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Newey, Kate. 'Women's Theatrical Texts and Contexts.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 1 March 1999. 10 pars. <http://www.etang.umontreal.ca/bwp1800/essays/newey_women.html>


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[Thomas C. Crochunis's comments in response to Newey's essay are linked throughout - you can read them by clicking on the links and then return to Newey's essay]

 

Part One

1.

This essay comes from two sources: my teaching of late Romantic/early Victorian women's theatre writing, and my research into the cultural politics of women's writing for the theatre in the "long" nineteenth century from the 1780s to the First World War. In these endeavours, much of my work of necessity uses non-print materials, although many of these are electronically produced replicas of the printed texts. Using electronically produced and reproduced teaching and research materials at a regional university in Australia, which does not have a literary research collection of any note, and whose students cannot be expected to travel the hour and a half it would take to get to a major research collection, is an ideal solution to introducing my students to the specialised study of nineteenth century theatre, and women's writing for that theatre, as I did in 1998.

2.

My students' introduction to theatre history was part of a course for Honours students (i.e. the most senior undergraduates doing an extra year specialising in English - the nearest equivalent would be the first year of a taught MA programme in the UK or US) in English literature on aspects of English culture from the mid-1820s to the early 1840s, in which they studied newspapers and periodicals such as the Times, Chambers' Journal, and the Illustrated London News, read Oliver Twist in its serial publication parts, discussed the visual culture of the period, and looked at three plays by women playwrights which had attracted controversy and censorship: Mary Russell Mitford, Charles the First, Catherine Gore, Quid Pro Quo, and Emma Robinson, Richelieu in Love; or, The Youth of Charles I. I had microfilm copies of the plays by Gore and Robinson, reproduced from copies in the British Library, and we used the version of Mitford's play from the Chadwyck-Healey CD-ROM of British verse poetry. Although I was interested in presenting the students with these plays through a variety of media, inevitably, for ease of classroom discussion, we used paper print-outs of microfilm, and hard copies of the Mitford play from the CD-ROM. [link to Crochunis's comment]

3. It was important for the placement of these plays within a literary culture course that we looked at the contexts of their publication and production. Robinson's and Mitford's plays were both banned for political reasons by the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays, while Gore's play attracted its own controversy as the winner of a very public and much discussed playwriting competition. All three plays attracted a volume of public discussion and exposure (although not necessarily through stage production) that was unusual for plays at this time. So I regarded the authors' long and polemical introductions, as well as the playbills, reviews, satires, and gossip about these plays to be important parts of the texts themselves, and to look at the plays outside of this context was to misrepresent them. The materials I gave students included copies of this extra-scriptual material, such as introductions and dedications, as well as copies of reviews, playbills, and transcripts from letters and diaries by the women playwrights concerned. And to provide further context, we spent class time on the Web, as a preliminary to students' own further research using the Web. I directed them to sites which provided digitised replications of contextual materials such as the University of Newcastle (NSW) site which presents images from Michael Booth's collection of nineteenth century playbills and illustrations (http://www.newcastle.edu.au/department/dm/booth/booth.htm ), and the Pollock's toy theatre site (http://members.tripod.com/~Toymuseum/index.htm ), which gives beautiful images of their printed cardboard toy theatres. For more complex or tangential searching, we turned to Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle site (http://humanitas.ucsb.edu), and to specific resources within that, such as George Landow's Victorian Web (http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/victov.html ) and the nineteenth-century theatre web-site created by post-graduate students in the School of Drama at the University of Washington (http://ascc.artsci.washington.edu/drama-phd/19title.html ). I encouraged the students to use the graphic and multimedia potentials of the Web in addition to searching for materials in print form - indeed in the case of the Booth playbills, for example, the Web provided essential materials in the class room not otherwise available to us without travelling a long way. [link to Crochunis's comment]
4.

And this is when I started thinking about the materials for teaching this kind of theatre history - or indeed similar sorts of cultural or literary histories - in a multimedia environment. The problem presented itself to me in this form as a teacher: in an enterprise which deals so closely with the physicality of performance and the materiality of the primary documents, what might be lost in a theatre history derived from virtual sources? [link to Crochunis's comment] How might students read the microfilms of prompt scripts containing layers of notes and scraps of paper, annotated in different coloured pencils and inks which abound in the Frank Pettingell collection (University of Kent at Canterbury) and which mark the work of Britannia manager Sarah Lane as playwright and dramaturg? Do students grasp the implications of the roughness of the paper and blurriness of the printer's ink and general grubbiness of playbills in the (very useful) Chadwyck-Healey microfiche collection of London playbills or the digitised images of the Newcastle web-site? Perhaps more personally, what are pleasures of the scholar in dealing with the corporeality of her material - the dust on her hands, the traces of other audiences, collectors, and readers marked on the playbill or the newspaper clipping?

5.

