Jacques Derrida: “The Law of Genre”

So, I have not read La Folie du Jour, so I’m going to leave that section of “The Law of Genre” alone and just focus on Derrida’s main points, which I think he lays out in the first part of this talk. The big flashy “wow!” moment for me was Derrida’s “axiomatic question,” where he asks, “can one identify a work of art, of whatever sort, but especially a work of discursive art, if it does not bear the mark of a genre, if it does not signal or mention it or make it remarkable in any way?” (211). This seems to me to be the question he was leading us toward when, at the opening of his lecture, he gave us three utterances: “Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres. I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them” (202). He says that we could have read that first statement, “genres are not to be mixed” as fairly neutral–in other words, here’s a thing that shouldn’t happen, just like eggs whites and parsley are not to be mixed, for whatever reason. Or, we could have read that as a prescriptive command: “Hey you, don’t even think about mixing genres! They are not to be mixed!” Similarly, his second statement, “I will not mix them,” could have been read according to different genre conventions. Again, it could have been a fairly neutral statement: “personally, this is not something I’m going to do, if that’s okay with you.” Or, it could have been read as a promise, a submissive posture in response to the previous command: “Okay, sir, I promise, I won’t mix them, I promise!” The key here is that Derrida did not give us any cues with which to interpret these statements. He left us uncertain of what genre they belonged to. So, we presumably had trouble classifying them, making them mean something, and therefore figuring out what he was trying to say. So, eventually, he asks, can we identify a work of art that has no marker of genre?

So, spoiler alert: Derrida doesn’t particularly believe in things that seem to have clear borders, like genres. So he doesn’t really want to talk about how to put things into genres. Anybody could do that, and besides, there are so many terms, he says, that how could he ever presume to contain their proliferation? It’s impossible. For him the law of genre is “precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy” (206). This is fairly familiar territory. By now, thanks in part to Derrida, we’re pretty comfortable acknowledging that nothing is just part of a specific genre. For example, in my case of sensation fiction, there is no ontological category called “sensation fiction.” It’s a “parasitical economy” in which the Newgate novel, the Gothic novel, the cheap serial novel, the Silver Fork novel, and a thousand other things all intersect to make a new category. But Derrida does not care about my categories on this level. What he cares about is the “category” that allows (or doesn’t allow) “categories” to be a “category.” Can categories be categorized?

Here he goes: “As with the class itself, the principle of genre is unclassifiable, it tolls the knell of the knell, in other words of classicum, of what permits one to call out orders and to order the manifold within a nomenclature” (208). So, if the death knell dies, who tolls the knell of the knell? If genre classifies members of a set, who classifies the set? As the principle of classification, genre can not itself be classified, so it exceeds itself, and the parts are bigger than the whole. So, part of the law of genre “is the law of abounding, of excess, the law of participation without membership, of contamination, etc., which I mentioned earlier” (210). Genre participates in sets by placing members into sets, but it is not itself a member of a set, so its principle is excess. At this point, Derrida realizes that he’s skirting the edge of genre-theory, and not really intending to go into genre-theory at all (interestingly, that word into treats genre as the container that Derrida characterizes it as being–he wants to talk about what makes the container contain).

Moving on, here’s the part that really fascinates me:

The trait common to these classes of classes is precisely the identifiable recurrence of a common trait by which one recognizes, or should recognize, a membership in a class. There should be a trait upon which one could rely in order to decide that a given textual event, a given “work,” corresponds to a given class (genre, type, mode, form, etc.). And there should be a code enabling one to decide questions of class-membership on the basis of this trait. (210-211)

Okay, so if we’re going to say “this thing is a calico cat,” it should a) be a cat and b) have calico markings. That may have been a bad example, but the point I was trying to make is that the “mark” is a really important word for Derrida, and thinking of animal marking reminds me of that. He goes on about the mark:

…if one is bent on classifying, one should consult a set of identifiable and codifiable traits to determine whether this or that, such a thing or such an event belongs to this set or that class. This may seem trivial. Such a distinctive trait qua mark is however always a priori remarkable. It is always possible that a set–I have compelling reasons for calling this a text, whether it be written or oral–re-marks on this distinctive trait within itself. (211)

First of all, the “trait” that identifies something as “Thing X” is a “mark.” Okay. And we can deduce that marks are remarkable, in the sense that they should be visible enough for us to remark upon. So, a set, or a text, in its very essence, re-marks on its own mark. In other words, it makes its mark visible (is this like the Foucauldian idea of compulsory visibility?), but it also comments upon its own mark. It not only shows its mark, but it says, “hey, look, here’s my mark!” I’m not sure if I’m getting this quite right, but as I’m writing it, it really does remind me of Foucault… (I guess it would be too meta if I tried to “classify” them as both being deconstructionists…).

Derrida uses an example to explain his meaning above a bit more clearly:

A defense speech or newspaper editorial can indicate by means of a mark, even if it is not explicitly designated as such, “Viola! I belong, as anyone may remark, to the type of text called a defense speech or an article of the genre newspaper editorial.” (211)

What interests Derrida, he says, “is that this re-mark–ever possible for every text, for every corpus of traces–is absolutely necessary for and constitutive of what we call art, poetry or literature” (211). Literature needs the re-mark, and the re-mark is what makes literature literature. Is that because literature is inherently self-aware? Is it ALL meta?

