Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
Hostname: page-component-99c86f546-swqlm Total loading time: 0.362 Render date: 2021-11-30T04:15:55.552Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Theatricality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]

Abstract

Type
Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright
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.”

References

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

2. “Theaticality,” Oxford Living Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/theatricality.

3. Theatricality,” Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 3280Google Scholar.

4. Barish, Jonas, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981)Google Scholar.

5. Voskuil, Lynn, Acting Naturally: Victorian Theatricality and Authenticity (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004), 3Google Scholar.

6. Davis, Tracy C. and Postlewait, Thomas, “Theatricality: an Introduction,” in Theatricality, ed. Davis, Tracy C. and Postlewait, Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1Google Scholar.

7. Fischer-Lichte, Erika, “Theatricality: A Key Concept in Theatre and Cultural Studies,” Theatre Research International 20. no. 2 (1999): 85118CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 88.

8. Reinelt, Janelle, “The Politics of Discourse: Performativity Meets Theatricality,” SubStance 31. no. 2–3 (2002): 201–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 206.

9. Palmer, Beth, “Introduction: Theatricality and Performance in Victorian Literature and Culture,” Victorian Network 3, no. 2 (2011): 16Google Scholar, 1.

10. Vlock, Deborah, Dickens, Novel Reading, and the Victorian Popular Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 67Google Scholar.

11. Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky, Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007), 9Google Scholar.

12. Levine, George, The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 79Google Scholar.

13. Litvak, Joseph, Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), xGoogle Scholar.

14. Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, ed. Kaplan, Fred (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 6970Google Scholar.

15. Almar, George, Oliver Twist: A Serio-Comic Burletta, in Four Acts. French's Standard Drama. No. 228 (New York: Samuel French, 1864?), 1112Google Scholar.

16. Dickens, Oliver Twist, 118.

17. Dickens, Mamie, My Father as I Recall Him (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1900), 4950Google Scholar.

18. Kurnick, David, Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 7Google Scholar.

19. Dickens, Oliver Twist, 118.

20. Dickens, Charles, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (London: Penguin, 1974), 43Google Scholar.

21. Mazzinghi, Joseph., “Ye shepherds tell me: a celebrated glee” (New York: Dubois and Stodart, 1823–1826)Google Scholar.

22. Randel, Don Michael, The Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 353Google Scholar.

You have Access

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Theatricality
Available formats
×

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Theatricality
Available formats
×

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Theatricality
Available formats
×
×

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *