Stephen Copley Research Report: Alix Gallagher on Malta’s influence on Coleridge

My PhD examines respiratory embodiment in Romantic theatre, particularly that of S.T Coleridge. I was extremely grateful to use a BARS travel scholarship in October to visit the National Library of Malta theatre archive and Melitensia collection at the University of Malta, to study records from 1804-805 when Coleridge lived in La Vallette.

There has been limited work on the setting of Malta as influential to Coleridge’s dramaturgy, including brief mention in Donald Sultana’s authoritative book Coleridge on Malta (1969). Most attention has been paid to Coleridge’s political writing due to his job as administrator for the British protectorate in Malta. Hough and Davis (2010) have re-examined government records at Rabat and Greenwich, to form the perspective of Coleridge as an accountable civil servant.

During my visit, I questioned whether Coleridge’s stay on the island, where he sketched scenes and productions for the stage, was instrumental in Coleridge’s shift into a Romantic playwright and realised in a successful Drury Lane production after his return?

Given Coleridge travelled (only partly successfully) to improve his physical and mental health, and it was one of his most productive periods of journal writing, I aimed to explore the theatre and medical histories relating to Coleridge’s time on Malta with their overlapping contexts of imprisonment and respiratory metaphor. Were there physiological responses specific to the Malta setting, of quarantine or its different atmospheric climate for example, that inspired his new content on dramas and the spoken word? In addition to personal health, were there influential local productions that he encountered?

Limited, incomplete theatre records of 1804-1805 due to no freedom of the press are a challenge. Renowned local historian Paul Xuereb’s history of the Teatru Manoel, Valletta’s main performance space, notes the near absence of records 1804-1806 while William Zammit’s work on print culture in Malta discusses items destroyed or discarded in the transference of power between the Knights to the French, then the British. I am extremely grateful to Prof Marco Galea from the University of Malta for taking the time to meet with me, and to share his deep knowledge of Maltese theatre history including the Manoel Theatre on whose archives board he is a member.

Inside the Theatre Maoel, Valletta

The Manoel Theatre was attended by Coleridge and the Governor Alexander Ball and mentioned in Coleridge’s notebooks. It was therefore very important to study the late nineteenth-century handwritten manuscript of local musicologist and historian M.A Borg’s ‘Cronistoria’ in the National Library archive, the only document that combines theatre contracts, names of lead actors and soloists and some names of performances. The operatic libretti in the University of Malta’s ‘Melatensia’ archive from the period Coleridge lived in Valletta and San Anton, were also indicative of the performances Coleridge experienced, and wrote about, sometimes with disdain, in his notebook. I am grateful to Matthew Cuschieri at the University of Malta (Msida campus) for locating these and providing additional material on local folklore pertaining to vocal tradition and local ‘airs

In keeping with 19th Century slower modes of travel (and to save money), I had travelled by overnight train through Italy and used local ferries to reach the archives. This meant that my first view of the harbour and former quarantine island were from the water – as would have been the case for visitors and naval staff in 1804. It was a multi-sensory experience of the Maltese winds and Autumnal airflow which Coleridge met with theatrical observations. Coleridge’s new respiratory comments in his notebooks and letters, in response to Malta’s weather, its airs and temperature, are clearer to me now having experienced the climate’s comparative dryness. The Knights of the Order of St John used a softer Globigerina limestone to construct Valetta and the surrounding fortified cities that together form Il Kottonera (including Senglea where I stayed). There was a dryness and faint dustiness that felt unfamiliar to my lungs in the towns encircled by huge rock walls, looming cathedrals, and steep stone stairways. I recorded in my notebook feeling thirsty and dehydrated on land.

On the Ferry to the National Library archive

Travelling to Valletta meant I could walk to the site of Coleridge’s quarantine in Malta’s lazaretto on Manoel island. The hospital was recognised by John Howard’s An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe (1789) for its vigorous enforcement of procedure. It is notable that, in the centuries since Coleridge was administrator of the hospital, the land has not been developed. I was excited that the hospital quarantine station ruins were still visible, and partly accessible, and struck by the soundscape of this remote isolation. I took recordings of the wind across the rocks and trees, to compare with Coleridge’s descriptions produced while impounded in quarantine on his return from Sicily. It was just in time. The land on Manoel island and its remaining lazaretto structure are about to be regenerated by construction company MIDI plc into offices, an underground car park and casino hotel complex. 

Ruins of Malta’s lazaretto on Manoel island

In conclusion, the research trip has brought my PhD’s project strands of respiratory health and affective theatre experience, into clearer focus. Malta is an excellent case study for Coleridge’s complex medical context that interweaves his illness self-identity with an evolving self-conceptualisation as a playwright. Without the support of this BARS travel scholarship, the visit and network to draw on in subsequent work with this material are unlikely to have happened.  

Alix Gallagher

Alix is a third year PhD candidate (part time, late career, early researcher) in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. Alix’s AHRC funded inter-disciplinary project puts early nineteenth-century literary and performative context in dialogue with the history of breathing science and performers’ personal medical histories.  Alix teaches in London and runs creative writing interventions with students in mainstream and hospital school systems.


Twitter: Galixg 

1 thought on “Stephen Copley Research Report: Alix Gallagher on Malta’s influence on Coleridge

  1. Jane Williams

    I found the descriptive element of this piece very interesting, it makes me want to visit Malta and experience the “airs” for myself.

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