In defence of my concerns as more than self-indulgent worries about the pleasures of research, I was also alerted to the importance of the materiality of theatrical texts by a marked difference in my students' responses to the paper printouts from microfilms of first publications, and print-outs from the playtexts available on CD-ROMs. They found the CD-ROM print-out although in a clear print and easily read font (which I had lightly edited for reading ease, mainly by taking out the line numbers and superfluous returns after each line), to provide far less information about the play and its contexts, [link to Crochunis's comment] than the rather faint and fuzzy photocopies of printouts of microfilms of early nineteenth century publications. This was a rather dramatic demonstration of the visual semiotics of text, of its very appearance in fonts, layouts, tones, and paper size, but not unexpected in a course in which we looked at the interplay between words and images in Oliver Twist, the significance of the first page of the Times, with its columns of classified advertisements, and the layout of pages of the Illustrated London News.

6.

And while this kind of research is increasingly being done in Romantic and Victorian studies, it is crucial in theatre history, particularly in the nineteenth century. For all sorts of reasons - canonicity (or the lack of it), recognition of the historical specificities of theatrical practice, a long amateur and antiquarian scholarly tradition, [link to Crochunis's comment] to name a few—nineteenth-century theatre historians have never seen the text as central, indeed, sometimes, theatre historians dismiss the text as an impossible object for research. While I do not hold with this view, a sense of the impossibility of a text is a useful corrective to the emphasis of high culture and critical theory on the written text. [link to Crochunis's comment] Indeed, one of the questions which our whole discussion here tonight might lead us to, is the way in which electronic editions of these women playwrights could serve as models for destabilising our assumptions about the relationship between any text and the conditions of its production. [link to Crochunis's comment] I suspect, if we follow this line of enquiry, we might find that other forms of early nineteenth century cultural production rest similarly uneasily in relation to their markets - the work of John Sutherland on later nineteenth-century publishing practices goes some way to showing the haphazardness of the emergence of 'genius', and the work of Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin points specifically to the gendered nature of the cultural marketplace.

7. In the light of these experiences, I want to make a case for what I call "materialist editing". I use this term for both its literal and theoretical connotations: to suggest an electronic editing practice which pays attention to both the concrete and physical nature of many of the documents of theatre history, combined with a theoretical approach which assumes that cultural production happens within a social system organised around historically specific ways of differentiating groups of producers and consumers by class, or race, or gender. I hope this term begins to make active some of the ideals proposed by Jerome McGann's concept of "the archive" (McGann, http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jjm2f/chum.html ), and Jane Moody's concerns for what she calls the "sensuous, material life" of the theatre (http://www-sul.stanford.edu/mirrors/romnet/wp1800/cro2.html ). An ideal materialist practice in electronic editing of playtexts would make available not just the scripts themselves but the material surrounding the scripts which theatre historians use to place the scripts in their production contexts. Such an electronic editing practice would take account of current debates and practices in textual scholarship by providing a new set of editing practices which acknowledge the nature of textual production and reception. For example, production contexts might include playbills, reviews, visual images of the performance and related images, descriptions of performances, available information about the economics of the production, references to actors' reminiscences or biographies, references to histories of the theatre buildings. [link to Crochunis's comment] And it is exciting to see that electronic editing, particularly in a multimedia and /or Web environment, is ideally placed to do this, through the use of hypertextual systems and multimedia, although as many writers in this area point out, it is expensive, time-consuming, and will never be comprehensive - Robin Alston gives us salutary warning here (Alston). However, work such as this is already being done by, for example, Jacky Bratton and Christie Carson at the Royal Holloway Centre of MultiMedia Performance History, at Royal Holloway College, University of London, where they are developing a Shakespeare CD-ROM project which includes multiple versions of the text (e.g. King Lear), connected with reviews, images from performances, and critical essays. A print-based forerunner to this was produced by the Bristol Classical Press in their Plays in Performance series (for example, the Othello volume, edited by Julie Hankey), which presents the script on one page, faced by accounts of textual variants and interpretations in performance. And Peter Robinson discusses the work done and to be done for an edition (for which he also contemplates the names "archive", "dossier", and "resource base") of Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue" in which digitised images of the extant manuscripts and pre-1500 printed editions could be brought together in one non-linear - that is, hypertextual - edition (Robinson 9).
8.

To use electronic resources in this way is to begin to recognise the social authorship of texts. Jerome McGann writes that the recognition of social authorship is an important outcome of rethinking the relationship between textual and literary studies. In arguing for the importance to literary critics of textual studies as a living and vital part of their scholarship, McGann writes that

these studies are the only disciplines that can elucidate the complex network of people, materials, and events that have produced and that continue to reproduce the literary works history delivers into our hands. Current interpretations of literary works only acquire a critical edge of significance when they are grounded in an exegesis of texts and meanings generated in the past—in an exegesis of texts and meanings gained, and perhaps also lost, over time. (McGann 1985: 191)

And to extend the concept, we might also like to think about the idea of "social editing" - that is, that the sorts of resources I would ideally like to have for my students might not come from one source only - as a library collects different books, written by different authors, published by various companies, distributed, catalogued, and shelved by a variety of hands, so in cyberspace we move from site to site. However, unlike printed materials, as George Landow argues throughout Hypertext, these electronic materials, texts, or lexias, can be read relationally, in a non-linear fashion, and can be added to and commented on in a vast collective publication. Electronic editing already creates this social practice - now we need to name it, to recognise it, to nurture it, because thousands of students, and researchers beyond these rather privileged environs, need it.

