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Life and Work of Joanna Baillie
Chapter 3 - Dramatic Theory

Some months after Joanna Baillie had completed the three plays included in the first volume of the Plays on the Passions, she wrote an Introductory Discourse as preface to the volume. In it she explained at length her dramatic theory, and outlined the task that she had set for herself. As her work developed, she added details in later prefaces, but did not modify her belief in any essential matters. As a basis for an estimate of her dramatic works, the following resume of her theory is given:

Curiosity and its results.

From that strong sympathy which most creatures, but the human above all, feel for others of their kind, nothing has become so much an object of man's curiosity as man himself. The child learns about human beings by studying those around him; in the same manner, grown people spend much time in observing the dress and manner of those about them.

From this universal interest may spring two results: ‘the rich vein of the satirist and the wit' and the type of conversation which degenerates into trivial and mischievous tat ling/ The habit of observation is usually restricted to externals, as to recount superficial impressions requires less reasoning power than would an attempt to establish a character-analysis. In our ordinary intercourse with society, this curiosity is exercised upon men under the common occurrences of life, in which the whimsical and ludicrous will strike us most forcibly and which gives rise to the genuinely comic in every type of literature. If the same power is exercised upon 'extraordinary situations of difficulty and distress' a genuine tragic interest will be aroused.

The desire to see a man put forth all his strength to resist adversity, or bodily suffering, or natural emotion, is powerful and universal. It is at the bottom of the desire for revenge; to it, also, may be traced that fear which leads us to dread direct intercourse with the world of spirits. 'No man wishes to see the Ghost himself, which would certainly procure him the best information on the subject, but every man wishes to see one who believes that he sees it, in all the agitation and wildness of that species of terror.' Our interest is equally keen when the evil with which he contends is in his own breast, and no outward circumstance awakens our pity. We are deeply affected by the sight of a man struggling in this way against emotions which we also have experienced in some degree; we watch eagerly for signs of fear or anger.

This divinely implanted curiosity is our best and most powerful instructor. By it we are taught the proprieties and decencies of ordinary life, and are prepared for distressing and difficult situations Unless it is accompanied by malevolent passions, we cannot well exercise it without becoming more just, more merciful, and more compassionate. This sympathy fits a man for interesting and instructive writing; the man- who has sympathy with others will make a permanent impression upon us. .

This sympathetic curiosity is essential for success in all branches of literature. In history, the writer depends upon this human touch for the permanence of his effect. Without it, battles and reforms do not remain in our memory; with it, all is animated. In philosophy, the skilful author dwells largely upon the justice of his argument; but he makes his point quickly intelligible by illustrations drawn from nature, and from the habits, the manners, and the characters of men. 'An argument supported with vivid and interesting illustration will long be remembered, when many equally important and clear are forgotten; and a work where many such occur, will be held in higher estimation by the generality of men, than one, its superior, perhaps, in acuteness, perspicuity, and good sense.'

The romance, the tale, and the novel supplement the historian’s picture of man in public life. In them much that was absurd, and unnatural, and horrible was offered to us, and was accepted temporarily. In spite of this fact, 'into whatever scenes the novelist may conduct us, what objects soever he may present to our view, still is our attention most sensibly awake to every touch faithful to nature; still are we upon the watch for every thing that speaks to us of ourselves.’

In epic and pastoral poetry we are often so attracted by the loftiness and refinement, the decoration and ornament, that we are tempted to forget what kind of beings we are. But 'let one simple trait of the human heart, one expression of passion, genuine and true to nature, be introduced, and it will stand forth alone in the boldness of reality, whilst the false and unnatural around it fade away upon every side.’ The greatest pleasure we gain from poetry arises from our sympathetic interest in others. 'Were the grandest scenes which can enter into the imagination of man, presented to our view, and all reference to man completely shut out from our thoughts, the objects that composed it would convey to our minds little better than dry ideas of magnitude, colour, and form; and the remembrance of them would rest upon our minds like the measurement and distances of the planets.’