Now it gets crazier:

…consider this paradox, consider the irony (which is irreducible to a consciousness or an attitude): this supplementary and distinctive trait, a mark of belonging or inclusion, does not properly pertain to any genre or class. The re-mark of belonging does not belong. It belongs without belonging, and the “without” (or the suffix “-less”) which relates belonging to non-belonging appears only in the timeless time of the blink of an eye. (212)

Said again, another way:

I submit for your consideration the following hypothesis: a text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. Making genre its mark, a text demarcates itself. If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, participate without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus. (212)

So, each text has a mark, and that mark marks the text’s genre–which is the thing that makes a text a text. But the mark itself does not belong to the genre, and is only supplementary to the text itself (even though it’s also constitutive). Derrida explains it with the example of novels that announce on their cover that they are novels. For example, I just read a novel (for fun) called The Shoemaker’s Wife, and on the cover, right under the title, it says “A Novel”–just in case I couldn’t tell that it was a novel. This paratextual element–“A Novel”–is a mark. It marks the text as belonging to a genre–“the novel.” It makes the text announce, “Hello! I’m a novel!” However, the mark “A Novel” is not part of the novel. So genre-designations do not themselves belong to the genres they designate. The word or concept “novel” does not belong–along with Middlemarch and Vanity Fair–to the category it signifies. It gets complicated for me, at this point. Since the classificatory principle is itself NOT part of a class, then the thing that makes inclusion possible is itself excluded. The class, therefore, cannot be closed.

Here’s Derrida again:

This axiom of non-closure or non-fulfillment enfolds within itself the condition for the possibility and the impossibility of taxonomy. This inclusion and this exclusion do not remain exterior to one another; they do not exclude each other. They are neither one nor two. They form what I shall call the genre-clause, a clause stating at once the juridical utterance, the precedent-making designation and the law-text, but also the closure, the closing that excludes itself from what it includes (one could speak of a floodgate […] of genre). The clause or floodgate of genre declasses what it allows to be classed. It tolls the knell of genealogy or of genericity, which it however also brings forth to the light of day. Putting to death the very thing that it engenders, it cuts a strange figure; a formless form, it remains nearly invisible, it neither sees the day nor brings itself to light. Without it, neither genre nor literature come to light, but as soon as there is this blinking of an eye, this clause or this floodgate of genre, at the very moment that a genre or a literature is broached, at that very moment, degenerescence has begun, the end begins. (212-213)

Okay, so the genre-clause is the thing I just talked about, I think. It’s the idea that the genre-designation does not belong to the genre that it demarcates, so it is excluded from the principle of inclusion that it makes possible. However, these two things–the genre and the genre-designation–don’t necessarily exclude each other (deconstruction is happening right now, I think). In other words, just because the genre-designator is excluded from the inclusion it constitutes doesn’t mean that genre then doesn’t exist. The genre-designator has made a juridical utterance (“this thing is a novel, that thing isn’t”), but the inevitable constructedness of that utterance doesn’t negate its existence. A thing called “novel” still does exist, even though it’s always already contaminated. However, the genre-clause is about non-closure (if genre doesn’t include the thing that makes it a genre, then it can never be a closed set). Therefore, it “declasses what it allows to be classed” (213). The word “novel” makes it possible to class things as “novels,” but the exclusion of the word “novel” from its own category means that the things in that category can rush through the floodgates of the class called “novel.” So the genre-clause “tolls the knell of genealogy or of genericity” (213), but it also sheds light on genre because it brings these questions to our attention–it causes us to “re-mark” upon the members of the set. So, genre-designators bring members of a set to life: the concept “novel” means that we can see a certain body of texts as “novels.” But, in its inability to close the set and draw a complete line around “things that are novels,” it opens the floodgates (“well, is this thing a novel or not?”) and thereby kills the very thing it brought to life. So, literature cannot exist without genre, but the very moment that we notice the genre-clause or question a genre-designator (which we always do), that moment is the beginning of the end of genre.

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Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

I need to write an in-depth summary of David Kurnick’s argument in this book, but I find it relatively complex, so to start out, I’m going to write a summary in play form.

NANCY ARMSTRONG: (in chorus, with an entire tradition of theorists of the novel) The rise of the novel corresponds with the rise of privacy and interiority. Thus, we can see in 19th-century novels an intense focus on the individual and on the individual’s interior landscape. The novel is about interiority! Look at George Eliot! Henry James! And wow, check out James Joyce!

DAVID KURNICK: You’re forgetting that all of these famous novelists you’re talking about were failed playwrights.

NANCY ARMSTRONG, ET. AL: So what? Interiority doesn’t play well on the stage. Of course they failed as playwrights. It’s the reason they became so good at novel-writing.

DAVID KURNICK: Actually, the very form of theater is about collectivity. No matter how much interiority you want to project on stage, you have to realize that theater is a collaborative enterprise. It takes lots of actors working together, and an entire audience to come watch the play. This is the medium these novelists first chose as their preferred representational form. They wanted to escape interiority, and it shows in their subsequent novels.

EMILY ALLEN: (in chorus, with an emerging tradition of scholars who look at theatrical metaphors in novels) We understand you, David Kurnick. Nineteenth-century novels are all about the theater. Look at all the theater metaphors all over the place. They’re everywhere! Let’s all write entire books on theater metaphors in nineteenth-century novels!! Also, look how many duplicitous characters there are–it’s like they’re all playing a role. Meta-theatricality! Theatrical themes are everywhere! Yay!!

DAVID KURNICK: Sure…. Those are all awesome books you folks wrote. But I have a couple of problems. Why are we always equating duplicitous characters with some kind of theatricality? Why does duplicity = theatricality? That’s not really what I’m going for here. Theatricality, for me, = collectivity. The theatrical space is a collective, collaborative space.

EMILY ALLEN, ET. AL: Okay, great. But however you choose to characterize the novel’s themes of theatricality, they’re ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE, amirite?