 

Part Two

9.

This is a utopian vision, of course. Peter Robinson and Robin Alston have already sounded the alarm bells about the scarcity of resources for the creation of such electronic archives, and of the politics and economics of access to them. While publishing remains a commercial business, and while universities (in the English-speaking world, at least) remain immured in the economic ideologies of privatisation and user-pays, the problems Robinson and Alston raise are all too real. Who is to pay for my vision of an electronic theatre history text? At the moment there is an unsettled and unsettling mix of commercial electronic publication (chiefly through CD-ROM), public access with some free and some paid for services (for example, the image bank from the Guildhall Library, London, where images can be viewed freely through the Web, and prints ordered as part of a commercial business, http://collage.nhil.com ), a variety of sites created by university staff and students as part of their own work, and an even wider range of miscellaneous sites, all variable in quality, needing time and knowledge to sort out what is of use (a good site for learning about evaluating Web sites exists at http://www.uq.edu.au/english/links/general.htm#evaluation ). The non-commercial sites are, of course, not free in any sense of the word: they are created by a considerable investment of time and knowledge - a real concentration of cultural capital. [link to Crochunis's comment]

10. However, I do not want to focus too much on the pragmatic details of the uneasy relationship between scholarship and commerce at the end of the twentieth century. I want to raise some speculative questions about the electronic presence of archives of women's playtexts. While notions of socially authored and socially edited texts are powerful ones through which to approach literary history, I would argue however that in dealing with women's texts, we must be very careful in our use of them. For the feminist theatre historian, the concept of women's texts being social authored is double-edged. On the one hand, the principle of social authorship, and its implied recognition of the conditions of the production of literary texts, has been absolutely crucial in establishing a coherent theory and practice of feminist literary scholarship which questions hierarchies of aesthetic value, which identifies the material conditions of the productions and reputations of "genius", which articulates different criteria by which we may examine the past. However, as another feminist writing interrogatively about women writers said: "Before someone is buried, they need first to be identified" (Heller 1994: 247). Why is it so easy talking about unstable texts, contexts, and an unhierarchised canon (or lack of canon) when looking at women's (or other marginalised groups) work? Could it be that electronic texts offer only a half-way solution to the recovery of women's texts, and the recuperation of a female tradition of writing and performance? While the plethora of women's texts freely available on the World Wide Web, and others available through CD-ROMs such as Chadwyck Healey's English Verse Drama, belie Dale Spender's fear that women's work will once again be left behind in the change from print to virtual technologies, it is too soon to start rejoicing. Are the many electronic projects devoted to women's writing necessary because women's writing is ephemeral and 'unworthy' of substantial print publication? [link to Crochunis's comment] I realise that such a question sets up an hierarchical relationship between print and electronic publication, and also buys into general and scholarly debates over the future of print, but nevertheless I raise it to alert us to the possible dangers of women's writing being ghettoised in electronic editions, accessible only to those with the right sort of cultural, social, and economic capital. [link to Crochunis's comment] While much feminist theory has emphasised and celebrated the pleasures of working from the margins, we need to be clear about what is at stake. [link to Crochunis's comment]

Kate Newey
Lancaster University

Kate Newey is a senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Lancaster University, UK. She has published on nineteenth century popular theatre, and women's writing. Her recent work on nineteenth century women playwrights has appeared in The Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Nineteenth Century Theatre , Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Moving Performance (Flicks Books, 1999) and Uncloseting the Stage: Romantic Women Playwrights (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Acknowledgements: My thanks to my students in "Signs of the Times" at the University of Wollongong in Autumn Session, 1998: Elizabeth Byers, Hilly Corris, John Lees, Chris Makin, Lynda Pinnington-Wilson, Tamara Rodgers, Lynette Styles, and Kristy Wyer.

References:

  • Alston, Robin. " in The Politics of the Electronic Text. Ed. Warren Chernaik, Carolyn Davis, and Marilyn Deegan. Oxford: Office for Humanities Computing, 1993.
  • Hankey, Julie, Ed. Othello by William Shakespeare. Plays in Performance series. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987.
  • Heller, Agnes. "Death of the Subject?," in The Polity Reader in Social Theory. Ed. Anthony Giddens, David Held, Don Hubert, Debbie Seymour, & John Thompson. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.
  • McGann, Jerome. "Imagining What You Don't Know: the Theoretical Goals of the Rossetti Archive." (1/02/99) <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jjm2f/chum.html>
  • McGann, Jerome. "The Monks and the Giants," in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation. Ed. Jerome McGann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • Robinson, Peter M. W. "Manuscript Politics," in The Politics of the Electronic Text. Ed. Warren Chernaik, Carolyn Davis, and Marilyn Deegan. Oxford: Office for Humanities Computing, 1993.
Read Thomas C. Crochunis' full response to this essay