The politics of presence: stagecraft and the power of the body in the romantic imagination
On February 1, 1806, the Monthly Magazine printed a letter from France that describes Napoleon Bonaparte riding his horse out into the public to take petitions. This description must have seemed somewhat odd to the British, whose more sizable monarch was better known for gladhanding politicians and mistresses than for shaking hands with the public, and indeed, the correspondent reports that he was "surprized to see him so willing to expose himself." But Bonaparte's practice represented a new sort of public relations -- a politics of presence -- which depended on showing the body in front of the public. Bonaparte's public knew their monarch by seeing him -- by establishing contact with him -- and through that contact, Bonaparte gained a power that was the envy of the Romantic world. We know the Romantic period as a period of anxious self-consciousness, but rarely have we thought of the Romantic self as a body. This dissertation argues that the distinction between the textual and embodied self was very important for the writers of the Romantic period, and that anxieties about the power of bodily presence manifest themselves most prominently in their writings about the theater. Several factors made the power of the body important for writers of the Romantic period, but one of the most important was a change in the nature of the theater itself. During the course of the eighteenth century, the theater changed from a public space to a space of illusion. As a result, the century lost a powerful model for the interaction between the actor and his audience in the public sphere. The impact of the body onstage becomes a deeply compromised mode of expression in the Romantic period. It is a vehicle for both political and poetic power, but its force is also open to question. As a result, the Romantics vacillate between page and stage, and between physical and textual selves, in order to create a new sort of medium and a new sort of poetic power.