DAVID KURNICK: Totally. All over the place. But that’s still not what I’m going to do with this book. I think that we’re doing a little too much of this “theater-as-metaphor” thing. Why is the theater *just* a metaphor for something bigger? Because we marginalize it, that’s why. But guess who didn’t marginalize it? George Eliot, Henry James, William Thackeray, and James Joyce. They all wanted to be playwrights. And it’s not just that their novels use the theater as “metaphors” for something–their novels literally marginalize the sense of interiority and individuality that novel-reading implies and gesture toward a collective theatrical space. Repeatedly. Seriously. Read my book. Therefore, I’m de-thematizing theater and reading these metafictional moments as authorial references to the plays that might have been. They are gestures toward the collective, not *just* metaphors.

ALL: Wow, that’s fascinating.

DAVID KURNICK: Thank you.

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The Reading Lesson: Novel Sensations of the 1860s

“Novel Sensations of the 1860s” is chapter 7 of Patrick Brantlinger’s book The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. His main point in this chapter seems to be that the detective figure of sensation fiction diminishes the authority of the omniscient narrator of realist fiction. He makes some interesting points, and I particularly like how he responds to D.A. Miller’s contention that detective plots install a force of novelistic surveillance that resembles ideology: you can’t ever get outside of its reach. Following Foucault, Miller is obsessed with panoptic vision, so he sees the detective, and by extension, the novel as a whole, as a panoptic seer. Brantlinger points out that Miller’s argument doesn’t fully account for Bakhtin’s theory that the novel is always dialogic. Miller’s account does seem pretty monologic on the surface, but I need to investigate this on my own more fully, since I know that Bakhtin has no problem calling Tolstoy monologic, so I’m not sure he’d necessarily disagree with Milller…. But it’s an interesting point. Also, Brantlinger writes–based on Jameson’s claim that “the visual is essentially pornographic” (qtd. in Brantlinger 160)–that “surveillance, or the gaze of the detective-policeman, cannot be neatly disentangled from the pornographic gaze in any sensation novel” (160). Brantlinger references the pornographic gaze because sensation novels “operate obsessively, albeit regressively, to see, to render visible, what is unseen or hidden within ‘the secret theatre of home'” (160). So, Brantlinger poses the question: “Surveillance or pornography? […] Beyond the innocent though absolutist eye of the realist author, narrator, and reader, says the sensation novel, there is another, second way of seeing and therefore reading. But that second way of reading/seeing is neither self-evident nor safe” (162).

This is an interesting conversation between Brantlinger and Miller, and I think it relates specifically to my interest in the close-reading practices of sensation fiction–although I think Brantlinger pretty much covers everything I was interested in. But my thinking has taken some new directions since I formulated that interest, so that’s okay. Here’s how Brantlinger characterizes the detective-reader:

As if second-guessing the author, the detective reconstructs the fragmented text of the past–the buried story of the crime or crimes. As  super-reader, moreover, the detective seems to mediate between the novelist and the anonymous, ever-increasing “outlying mass of average readers,” the “unknown public” that Wilkie Collins, for one, both viewed with trepidation and sought to entertain. (146)

And here’s the main claim:

The emergence of the detective seems to be linked to a weakening or defaillancy of narrative authority, which in turn may be linked to a paradigm shift in modes of observation. (146)

Here’s the part where I have some questions:

The detective serves as an expert observer or reader of clues, one who is able to read differently from the (mere) novel-reader. The latter is reduced to hankering after both thrills and facts, while the distinction between the two–thrills and facts–blurs: the ultimate thrill is the final revelation of the criminal truth, a revelation provided by the detective, who after reading the clues can narrate the final, coherent story of the crime and effect a restoration of order. In this way, sensation novels are always allegories of reading that, on one hand, install a new professionalism or expertise while, on the other, validating the contested concept of novel-reading as mere pleasure, mere entertainment. From now on, they suggest, only experts can do the serious business of reading the book of the world. But for ordinary readers, there are newspapers and sensation novels. (146-147)

Hmmm….. I agree with this, overall. But I think there’s more to say here. It’s mostly the use of the words “professionalism,” “expertise,” and “experts” that I think are under-theorized here. First of all, a major part of D.A. Miller’s argument is that detective novels engage in a disavowal of professional crime-solvers, like the police, in favor of their amateur supplements. This is part of what establishes the normativity of surveillance in these novels. Police presence = disruptive, abnormal. Robert Audley or Franklin Blake = normal (and normative). So, I’m not sure that sensation novels really do “install a new professionalism or expertise.” I think the entire point of characters like Robert Audley and Franklin Blake and Magdalen Vanstone is that they are unprofessional and amateur–not experts at all. However, I have argued in other papers that Robert Audley, specifically, does gain expertise over the course of Lady Audley’s Secret (and I think I’ve run across an article that argues much the same thing). However, the novel is, in that sense, a bildungsroman that charts his development and professionalization. Brantlinger partially acknowledges this point: “the detectives in [sensation novels], for example, are often not Auden’s ‘genius from outside,’ but a character or characters directly involved in the story” (157). This is part of my point about Robert Audley’s professionalization: he is only motivated to act as a detective because he’s profoundly inside and involved in the story. As a barrister, he could have been the “genius from outside” in a number of other stories–but only affective bonds can prompt him to act. But Brantlinger concludes this particular point by writing: “In sensation and later mystery-detective novels, however, just as the intractable problem of evil is reduced to a neatly soluble puzzle on a personal level, so the search for self-knowledge is short-circuited” (157). I’m not sure about this. I think that Robert Audley’s narrative is similar to a bildungsroman–I’m not saying it is a bildungsroman, but I think it capitalizes (literally) on that structure–so maybe the search for self-knowledge is short-circuited…. but maybe the search for self-knowledge in a lot of these narratives is similarly short-circuited. I don’t know–I’ll have to examine this some more. The point is that many sensational detectives only become professionalized through the process of solving the crime–and they reach the closure of self-knowledge in these texts precisely because they are solving mysteries intimately connected with their own identities. So, yes, they are expert readers, but only in the way anyone might be an expert reader of her own life. As readers of the book of reality, I think many of them are profoundly amateur, especially when compared to a real “expert” like Sherlock Holmes.