To the historian, the philosopher, the novelist, and the poet, the study of human nature is a powerful auxiliary; to the dramatist * it is the centre and strength of the battle/ Other excellencies may atone for the lack of Human sympathy in other types of literature, but in the drama nothing will supply the place of faithfully delineated nature. The poet and the novelist may represent to you their great characters from the cradle to the tomb. They may represent them in any mood or temper, and under the influence of any passion which they see proper, without being obliged to put words into their mouths. They tell us what kind of people they intend their men and women to be, and as such we receive them. But in the drama the characters must speak directly for themselves. 'Under the influence of every passion, humour, and impression; in the artificial veilings of hypocrisy and ceremony, in the openness of freedom and confidence, and in the lonely hour of meditation, they speak We expect to find them creatures like ourselves; and if they are untrue to nature, we feel that we are imposed upon.'

Theatrical representations are, consequently, the favorite amusement of all civilized nations. If the drama had not sprung up in the Bacchic rites of Greece, it would soon have developed else where. This Grecian origin of drama has determined its character. The Greeks were familiar with the epic long before the drama arose, and were accustomed to sit for long periods of time, listening to the recitals of bards. As a result they were content with a form of drama in which there was little action, and bursts of passion were few. Without their influence drama ‘would have been more irregular, more imperfect, more varied, more interesting.'


Tragedy naturally developed first, as every nation delights in the brave struggles of its forefathers, which would certainly have been the most animating subject for the poet, and the most interesting for his audience, . . . the first child of the Drama, for the same reasons that have made heroic ballad, with all its battles, murders, and disasters, the earliest poetical compositions of every country.'

In tragedy we see the passions, the humors, the weaknesses, the prejudices of our heroes and great men. As the middle and lower classes of people show most plainly the common traits of human nature, we shall find works dealing with them most interesting. To tragedy it belongs, first, to show men in elevated positions exposed to great trials, and, secondly, to unveil to us 'the human mind under the dominion of those strong and fixed passions, which, seemingly unprovoked by outward circumstances, will, from small beginnings, brood within the breast, till all the better dispositions, all the fair gifts of nature, are borne down before them.'

Dramatists of the past have applied themselves chiefly to the first part of this task, and even here have not been entirely successful. They have preferred the 'embellishments of poetry to faithfully delineated nature,' and have followed too closely the examples of their predecessors. ‘Neglecting the boundless variety of nature, certain strong outlines of character, certain bold features of passion, certain grand vicissitudes and striking dramatic situations, have been repeated from one generation to another; whilst a pompous and solemn gravity, which they have supposed to be necessary for the dignity of tragedy, has excluded almost entirely from their works those smaller touches of nature, which so well develop the mind.' The heroes have been such models of virtue and valor, so free from all human weaknesses, that they seem far above our comprehension, as though the writers ‘had entirely forgotten that it is only for creatures like ourselves that we feel, and, therefore, only from creatures like ourselves that we receive the instruction of example.' Warriors are represented as too proud, generous, and daring; lovers as too amiable, affectionate, and gentle; tyrants as too monstrous, treacherous, and deceitful to serve as examples for us. ‘This spirit of imitation, and attention to effect, has likewise confined them very much in their choice of situations and events to bring their great characters into action: rebellions, conspiracies, contentions for empire, and rivalships in love, have alone been thought worthy of trying those heroes; and palaces and dungeons the only places magnificent or solemn enough for them to appear in.' The second part of the task has been neglected by even the greatest writers of tragedy. They have made use of the passions to mark their several characters, and animate their scenes, rather than to open to our view the nature of those great disturbers of the human breast, with whom we are all, more or less, called upon to contend. To trace them in their rise and progress in the heart seems but rarely to have been the object of any dramatist. On the contrary, characters are usually introduced at the height of the emotion, from which we can only guess the decisions and indecisions by which it has advanced. The passions that may be suddenly excited, and are of short duration, as anger, fear, and oftentimes jealousy, may be fully represented in this manner.. The more permanent passions, however, are developed from within, and are best shown as contending with the opposite passions and affections. Those great masters of the soul, ambition, hatred, love, every passion that is permanent in its nature, and varied in progress, if represented to us but in one stage of its course, is represented imperfectly/ To such passion belongs lofty language embellished with figures. If it is used commonly for less crucial situations, its power is gone when it is most needed. 'This, perhaps, more than anything else has injured the higher scenes of Tragedy. For, having made such free use of bold, hyperbolical language in the inferior parts, the poet, when he arrives at the highly impassioned, sinks into total inability.'

