An Episode in the Histories of Realism and Emotion

Prosaic Suffering: Bourgeois Tragedy and the Aesthetics of the Ordinary

by Alex Eric Hernandez

The essay begins: 

In 1778, Samuel Johnson was asked to weigh in on the prose of a new bourgeois tragedy, The Female Gamester. Its author, Gorges Edmond Howard, was a Dublin-based lawyer and literary dabbler whose attempt at domestic drama might have been wholly forgotten were it not for the fragment of Johnsoniana he preserved in its preface. Having originally written the play in a mixture of prose and verse, Howard had been advised by “several of [his] literary acquaintance” that his “not much exalted” prose was much more suitable to the “scene . . . laid in private life, and chiefly among those of middling rank.” For many, it seems, the bourgeoisie suffered in prose. But Johnson, Howard recalls, would have none of this:

Having communicated this to Dr. Samuel Johnson, his words (as well as I remember) were, “That he could hardly consider a prose Tragedy as dramatic . . . that let it be either in the middling or in low life, it may, though in metre and spirited, be properly familiar and colloquial; that, many in the middling rank are not without erudition; that they have the feelings and sensations of nature, and every emotion in consequence thereof, as well as the great, and that even the lowest, when impassioned, raise their language.”

Johnson’s argument tweaked the older, neoclassical assumption that poetic decorum mandates a correspondence between the language and social rank of a drama’s principal figures. Here a tragedy’s verse style has less to do with the nobility of those represented—as had been the case for John Dryden in An Essay on Dramatick Poesie (1668), where heroic rhyme’s “exalt[ation] above . . . common converse” images “the minds and fortunes of noble persons . . . exactly”than with the intensity of the depicted afflictions. Tragedy needs verse not because its “elevation” allegorizes the status of its heroes, but because it corresponds to the magnitude of the drama’s subject matter, quite literally inscribing an emotional richness otherwise lost in the flatness of prose.

Johnson’s intervention plays out a mid-eighteenth-century discussion of the representation of emotion on the tragic stage, disclosing an unease with the degrading (if not also disenchanting) effects of prosaic suffering. Contemporaries in the period worried that prose was “fine and nervous,” disconcertingly “artless,” and “offensive,” while at the same time mere “trifling,” “below the dignity of Tragedy,” and even, for that reason, somehow “unnatural” in its expression. Consider, for example, that Johnson himself asserts that affliction “raises [one’s] language,” lapsing—naturally, he suggests—out of the grittiness of prose into the elegance of the poetic. A sort of poetry in the raw, suffering reaches after what’s already aesthetic and universal to misfortune, while prose trivializes and bogs down in the particular, rendering a tragedy “hardly dramatic,” untrue to the genre and affliction it purports to represent. Writing a few years later, Henry Mackenzie saw the genre’s strength as its ability to simulate those very same particulars, “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” that nevertheless remained in tension with the tragic. In his view, suffering of this sort was if anything too true, its realism overburdening one’s perception. “Real distress, coming in a homely and unornamented state,” he concludes, “disgusts the eye.” Obscuring its art with disturbing efficacy, the outward formlessness of prosaic suffering threatened to neutralize the pleasures of the tragic.

These concerns spoke to a moment of renewed interest in bourgeois and domestic tragedy, capping a period of formal experimentation in Britain, France, and Germany that Peter Gay claims was crucial to the Enlightenment’s “emancipation of art.” Beginning around the production of George Lillo’s landmark 1731 tragedy The London Merchant, a series of important works fashioned a new aesthetic idiom calibrated to “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” by working through varieties of verse, prose, and the visual arts. Scholars have long cited Denis Diderot’s Le Fils naturel (1757) and Discours sur la poésie dramatique (1757) as well as G. E. Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69), and Emilia Galotti (1772) as key moments in the drama’s modernization. But a variety of lesser-known works such as Charles Johnson’s prose Caelia; or The Perjur’d Lover (1732), Lillo’s 1736 encore to The London Merchant, Fatal Curiosity (which contemporaries claimed produced domestic interiors to horrifying effect in the cramped Little Haymarket theater), and Trauerspiele like Clementina von Poretta (1760; by Christoph Martin Wieland) and Clarissa (Johann Heinrich Steffens’s 1765 dramatization of Samuel Richardson’s novel) played with the representational mechanics of what one might call “ordinary suffering,” inhabiting familiar spaces and embodied emotion in ways that contemporaries took to be radical departures from established tragic convention. Among the most revolutionary of these innovations was the sustained use of prose, which until then had been largely confined to the domain of comedy. Indeed, in London, the 1770s and ’80s alone saw the production and publication of a number of prose tragedies, including notable revivals of The London Merchant and Edward Moore’s The Gamester (1753), curious adaptations such as The Fatal Interview (1782; a domestic tragic sequel to Pamela), quasi-gothic meditations on domestic violence like Richard Cumberland’s The Mysterious Husband (1783), as well as drames bourgeois in the form of Diderot’s 1758 Le Père de famille (translated “by a lady” as The Family Picture in 1781) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’Indigent (1772; translated in London and Edinburgh as The Distressed Family in 1787). Despite the concerns of those like Johnson and Mackenzie, by the latter half of the century, a deft use of prose on the stage could render the theater uncannily intimate, calling forth a space where private woe played out for all to see.