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Lady Audley Book Illustration

Lady Audley Book Illustration

This is an illustration from the 11 April 1863 part issue of Lady Audley’s Secret entitled “Talboys Gazing at Lady Audley’s Picture.” Given my discussion of ekphrasis in Lady Audley’s Secret, this is an absolutely bizarre illustration. My conference paper already discusses some of the competing temporalities in the novel’s ekphrastic description of her portrait, but I haven’t really discussed this picture of a picture in a novel. Ekphrasis cubed? The level of meta- in this illustration is almost too much to handle. This is a picture of a picture of Lady Audley, being watched by George Talboys, who is being watched by Robert Audley, the entire scene of which is being looked at by…. me, at the moment… And the only thing I can’t really see in this picture is Lady Audley’s portrait–the illustration seems to refer me to the text it accompanies for a “view” of the portrait. So the illustration instructs me to go along with Robert Audley, and gaze at a gaze. George is clearly the focal point, the tip of the triangle constructed by my line of vision and Robert Audley’s. Or is Robert looking beyond George, at the portrait of Lady Audley? He’s conveniently hiding in the shadows, so we can’t tell. One of the points here, though, is that this is what ekphrasis does: it freezes the viewer, while the picture moves. This is a picture of frozen viewers, which nonetheless actively directs us back to the moving picture on the printed page. (And in an odd side note, the far right side of the illustration seems to contain one or two framed pictures that ARE oriented toward us–what’s up with that?)

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February 24, 2013 · 9:55 am

Lady Audley Advertising Woodcut

Lady Audley Advertising Woodcut

As I’m revising my conference paper on ekphrasis in Lady Audley’s Secret, I’m trying to incorporate as many different visual depictions of her as possible. And I’m realizing that, given the prominence of her portrait in the novel, maybe any “portrait” of her can count as ekphrasis under the definition I’m using. So here she is pushing George Talboys into the well. This scene is not actually directly represented in the novel, but it’s the scene that all the adaptations (even H.J. Byron’s) revolve around. It’s a scene of intense movement and interaction between the two actors. We can see several different representations of movement in this woodcut: Lady Audley’s posture, for example, is inclined forward, back hunched, arms locked, hair flapping behind her. George Talboys is poised to fall into the well, arms raised, hat already fallen off. Even the crumbling rocks can be seen falling into the depths of the well. But here’s what’s weird. Lady Audley is inclined forward, as if she’s ABOUT to push George into the well. But George is already falling. The two figures are not touching–even their feet, which are almost touching, are not actually in contact. This is simultaneously a picture of Lady Audley ABOUT TO push George and a picture of Lady Audley HAVING PUSHED George. Two temporalities coexist in this woodcut, future and past–Lady Audley about to do something, and the thing already having been done. So, how should we read this? Perhaps this registers the frenetic pace of the adaptations–a pace that Henry Morely critiques in his journal when he mentions that too many things are happening all at once, on top of one another, losing the measured pace of the novelistic original. Maybe this is motion overlapping motion–our knowledge of the novel fills in the gap that the woodcut creates. Or does this lack of contact between Lady Audley and her victim diminish some of her agency in this act? Although the woodcut clearly portrays her intention to shove George, in actuality, it appears that he falls before she even touches him. This may seem like a minor point, but in a novel that already complicates her culpability in the attempted murder to such an exquisite degree, this illustration, perhaps, portrays her desperation more than her aggression. Either way, this odd sense of movement is complicated even more by the fact that it’s solidified in a woodcut–which refers us to the moving stage adaptation.

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February 24, 2013 · 9:40 am

On Methodology

One of my biggest fears (which will absolutely happen) is that my exam committee will ask me about my methodology. There was a section on “method” in my prospectus, and I think it discussed affect theory, thing theory, theories of close reading, etc. The problem with that is that I still don’t know much about affect theory, and probably don’t know as much as I should about thing theory either.

But I do have a vision for how I want to be able to answer this question, so that’s something I actually can talk about. I want to be like Lynn Voskuil, Elaine Hadley, and David Kurnick. Their methodologies are graceful and rich. Lynn Voskuil uses the Victorian theory of “natural acting” as a lens through which to read her primary texts. Elaine Hadley reads a variety of texts and social events through the lends of what she calls the “melodramatic mode,” which is more than a simple genre, but is also a gestural language, a method of interaction, a method of political communication, etc. And David Kurnick writes that he wants to reverse engineer Henry James’s “scenic method” in order to account for the theatrical failures of major novelists. 

Here’s what I admire: you can’t just pin these folks down to a school of thought. They don’t announce their theoretical labels with bumper-sticker tags like “deconstruction,” “Marxism,” or “feminism.” They’re more elegant and subtle, like the Victorians, hahaha. Seriously, though, these methodologies feel organic, like they’ve grown from the subject itself. That’s what I want. I want a methodology that feels like it came from my research topic. I guess that would make me a historicist, which I suppose is the over-arching methodology I’m admiring here. 

So I’m going to say all that when they ask about my methodology. And I’m going to say that so far, the thing that I’m hanging onto is the “legitimate” vs. “illegitimate” theater. I haven’t seen anyone do for this what Elaine Hadley did for the melodramatic mode, so maybe I could do it? Maybe I can find a cache of reviews and articles and cultural instantiations of theatrical legitimacy and illegitimacy and can use that to build a theory that might account for how material objects function in sensation novels and their theatrical adaptations. I’m not sure that elegant methodologies are born this way, but my research so far suggests that this could work, so I’m going to pursue this for now.