As a result of this strong belief in the importance of the passions to drama, and in the failure of her predecessors, Joanna Baillie decided to write a series of tragedies 'of simpler, construction, less embellished with poetical decorations, less constrained by that lofty seriousness which has so generally been considered as necessary for the support of tragic dignity, and in which the chief object should be to delineate the progress of the higher passions in the human breast, each play exhibiting a particular passion.' Passion was to be recognized in its early stages. The result of such tragedies upon the spectators was to be a true Greek catharsis.

We cannot, it is true, amidst its wild uproar, listen to the voice of reason, and save ourselves from destruction ; but we can foresee its coming, we can mark its rising signs, we can know the situations that will most expose us to its rage, and we can shelter our heads from the coming blast In checking and subduing those visitations of the soul, every one may make considerable progress, if he proves not entirely successful.


It is the province of comedy to exhibit men in the ordinary intercourse of life, to show the varied fashions and manners of the world, and to trace the rise of the stronger passions under conditions that detract from their sublimity. The comic writer may portray the smallest traits of character under the most intimate circumstances. Comedy, too, has been led away from the description of nature. In this case the trouble has been the desire to be satirical and witty, and to arouse curiosity and laughter. The most interesting and instructive class of comedy, therefore, the real characteristic, has been neglected; and satirical, witty, sentimental, and, above all, busy or circumstantial comedy have occupied most dramatic writers.

Satirical Comedy usually has a simple plot, and the few events are neither interesting nor striking; its interest depends on the clever dialogue. ‘The persons of the drama are indebted for the discovery of their peculiarities to what is said of them, rather than to any thing they are made to say or do for themselves.' Witty Comedy usually has a feeble plot, and aims only to amuse; it has no desire to interest or instruct. Sentimental Comedy treats of mild “embarrassments, difficulties and scruples' in a generally uninteresting manner. Instead of having a moral effect, it is helping to produce 'a set of sentimental hypocrites.' In Busy or Circumstantial Comedy all those ingenious contrivances of lovers, guardians, governantes, and chambermaids; that ambushed bush-fighting amongst closets, screens, chests, easy-chairs, and toilet-tables, form a gay, varied game of dexterity and invention.' It entertains the indolent or studious man, as he does not need to think, only to look. The moral tendency of it, however, is very faulty. The constant mockery of age and domestic authority, has a bad effect upon the younger part of an audience; and the continual lying and deceit in the main characters, which are necessary for the plot, are most pernicious. Characteristic Comedy shows the world in which we live under familiar circumstances, and offers a wide field. Its aim is to show distinctions in character which may be found among all classes of society, and which are therefore universally interesting. 'It stands but little in need of busy plot, extraordinary incidents, witty repartee, or studied sentiments.... A smile that is raised by some trait of undisguised nature, and a laugh that is provoked by some ludicrous effect of passion, or clashing of opposite characters, will be more pleasing to the generality of men than either the one or the other when occasioned by a play upon words, or a whimsical combination of ideas.' The monotony in comic heroes is owing to the convention of making love the universal passion. As a result, men who are too old for lovers, but who are still in the full vigor of life, are not sufficiently emphasized. In real life we are pleased with eccentricity, but resent its being carried to an extreme in the drama. Minor comic writers distinguish one man from another by some strange whim, which influences every action of his life.

In comedy the stronger passions, love excepted, are seldom introduced. When they are, the result is a serio-comic drama, which does not produce upon our minds a unified effect. Inferior persons in a comedy are often influenced by passion, but such characters affect us slightly, as our chief interest is not in them. A complete exhibition of any passion, with its varieties and its progress, has seldom been attempted in comedy. Even love, though the chief subject of almost every play, has been portrayed in an imperfect manner. The lover is generally introduced 4 after he has long been acquainted with his mistress, and wants but the consent of some stubborn relation, relief from some embarrassment of situation, or the clearing up some mistake or love-quarrel occasioned by malice or accident, to make him completely happy/ This stage of the passion is the least interesting and least instructive, and one stage of any passion must show it imperfectly.

