Five Questions: James Armstrong on Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas

James Armstrong is an adjunct assistant professor at City College of the City University of New York. He has published extensively on drama in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, contributing articles to journals including European Stages, Theatre Notebook, Shaw, The Keats-Shelley Journal and Dickens Quarterly. He is a practicing playwright and a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. His first monograph, Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas: British Tragedy on the Regency Stage, which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave in 2022.

1) How did you first become interested in Romantic-period theatre?

I was familiar with the story of Shelley’s The Cenci through Antonin Artaud’s adaptation of the play, which he staged in 1935, shocking Parisian audiences. I initially wasn’t very interested in Shelley’s version, though, since I had heard it described as a closet drama. One day, I was browsing the stacks at the New York Public Library, and I saw Shelley’s work up there on the shelf, and I decided to give it a try. As I read the play, it didn’t feel like a closet drama at all. It’s filled with action, and seems imminently playable. I got to the end, and then read Mary Shelley’s note on The Cenci, in which she stated that her husband had wanted the play to be acted, and that he had seen an actress named Miss O’Neil, and she was often in his thoughts as he was writing. Immediately, I wanted to know who this O’Neil was, and why I’d never heard of her.

After some digging, I discovered that Mary Shelley had misspelled the last name of Eliza O’Neill, a performer who had dominated the London stage for a while, but was later largely forgotten. I wanted to recover the work of this person who had inspired such an amazing play, and as I did, I found these other connections between Romantic-period actors and writers. Joanna Baillie’s De Monfort has Sarah Siddons written all over it, and Lord Byron’s Manfred clearly shows the influence of Edmund Kean, even if he never acted in it. When I looked into Remorse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I discovered that early reviewers had credited its success to an actress named Julia Glover, who again, I’d never heard of before, as she’s almost entirely unknown today.

It seemed unfair to me that Coleridge and Shelley are household names, while Glover and O’Neill are forgotten. Moreover, as a playwright myself, I was baffled by critics who seemed to think these writers had created their works for a reading public and not for the stage. Actors are central to the work of most dramatists today, who frequently tailor their words for individual performers. Why did some people act like the Romantic era was so different? If anything, the Regency period was even more star-mad than our own day.

2) Your introduction describes your book as aiming to place key dramas of the Regency era ‘squarely within the context of the era’s system of star performers’. What are the most important insights we gain by restoring this context?

First of all, understanding the context of an original production can prevent you from making certain mistakes. There have been some pretty bizarre interpretations of De Monfort, for instance, that don’t make any sense if you understand the particular aura Siddons had, and the roles she tended to play. Similarly, a lot of Romanticists will privilege Coleridge’s Osorio, an early version of Remorse, perhaps because it is nearer to the author’s original inspiration for the piece. This ignores how many of the rewrites Coleridge did on the play make it a much more streamlined and stage-worthy script. Staging the work had always been Coleridge’s intention, and all those rewrites helped him do what he’d wanted all along, which was to put the play on for an audience.

With Byron, things get a bit more complicated, since he said he didn’t want his plays performed, even though he made other statements that seem to contradict this. His relationship with Kean, the biggest superstar of his day, influenced not just Manfred, but other works by Byron, and even Byron’s posturing in his own life. The more you learn about Kean, the more you understand so much of what Byron did and wrote, whether in dramatic form or not. Just as Kean influenced Byron’s writing, O’Neill influenced Shelley’s. By writing The Cenci specifically for O’Neill, Shelley made discoveries that continued over into his later poetry. I don’t think he could have written some of his more mature work without having first challenged himself by writing for a particular star actor.

3) Which qualities of spoken verse tragedy led you to place this form at the centre of your study?

I love some of the melodramas of the period, and there’s a reason why audiences back then flocked to see them, but so much about these early melodramas rings hollow today. First of all, the dialogue just sounds ridiculous, in spite of being in prose. The verse dramas of the period are written in a different form from what we speak every day, but this actually helps them, since the blank verse distances the dialogue from quotidian reality. As with the work of Bertolt Brecht, we encounter thoughts and actions that are de-familiarized, allowing us to see them anew. The moral world of melodrama also seeks a black-and-white view of everything, which can be attractive, but isn’t very honest in its over-simplicity. What’s best about these verse tragedies, though, are the characters. The heroes and villains of melodrama are interchangeable, whereas some of the characters in the tragedies of the period are unforgettable.

4) Many of your chapters pair particular actors and writers: Sarah Siddons with Joanna Baillie; Julia Glover with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Edmund Kean with Lord Byron; and Eliza O’Neill with Percy Bysshe Shelley.  How did you come to settle on this structure?

It took a while! I knew I wanted to pair O’Neill and Shelley, and Siddons and Baillie were a natural fit. I went to Alan Vardy for advice on Coleridge, and he put me on the right track to eventually identifying Glover as a driving force behind Coleridge’s success with Remorse in 1813. The big question was what to do with Kean, who looms so large over Romantic drama. For a while, I wanted to explore Kean’s influence on Otho the Great, the rejected tragedy that John Keats penned in collaboration with Charles Brown. Keats was a great fan of Kean, but I think the actor ultimately had a greater impact on Byron. Once I had those four pairings, the rest of the book fell into place.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m particularly interested in the toy theatres that were marketed to the public during the Regency era. The book includes an illustration of a sheet of characters from Remorse that was published by J.H. Jameson, a woman who supplied prints that could be cut out and assembled into toy theatres. These toy theatres provide some of the best visual evidence of what the Romantic stage actually looked like, and the more you examine them, the more you can see how hot-button issues of the era, including slavery, racism, and the ever-expanding Empire, got played out on stage. My next book will probably deal with toy theatres, and what they can tell us about the preoccupations of Romantic dramatists and their audiences. Many of the prints used to construct these toy theatres have thankfully survived and can be examined in various archives, including at the New York Public Library, where I first fell in love with Romantic drama!

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