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Argument 3.1: Illegitimate Objects

I’m going to try out a new argument that I think might just work. Also, I think it might actually be an argument, so extra points for that. Here goes (nothing?).

Sensation novels of the 1860s are obsessed with the legitimacy and illegitimacy of objects. We can see this in the concerns over forged handwriting, vials of poison taken completely out of context, pieces of clothing that may come from one dress or another, disguises of all kinds, portraits that may or may not be faithful representations of the sitter, antiquities that need to be authenticated, and homemade dresses that just don’t look quite right. We can connect these objects to larger themes about anxieties over illegitimacy: the bigamy plot, disinheritance, false imprisonment, marriage under generally false pretenses, etc. However, I argue that advances in theatrical technology and changes in the format of stage productions exert an influence on these “illegitimate” objects that has hitherto been unexplored. Since these novels were widely adapted for the stage, I think it makes sense to apply the novels’ questions of legitimacy and illegitimacy to a mid-Victorian theatrical context. Illegitimacy is a fraught term for the mid-Victorian theater, and it affects the ways in which objects and object-relations are presented. If we can read a certain “object theatricality” into the sensation novels of the mid-century, then we also need to examine issues of legitimacy and illegitimacy as they apply to the stage.

Legitimate theater vs. illegitimate theater: The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 changed the hierarchy of London theaters. Before 1843, there were “legitimate” patent theaters–mostly just Covent Garden and Drury Lane–which had received their patents in the 1660s, when Charles II was restored to the monarchy. Patent theaters were the only ones allowed to perform what was known as “legitimate” drama: farce, comedy, and tragedy. Legitimate drama can also be characterized as “spoken-word” drama, since only the patent theaters were allowed to produce plays in which people talked. The other theaters produced “illegitimate” drama, which was everything else: opera, burletta, burlesque, pantomime, extravaganza, etc. These plays might have words, but they could only be sung, not spoken. The Theatre Regulation Act ended the monopoly on spoken-word drama by the patent theaters, but theaters continued to struggle to raise their social legitimacy long after 1843. In 1863, H. J. Byron’s burlesque, 1863; or, The Sensations of the Past Season tries to assert the legitimacy of burlesque:

Burlesque is like the winnowing machine:

It simply blows away the husks, you know,

The goodly corn is not moved by the blow.

What arrant rubbish of the clap-trap school

Has vanished–thanks to pungent ridicule;

What stock stage customs, nigh to bursting goaded,

With so much blowing up have now exploded. (72-73)

Repertory vs. Long Run: Another change in theatrical tradition happens during the mid-century that changes the way objects are presented as “legitimate” or “illegitimate”: the shift from repertory productions to long runs. Repertory theater had dominated English theater, probably since its beginnings in the medieval period. Theaters collected a repertoire of plays and produced those plays in some sort of cycle. This was an efficient production model in small towns or on tours, since in small towns, the audience might be the same for every production, so it made sense to produce a series of different plays in order to keep them coming to the theater. On tours, acting companies had to carry all their equipment with them all over the world, so it made sense to carry only a set number of scenes, etc, and perform an entire repertoire before moving on to the next location (much like a touring band’s set list, I imagine).

By the 1860s, railway travel had vastly increased the number of people coming into and out of London, and advances in steam had cut down on international travel time, which in turn increased the number of tourists in London. Thus, it was easy for many more people to get to London just to see a play. With 1500, even 3000-seat theaters selling out with popular plays, it started to make more sense to shift to a long-run format, in which a theater would produce the same play, night after night, presumably for a new audience. Some of Tom Robertson’s more popular plays ran for over 1000 nights. The long-run format meant that the theater could focus its energies on making the play as scenically elaborate as possible. Scenes and backdrops were no longer generic; they were built anew for each individual play. And thanks to the parallel aesthetic popularity of realism, audiences started to demand more scenic “legitimacy”–in other words, sets needed to look as realistic as possible. If there was a train crash in the play, the audience wanted to see a train crash on stage–and set designers gave them what they wanted.

Archaeology: Archaeologists were discovering all kinds of stuff all over the world. And stealing it from the countries it belonged to. So there you go. Scene and set designers went crazy over archaeological detail. Some even travelled to the countries in which plays were set to study the landscape and ruins–one of them brought a gondola back from a trip to Italy to use on stage. Audiences demanded precise attention to detail, and if scenes weren’t EXACTLY historically accurate, the set designers would hear about it in the reviews. The key word here might be “accuracy” more than “legitimacy,” but it’s a parallel concept, and relates directly to object-relations on stage.

Object-relations in sensation novels should be read in the context surrounding issues of “legitimacy” on the Victorian stage. Since the novels’ use of disguise and role-playing already suggest a theatrical context, and since the novels are obsessed with issues of legitimacy on a variety of levels, it makes sense to see them partially as fictional descendants of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. This means that discussions of “legitimacy” should include the valences that that term would have had for the theater.

