Joanna Baillie's
DE MONFORT

November 3, 2014, 7:30 pm

Playwrights Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theater • 416 West 42nd Street

Directed by Sari Ketter

with Bill Buell, Caitlin O'Connell, Raphael Nash Thompson, Christopher Innvar, Daniel K. Isaac, Tom Nelis, Joe Penczak, Jacob Perkins, Christina Rouner, Robert Sella, Susanna Stahlmann, and more

 

How far can jealousy take you? Romantic drama hits the heights in this rarely revived Othello-inspired tale of love, loss and obsessive passion. This reading is presented in partnership with the NYU Department of English.

 

After fleeing in shame from a lost duel, De Monfort comes face to face with the man who spared his life. Overwhelmed by the lifelong grudge he holds, he tries in vain to follow the advice of his friends and beloved sister. Is his rival truly working against him or is he lashing out at shadows? As vengeance and envy take hold, friendship cracks and schemes push towards uncertainty and bloodshed.  Much admired by Lord Byron, Joanna Baillie explores passions and their ability to take hold of the mind.

 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear new and rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

 

 
About the Playwright

Among published playwrights, Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) had few rivals in the Romantic period. She was ranked by Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott as the best writer of English tragedy since the Renaissance. Her major project, A Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind (more widely known as Plays on the Passions), incorporated four volumes of dramatic works. She published several volumes of poetry and a total of twenty-eight plays. She was a dramatic innovator to whom her supporters looked for a potential reformation of the Romantic stage.  Although five of her plays were staged during her lifetime, none were commercially successful in the theater. In print, however, Baillie’s dramatic works won both commercial success and critical acclaim. Baillie’s literary circle, which included Sir Walter Scott, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, William Wordsworth, and literary critic Francis Jeffrey, reveals her involvement in and influence on Romantic-era drama and literary theory. Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, which some critics have described as psychodrama, strongly influenced Lord Byron’s dramatic works, which likewise focus on the development of mental and emotional processes in characters. Contemporary critics labeled Baillie’s plays closet dramas, and until recently modern critics followed earlier critical claims. However, Baillie’s prefaces demonstrate her familiarity with the stage practices of her day, and her plays often incorporate editorial notes with her suggestions for how to render a scene on stage. She argued that her plays were not only intended for performance, but for best effect should be staged in small, well-lit theaters where facial expressions could be clearly seen.

 

About the Play

De Monfort is part of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, a larger dramatic project with volumes published in 1798, 1802, 1812, and 1836. In her “Introductory Discourse,” Baillie provides her theorization of the psychological workings of stage representation and the social function of the theater. She describes her project as a series of paired tragedies and comedies, “in which the chief object should be to delineate the progress of the higher passions in the human breast.” The “higher passions,” or intense emotions, for which she wrote associated plays include love, hate, fear, hope, ambition, jealousy, and remorse. De Monfort is Baillie’s tragedy concerning hatred, and in it she attempts to trace the development and effects of that specific passion in its most extreme form.

 

The Marquis De Monfort’s passionate hatred of his schoolmate Rezenvelt results in a duel, which De Monfort loses. Rezenvelt spares his life, but instead of inspiring gratitude, his mercy only incites further animosity. Though his beloved sister Jane advises him to master his emotions, he cannot control his obsession. Rumors of an affair between his sister and his detested rival trigger tragic consequences. This deceptively simple plot facilitates Baillie’s focus on the psychological development of her title character as he struggles with his overwhelming hatred.

 

De Monfort was published in the first volume of Plays on the Passions (1798), and was performed at Drury Lane Theater in London twice in Baillie’s lifetime. It opened on 29 April 1800 and ran for eight nights with John Kemble and Sarah Siddons playing De Monfort and his sister Jane. The play was revived for a five-night run in 1821 with Edmond Kean in the title role. Contemporary theatrical reviews from the Dramatic Censor claim “the Piece wants interest—it wants variety—it wants activity—it is too barren of incident,” but this criticism must be considered in the context of the spectacular sets, live animals, and musical effects of the melodramas which were the period’s most popular stage performances.

 

Like her contemporaries Anna Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth, Baillie had a strong interest in the educational role of literature, particularly of dramatic works. She claimed the theater was a tool that could foster the audience’s desire to study and observe mankind, which she called “sympathetick curiosity.” The theater can manufacture grand and terrible occasions, situations in which men and women are pushed to their limits so that observers can learn more about human nature and exercise their sympathy, without the need for any actual tragedy. Like the later efforts of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, Baillie’s dramatic works were composed as an alternative to what she and other writers saw as the excesses of the popular stage. De Monfort epitomizes the type of play Baillie argues will most edify audiences.

 

-Veronica Goosey, Randall Sessler, and Tara Menon, New York University

 

 

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