In accordance with this belief in the real value of comic drama, Joanna Baillie decided to write a comedy on each passion as a companion to the tragedy. Such comedy should be entertaining to everyone, and instructive to those on whom the passions have not secured a firm hold.

Influence of the Theatre.

‘The theatre is a school in which much good or evil may be learned.’ Through it the great middle class is instructed in a very effective manner. Every author who attempts to improve the mode of this instruction should be praised for the attempt, even if 'want of abilities may unhappily prevent him from being successful in his efforts.’

In order to succeed in exhibiting the growth and character of each of the stronger passions by means of tragedy and comedy, the dramatist must meet certain requirements. 'The passions must be depicted not only with their bold and prominent features, but also with those minute and delicate traits which distinguish them in an infant, growing, and repressed state. . . . The characters over whom they are made to usurp dominion must be powerful and interesting, exercising them with their full measure of opposition and struggle, for the chief antagonists they contend with must be the other passions and propensities of the heart, not outward circumstances and events.’ The passions must be 'held to view in their most baleful and unseductive light; and those qualities in the impassioned which are necessary to interest us in their fate, must not be allowed ... to diminish our abhorrence of guilt.’ The passions will be most clearly shown in the heroes if the plot is kept simple, and if secondary characters are calm and unagitated. Such a simple plot can escape monotony only by having great force and truth in the delineations of nature. The depths of passion are most often touched when a man is alone. Hence by means of soliloquy an actor will often show the development of the passion he is portraying. He should give to the solitary musing of a perturbed mind, that muttered, imperfect articulation, which grows by degrees into words; that heavy, suppressed voice, as of one speaking through sleep; that rapid burst of sounds which often succeeds the slow languid tones of distress; those sudden, untuned exclamations, which, as if frightened at their own discord, are struck again into silence as sudden and abrupt.

The Passions.

The passions which Joanna Baillie chose for treatment are love, hatred, ambition, fear, hope, remorse, jealousy, pride, envy, revenge, anger, joy, and grief. Some of these she later decided to omit for various reasons: anger, joy, and grief are too transient to become the subjects of dramas of any length; pride would be very dull, unless used merely as a groundwork for a more turbulent passion; envy meets with the least sympathy of all the passions, and could be endured only in a comedy or farce; envy and revenge are so frequently exposed in drama that they may be excluded.

Love is the subject of the first two dramas on the passions, Basil and The Tryal. ‘Love is the chief groundwork of almost all our tragedies and comedies' but in these plays the passion is shown in an unbroken view from the beginning to the climax. The characters chosen for the exhibition of the passion are ‘men of a firm, thoughtful, reserved turn of mind' with whom it has its hardest struggle. In the comedy strong moral principle is made to conquer love, in order to teach restraint.

Hatred is next treated in two dramas, De Monfort and The Election. Hatred, as it is conceived here, is entirely distinct from the sense oi wrong which is a result of injury, and also from revenge. It is rather ‘that rooted and settled aversion which, from opposition of character, aided by circumstances of little importance, grows at last into such antipathy and personal disgust as makes him who entertains it, feel, in the presence of him who is the object of it, a degree of torment and restlessness which is insufferable.’ Envy is here a component part of hatred, and helps to increase our dislike of the passion. It should be carefully noted that 'the passion and not the man is held up to our execration. In both characters hatred is balanced by good traits, as we could have little sympathy with the entirely bad man.’ In the comedy, hatred is shown in a different situation, and in a character of less delicacy and reserve.

Ambition is the subject of the next three plays, Eth-wald, Parts I and II, and The Second Marriage, in all of which more time elapses than is usual in dramas. The story of Ethwald is extended to an unusual length, because compared with Ambition, perhaps all other passions may be considered as of a transient nature .... To give a full view, therefore, of this passion, it was necessary to show the subject oi it in many different situations, and passing through a considerable course of events.’ To do this within the ordinary limits of one play was impossible, as that play must have been so entirely devoted to this single object as to have been bare of every other interest. The aim of the comedy is to give a view of ambition, as it is generally found in the ordinary intercourse of life, excited by vanity rather than by the love of power.

