“A Crimson Flash in Dark Flight:” the Victorian Soul of Redwing
“Victorian history is before all things a history of opinion.” –G. M. Young
"[T]he Victorian parlour—extraordinary rich in detail, situated in a central position within the theory and practice of Victorian culture—can be taken as a kind of synecdoche for that culture itself, in which its products, its conflicts, and its energies were writ small, yet exceedingly fine.” –Thad Logan
Although at first glance it might seem counterintuitive to associate Victorianism with American life, upon closer investigation “one could argue that Victorian culture was experienced more intensely in the United States than in Victoria’s homeland” (Howe 508). The values associated with Victorian culture—hard work, delayed gratification, sobriety, sexual repression, self-improvement—mirror those of the Protestant work ethic at the root of American identity, even at its most diverse with the influx of immigrants from all over Europe and parts of Asia. What made these values so influential, however, was the fact that “the [very] idea of culture, and the word itself in its general modern uses, came into English thinking in the period which we commonly describe as that of the Industrial Revolution” (Williams vii). Especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, American industrialization facilitated the self-conscious reflection and didacticism so pivotal to the Victorian way of life, as “the network of railways, print, and telegraphy . . . brought cosmopolitan Victorian culture to the countryside” (Howe 515). At the heart of this transformation was the social stage of the home, the parlor. The design for Redwing features such a room, which virtually every American house in the 1880s would have included, regardless of the family’s class status or geographic location. Located near the hall on the first floor of Victorian homes, parlors “served as . . . the exhibit space in which the lady of the house demonstrated her (and, by association, her family’s) artistic and cultural refinement,” and as such, they were the place for receiving visitors (Schlereth 119). Within this museum-like room, filled with bric-a-brac and heirlooms, there was usually a piano, organ, or pianola (mechanical piano), around which the family would gather to sing a song or “speak-a-piece,” which typically entailed reciting poetry aloud.
For Katharyn Howd Machan, the recitation or performance of poetry is central to the creative process itself. Using the term “aural poets” in 1984 to reference “those who write for the spoken voice,” Machan brought attention to the resurgence of public poetry (and fiction) readings then occurring in the literary community in her doctoral dissertation, The Writer as Performer (Aal 345). Historically speaking, aural poetry is hardly a recent phenomenon: the earliest poets composed orally and it was only with the invention of the printing press that the widespread sharing of written literature became possible. But even in Ancient Greece, the concept of performance as an act of interpretation (and therefore, further removed from “Truth”) raised vital questions about where poems reside: are they written to be heard and seen? Or should poetry be read from the page, taking flight only in our imagination? Is poetry a performance or a visual art? As a series of poetic monologues, Redwing: Voices from 1888 encourages the act of dramatic interpretation, not just because of its format but because the stories of Redwing are the stories of Victorian America: a world in which orality and public recitation were embraced. During this era leading up to the dawn of the twentieth century, as director John Gentile reminds us, audiences witnessed “the highest development of the dramatic monologue as a poetic form” (61). As you watch the performance now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, perhaps you will be persuaded that “the Victorians shaped our lives and sensibilities in countless unacknowledged ways; that they are still with us, walking our pavements, drinking in our bars, living in our houses, reading our newspapers, inhabiting our bodies” (Sweet xxiii). Indeed, the characters of Redwing appear hauntingly familiar, even if their circumstances may be different from our own.
--Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg
Aal, Katharyn Machan. The Writer as Performer: A Study of Contemporary Poetry
and Fiction Readings, Based in Ithaca, New York. 2 vols. Diss. Northwestern U,
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Gentile, John S. Cast of One: One Person Shows from the Chautauqua Platform to
the Broadway Stage. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989. Print.
Howe, Daniel Walker. “American Victorianism as a Culture.” American Quarterly
27.5 (Dec. 1975): 507-532. Print.
Logan, Thad. The Victorian Parlour. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001: 235. Print.
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1915. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. Print.
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Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. London: Chatto, 1958. Print.
Young, G.M. Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. 2nd ed. London: Oxford UP,
1953: vi. Print.
“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” –Plato
In Plato’s time, the word poetry referred to a wide range of performance texts, including the lyrical as well as the dramatic and epic. Given the primary orality of ancient cultures, most early poetry was recited or composed aloud, and it wasn’t until the widespread availability of the printing press that the act of silently reading poetry became possible. Even then, poets continued to read their work aloud, and performers enacted poems in salons, cafes, and other public (but not overtly theatrical) spaces. For those of us saturated in theatre and performance rhetoric, it seems logical that poetry should be received aurally—given the innate musicality of poems. From a spectator’s perspective, we might argue, “audiences have an easier time with the recognition of meaning in oral texts” (Brogan 893). But what about the author's perspective? Do poets write poems to be read silently to oneself? Or do they mean for them to take shape in oral interpretation?
The problem with encountering poems as performance is that “any performance deprives us of the opportunity to supply our own sound and gesture” as solitary readers (Hall 72). Audiences listening to a performed poem are necessarily passive in their reception and comprehension of the work, this perspective maintains, and thus only reading poetry from the page allows the proper level of engagement. The intimate solitude of poetry on the page has even been taken as a sign of evolved humanity. As one writer put it, “a great stage of civilization was achieved when human beings started to read silently, to themselves, without moving their mouths: it was a plateau of inwardness reached only slowly” (qtd. in Hall 72). Certainly, the combination of a visual medium with the reflective, quiet experience of reading a poem to oneself allows for re-reading, pausing, and trial-and-error, whereas “the nature of performance is linear and temporal, [so] sentences can only be read aloud once and must be given a specific intonational pattern” (Brogan 893). For many others, however, the definition of civility rests not on a group of solitary experiences, but rather on those that can be shared by a community together.
In the Department of Theatre & Performance Studies at Kennesaw State University, we believe that performance is a way of knowing, one that requires students and artists to make engaged choices that in turn increase their investment in literature. Audiences can experience a deeper level of imaginary involvement with the text when it is enacted, often encouraging them to seek a follow up encounter with the words on the page after seeing them performed on a stage. Moreover, given the fact that performance allows actors and spectators to “move out of ourselves and try to look at life from the perspective of the people in the [poem], try to see the world through another’s eyes,” the very essence of live performance encourages civility (Lee and Gura 10). Not only do audiences share the experience of witnessing the poem together, but they can simultaneously identify with the characters or world that the author has made possible. Perhaps this is why, even after the widespread availability of digital and printed media, poetry readings and performances persist. Here in the Atlanta metropolitan area, there are many arenas where poetry thrives as spoken word, including annual events sponsored by the Department of Theatre & Performance Studies on campus. Our fall 2009 production of Redwing, a collection of poetic monologues, offers a unique opportunity to witness poetry not just performed, but fully enacted in the context of scenery and costumes designed by Prof. Jamie Bullins, under the direction of Dr. John Gentile.
--Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg
Brogan, T.V.F. “Performance.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and
Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.
Hall, Donald. “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance/Private Art.” The American
Scholar 54.1 (Winter 1984/85): 63-77. Print.
Lee, Charlotte and Timothy Gura. Oral Interpretation. 10th ed. Boston: Houghton,