Thursday, February 17, 2011

The interiority effect

At the TLS, Michael Caines on new books about eighteenth-century theater by Felicity Nussbaum and David Roberts:
Behind the mask of any given character on stage lies another mask: not the performer’s own face, but the impression of a private individual. In the public sphere – the intellectual shape that, we are so frequently told, held a particular appeal for the eighteenth century – with its concomitant redefinition of privacy, such an impression could become a useful commodity. Eighteenth-century audiences, Nussbaum maintains, quickly became fond of “imagining the inner lives of actors and actresses”, just as readers enjoyed the illusions of interiority conjured up by Pamela and Clarissa. Well before the time of those antithetical celebrities Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan, successful actresses “recognized the necessity of creating an ‘interiority effect’”, and the resultant “personalities” – the performances of being performers – “could be translated into profit, but also could redefine feminine virtue”.
It is very much apropos of a wonderful talk I heard this evening, Joseph Roach speaking to the 18th-century seminar at Columbia on Eliza Linley's voice. (Here is an unrelated blog post that reproduces many of the portraits that provide some of his most evocative evidence.)

Also - did I link to this already, or did I just mean to? - Richard Holmes considers the portraits of Thomas Lawrence:
For all the wonderful extravagance of his portraiture, Lawrence’s own life appeared—on the surface at least—curiously reserved and restrained. He repeatedly said he never bet on cards, never gambled on horses, never got drunk with friends (all proper Regency male pastimes). Instead, he claimed his favorite reading was Jane Austen, and his most extreme sport was billiards. He never married. Yet he was handsome, flirtatious, and charming to a perilous degree. His great friend and confidant, the painter and diarist Joseph Farington, bluntly called him a “male coquet.” But this does not seem quite to explain the case. An anonymous female admirer wrote more perceptively:
He could not write a common answer to a dinner invitation without it assuming the tone of a billet-doux: the very commonest conversation was held in that soft, low whisper, and with that tone of deference and interest, which are so unusual, and so calculated to please.
A male friend called him simply an “old flirt.”

This insidious gift for intimacy, for making everyone feel special, which Lawrence practiced on both his male and female subjects, was evidently an essential part of his magic as a portrait painter. It was his actor’s ability to enter into all their characters and moods; and also that instinct to charm and flatter, which he had learned as a child. His drawings expressed this same swift and sometimes teasing empathy; while his paintings added those theatrical elements of glamour and gusto that became his trademark.

In an unexpected moment of self-revelation, Lawrence once described his own character as “Genius…infected by Romance, and wasted by Indolence and Languor.” He added that he had the mark of “the Voluptuary,” and that playing around his mouth were “Passions powerful to ruin, to debase, or to elevate the Character.” As suits a Romantic figure, there remains a kind of mysterious doubleness about his identity, a secretive and possibly bisexual quality that runs both through his life and through the ironic subtext of many of his portraits. He once wrote a curious little camp poem, “On Being Left Alone after Dinner,” which contains the lines: “I wish the sex were kinder grown,/And when they find a man alone,/Would treat him like a woman.”


  1. Hmm, I believe Stuart Sherman's long-awaited next book is also about theater (and the connection is that Stuart and Felicity both previously wrote in large part about diaries) (and the follow-up is that I will NOT be writing a book about 19th c. theater!).

  2. I wonder if the progress of interiority had much to do with the general sense by, say, Johnson's time that the classical unities were daft. A delightfully counterintuitive implication of this story is that professional actors are in a sense _more_ estranging than amateur ones; immersion in the play proper being less necessary to justify playgoing, as one could go to gawk at the actresses' souls instead.