The Persistence of Allegory

The Persistence of Allegory
Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner

Jane K. Brown

2006 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction
2. Claude's Allegories and Literary Neoclassicism
3. Secular Tragedy: Neoclassicism in the Sixteenth Century
4. Allegory and Passion: Latin Dramatic Forms in the Seventeenth Century
5. The Allegorical Idioms of the Illusionist Stage: Spectacle in the Seventeenth Century
6. Opera and Dance: The Revival of Greek Tragedy
7. The Greek Revival: German Classicism and the Recovery of Spoken Drama
8. Wagner and the Death of Gesamtkunstwerk
Coda: "This insubstantial pageant"

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In today's climate of culture studies and globalism, some explanation for a book focused on the forms of the European literary past seems to be in order. The short answer is that synthesizing our knowledge of the history of drama in Europe since the Renaissance changes unreflected assumptions into which we all relapse from our immediate specialties and that are widespread outside the academy. A more reflected relation to what seems obvious to us and closest to home might, by alienating our tradition, make it more understandable in the global context within which our disciplines now aspire to understand it.

The longer answer comes from the circumstances surrounding the genesis of the book. My training and early career were in German baroque and eighteenth century, especially Goethe. When I moved to the English Department at the University of Colorado in 1979, to keep my family together, I was writing a book on Faust, and found myself teaching Shakespeare. I soon learned that my German Romantic take on the Renaissance led to equally vehement, but contradictory reactions, either that there is no allegory in Shakespeare or that allegory and Shakespeare's medieval roots are old hat. As I learned more about Shakespeare, about Ben Jonson as a writer of masques, and about their Spanish contemporary, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (also necessary to understand Faust), I decided my next book would be about allegorical drama—"The Other Drama" I wanted to call it.

The area has in fact been well studied, but the people who study its different parts don't talk much to one another. Despite the establishment of Comparative Literature as a discipline more than a generation ago, non-German scholars interested in Benjamin on allegory do not read German baroque drama (nor indeed do most German scholars interested in Benjamin nor do scholars of seventeenth-century dramas in other European traditions), nor do they read Calderón, despite Benjamin's strong emphasis on him, much less the obscurer eighteenth-century texts, the "Haupt- und Staatsaktionen," to which he points. Nor do they read these people next to the great French dramatists or, with rare exceptions, English dramatists of the century, let alone their great Dutch contemporary, Joost van den Vondel. In the last decade or so scholars have become more interested in opera, but opera in the seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries is for all practical purposes an entirely separate field from drama. I was soon learning all kinds of information that was surprising to friends, students and colleagues in adjacent specialties, even when it was familiar to specialists. So this book is a thought experiment: what happens if, for a change, we try to view the history of European drama as a unity across languages and across subgenres?

In the process I learned there really was no "other drama." Given the prejudices of Goethe and his friends, for whom French neoclassicism was the Antichrist, I had assumed that my "other drama" was allegorical and neoclassical drama mimetic. Writing this book I learned that both kinds emerged from the same primal soup, from Western Europe's repeated efforts to reinvent itself by returning to classical antiquity. The last thing I had in mind at the start was to rewrite the history of neoclassicism, but that is precisely what this book proposes-that we think of neoclassicism not as a single movement, but as a wave of interrelated movements that sometimes further and sometimes retard one another. Now I was really not writing about allegorical drama, but about all European drama from Shakespeare to Wagner.

To be sure, this is not a comprehensive synthetic history of European drama; instead I trace the development by its evolving skeleton. I am interested in the forms that underlie and enable the conventions of European drama. Others might call the goal structuralist, but I would prefer to think of it as morphological in Goethe's sense of the word. The coverage is broad but selective; I have not shied away from synthesizing information any specialist would know, yet I have tried to avoid what non-specialists will already take for granted, such as demonstrating the structural richness and psychological insight of Shakespeare or Racine. I have tried instead to introduce the materials from a point of view less obvious to most readers, and I have often turned to dramatists of great interest who are less well known, at least in my cultural context, than they deserve. My hope is that by "repositioning" the familiar dramatists in an "other" seventeenth and eighteenth-century context both dramatists and context will gain in depth.

I hope that readers will come to share my view of the subliminal unity of European drama since the late Middle Ages across national and historical boundaries, and even across the boundaries of different arts. I have no wish to undo generations of careful and important work understanding the formal distinctions among different forms of theater art and in understanding the relation of those forms to historical and cultural circumstances, but rather hope the distinctions will take on richer meaning when they are understood as variations from a constant underlying possibility. Even more, I hope readers will appreciate the unexpected historical and formal diversity of both neoclassicism and allegory that I have tried to make visible. Both phenomena must be understood historically, not as fixed categories. While under certain circumstances it is useful to think about allegory as a static mode in the still helpful terms of Angus Fletcher, it is also necessary to understand it as a phenomenon that varies historically and generically. It is possible to use the term allegory about such different figures as Shakespeare, Claude Lorrain, Goethe or even Ibsen without leveling them to a simplified understanding of medieval allegory. It also means that all texts should be read, to different extents for different texts, allegorically, whether dramas, operas, narratives of whatever sort, not just certain kinds of arcane novels and a historically and generically specified subset of dramatic works called morality play or masque. And conversely, there is a real historical basis for allegorical reading that validates it as more than just the preference of a particular kind of reader.