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

This first chapter is called “Little Actors,” and follows the trajectory of childhood (as part of the book’s larger project of following the trajectory of the life cycle).  As most studies of Victorian childhood have found, “[c]hildren in Victorian novels are illuminated presences because they die so often.  Dying is what they do best; often, they are expected to die even when they don’t” (21).  Also:

Their main distinction is a responsiveness to death that saves them from open-endedness, turning their beginnings into endings.  Their truncated lives are the unbroken, self-complete, perfectly symmetrical circles of eternity.  Children on the edge of death have no time to forfeit their best selves. (21)

Again, this reading of childhood privileges the supposed Victorian ideal of the complete, integrated self: “[t]he dying child repudiates the lie of others’ lives, embodying instead our lost original perfection” (23).  Apparently, the “self-complete” child was an antidote to the mutable, theatrical self that the Victorian middle class so feared.

Auerbach goes on to read Jane Eyre and Pip as two archetypal Victorian children who come into self-awareness through what she calls “visual realization” (32), borrowing the term from the Victorian pictorial theater.  She uses Martin Meisel to explain “visual realization,” and this quotation seems very helpful to me:

“Realization,” which had a precise technical sense when applied to certain theatrical tableaux based on well-known pictures … meant both literal re-creation and translation into a more real, that is more vivid, visual, physically present medium.  To move from mind’s eye to body’s eye was realization, and to add a third dimension to two was realization, as when words became picture, or when picture became dramatic tableaux. (32)

“To be,” Auerbach concludes, “was to be seen” (32).  I find this Meisel quotation very useful because I think that “realization” would be a good lens through which to look at theatrical adaptations of sensation fiction.  I’m even wondering if Charles Reade’s inclusion of facsimiles of handwritten notes into Foul Play could be a form of “realization,” since it translates text into a more “real” and “physically present” medium.

Anyway, on a different note, one of the tidbits from this chapter that I found fascinating was the fact that in 1804, Master Betty–a 13-year-old child actor–was playing Hamlet, Macbeth, and other adult protagonists.  According to Auerbach, “this weirdly charismatic boy outdrew all adult competitors, including the novice Edmund Kean, whom the Romantics were to cast as their type of genius” (35-36).  She continues:

Until the 1860s, when the theater began to court middle-class respectability, stage children were miracles of virtuosity, not adorableness.  In the space of a performance, child stars whirled from youth to age, female to male, burlesque to tragedy, and back again. (36)

Of course, this is part of the contradiction that Auerbach is pointing out: the idealized, self-contained child of Victorian fantasy was actually an actor, both literally and figuratively.

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