Exam Reading – Closet Dramas and Representations of Affect

Closet dramas have been part of my sketchy mental dissertation outline since I began the exam reading process. I’ve always been intrigued by this genre and the particular way it invites readers to confront performance, often purely within the realm of imagination. After finally reading some closet dramas for my exams, along with Marta Straznicky’s useful arguments on them in her Privacy, Playreading, and Women’s Closet Drama, 1550-1700, I have more concrete things to say about this intriguing genre. I want to focus my discussion on Elizabeth Carey’s Tragedie of Mariam because it was most generative for me in terms of laying out these thoughts. But I also think these questions and ideas have implications for Margaret Cavendish’s Convent of Pleasure and John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (although categorized by Milton as a “dramatic poem”) and will eventually think more about how to bring these other two texts into the conversation.

Carey’s Mariam begins with Mariam alone on the scene giving what I read as an epitaph for her presumed-dead husband Herod, claiming that by “self-experience” she has learned that “one object” can yield “both grief and joy” (1.1.9-10). In the 80 lines of her soliloquy we learn that “rage and scorn” for Herod’s cruel deeds (killing her brother and grandfather) and jealous tendencies (“for Herod’s jealousy / had power even constancy itself to change”) have made her hate her husband. But her rage against Herod directly struggles against “the tender love that he to Mariam bare, / and mine to him.” Mariam’s language here oscillates back and forth between “grief and joy” for Herod’s death but the most compelling part of that oscillation is the shifting affective responses that accompany the struggle. In fact, the entire soliloquy seems to be a meditation on feigned versus genuine affect and, consequently, the closet drama begins by immediately calling attention to these two registers of emotional response and the difficulty in deciphering between the two.

Mariam’s lines at the end of her soliloquy bring these issues directly to the forefront:

Ay, now, mine eyes, you do begin to right
The wrongs of your admirer and my lord.
Long since you should have put your smiles to flight:
Ill doth a widowed eye with joy accord.
Why, now, methinks, the love I bare him then,
When virgin freedom left me unrestrained,
Doth to my heart begin to creep again.
My passion now is far from being feigned. (1.1.67-74)

In her reading of this closet drama Straznicky points to a moment further along in the play when a messenger brings Herod a cup of wine as “one of the play’s most theatrical moments” because it requires that the reader “imagine the goblet as a physical stage property” (60). Asking the reader to imagine a physical prop is certainly a noteworthy choice in a closet drama, but perhaps Mariam’s lines here are even more difficult. Two times in these lines she marks “now” as the moment of her shift in affective response. “Now” her eyes “begin to right the wrongs” – in other words, now she begins to cry. These lines present a woman breaking down emotionally at the very moment of reading. It seems less difficult to imagine large and obvious stage props (ones that Carey’s readers have undoubtedly seen onstage before and can call to mind) than it does to read this crucial but subtle shift in Mariam’s affective response at this moment. What does it look like to see someone just starting to cry? What does it look like to see someone struggle with joy and grief in the same moment, only to finally give way to grief after the long struggle?

These subtle reactions seem both more and less theatrical than a stage prop – more theatrical in the sense that it is arguably necessary to have a body in front of you in order to imagine such subtle shifts in affect, and less theatrical in the sense that this is a much more subtle effect/affect than a stage prop – and we have to question the significance of beginning a closet drama with this kind of affective meditation. Just after the block of lines quoted above, Mariam must hide the genuine affective response we witness when her mother, Alexandra, enters the scene. “Tears, fly back and hide you in your banks,” she pleads, “you must not be to Alexandra seen” (75-6). Not only, then, does the drama meditate on the different registers of affect in this moment, but it presents us with a character who recognizes the difference and the political import of switching back and forth.

Mariam, however, is not ultimately successful in hiding her tears from Alexandra (Alexandra’s first line is “what means these tears?”), suggesting that the play calls attention to feigned affect only to demonstrate that it is unsuccessful. The drama also, though, plays with the way other characters read affective responses, primarily in Mariam and Herod. Salome comes onto the scene shortly after Alexandra and comments, “[Mariam’s] eyes do sparkle joy for Herod’s death” (1.3.4). Without delving too much more into a close reading of the play, I mention these moments to suggest that this closet drama is intensely interested in the performance of affect and, specifically, the theatrical effect of affective responses that can or cannot be constructed within a reader’s imagination. This has two important implications. First, it invites us to consider parallel/contingent affective responses in both character and reader and, second, the play is also then interested in what kind of textual representation can generate certain kinds of affective responses in both character and reader. What must a closet drama include in order to convey Mariam’s struggle in those first moments?

With these questions in mind, Carey’s play starts to read as a meditation on written affect and how to represent structures of feeling when the body is absent. In other words, in order for Carey to explore these questions, she must write a closet drama because the questions directly implicate the genre within which they are raised. Straznicky makes productive arguments regarding Carey’s text and points out important “stage business” that occurs throughout to trouble the relationship between private reading and public performance. But reading the play this way, I’m not sure Straznicky’s argument has the legs to move far beyond her critique of other scholars’ claims regarding closet drama. In order “to position closet drama within political and…theatrical culture,” she argues, feminist scholars too often simply “collaps[e] the boundaries between public and private” rather than radically redrawing the boundaries as they purport to do. Straznicky presents a beautiful argument about the shifting notions of public and private performance and reading in early modern England, but still relies on the dichotomy to make her argument, perhaps herself further “collapsing” the boundaries between the two realms. What I see in Carey’s play is not so much an attempt “to situate the play in relation to [the] elite literary discourse” of the Sidney circle and make it exclusively public in order to insert her work into a significant circle of privately public writers (Straznicky 49). Rather Carey seems much more interested in examining the implications of the experience of reading as opposed to the experience of performance. She is asking significant questions about representations of affect and, in her circle of coterie and heavily Petrarchan poets, these questions resonate deeply and may help us reread some of the Sidney circle poets she was responding to and writing alongside.

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