Fictions of Presence: Being Virtual and Virtual Being

Ros Ballaster’s new book reveals the relationship between the stage and the newly respectable and increasingly fashionable novel was one of an intensely creative and productive rivalry: novelists sent their heroes to the theatre, dramatists appropriated the plots of popular novels. And how timely it is, this discussion of ‘presence’ when isolation and distancing are dominant themes of our day.

Long before COVID-19 enforced social distance from other bodies, experiences of being with others virtually were experimental sites for artistic practice. My new book, Fictions of Presence: Theatre and Novel in Eighteenth-Century Britain (August 2020) looks at competing ways that the theatre and novel claimed to provide an audience with an experience of ‘presence’: being in real time, fully, with others. I describe the growing success in the eighteenth century of the ‘novel’, an immersive work of printed prose story with unconventional ‘new’ plots, and the challenge it posed to the theatre, previously the dominant space and place for delivering engaging stories of present persons. Imagine my surprise to be seeing it through final edits for the press at a point where I have been abruptly separated from the deep pleasures of presence that the theatre has always afforded me.

Fictions of Presence comes into print at a time in global history where we are both sated with that real time presence through online tools and craving the experience of being with others corporeally. Those of us who work in theatre studies and history – and those who love the theatre generally – crave, long for, miss that kind of presence.  And in these ‘unprecedented times’, the novel is enjoying a resurgence as a kind of co-habitation that is rich and replete by comparison with the ‘thin’ encounters we can have with solitary monologists or the clamouring voices of chat in the online universe. My book tells the long story in the history of literature about the growing dominance of the novel – in the eighteenth century a cheeky arriviste punching far above its weight in claiming to rival the powerful industry of the theatre.

Think of one of the iconic scenes of risk and the real in eighteenth-century novel. Early in Frances Burney’s breakthrough hit, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), our heroine, country-innocent-new-to-London Evelina Villars is beside herself with excitement about attending a performance by star-performer David Garrick. He is playing the rakish ‘Ranger’ in Benjamin Hoadly’s The Suspicious Husband (a hugely successful comedy now hardly known) at Drury Lane. She writes to tell her guardian in the country about it:  

O my dear Sir, in what raptures am I returned! Well may Mr. Garrick be so celebrated, so universally admired—I had not any idea of so great a performer

Such ease! such vivacity in his manner! such grace in his motions! Such fire and meaning in his eyes!—I could hardly believe he had studied a written part, for every word seemed to be uttered from the impulse of the moment.

His action–at once so graceful and so free!– his voice—so clear, so melodious, yet so wonderfully various in its tones – such animation! – every look speaks!

I would have given the world to have had the whole play acted over again. And when he danced—O how I envied Clarinda! I almost wished to have jumped on the stage and joined them.

Evelina’s response to Garrick is a somatic and imitative one. Evelina finds herself yearning to leap into action, to move and dance like Garrick himself, while she apparently longs to take the place of his dancing partner.

Francis Hayman, 1707/8-1776, British. 1747. David Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard in a scene from “The Suspicious Husband”. Painting, genre subject. Place: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The epistolary mode of Evelina’s telling, however, is also one that offers novel-reading as a safe surrogate for the crush of theatre. This version of interiority, the delivery of character through a first-person letter is profoundly anti-theatrical. However, the novel heroine wins her lover and our love not through a public performance – whether of sentiment or wit – but through the circulation of a ‘private’ correspondence that proves her virtue while preserving her physical modesty. In this account of Evelina’s (restrained) longing to jump on stage and dance with the charismatic actors, Frances Burney both invokes a connection with stage conventions of representing persons and presence. And, in its form and tone, she marks the distance of her own published prose fiction from those very conventions.

And yet there are still connections. Characters in letter fiction use written text to bridge the gap of separation from the bodies of others to whom they are usually close. Both the novel and the theatre participate in a common aim for art: to produce community through shared experience – including and especially that of a resonant aesthetic experience for the consumer of the work of art.  

Spontaneity, liveness, a sense of improvisatory production of presence through the encounter with others, are values that have become newly precious to us in our own present moment. And we can see eighteenth-century artists exploring their potential across page and stage in ways that speak to us now with a new vividness.

This guest post was written by Ros Ballaster, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College. She has written extensively on women’s writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in addition to investigating the effect of oriental culture on literature of the Enlightenment.

Fictions of Presence
Ros Ballaster
9781783275588, Hardback, £48.75 or $64.35

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