As George Ross Ridge suggests in his The Hero in French Romantic Literature (1959), “Romanticism is the point of departure in modern literature” (Ross Ridge, 1959: p.1) and as such can be seen as heralding from a time of enormous social and political flux, representing also a similar departure in the psychology of the individual and the wider society.
In this essay I would like to look at this notion as it displayed in three of the era’s dramas: Horace Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother (1768, 2000), Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler (1794, 2000) and Lord Byron’s The Two Foscari (1821: 2000). These particular plays, I think, are exemplars of the Romantic interest in both the internal space of psychosexuality and the external passion for politics and notions of individual freedom. As we shall see, in the Romantic imagination these two ideas were closely linked, what George Ross Ridge terms as being “personally involved in the spirit of the age” (Ross Ridge, 1959: p.2); the sexual and the revolutionary drive being symbiotically co-joined in an aesthetic celebration of being.
Horace Walpole’s play The Myserious Mother was considered by Henry Beers (1899) as being “more absurd than horrible” (Beers, 1899: p.241) and, as Baines and Burns point out in their Introductory essay to the Oxford edition:
“Coleridge called it ‘the most disgusting, detestable, vile composition that ever came from the hand of man. No one with a spark of manliness, of which Horace Walpole had none, could have written it”
However, a contemporary, Post-Freudian reading of the play reveals some remarkable insights in the text that, as Walpole himself asserted in the play’s Postscript, suggest comparisons with both Sophocles and Euripides (Walpole, 2000: p.65).
The narrative of Walpole’s drama weaves a complex network of interconnected strains that converge in the last scene. It is a play very much about the keeping of secrets and the problems that arise from deceit, especially as it relates to morality and psychosexual transgression. The central character of Edmund exists as the fulcrum between the two portraits of early Romantic womanhood, the binary that is studied so adroitly in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony (1970), consisting of, on the one hand, the unobtainable beauty in the guise of Adeliza and the figure of evil sexual pleasure, the Countess.
Through the central motif of incest, both of these figures of womanhood become unobtainable, a clear signifier for the Romantic castrated psychosexual sense; the ecstasy of ‘la belle dame sans merci’ (Praz, 1970: p.97) that was so much a part of the Romantic imagination.
The character of Edmund is an everyman both in the Eighteenth century sense of being trapped by his own desires and also in a highly twentieth century sense through being trapped in an unresolved Oedipal triangle that threatens the stability of not only his own psychology but the socio-politics of his country:
“Edmund: Am I not Narbonne’s prince? Who shall rule here
But Narbonne? Have I sapped my country’s laws,
Or played the tyrant? Who shall banish me?
Am I a recreant knight?”
In this scene Walpole cleverly equates Edmund’s unconscious Oedipal situation with the politics of Narbonne, the ghost of his father is the unseen factor in both and, in fact, the entire play as the Countess’ feelings towards her husband and seeming hatred of her son is shown to be a mask for her true Oedipal desires. Edmund’s words at the end of Act III have a Freudian edge to them that elevates the play above the simply absurd or the “disgusting”:
“Edmund:…Why so adored the memory of my father,
And so abhorred the presence of the son?
But now, and to thy eyes I seemed my father –
At least for that resemblance-sake embrace me”
This reflects, I think, a vital strain in the Romantic imagination, that of the unattainable and tragic passion, what M.H. Abrams described as a state in which “man remains inescapably conditioned by passion and by chance and death and mutability” (Abrams, 1973: p.306). We see, perhaps in Walpole’s play the beginnings of this desire for both idealism and transgression of hitherto accepted boundaries, a desire that would manifest itself not only psychologically but politically as well.