Saturday, December 3, 2011

Romanticism, The Voice, and the History of Listening

One of the problems of studying historical audiences is evidence. Listeners, readers, and theater-goers don’t leave many traces. While the scores, scripts, journals, account books, and correspondence of professional writers, composers, and performers have been preserved and deposited in public archives, the everyday experiences and activities of audience members have not enjoyed the same recognition, and thus potential evidence for their engagement—descriptive letters, scrapbooks, tickets, or souvenirs, for example—have been undervalued, overlooked, and often lost. Scholars of historical reception seek to recover such audience experiences. It’s painstaking and frequently frustrating work, requiring a good deal of creative interpretation. It’s far more like archeology than history, a matter of piecing together found fragments—a single diary description, or obscure periodical image--with educated assumptions about past cultural institutions and ideological expectations.

Judith Pascoe, in her new book, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, writes engagingly and humorously about this process of historical recovery. Pascoe became intrigued by enthusiastic Romantic-era accounts of London stage actress Sarah Siddons, who manipulated audiences with her command of Shakespeare and had a voice which, as contemporary Joseph Severn explained, “thrilled the air with melodious tones, and at the same time touched the heart with such deep pathos that the audience seemed to think it a merit to shed tears and thus appropriately accompany such sublime acting.” Pascoe realized, however, that while Siddons’s "most celebrated roles all seemed to contain sonic highlights that were anticipated with pleasure,” and while paintings almost always showed Siddons poised to speak, she had no idea how Siddons actually sounded. So she resolved to find out. As she explained, “If I could figure out how Siddons sounded, I might also understand how people listened in the romantic period and how that style of listening influenced what they heard.” (14)

While the book is, in part about Siddons, much of the narrative, written in the first-person, is driven by Pascoe’s own search for an auditory past that always seems just out of reach. She explores Siddons’s life story, the world of London theater in 1775-76, and the acoustic design of theaters like Covent Garden and Drury Lane. She takes an acting class to learn more about vocal technique, reads Barthes on the voice, probes the history of recording, and studies Gilbert Austin’s 1806 Chironomia; or, A Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery: Comprehending Many Precepts, Both Ancient and Modern, for the Proper Regulation of the Voice, the Countenance, and Gesture. Along the way, she offers some wonderful insights in Romantic-era theater-going. As she explains at one point:
Romantic theatergoers not only enjoyed performances that we would find overwrought, they enjoyed watching these performances over and over and over again. In fact, the intensity of their pleasure seemed to stem partly from the repetition, which allowed for a deep familiarity with the lines and gestures associated with particular plays….And serving as a further aide-memoire was the condensation of the romantic theatrical experience to a collection of emotionally, visually, or sonically intense scenes that helped to imprint these plays on the memory. The memorization of these ‘points’ made theatergoing more intensely pleasurable, as audience members anticipated these particular moments, watched them play out, and compared them to versions they had already experiences or even enacted themselves. (72)
Pascoe has a great sense of humor about herself and her objective, which, as she herself quickly recognized, was doomed to failure. As she explains, “I had wanted to find out how Siddons made [audience member Joseph] Severn want to change his life, or, failing that, how she caused so many people to go into conniptions when she stepped out on stage, but this meant, of course, and I’d known this all along, that I really had to be there.” (108). In the end, though, Pascoe's frustrations are her readers' gain. Her book is a funny and meaningful meditation on historical methodology, written with both clarity and verve. Its sheer inventiveness reminded me most of Bruce R. Smith’s attempts to discover how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays "actually" sounded in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Both Smith and Pascoe acknowledge that we can’t positively know how the past sounded. But through careful historicization of diverse contexts of listening and hearing, and analysis of the fragments of evidence still with us, we can discover faint but tantalizing suggestions of how audiencing had the power to shape lives.

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