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

This final chapter is called, appropriately enough, “Death Scenes,” and focuses on the fact that “[d]ying well was an art, and the theater made the most of it” (94). According to Auerbach:

Theatricality–teasing, pyrotechnical, and self-creating–scattered the spirit’s immutable majesty. Death was life’s last great moment of change. Most of us imagine death as negation, obliterating hope and consciousness forever, but Victorian death scenes embrace it as a final source of the integration lives promise and deny. If life cannot realize us, dying must, for there is nothing beyond. (89-90)

One of the relevant examples of this that Auerbach uses is Little Willie in East Lynne, whose death is followed closely by Lady Isabel’s.  Another example that I found interesting was Auerbach’s reference to “Comyns Carr’s 1895 adaptation of the revered Idylls of the King” (97). Aaand… my master’s thesis on Idylls of the King comes back to haunt me, like the specters of the divided self that haunted the Victorians, haha. There’s certainly lots of death in Idylls of the King, but I never would have thought of Tennyson’s poem being adapted for the stage (Henry Irving played Arthur). Fascinating.

Here’s more Auerbach:

Dying literary characters become the central actors of their stories; they cast off the fragmentation that thwarted them in life. The dead in Victorian poetry are not merely actors, but omnipotent stage directors as well; they do not only dominate their world, but order it. In the nineteenth-century imagination, death gains stunning power, even though it has lost the one power our own century has learned to live with: it no longer kills. (100)

This is where Auerbach brings in the figure of the Victorian ghost:

Ghosts epitomize the powers of the Victorian dead. Like Victorian actors, they invade ordinary life with insistent visual intensity, becoming incarnations of unspoken faiths–in this case, faith in a self even death cannot contain or quench. (101)

Ultimately, “all Victorian ghosts are actors in their obsession with their own visibility” (106).  Also, death brings a final sense of identity to the self: “Only death brings the self into its inheritance, one so mighty it cannot be killed. Bearing a legacy of potential grandeur like that which determines the Victorian life cycle, the living stagger, but the dead walk” (109).  I like all of these quotes, because I like the connections that Auerbach is able to draw between the figures of the actor, the ghost, the subject of biography, the madwoman, and even the typical Victorian individual.  However, in future posts, I intend to critique some of these connections, via Lynn Voskuil’s excellent study entitled Acting Naturally.

Before I leave Auerbach, however, I will incorporate one final quote (the last words of the book!), which I think encapsulates her entire argument:

I suggest that the source of Victorian fears of performance lay not on the stage, but in the histrionic artifice of ordinary life. Playing themselves continually, convinced of the spiritual import of their lives, Victorian men and women validated those lives with the sanction of nature but feared that nature was whatever the volatile self wanted it to be. The theater was a visible reminder of the potential of good men and women to undergo inexplicable changes. Its menace was not its threat to the integrity of sincerity, but the theatricality of sincerity itself. The specter that audiences called the actor performed lives they recognized as their own. (114)


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