Fear is the dominant passion in the three next dramas, Orra, The Dream, and The Siege. ‘ It has been thought that, in Tragedy at least, the principal characters could not possibly be actuated by this passion, without becoming so far degraded, as to be incapable of engaging the sympathies and interest of the spectator or reader.' Even fear, however, as it is, under certain circumstances and to a certain degree, a universal passion, may be made interesting in the tragic drama, as it often is in real life. Fear of the supernatural and fear of death are the actuating principles in the two tragedies. The Dream breaks two laws of tragedy, as it consists of only three acts, and is written in prose. It is short, in order to avoid mixing any lighter matter with a subject so solemn; it is in prose, 'that the expressions of the agitated person might be plain, though strong, and kept as closely as possible to the simplicity of nature.' In the comedy, cowardice has been developed by indulgence in a selfish, conceited man, who might have been trained into useful and honourable activity. Fear, in a mixed character of this kind, is a very good subject for comedy.

Hope is exhibited in a serious musical drama, The Beacon. This passion, when it acts permanently, loses the character of a passion; and when it acts violently is, like Anger, Joy, or Grief, too transient to become the subject of a piece of any length. It seemed . . . neither fit for Tragedy nor Comedy.' At one time she considered omitting it entirely, but its 'noble, kindly, and engaging nature' attracted her. The drama can be called neither tragedy nor comedy, for hope belongs to both. As this passion is not so powerfully interesting as those that are more turbulent, and was therefore in danger of becoming languid and tiresome, the drama is relieved by several songs. Only the inferior characters sing, however, and these sing in situations in which it is natural for them to do so. The songs are not spontaneous expressions of sentiment in the singer, but, like songs in ordinary life, are the compositions of other people, and are only generally applicable to the situation.

Jealousy is the passion shown in Romiero and The Alienated Manor, and remorse in Henriquez.


In addition to these statements in regard to dramatic theory and material, the introductions include several discussions of stage-craft. All of the dramas were intended for the stage, not the closet, and were published because the author possessed no likely channel to dramatic production. ‘Upon further reflection' she says, ‘it appeared to me, that by publishing them in this way, I have an opportunity afforded me of explaining the design of m;y work, and enabling the public to judge, not only of each play by itself, but as making a part likewise of a whole; an advantage which, perhaps, does more than overbalance the splendour and effect of theatrical representation.' The desire for stag e-production was so strong that the author decided to publish only the first three volumes of her plays, and leave the others in manuscript foim during her life, in the hope that later dramatic conditions would enable her heirs to produce them at some smaller London theatre. In 1836 she abandoned all hope of their being presented, and published the final volume.

In the preface to volume three, published in 1812, Miss Baillie described at some length the theatrical situation in London. A choice was offered to the public between legitimate drama and splendid pantomimes, in the first of which lay her interest. It would take a very genuine love for drama to make the former preferable, as the words could be heard only imperfectly by two-thirds of the audience, and the finer and more pleasing traits of acting were lost altogether by a still larger proportion.

The size of the London theatres was the main circumstance that was unfavorable to the production of these plays, as nothing that is indistinctly heard and seen can be truly relished by the most cultivated audience. Shakespeare’s plays and some of the other old plays succeeded because they were familiar, and so could be followed easily by an audience who heard imperfectly. But difficulty of hearing was not the only drawback in these large theatres. Few of the spectators could appreciate the finer shades of expression on the faces of the actors. Mrs. Siddons, and the other actors who had won favor at that time, had been brought up in small theatres. There they were encouraged to express in their faces the variety of fine, fleeting emotion experienced by the characters they represented. The actors in these large theatres considered an audience removed from them to a greater distance, and attempted only such strong expression as could be perceived at a distance. Hence they used exaggerated expressions, and the feeling itself, as well as the expression, became false. Such exaggerated feeling will be used where it is not needed, because real occasions for strong expression do not occur frequently enough to satisfy an audience which can only see. This danger is more critical with women than with men, as their features and voices are naturally more delicate than those of men.