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East Lynne, by T.A. Palmer

This was the most popular adaptation, apparently, and it follows the novel pretty closely, so I’m not going to bother summarizing it here. But there was a big part of East Lynne that I had forgotten in the time since I read the novel, and this part stood out to me even more after having just read Tom Robertson’s Society. Archibald Carlyle runs for MP against Francis Levison. Levison is a baronet, while Carlyle is a lawyer. Okay, now I really wish I had a better grasp on the fine distinctions between the middle- and upper-class professional hierarchies during this period…. but let me try. In Robertson’s Society, as in Lady Audley’s Secret, the protagonist is a barrister, which means that he’s a gentleman and doesn’t really need to work at his profession. Maybe he’s a second son, or maybe his family doesn’t have money, but barristers have a family name, I think. So, in Society, the “name” ends up being more important than the capital. In East Lynne, the opposite is true. Levison has a “name,” but he’s a typical aristocratic, rakish villain. Carlyle is distinctly middle-class, but he’s so much the hard-working, David Copperfield-esque Victorian that he builds up enough capital to buy East Lynne from the dissipated Lord Mount Severn. Another victory for capital over name. He’s also, reputedly, a very hard worker, as lawyers have to be, I guess, when they’re not barristers. His sister, Cornelia, is always implying that he’s away from the office too much, which (given Cornelia’s disposition) is meant to imply the opposite. He, of course, also puts business above his wife, Isabel. No seaside vacations for hardworking lawyers.

Of course, he doesn’t seem very analogous to the Chodds of Society, who inherit their wealth from Chodd Senior’s brother, but actually, Carlyle inherits his practice from his father, who was a hard worker before him. So the paradigm of inherited wealth stands in both texts. But in one the middle-class hero wins the MP position, and in the other, the penniless aristocrat wins the MP position. I don’t have enough background on these politics and class statuses yet to make anything of this, but I sense that this is something to remember and analyze further.

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Society, by Tom Robertson

After reading so much about the Bancrofts and the Prince of Wales’s theater, it was pretty amazing to read my first Tom Robertson play, Society. The Bancrofts depended heavily on Tom Robertson in a time when it was unusual for a theater to have such strong ties to a single playwright. I put Robertson on my quals reading list because he is credited with bringing into vogue the “cup-and-saucer” style of drama, which is famous for its detailed and realistic plots, sets, and props. In a photograph from Society, Squire Bancroft and Marie Wilton drink tea on stage–not a big deal nowadays, but definitely a subject of comment in the 1860s. I also put this play on my list because it’s probably a good example of “realism” on the mid-century stage, and it’s a genre that’s contiguous with sensation drama.

Here’s a Character List:

Sidney Daryl: He’s a penniless barrister who’s in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maud Hetherington. He’s a good guy with a lot of fancy friends in “society.” In fact, he’s such a good guy that he raises his cousin’s daughter after she becomes orphaned–in an attempt to gain the favor of the daughter’s grandmother, Lady Ptarmigant, so that he can marry her ward, Maud…. but still. He comes from a good family, but he gave up what was left of his fortune to help his dissolute brother keep the family estate, so he has nothing, and therefore Lady Ptarmigant doesn’t want him to marry Maud. But things turn around when he runs for MP in his home town, wins, and then his brother dies. He and Maud are presumed to live happily ever after.

Maud Hetherington: She returns Sidney’s love, and agrees to marry him, money or no money. But her aunt, Lady Ptarmigant, has other plans for her: she wants Maud to marry the vulgar but rich John Chodd Junior, who’s a pretty odious guy. Maud resists, but Lady Ptarmigant puts the announcement in the papers anyway. Sidney sees the announcement, assumes Maud has betrayed him, and then makes a scene while dancing with her at a ball. She gets offended that he made such an assumption, and then goes on to make an assumption of her own, when she meets Sidney’s ward, Little Maud, and assumes that she is Sidney’s illegitimate daughter. Enraged, she agrees to marry Chodd Junior. When she finds out the truth (thanks to Lord Ptarmigant), all is forgiven, she forgets about Chodd Junior, and lives happily ever after with Sidney.

John Chodd, Senior: He’s a commoner whose brother made a fortune in Australia, which he inherited after his brother’s death. He decides to devote his wealth to trying to make his son, John Chodd, Junior, into a gentleman and get him into Parliament. He also buys a newspaper, with the help of Tom Stylus (friend of Sidney Daryl), who has started 18 newspapers in the past, each of which has failed. When he fails to give Tom the sub-editor position he wants, Tom gets mad and, while covering for the editor while said editor is sick, prints a story in favor of Sidney’s bid for the MP position, despite the fact that John Chodd, Junior is running for the same position.

John Chodd, Junior: After trying to employ Sidney as a writer in his father’s newspaper, he notices that Sidney has lots of invitations to “society” events. Knowing that Sidney needs money, he offers to pay Sidney to take him around in society and introduce him to all of his friends. Sidney refuses, saying: “I cannot entertain your very commercial proposition. My friends are my friends; they are not marketable commodities” (1.1, p. 47). Chodd Jr. gets offended, and this initiates several acts of competitive chest-thumping, including Chodd Jr’s proposal to Maud, Chodd Jr. buying all of Sidney’s debt and trying to have him arrested, and Chodd Jr. running for MP in Sidney’s home town.

Lady Ptarmigant: She’s Maud’s aunt, and also a relation of Sidney. She’s mostly concerned with money and status–she’s a gentlewoman, but without much money. She tries to force Maud to marry Chodd Jr. for his money, but once Sidney turns out to have money AND status (dead brother and MP), she discards the odious Chodds pretty quickly. Lady P., however, isn’t just about the money. She also hates men. We later find out that she was jilted at the altar at 23, and married Lord P. pretty much in order to make his life miserable, which she does. She advises Maud to do the same with Chodd Jr.