In what follows, I want to explore the affective stakes of this turn to prosaic suffering. Or rather more precisely, I want to trace a line through the contested process by which suffering became prosaic in eighteenth-century bourgeois and domestic drama in order to draw some implications for the history of emotion and the dialectics of realism at midcentury. My claim is that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction, thereby navigating a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking and engaging and testing them across page and stage. Unlike the “heroick suffering” of classical, pathetic, or otherwise “high” tragic forms prevalent at the earlier part of the century, prosaic suffering performed its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted in their implications. Prosaic suffering presents the tragic figure as an emblem of abandonment, in which (as Georg Lukács claimed of the novel) everyday life is experienced as simultaneously leaden and trivial. I anchor my discussion in a close reading of Moore’s The Gamester, a drama whose importance to the development of realism was well known in the eighteenth century, and whose use of prose at midcentury tracks this shift in suffering most clearly, though by no means exclusively (as will become clear). Adapting the novel’s “writing to the moment” for the theater, (a method almost certainly absorbed in Moore’s reading of Clarissa and correspondence with Richardson on the novel’s formal effects), prose conferred a lively presence upon the performance of suffering, in ways that denied its spectators the sort of rhetorical elevation that stood in for transcendence. In making this case, therefore, I place the practices of British bourgeois tragedy in dialogue with contemporary performance and aesthetic theory so as to reconstruct the terrain of emotion’s exploration onstage. If, as one critic has claimed, versification serves to beautify the experience of suffering, prose insists on its crude intolerability, its reality and resistance to poetic gilding. Continue reading …

This essay looks to bourgeois tragedy’s use of prose in the mid-eighteenth century as an episode in the histories of realism and emotion, arguing that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction. Taking Edward Moore’s 1753 drama The Gamester as emblematic of this shift, and situating the text in its performative and aesthetic contexts, I trace the “emotional practices” that navigated a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking, engaging, and testing them across page and stage. Performing its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted, bourgeois tragedy thereby embodied a middling mode of existence in which the prosaic qualified not only the drama’s form but also, ultimately, its content.

ALEX ERIC HERNANDEZ is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he works on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature and culture. This essay is part of his book in progress titled Modernity and Affliction: The Making of British Bourgeois Tragedy.

 

“Time Zones” Launch Event

MINDING TIME: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION OF TIME ZONES

A UC Berkeley Arts Research Center Upcoming Event

You’re Invited! Sunday, December 4, 2016
3:00pm to 6:30pm

3pm: Tour of Mind over Matter Exhibition
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Galleries 

4:00-5:30pm: Celebrating Time Zones
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

5:30pm: West Coast Preview of In Terms of Performance Website
and Holiday Reception
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

Join a time-based (and time-sensitive) tour of Mind over Matter at the Berkeley Art Museum with curator Constance Lewallen.

Converse with Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson about their special issue of Representations, “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts,” including substantive essays on contemporary Croatian dance practice, Uruguayan art under dictatorship, the work of the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, and the visual and sound arts of China, along with reflections on durational art by Berkeley faculty, including Natalia Brizuela, Jeffrey Skoller, Suzanne Guerlac, Winnie Wong, and more.

Engage with the Arts Research Center’s new online anthology of keywords in contemporary art and performance, In Terms of Performance, coproduced with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Art & Heritage, with contributions from a range of Bay Area artists, critics, and curators such as Rudolf Frieling, Paul Dresher, Judith Butler, and Claudia La Rocca.

Launch the holiday season with a celebration of the Arts Research Center as a think tank for the arts, at Berkeley and beyond. See the full afternoon program here.

New Special Issue on Time-Based Art

TIME ZONES: DURATIONAL ART AND ITS CONTEXTS

edited by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

Number 136, Fall 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

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SHANNON JACKSON and JULIA BRYAN-WILSON   Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts (the issue introduction; free access for a limited time)   ·   BOJANA CVEJIĆ          A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems   ·   ANDREA GIUNTA   Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship   ·   GU Yi  The “Peasant Problem” and Time in Contemporary Chinese Art   ·   ANDRÉ LEPECKI    The Non-Time of Lived Experience: The Problem of Color in Hélio Oiticica’s Early Works   ·   REBECCA SCHNEIDER   What Happened; or, Finishing Live   ·   WANG JING   Affective Listening as a Mode of Coexistence: The Case of China’s Sound Practice

PlusReflections on durational art from Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Angela Marino, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong

Do we have a problem with time?

