112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Romantic Irony and the Critique of Metadrama: A. W. Schlegel and S. T. Coleridge 

Frederick Burwick, University of California, Los Angeles

Largely unexplored in discussion of shared attributes of European Romanticism, metadrama is the richest field in the literary exploitation of the self-annihilating trope of Romantic Irony. Although the poets and novelists contributed to the Romantic interest in making the genre itself their subject matter, the playwrights succeeded in providing far more elaborate examples of self-reflexivity.

 

Proposal: 

Largely unexplored in discussion of shared attributes of European Romanticism, metadrama is the richest field in the literary exploitation of the self-annihilating trope of Romantic Irony. Although the poets and novelists contributed to the Romantic interest in making the genre itself their subject matter, the playwrights succeeded in providing far more elaborate examples of self-reflexivity. Many centuries before Luigi Pirandello sent six characters in search of an author, Aristophanes in The Acharnians sent his lead character in search of a playwright to create a role for him. This is the play that August Wilhelm Schlegel, in his Lectures on the Drama (1809), chose as historic example of metadrama. As Coleridge pointed out, Shakespeare constructed levels of artifice and illusion through the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Midsummer Night’s Dream and “The Mouse Trap” in Hamlet. Although The Taming of the Shrew is introduced as a play being performed as a ruse for the drunken tinker Sly, Shakespeare did not in subsequent scenes return to the prank and its effects.

The first playwright to compose, not just an interlude, but an entire play as metadrama was Pierre Corneille in L’Illusion comique (1636), a play that was several times adapted for performance in London. Another instance of an entire play as metadrama was The Rehearsal (1671) by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. The satirical aim of this play was directed against the heroic drama as developed by John Dryden. Ridiculed in the character of Bayes, Dryden was as much the target as were the plays that he wrote. Satirized the arrogance of the playwright as well as the sententious bombast of his heroic couplets, Buckingham’s metadrama succeeded in putting an end to the heroic drama of the period, but The Rehearsal continued to be performed, staged throughout the eighteenth century, at Haymarket in 1792 and at Covent Garden as late as 1818. The immediate satirical target had been irradicated, but arrogance and bombast could still be ridiculed. A play about a play gave the audience the illusion of witnessing the “reality” of the players preparing for a performance. David Garrick, who himself took the role of Bayes in his 1741 revival of The Rehearsal, frequently engaged metadrama as playwright and performer. In Lethe Rehearsed (1749) he satirized the production of his own dramatic satire.  Garrick also authored A Peep Behind the Curtain (1767), The Meeting of the Company; or, Bayes's Art of Acting (1774),and The Theatrical Candidates (1775).

In subsequent metadrama of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, every aspect of theatrical production and performance was subjected to metadramatic satire. Tieck’s “Puss in Boots (1797) gave further torque to the metadramatic genre by unsettling it with the strategies of parabasis that Friedrich Schlegel identified with Romantic irony. Goethe, it may be recalled, introduced his Faust (1808) with a metadramatic “Prologue in the Theatre” (Vorspiel auf dem Theater) not so much as an apologia but as a recognition of the competing and irresolvable concerns of the playwright, the player, and the theatre manager. Coleridge in England and A. W. Schlegel in German stand foremost among the Romantic critics who observed the intellectual challenges of metadrama and irony.