The depth and the width of a stage should be proportionate. It should be deep enough so that the action does not seem to occur in a long, narrow passage, through which the characters pass in a straight line. * When a stage is cf such a size that as many persons as generally come into action at one time in our grandest and best-peopled plays, can be produced on the front of it in groups, without crowding together more than they would naturally do anywhere else for the convenience of speaking to one another, all is gained in point of general effect that can well be gained/ On a large stage, individual figures appear diminutive, and the grouping is straggling. The effect of such dimensions is particularly objectionable in comedy, in domestic scenes, and in the scenes of tragedy where only two or three people appear at a time.

The lighting of a very high and lofty stage, again, is a difficult problem. The more solemn scenes of tragedy, which ought to be dimly seen by twilight, are shown in the full blaze of light, and lack the deeper shades which give a partial indistinctness to the scene. Lamps on the front of the stage throw a strong light, and the effect is very unfavorable to the appearance of the individual actors, and to the general effect of the groups. 'When a painter wishes to give intelligence and expression to a face, he does not make his lights hit . . . upon the under curve of the eyebrows, turning of course all the shadows upwards. He does the very reverse of all this;. .. From this disposition of the light in our theatres, whenever an actor, whose features are not particularly sharp and pointed, comes near the front of the stage, and turns his face fully to the audience, every feature immediately becomes shortened, and less capable of any expression, unless it be of the ludicrous kind. This at least will be the effect produced to those who are seated under or on the same level with the stage, making now a considerable proportion of an audience; while to those who sit above it, the lights and shadows, at variance with the natural bent of the features, will make the whole face appear confused, and, compared to what it would have been with light thrown upon it from another direction, unintelligible. . . . Stage-scenes generally are supposed to be seen by daylight; but daylight comes from heaven, not from the earth; even within-doors the whitened ceilings throw reflected light upon us. This difficulty might be rectified by ‘bringing forward the roof of the stage as far as its boards or floor, and placing a row of lamps with reflectors along the inside of the wooden front-piece.' Such lighting 'I have never indeed seen attempted in any theatre, though it might surely be done in one of moderate dimensions with admirable effect.' With such a system of lighting it would be necessary to do away with the boxes upon the stage, but their removal would be a great advantage. ‘The front-piece at the top; the boundary of the stage from the orchestra at the bottom; and the pilasters on each side, would then represent the frame of a great moving picture, entirely separated and distinct from the rest of the theatre: whereas, at present, an unnatural mixture of andience and actors, of house and stage, takes place near the front of the stage, which destroys the general effect in a very great degree.'

A second important reason for the unpopularity of the legitimate drama was the conscientious objection of many grave and excellent people. In their eyes, dramatic exhibition was unfriendly to the principles and spirit of Christianity. ‘The blessed Founder of our religion, who knew what was in man, did not contradict nor thwart this propensity of our nature, but . . . made use of it for the instruction of the multitude, as His incomparable parables so beautifully testify. The sins and faults which He reproved were not those that are allied to fancy and imagination, the active assistants of all intellectual improvement, but worldliness, uncharitableness, selfish luxury, spiritual pride, and hypocrisy. In those days, the representation of Greek drama prevailed in large cities through the whole Roman empire; yet the apostles only forbade their converts to feast in the temples of idols, and in sacrifices offered to idols We cannot, therefore, it appears to me, allege that dramatic representations are contrary either to the precepts or spirit of the Christian religion.'

The objections were probably founded upon the dubious character of the plays and playgoers. The manager of a successful theatre will supply the dramas that suit the taste of the most influential part of the audience. If it demands scurrility and broad satire, he will provide them, for they are more easily procured than wit, and require less skill to produce than do depictions of higher or more virtuous society. ‘Will a manager, then, be at pains to provide delicate fare for those who are as well satisfied with garbage.' The objection in regard to the class of people with which one comes in contact at a theatre applies only to young men, as young women of respectable families are carefully chaperoned. Formerly families attended dramatic productions in a group; 'now the stripling goes by himself, or with some companion equally thoughtless and imprudent; and the confidence he feels there of not being under the observation of any whom he is likely to meet elsewhere, gives him a freedom to follow every bent of his present inclination, however dangerous.' 'How far the absence of the grave and moral part of society from such places tends to remedy or increase the evils apprehended, ought also to be seriously considered.'

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