Lord Ptarmigant: He’s mostly a nonentity throughout most of the play. He’s so henpecked by his wife that he just falls asleep wherever he goes. But toward the end of the play, Sidney tells him Little Maud’s story: Lord Ptarmigant’s son, on this way to the Crimean War, told Sidney that he had fallen in love with a common woman, and he was confiding their child to Sidney’s care, since he felt that he would die–which he did. Sidney convinced him to marry the woman before he left to legitimize the daughter–which he did. When the wife died, Sidney placed Little Maud with a motherly woman and continued to oversee her care. Lord Ptarmigant is so happy to have a grandchild that he insists on making sure that Maud, his niece, knows how honorable Sidney is. Thanks to his intervention, Sidney and Maud are able to reconcile and get engaged.

After reading so much about the various class dynamics in theaters, I can see a lot of that playing out in Society. This play definitely favors the aristocracy, portraying the Chodds–who think they can write a cheque for their entrance into “society”–as naive rubes. Sidney’s election speech is an obvious moment of aristocratic superiority, since he basically relies on the winning formula of landowning aristocracy: “hey, c’mon everyone, you all know me and you’ve known my family forever. The end.” This is essentially a play about all the things that money can’t buy. And actually, it can’t buy anything, really. Even the newspaper–which the Chodds do buy–ends up belonging to the aristocratic Sidney. Money gets passed around all over this play, but it never really buys anything. The irony is that all the money that the Chodds flourish ends up supporting Sidney in one way or another. Definitely an assertion of dominance over the rising mercantile class, but a deeply cynical one, since Robertson spent lots of his life living hand-to-mouth, and the life of a playwright was far from glamorous, or even financially comfortable.

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Sweeney Todd: George Dibdin Pitt

Actually, I couldn’t find the actual play by George Dibdin Pitt, so this one is by Austin Rosser, based on the play by George Dibdin Pitt. Oh well. This is a really interesting adaptation, especially after seeing Tim Burton’s take on The String of Pearls. Like the Tim Burton adaptation, this one engages what Elaine Hadley calls the “melodramatic mode” in order to translate Thomas Preskett Prest’s distinctly disorganized narrative into a triumph of middle-class virtue over working-class vice. The chaotic disorganization of The String of Pearls complicated our adherence to these comforting categories, I think, and sometimes we were sympathizing with Sweeney Todd in spite of ourselves.

This theatrical adaptation opens with Sweeney Todd taking on Tobias as an apprentice. Interestingly, this version fleshes out Tobias’s flights of emotion when Sweeney Todd says, “Your ma told me that you come from a very ‘delicate’ family, and easily upset, that you’ve been tenderly nurtured and you’re to be treated as such” (2). Not so with Prest’s Tobias, whose mother seems jolly and affectionate, but not overly attached to her son. Tobias’s “delicacy,” apparently, explains why he’s always crying and wringing his hands (although, to be fair, he has plenty of reason to cry). It also aligns him with middle-class sensibilities, like those of Joanna.

Anyway, Mark Ingestrie is pretty much what he was in Prest’s novel–a seafaring man who comes back home with a string of pearls to claim Joanna’s hand. He stops by Sweeney Todd’s barber shop for a shave, gets thrown down to the basement by the mechanical chair, and survives the fall thanks to an obliging corpse, who breaks his fall. This is not exactly what happened in the novel, but actually, Prest doesn’t tell us anything about Mark until he shows up, destitute, as Mrs. Lovett’s new baker. What happened to him in the meantime? Prest doesn’t really care. Get over it.

In this version, Mark escapes from the dungeon, somehow climbs back up through the mechanical chair, instructs Tobias to run to Joanna and alert the police, and then hires himself out to Mrs. Lovett as a baker. He bites into only one pie before he realizes that they’re made of human flesh: first, he finds a hair (not that surprising), but then he finds a fingernail, which might also be a bone–and he jumps to the right conclusion.

Meanwhile, Joanna is busy fending off the lecherous advances of the local priest, who has her mother’s blessing to marry her by force, if necessary. He “helps” her search for Mark when she decides that he’s missing, but then tries to rape her in an alley. Not sure how the original version by Pitt treated this scene, because it’s fairly graphic in this Rosser re-make. I would normally say it’s more graphic by nineteenth-century standards than by 21st-century standards, but I think that rape is graphic by any standards, really. But Sweeney Todd interrupts them at the key moment, and Lupin (the priest) retreats. Then, Todd tries to slit Joanna’s throat, since he knows she’s looking for Mark (who he thinks he’s killed). But then Lupin re-interrupts after he hears Joanna scream. In the confusion, she runs off in a panic, and Lupin takes the opportunity to make an appointment for a shave.

As in the Tim Burton adaptation, this version gives Joanna much less sexual agency than she had in the novel. Prest’s Joanna also had a mother who wanted her to marry a lecherous priest, but she refused, insulted by the idea. Admittedly, it helped that she had a father on her side, who was willing to physically shame the priest–but still, the novel shamed the priest, while the play subjects Joanna to attempted rape (twice).

This brings us to Mrs. Lovett–another helpless victim in this adaptation. Again, in the novel, she’s portrayed as fully, willingly, voluntarily evil. She has some fits of conscience toward the end, but she’s not much of a victim–certainly not a victim of extortion. Here, she’s kind of pathetic. She’s looking for a husband–again, not something she did in the novel (who needs one, when your human-meat-pies are bringing in so much business?). She flirts with Lupin, who flirts back in order to get dirt on Todd. He then stupidly tries to blackmail Todd, who promptly uses his mechanical chair, and then Lupin is no longer a threat. Later, Mrs. Lovett tries to quit the pie-making business, telling Todd that she is “still a country girl at heart” (25). Todd threatens to kill her, extorts her continued cooperation, and then the play suggests that he rapes her. Wow. More rape. The subtle suggestion here is that, according to the logic of melodrama, she “deserves” to be raped, because she’s an accomplice to all of Todd’s murders. This upsets me for a lot of reasons, but for now, I’ll just focus on how UNLIKE Prest’s Mrs. Lovett this Mrs. Lovett is. Prest’s Mrs. Lovett actively uses her sexuality to sell pies, playing on the emotions of her predominantly male clientele. She uses this same sexuality to imprison the men who work in her bakery, and never seems the least bit bothered by any of this until the end of the novel, where she, inevitably, gets her comeuppance. This Mrs. Lovett has very little agency, acts like the trauma victim that she is, and eventually gets thrown in the furnace, just like Tim Burton’s Mrs. Lovett.

