The vision of romantic tragic drama in England, France, and Germany

Cox, Jeffrey Neal, Department of English, University of Virginia
Langbaum, Robert, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cantor, Paul, E0:AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

The romantic achievement in tragic drama has been obscured by standard views of dramatic history. We have seen these plays either as a lamentable detour on the road to naturalism or as an episode in the "death of tragedy." Romantic drama arose in opposition to the remnants of neoclassicism and to the new bourgeois drama. However, the romantics also wrote at a. moment when the drama was on the verge of being dismembered into the lyric monodrama and the moral melodrama. Their attempts to forge a new central dramatic mode produced a body of plays as influential upon the spirit of modern drama as naturalism.

Finding themselves cut off from traditional dramatic modes, the romantics discovered. a new version of the tragic in confronting the loss of a traditional providential and hierarchical culture. The protagonist, no longer a hero by virtue of his place within a social hierarchy, must create himself as a hero in revolt against his unheroic world. He turns inward to discover a vision to oppose to the limited' world that impinges upon him, but this move into isolated self-consciousness also poses a great danger; for he is tempted to lose himself in the depths of his self, either unable to act or prey to his darkest impulses. His defense is to turn outward in a violent revolt waged in the name of a human ideal, a humane vision of the future.

This revolt is the driving force of the tragic plot of romantic drama. The romantics could no longer find their plots in shared myths. Instead, romantic man must attempt to plot his own life. The fates no longer chart the course of his rise and fall in timeless myths. Rather he lives in historical time, where the future seems uncharted and ready to be shaped by the human will. His revolt against the present in order to realize an ideal vision of life involves an attempt to so shape futurity. Here lies his glory and his claim to heroic stature; but here too lies his pride and the key to his destruction. If the future seems open to a heroic ideal, it is in the unheroic present that he must act. When the romantic protagonist moves to remake his world and to prove himself a hero, he must adopt the violent means of that world and thus he betrays the ideal end for which he fights and which stands as the guarantee of his heroism. He finds a tragic impasse in the distance that lies between his actions in the unheroic present and the ideal, heroic self-image he projects into the future.

It is clear that the romantics were barred from writing providential tragedies like those of the Greeks or Shakespeare. Yet they did discover a mode of tragic drama in depicting the heroism of a new humanism and. the destruction of revolutionary, historical man. Given a comprehensive and sympathetic treatment, romantic drama can take its true place in the history of modern drama. We have recognized the ways in which modern poetry is part of the romantic tradition; it is time we extend this insight to the history of the Drama. My dissertation attempts to perform such a service by offering a definition of the romantic tragic vision, by placing romantic drama within the contemporary theatrical landscape and by demonstrating the quality of these plays in close readings of works by Shelley, Musset, Goethe, Kleist, and others.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
European drama -- 19th century -- History and criticism, Romanticism -- Europe, Verse drama -- History and criticism
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