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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

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Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

During its first season, the hit television series Glee aired an episode named “Theatricality,” in which the talented glee club kids pay homage to Lady Gaga and Kiss.Footnote 1 They wear homemade versions of the stars’ hyperextravagant costumes in their high school's hallways as well as on stage, using their wild (and wildly creative) outfits for defiant self-expression, braving harsh reactions from bullies and the school principal. Beyond the students’ personal flair, the title draws attention to the episode as exuberant performance rather than as a mimetic approximation of real life.

Because “theatricality” denotes knowingness about the medium's effect, it is also defined negatively: “the quality of being exaggerated and excessively dramatic.”Footnote 2 This is how Thomas Carlyle uses the term in its oldest recorded instance (which is Victorian): The French Revolution (1837) opposes theatricality to sincerity.Footnote 3 Here Carlyle displays the antitheatricality that Jonas Barish chronicles in The Anti-theatrical Prejudice (1981),Footnote 4 which details cultural bias against theater and anything theatrical from Plato to the present. But the Victorians were not monolithically antitheatrical. Lynn Voskuil states that they “developed a sophisticated capacity … to act authentically and be theatrical at the same time.”Footnote 5 This centuries-long tension between celebrating and snubbing theatricality becomes even more complicated as the word has taken on a variety of meanings among theater historians and literary critics.

Tracy Davis and Thomas Postlewait explain that theatricality is both a “practice” and a “theoretical concept,” on the one hand “characterized by histrionic actions, manners and devices” and on the other “an interpretive model for describing psychological identity, social ceremonies, communal festivities, and public spectacles.”Footnote 6 Erika Fischer-Lichte defines the word through semiotics: because every actor can be replaced by another actor in the same role, actors are themselves signs representing other cultural signs outside the performance.Footnote 7 Janelle Reinelt traces the shifting definitions of “theatricality” in dialectical conjunction with the equally fluid meanings of “performativity”; while performativity requires bodies physically engaged in time-bound actions, theatricality points to “texts or performances that gesture to their own conditions of production or to metatheatrical effects.”Footnote 8As Beth Palmer proclaims, both “performance and theatricality have become key terms for scholars working across wide reaches of Victorian studies.”Footnote 9 Deborah Vlock examines the Victorian novel as a genre that is intertwined with the theater both through performed readings and through language borrowed from the theater within the novels themselves.Footnote 10 I use “theatricality” both to designate textual invocations of theater and performance in prose as Vlock describes, particularly those moments ripe for embodied performance in adaptation, and—in the way Glee’s episode title suggests—to indicate a heightened (and often pleasurable) awareness of the artifice of performance of any kind.Footnote 11

By “artifice,” I do not mean antirealism: on stage or in fiction, realism involves just as much artifice as theatricality.Footnote 12 Theatricality appears not only in live performance but also in prose. By examining novels, Joseph Litvak details the “subtle diffusion” of theater through Victorian culture, “the normalization of theatricality.”Footnote 13 He points to the amateur theatricals within Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), in which the characters enact Elizabeth Inchbald's Lovers’ Vows (1798), advancing the plot and providing a mechanism for revealing the immorality of some characters. At other times, a narrated scene is theatrical because characters consciously perform for spectators, even outside a formally structured theatrical context. For example, in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837–9), the boys comically play at picking Fagin's pockets while Oliver watches and laughs.Footnote 14 The theatricality of this scene—just a descriptive paragraph in the novel, without dialogue—manifests itself in performance in every significant adaptation since George Almar's in 1838.Footnote 15

Such theatricality in Oliver Twist is part of its explicit melodramatic aesthetic. Dickens famously reasons in Chapter 17 that his novel is counterintuitively all the more realistic for being like a melodrama (the nineteenth century's most popular dramatic form): we do not register the melodrama of real life, he declares, because we are the “busy actors instead of passive lookers-on.”Footnote 16 In addition to Dickens's seizing a theatrical genre to structure this particular novel, his writing practice in general emanated from performance: Mamie Dickens recounted her father's acting in front of a mirror as he wrote, cracking up and jotting down whatever came next.Footnote 17 David Kurnick argues that for certain Victorian novelists, such as Henry James and George Eliot, “theater is a condition of the text”; had they not once been immersed in theatrical writing and experience, they would never have written fiction.Footnote 18 I argue that for some Victorian novelists—and Dickens is an excellent example—not only theater but also musical theater is a necessary condition of the text. Dickens's full passage about melodrama quoted above from Oliver Twist cites alternating scenes like “streaky bacon” not only of pathos and humor but also of song, culminating in “the great hall of the castle, where a grey-headed seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals.”Footnote 19 It is important to remember that when Dickens (or any author) writes in the melodramatic mode, he writes within the context of musical theater, since Victorian melodramas were always performed with live music, both songs and underscoring. The most theatrical moments in the novel are also often the most musically theatrical. In this light, it should be no surprise that a common synonym of “theatrical” is “melodramatic.”

Like many Victorian authors, Dickens writes scenes that are richly musical theatrical. The Mystery of Edwin Drood burgeons with them, as when the villain Jasper plays the organ or when Mr. Crisparkle sings “Tell me, Shepherds,”Footnote 20 a song repeatedly identified in nineteenth-century musical literature as a glee.Footnote 21 Glee clubs began near London with Harrow's Glee Club (1787–1857), proliferating internationally and flourishing throughout the nineteenth century.Footnote 22 Glee not only picks up on this still widespread and largely Victorian phenomenon, but also by alternating comedy, pathos, and song, each episode inherits much of its dramatic structure from Victorian melodrama. Given Glee’s Victorian heritage, it should not surprise us that it celebrates authenticity through “Theatricality.”



1. Directed by Ryan Murphy, Episode 20 of Season 1 aired on May 25, 2010.

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