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'The Play's the Thing': Victorian Literary Paintings as Theatre
Debra N. Mancoff
The plot of Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet turns upon the theatrical device of a play within a play. Late in the second act a band of itinerant players arrive at Elsinore, and, in welcoming them, Hamlet asks for 'a taste of your quality' to prompt the first player to declaim a passionate speech. Along with this informal audition, Hamlet enquires about the scope of their repertoire, and when he discovers that they can present The Murder of Gonzago the next evening, he requests that they insert into the play a brief passage that he will compose for them. They agree, and everyone exits the stage except the melancholy prince, who reflects upon a phenomenon of the theatre: 'I have heard/That guilty creatures sitting at a play/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaimed their malefactions'. He then formulates his own plot: to watch his uncle Claudius react to the performance of a murder that re-enacts the death of Hamlet's father. Hamlet ends his soliloquy on a confident note, declaring, 'The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King'.
Like Hamlet, Victorian painters recognised the power of theatrical performance to move an audience. Within an auditorium, spectators could experience a range of emotions - fear, sorrow, loss, joy, passion - and then return to the secure familiarity of their own lives. From the late eighteenth century, as dramatic subjects - most notably Shakespearean subjects - became increasingly popular in the visual arts, the two modes of expression came to share common conventions. By the Victorian era, theatrical productions were judged for their pictorial content, displaying elaborate stage craft and scenic display often adapted from old master paintings. It became common practice to end acts - and even scenes - with a tableau, a moment of absolute stillness on the stage as if the production was painted rather than performed. In 1875, a production of The Merchant of Venice so vividly evoked Veronese's painting The Marriage of Cana in the Louvre that a disgruntled critic complained that 'the stage is [i.e. should be] something more than a picture gallery.' But just as Victorian theatre patrons were thrilled to see a visual spectacle on stage, so visitors to art exhibitions expected the emotional engagement of a theatrical performance in the depiction of subjects from prose, poetry, or a play.
The audience for Victorian literary and theatrical paintings brought a wide repertoire of known subjects to their viewing experience. It was an era of rising literacy, and new technology - including machine-set type, cheap paper, and rail distribution - led to an unprecedented equity in the publication of books and journals for every price range. The plays of Shakespeare were particularly popular, published in affordable illustrated editions, which were often summarised or 'bowdlerised' for target audiences. In addition, it was possible to purchase novels based on the plays, as well as sentimental inventions based on the lives of favourite characters such as Ophelia. Reading, rather than performance, was the means by which Victorian gallery-goers knew their Shakespeare. And, in the realm of literary subject matter, the Bard's plays dominated the galleries. Throughout the nineteenth century one in five of all literary subject-paintings shown at the Royal Academy featured a Shakespearean theme. This number rose during the middle decades of the century, when the popularity of literary subjects reached its zenith. The artists' choice of subjects reflects the favourite plays of the era - including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest - but in contrast to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century practice of painting celebrity portraits in character or recording popular performances, Victorian artists used their canvas as an original stage for their own inventive productions.
While Victorian painters rarely copied the details of specific productions, they borrowed the devices of theatrical stage-craft to enhance their pictorial repertoire. A common approach was to present a painting as if it were a stage within the frame. In Charles Rolt's Prospero and Miranda (1857; lot 229) the effect of a proscenium arch is attained with a shaped canvas and a frame that features a plain border and carved spandrels. The architectural ornamentation of the monumental frame created for Robert Huskisson's Titania and Oberon (1847; lot 2) extends this reference. A broad arch with carved archivolts and coffers is supported by massive piers decorated with figures in bas relief. The spandrels are plain, but a trompe l'oeil ledge functions like a stage apron, providing space for three slumbering figures that extends the action within the frame out to the audience. Another common device, seen in Walter Deverell's scene from Twelfth Night (1850; lot 36) and Daniel Maclise's depiction of The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It' (1855; lot 38), involved positioning all the action in the foreground plane to transform the canvas into a shallow stage. While these particular conventions were formulated to suggest the effect of a culminating tableau, a multi-panel composition conveyed a sense of narrative continuity. Paul Falconer Poole merged the language of painting and stage-craft in a triptych of scenes from The Tempest (1856; lot 225-7). Rock arches connect the individual vignettes within the composition, while two sprites hovering above the painted proscenium arch direct the viewer's attention to the action.
