Review of Francesca Saggini’s CRECS talk, ‘From The Vaults: Frances Burney and the Tragic Muse’, 13 Mar 2017

Many thanks to Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade) for writing this review of our CRECS event, which took place on Monday 13 March 2017.

The Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Seminar recently had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Francesca Saggini (Università della Tuscia, Visiting Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge), author of Backstage in the Novel: Frances Burney and the Theater Arts, to present her new (never-before-presented) research on Frances Burney and the Tragic Muse. Discussing the neglect of Burney and her fellow female tragedians in most anthologies of eighteenth-century plays/drama, Saggini drew our attention to the contexts of Burney’s tragedies, and issued a call to take them more seriously.

Opening her talk by likening Burney’s mastectomy to the critical ‘mutilation’ of her literary corpus, Saggini suggested that Burney’s tragedies be seen as a similar excision to her mutilated breast. The rare works that do address the tragedies, such as Peter Sabor’s The Complete Plays of Frances Burney (2 vols) (1995) and Margaret Ann Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (1989), were published before the turn of the twenty-first century.

Saggini then outlined her focus in this paper: the first of Burney’s plays, Edwy and Elgiva, written in c.1788 and performed – with disastrous effect – in March 1795. Summarising the plot of the play, Saggini discussed Edwy and Elgiva as an Anglo-Saxon history play. She suggested that its Anglo-Saxon focus was a more accessible alternative to classical history for Burney, noting that women had less access to classical education.

Saggini noted that there are several coinciding explanations for the play’s terrible reviews and closure after one night: the actors’ strikes at Drury Lane; the scandal surrounding John Philp Kemble, who, having committed sexual assault, was made to publicly apologise; Frances Burney’s own illness after the birth of her son (she could not attend rehearsals); and a general lack of appetite for tragedies (written by women). Saggini suggested that once we contextualise the reviews with respect to other tragedies also on the stage, a pattern emerges whereby several critics are harsh towards similar plays with tragic themes. Burney’s flop was not, it seems, an anomaly.

While this is important, other issues come into play such as the fact that Burney was writing with an income in mind. Saggini charted some of the issues surrounding titling and money in the production of Burney’s play. She noted how the dual-name title of Edwy and Elgiva speaks to a tradition of tragedy that brought to the fore the seriousness of the two eponymous figures. But Saggini also looked within the text to extrapolate other ways in which Burney participated in genre-bending. She explained for example how, in act five of Edwy, Burney draws intentionally on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth. Burney’s intertextual scene, with the striking recurrence of the word ‘deed’ and the appearance of ‘two ruffians’, shows a self-conscious process of reconstruction which would be clear to the play’s implied audience.

Saggini also showed us numerous playbills used to advertise London-based theatrical productions in the 1790s, and explained how the presentation of two plays in a single night (one often an established play, like Macbeth, and the other something new like Rosina) constructed an intertheatrical discussion, But Saggini also suggested there is an infratheatrical relationship between playhouses in their choice of plays. Her work on this process of intertheatricality and infratheatricality is ongoing.

Saggini rounded off the evening by reiterating how other playwrights decried the Drury Lane theatre after initial flops for similar reasons to Burney (illness; lack of rehearsals), but differ Burney because they attempt to recover or re-launch their text by publishing it. Saggini left us with a question: Why did Burney, when she is seeking money, ultimately decide not to publish her Edwy and Elgiva as a closet drama? Perhaps Camilla; or, a Picture of Youth, the novel published a few months after Edwy and Elgiva, was seen as a more secure, risk-free publication to bring to print.

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