repression and how performances through visuals, noise and a libretto yield comments on what is tyranny. Better plays — as Otway’s whose complexity was little appreciated — can tragically fail. Multiple complex intentions are mostly lost.
Roz Ballaster explicated the text of Sheridan’s Rivals as a prologue to looking at the interactions (so to speak) of the novel and drama. She went over plays which reworked other plays (Inchbald’s Married Man reworked Destouche’s autobiographical play of the same name); George Colman writes a play that is like an obsessed novel where no conflicts are resolved. We must not read the plays too much as imitations either. She pointed to texts which were read and not staged. The novel heroine is generally more active, more aggressive, more complex, but we get novelistic treatments of heroine in the theater (Southerne’s Isabella).
Julie Chandler Hayes first looked at the work of many 17th, 18th and 19th century women moralistsm then singled out 4 individual women and their works to treat in detail and then moved back to generalization. A mordant tradition of moralizing which differ from that of males which has little to say about childbirth or marriage, which women moralists discuss, often as a kind of slavery; they were given no or little choice. Women whose works she covered include: Gabrielle Suchon (1631-1703), Madame de Lafayette (1634-93); Anne-Therese de Marguenat de Courcelles, Marquise de Lambert (1647-1733); Madeleine de Puisieux (1720-98); Madame de Verzure (?1766); Marie-Jeanne de Châtillon Bontems (1718-1768) who translated Thomson’s Seasons; Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte d’Arlus (or Darlus), married to Louis-Lazare Thiroux d’Arconville (1720-1805), and wrote scientific works, translated, whose works have been attributed to Diderot; Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49).
While Prof Hayes discussed some themes as they appear in a few individual works or are of interest for one person, I’ve given just her heads of topic and what she discussed both separately and for the women as a group. SO: they discuss celibacy, companionate marriage, adultery (this was expected, people presented as taking a lover out of boredom, but then finding themselves in a morass of jealousy and resentment). The issue of parenthood is treated abstractly: before Rousseau motherhood is not a topic. More abstractly: unequal power relationships, egalitarian feminism; the necessity of submission, a pessimistic view of humanity, marriage as a perverted institution, hardly calculated to add to happiness of either person. Loss of liberty is central to the truth of marriage, especially for women.
Girls are victims raised with care in order that they submit to this life; boys are put into armies. The moralists say there are husbands who love their wives and wives who love their husbands, but it’s the husband who knows independence; for a wife to know liberty she must be a widow first. People shipwreck themselves for desire and ambition. Bleak depictions of social customs; she must obey him and his self-interest; he can make her unhappy with impunity. We see the interior of households, happiness not common among the lower class people either. Marriage not a natural state, an ideal of an unattached life. Some deeply poignant life stories hinted at: one woman lost her child at an early age and does not get over it. Some see a double movement between ambition (so you follow convenances) and personal identity.
There is little or no emotional refuge to be found in French women’s moralist writings. Novel took on further cultural analyses with its quest to understand human motivations and interactions. these are discourses of self-regulation. They have a profound sense the world they are allowed is not enough.
Again I attended a session that may be aligned with this general lecture: Rousseau’s Emile (Friday, 11:30 am, No. 113). There were four papers. There were no surprises: Mary Trouille showed Rousseau advised educating women to serve men’s needs absolutely; his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise shows the tragic results; Kristin Jennings went over how 18th century German women responded to Rousseau as seen in their writing, her specific example the work of Sophie Von La Roche whose famous novel she compared to that of another German woman writer; Karen Pagani explicated an unfinished text by Rousseau, Les Solitaires which seems to be about whether a man should forgive a woman who has transgressed. The question (to me) seemed inadequate as the women in question was probably raped. Questions include whether the person should react with personal feelings (which seemed to lead to forgiveness) or do his or her civic duty and set an example. A fourth paper came from another panel: Avi Lifschitz had to leave early so he gave his paper on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages in this session. I thought most interesting was Rousseau’s idea that words have a natural link with reality through their signing function; that the visual holds us, that language has lost its ability to persuade as it becomes more abstract, that it’s most effective when people say less. Rousseau was frank enough to show his imagined teacher and pupil acting out some of his theories and failing.
A session I and Jim enjoyed but I probably won’t be able to convey much about was “Eighteenth Century Opera in Production” (Saturday, 9:45 am, No 169). All four presentations used power-point, computers, screens, music, DVDs. Majel A. Connery discussed a recent production of Mozart at Salzburg which appears to have been 3 plays, all intended to reflect his life, his imagination trajectory, his work: she called it “meta-theater Mozart.” The plays were controversial among other things for the way they characterized Mozart’s inner life: wild, nightmarish, when reflective sad. Money (the lack of it) tears the hero apart. Everyone in simple symbolic costumes; the stage a huge box. Annelies Andries discussed what happened when the traditional aria of an opera is replaced by anther aria part of the opera but often left out. This happened in a production of the Marriage of Figaro with Cecilia Bartoli; the audience was apparently disappointed instead of reinvigorated with the apparently new perspective.
Laurel E. Zeis’s's “‘Persistent 18th century in two recent Metropolitan productions” was about elements of staging, kinds of voices, costumes, motifs, attitudes, practices, brought into the 21st century from the 18th century stage. I have a picture of some on this blog: the imitation of an 18th century stage in the recent Giulio Cesare. I wrote a blog about The Enchanted Island which was her central focus — and the use of boats on artificial water in the background appeared again in Giulio Cesare. Supernatural elements and computerized projection are found everywhere — though not Dryden and Davenant substituted for Shakespeare. Her suggestion that the “machine” for the Ring cycle was “very 18th century” because it changed the scenery in front of the audience, caused the players to come up front stage, & even dress in front of us was not all that persuasive, but her clips were fun. She talked of operas I’d not heard of (a Little Women), and pointed to unexpected 18th century elements in recently written operas like Nixon in China (a da capo aria).
Similarly, the strong tourism element of the four papers given in “Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations in the 18th century” (Thursday, 4:15 pm, No 71) were dependent on slides, and clips and photos, and I took few notes, just looked at lot. Suffice to say I especially enjoyed T. Barton Thurber’s talk on lasting impressions of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and British artists in Italy” and the pictures of Roman Antiquities discussed by Carole Paul. I was not able to stay for Jamie Smith’s Lady Mary Montagu and the Masks of Venice,” and unfortunately David Kennerley did not make it with his “Italian Prima Donnas and British Female Singers, 1770-1840″.
A little more on a poetry reading session and I’ve done.