After this dramatic scene, Sweeney Todd is passed out drunk in the bakery, while Mark impersonates a disembodied Voice in an attempt to scare Todd (which doesn’t work very well). Mark eventually confronts Todd, who beats him up, and is about to kill him when he decides that it would be a better idea to tie him up and make him watch his lover get raped. At this point,  Todd goes off on a love-hating rampage: “all you lusty young loving couples, watch out! Sweeney is on the prowl! And I hate yer. It’ll be you, then her. Eh? Eh? Haha! All you young fellows with fancy notions in your heads, wenching in shop doorways, in narrow alleyways, yearning for it under the arch of a bridge–watch out tonight, ‘cos old Sweeney is on the loose and he’ll uncouple you” (35). This Sweeney Todd seems to be motivated by the more melodramatic factors of rage and jealousy, while Prest’s Sweeney Todd was more motivated purely by greed. He never would have gone about “uncoupling” lovers, unless they had something valuable for him to steal. His murderous rampage was purely economic. This one is much more squarely melodramatic.

But it gets even weirder. After killing Fogg after running into him on the street (another helpless victim in this version, rather than the pure evil he was in Prest’s version), Todd grabs Joanna (who randomly happens to be walking alone in a dark alleyway) and takes her down to the basement where he has Mark tied up. By this time, the police are out looking for Todd (since Tobias had already alerted Joanna some time ago), so he has to be quick about things. But, as he’s getting ready to rape her in front of Mark, he insists that she tell him she loves him, which she refuses to do. She loves Mark, after all, not Sweeney Todd. This draws things out long enough for the police to be almost there by the time that Sweeney gives up and starts crying in response to Joanna’s sympathy: “I don’t love you–I don’t–I don’t–I feel sorrow for you–a terrible sorrow–I …” (40).

Okay, let me try to work through this here. After the quote above, the stage directions say: “Joanna breaks off as she realizes that her arms are thrown out impulsively towards Sweeney and that there are tears on Sweeney’s face” (40). Her arms are thrown out “impulsively.” Because she doesn’t really know or have control of what she’s doing. Just as she instinctively can’t lie about who she loves, even for her own self-preservation, she also instinctively reaches out to comfort her would-be rapist when she notices he’s crying. Wow. Just… wow. What happened to Prest’s cross-dressing, mystery-solving Johanna? For his part, Sweeney responds to the sympathy by saying, “Just one kiss. (He pauses) Just the one kiss which has been denied me all my life–(hesitantly)–that pure kiss which penetrates the soul!” (40). Hmmm. There are two words that Prest’s Sweeney would have mocked incessantly: “hesitantly” and “pure.” This Sweeney is just… what? A neglected child who never got the love he needed? Just as much of a victim as the countless people he himself has victimized? This is the note the play ends on, as he kills himself just as the police are about to arrest him, and Joanna continues to try to comfort him as he falls. Fascinating.

After reading this adaptation, I think this is a good time to reflect on one of the dominant narratives I was told about literary history as an undergrad: we should avoid criticizing the past for being the past. The other dominant narrative was the opposite of this: authors from the past lived in different times, and those times were sometimes reflected (negatively) in their work. While I understand the first model–we shouldn’t criticize the past for being the past–I think it’s outlived its usefulness for me. I can definitely see the melodramatic context of this George Dibdin Pitt adaptation, and can appreciate that it portrays some Victorian female characters in a recognizably Victorian way. Fine. But I think that when we advise students not to “criticize the past for being the past,” we reinforce this notion that the past is simply one thing, that it’s monolithic in some significant way. This cautionary narrative of reading literary history actually capitalizes on stereotypes, in my opinion. We might say, “well, Victorians had different notions of femininity, and we shouldn’t criticize them for not behaving as 21st-century people would.” That’s certainly true, and the problem I have with that logic is not that it seems to be apologizing for something we might call “sexism” or “misogyny,” but that we assume that Victorians had a monolithic notion of sexuality that they should not be judged for. As I’m seeing from the differences between the Prest version and the Burton and Pitt versions, there are many different Johannas and Mrs. Lovetts that Victorian readers/theater-goers consumed. And the Johanna that I’m praising–Prest’s Johanna from The String of Pearls–isn’t even a representation that I’d describe as “subversive” in any way. That might seem like an easy descriptor for a cross-dressing female detective in a novel of the 1840s, except that Prest wrote for an extremely popular, extremely rich, and extremely powerful publishing house–and The String of Pearls is a product of this hegemonic publisher, whose top executives were in the top 1% of British earners. So, in the context of British publishing culture, it’s dangerous to label any of this output as “subversive,” really. Prest’s Johanna is just a typical, conventional, cross-dressing, assertive Victorian heroine. So, can I criticize Pitt’s Joanna for being a typical passive, submissive Victorian victim? Yes. Absolutely. Because there’s no “the past” to criticize. “The past” is not a thing, does not exist. There are only pasts, which overlap, oppose, and contradict each other, and I can absolutely prefer some pasts over others. That doesn’t make me any less of a historicist, I don’t think, because I’m engaging in versions of the same debates that my source material was engaged in–which keeps the literature alive just as much as paeans to its literary merit do.

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