Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (Part I)

This is Nina Auerbach’s famous book on anti-theatrical prejudice and Victorian life-writing.  This post is going to summarize her Introduction, “Trees and Transfigurations.”

It seems like this book responds to another classic Victorianist work, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, which I definitely need to read.  Sincerity and Authenticity dates back to the 70s, I believe, and seems interested in the cultural touchstones that make up the Victorian legacy.  Going for the obvious deduction, I’m extrapolating that sincerity and authenticity (as Trilling says, “the insistent claims of the own self” [10]) are two elements of something that we could call the “Victorian legacy” (Auerbach’s words, 10).

The Victorian ideal, Auerbach (following Trilling) insists, consisted of a stable, autonomous bedrock of selfhood.  And this (impossible) ideal led to the anti-theatrical prejudice that Auerbach claims was so rampant in the nineteenth century.  Life-writing was so attractive to the Victorians because it was “authentic”–not creatively, playfully, unpredictably fictional.  But…

As sources of truth, though, lives could be dangerously like masks.  Living was so significant that sages strained to shelter it from contamination; the theater became the primary source and metaphor for meretricious, life-destroying activity. (4)

Also:

Reverent Victorians shunned theatricality as the ultimate, deceitful mobility.  It connotes not only lies, but a fluidity of character that decomposes the uniform integrity of the self. (4)

There were many problems and complications with this anti-theatrical prejudice, not the least of which is the fact that theater was immensely popular for the entire nineteenth century.  Another problem was that Shakespeare had already achieved godlike powers by the nineteenth century, and he was, unfortunately, a playwright.  According to Auerbach,

The nineteenth-century Shakespeare came to stand for human inviolateness, not for poetry or the theater.  The Victorian mission to redeem him from theatricality is part of a cultural passion to preserve all lives from their inherently deceitful potential.  It is scarcely possible to be ourselves without acting ourselves, but to be sincere, we must not act.  (8)

So, according to Shakespeare, even respectable men play many parts in their lifetime–life is, partially, about acting like oneself.  And Auerbach goes on to show that famous Victorians like Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Carroll, Browning, Tennyson, Braddon, James, Eliot, etc. all “wrote for the theater, longed to write for it, or, failing to achieve theatrical success, transplanted theatrical values into the works that made them famous” (13).  And thus, coinciding with a cultural prejudice against the theater was a pervasive fascination with the theater that influenced not only the theater itself, but also life-writing, novels, and culture as a whole.  Auerbach says:

To antitheatrical Victorians, the theater was a subversive anticulture whose illusions and seductions lured souls away; but in fact the Victorian theater shared–and eventually, self-consciously aped–the paradoxes of Victorian culture as a whole. […] Apparently a freeing, frightening world apart, the theater mirrored the society that alternately ostracized and adored it. (17)

Auerbach ends her Introduction by comparing actors to ghosts.  Ghosts “stand in tantalizing relation to the ideal of the own self,” but they are also “manifestations of grandeur and supreme authority” (18).  “If ghosts are actors,” Auerbach contends, “actors are regularly represented as specters, emanations, doppelganger, apparitions, of the natural self.  Actors and ghosts both appear as unnatural impositions on authentic being” (18).

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