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts

by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

This introduction to the Time Zones special issue begins:

Do we have a problem with time? The we here is specific—it means not only the scholars, curators, and practitioners who think critically about twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic production and its relationship to temporality but also the small collective of the two of us who are writing this introduction together. We are a performance studies scholar and an art historian who have been thinking together about what makes questions about time so persistent, and so vexed, within and between our two fields. Duration, we have come to realize, might be the conceptual connective tissue that links these two increasingly overlapping disciplines. But “durational art” is only one of the many names that have proliferated in an attempt to bound an unboundable set of practices that frequently violate the borders of medium-specificity as they move from so-called “static” configurations into durational forms: time-based art, live art, hybrid art, intermedial art.

What happens when the same phrases—“durational art” or “time-based art”—traffic back and forth between the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) and the performing arts, especially when, in the performance-based disciplines, time or liveness hardly feels “new”? While the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic experimentation is one of ever more blurry disciplinary borders, we often find that the habits and divisions of labor within different art institutions persist. Moreover, the training of artists and of critics separates skills and evaluative barometers within different art fields. Many kinds of cultural producers may be making, curating, and evaluating “live” art work, but our sense of what kind of work it is will be different depending upon its context, whether it is housed in a museum or a theater, or whether it is analyzed by a dance critic, a film critic, or a critic of visual arts.

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts brings together six substantial essays (by Bojana Cvejić, Andrea Giunta, Yi Gu, André Lepecki, Rebecca Schneider, and Wang Jing) and nine shorter reflections (by Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong) that approach time, duration, and liveness from an array of disciplinary and regional contexts. From the affective registers of contemporary sound art in China to the politics of labor and laziness in a collaborative performance collective in Zagreb to archive-based interventions during the Uruguay military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the essays plumb the specificities of practices as they unfold in real times and physical spaces. Contributors consider how the presumed presentism of “live art” puts pressure on the demands of historicity, as well as how it reconfigures relations to art’s viewers or witnesses. The essays and reflections examine how notions of time and duration have emerged as central, yet contested, in diverse projects that include public art, kinetic body-based sculpture, dance, and photography.

Together these texts make an argument, which is that the contexts that frame durational art—whether rhetorical, or national, or institutional—matter a great deal. Where and when does a piece take place? In what kind of site is it situated, and in what moment of time does it occur? What are the conditions of its inception and its continued circulation? Who is in the audience, and who talks about it after the fact? Is it applauded, or is it censored? These experiments with time respond to the local economic politics of particular regions as well as to transnational circuits of exchange. Questions of time in art interact with larger questions of migration, capitalism, and mobility in a global world. The ephemeral quality of time-based art can address and elude the political urgencies of volatile sites. Regionally specific themes and political issues prompt artists to collaborate across disciplines in some contexts but dissuade them in others. Funding models in different regions of the world both support and limit the capacity of artists to work across disciplines. Time-based art can in some cases disrupt and in others activate the demands of a market-based art calendar packed with biennials and high-profile festivals. It both challenges and enables the consumptive models of a globalized art world. Continue reading (free access for a limited time) …

Exploring the emergence of the rubric “time-based art” across several disciplinary formations, including performance and visual art, this editors’ introduction outlines some historical theories of duration across the arts and argues for a contextual approach that accounts for both medium and institutional location.

SHANNON JACKSON is Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as Director of the Arts Research Center. Other publications include The Builders Association (2015), Social Works (2011), Professing Performance (2004), and the forthcoming online anthology of keywords, In Terms of Performance, co-edited with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Blackface in 1950s Israel?

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Eitan Bar-Yosef writes on “Zionism, Apartheid, Blackface: Cry the Beloved Country on the Israeli Stage” in Representations 123

Numerous theatrical productions in 1950s Israel employed blackface to simulate negritude on the stage. Focusing on Habima’s 1953 production of Lost in the Stars—the musical drama based on Alan Paton’s best-selling novel Cry, the Beloved Country—and reading it in the context of Israel’s involvement in postcolonial black Africa, this essay demonstrates how, by reflecting the slippery nature of Jewish whiteness, blackface performances on the Hebrew stage captured the complex relationship between Zionism and apartheid.

Image: You Can’t Take It With You (1947), courtesy of the Yehuda Gabbai Theater Archive, Sha’ar Zion Library—Beit Ariela, Tel-Aviv