Gothic drama reached a height of popularity in the 1790s, partly due to celebrity actors like Sarah Siddons. Yet we know very little about the relationship between the many writers of gothic dramas and the celebrity apparatus. Although critics such as Richard Schickel regard literary celebrity as strictly a twentieth century phenomenon, recently other scholars have been arguing for a broader historical view. Richard Salmon, for instance, has cited photography, investigative journalism, and the phenomenon of authors being interviewed at their homes as evidence of the machinery of celebrity culture operating in the 19th century; David Higgins and Frank Donoghue have argued for the importance of periodical writing in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Claire Brock and Judith Pascoe have pointed out the feminization of fame and public theatricality in the Romantic period. And Tom Mole, in addition to examining the career of Lord Byron in the context of celebrity culture, has recently edited a collection of essays on the material and discursive elements of celebrity culture from 1750 to 1850 to provide a "synoptic picture of celebrity."
Yet the most popular and profitable literary genre of the Romantic era has remained a stepchild of criticism, the victim of a disjuncture between literary critical study of dramatic texts and historical study of performance culture. This dissertation aims to bridge the gap by examining gothic playwriting as a literary act that conjures the material and discursive elements of celebrity culture. I pivot away from analyzing the purely textual production to emphasize space as a distinctive object of study in a sometimes opaque cultural field.
The study looks at three gothic dramas written by poets long before they achieved the stamp of critical recognition: William Wordsworth's The Borderers (1797), Joanna Baillie's De Monfort (1798), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Remorse (1796/1813). It treats portraiture galleries, private parties, coffeehouses, and academic institutions as distinct nodes of the celebrity apparatus that shape the dramaturgy of those plays. The major critical perspective through which I take up the literature is geocriticism, a spatial humanities approach undergirded by human and critical geography that highlights the relation between capitalism and urban spaces, looking at celebrity spaces as pedagogical environments.
By focusing on the gothic drama for its ties to celebrity as a transgressive identity and on spaces of cultural consumption, this dissertation concludes that not only did portraiture galleries, coffeehouses, and private parties influence the dramaturgical choices of these plays, but that these writers used the Gothic drama as a vehicle to perform their professional identities--through what I call a "poetics of publicity." A range of political issues are illuminated by this topic, including the slave trade (Coleridge), gender constraints and mobility of economic power in public life (Baillie), and the vapid zeal for physiognomic approaches to aesthetic consumption that obscured the rise of poverty and homelessness in England during the early years with the war with France (Wordsworth).
This dissertation not only contributes to a growing critical interest in celebrity studies, but is equally compelling as it posits a geographical and temporal point of origin for the modern celebrity in British Romanticism. As Su Holmes and Sean Redmond say in the inaugural edition of the journal Celebrity Studies in 2010, the principal task of this type of investigation is "to defamiliarize the everyday" and thereby "to make apparent the cultural politics and power relations which sit at the center of 'the taken for granted." Indeed, investigating the powerful cultural forces that produce celebrity writers and actors impel us to confront how texts (and canons) are shaped by, and shape the discursive spaces in which society negotiated understandings of individuality.