To enhance the allusion of theatre, painters employed the tactics of stage direction - including blocking, broad gestures, creative casting, and histrionics - in the depiction of their principles. Maclise arranged his figures in The Wrestling Scene in 'As You Like It' for maximum effect, doubling the gestures to heighten the tension. Orlando recoils from his formidable opponent in a shirking motion imitated by his elderly companion. The Duke reflects the arrogant confidence of the wrestler in the easy turn of his broad shoulders and the comfortable sprawl of his legs. The fool cranes his neck to take in the action with mischievous anticipation, a position repeated by the little dog at his side. As one of the leading proponents of the new history painting - and a major figure in the campaign to decorate the interior of the new Palace of Westminster - Maclise was well versed in the lexicon of posture and gesture, visual conventions that had long been shared by the arts of painting and theatre. In compliance with the more naturalistic approach stated in the aims of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Walter Deverell, in his scene from Twelfth Night (lot 36), disdained the rhetorical language of stage gesture, but he cast his characters as a set of repertory players - Elizabeth Siddal as the disguised Viola, Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the taunting Feste, his own handsome demeanour as Orsino - whose physical appearance expressed the essential nature of their roles. In their list of 'Immortals', the Brotherhood awarded Shakespeare three stars, and, along with the Bible, they regarded his plays as an unsurpassed source for the serious subjects they were so anxious to paint, full of moral significance and expressive of 'genuine ideas.'
For most of the Victorian era, the poems of Alfred Tennyson proved nearly as popular an inspiration for literary paintings as the plays of Shakespeare. From the first publication of Sir Galahad in 1842 through the decades-long unfolding of his Arthuriad The Idylls of the King (1859-1885), Tennyson was regarded as the foremost interpreter of chivalric tales, and when artists drew from his rich repertoire, they used the conventions of drama to create a corresponding realm of heroic action in their paintings. In Sir Galahad (1862; lot 34), George Frederic Watts presents a meditative moment in the youth's quest; rather than illustrating a specific passage, he evokes the whole of the poem in a characteristic tableau of the knight in shining armour alongside his white horse. Theatrical devices were employed to enhance chivalric subjects other than those by Tennyson, as seen in Charles Robert Leslie's intimate presentation Sancho Panza in the Apartment of the Duchess (lots 78-80), wherein Don Quixote's hapless squire serves as the awkward figure of fun in a drawing-room comedy.
To assist the audience in understanding their subjects, artists provided the appropriate literary references - quotations from plays and poetry - inscribed on frames, printed in catalogues, or appended to the work in exhibition. But the popularity of chivalric subjects provided a context for works with no designated narrative origin. The image of rescue was a popular theme on the page and the stage, allowing viewers to associate the unidentified protagonist of Frank Dicksee's Chivalry (1885; lot 35) with a whole fellowship of gentleman-heroes, while the stark, spot-lit setting of Briton Riviere's Requiescat (1889; lot 39), in which a loyal hound keeps vigil over the body of an anonymous knight, evoked the much admired character of the fallen hero. In each case, the audience was moved to feel as well as to view the subject, responding in empathy with laughter or admiration, with cheers for the victorious hero or respectful silence for the fallen warrior. In each, the painting reprises the emotional power of theatrical performance. But as Keeley Halswelle demonstrates in his interpretation of The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' (1878; lot 242), paintings had an advantage over theatrical tableaux. There, in the space of a single composition, the high point of drama was frozen in time, allowing the viewer to fully enjoy the wide panoply of telling details: the players on the stage, Hamlet twisting around to observe his uncle's reaction, Claudius shrinking back from the truth, Gertrude leaning forward as if to take in the shocking scene before her. At the theatre, this would be a single, spectacular moment, prompting the audience to gasp with excitement, but forcing them to take it in quickly before that moment passed. Rather than mimic the theatre, the works in a gallery extended the vicarious experience so well loved by Victorian audiences, and by capturing the eye and the imagination, as well as the emotions and the conscience, of their audience, painters affirmed Hamlet's assertion that 'The play's the thing.'