An Episode in the Histories of Realism and Emotion

Prosaic Suffering: Bourgeois Tragedy and the Aesthetics of the Ordinary

by Alex Eric Hernandez

The essay begins: 

In 1778, Samuel Johnson was asked to weigh in on the prose of a new bourgeois tragedy, The Female Gamester. Its author, Gorges Edmond Howard, was a Dublin-based lawyer and literary dabbler whose attempt at domestic drama might have been wholly forgotten were it not for the fragment of Johnsoniana he preserved in its preface. Having originally written the play in a mixture of prose and verse, Howard had been advised by “several of [his] literary acquaintance” that his “not much exalted” prose was much more suitable to the “scene . . . laid in private life, and chiefly among those of middling rank.” For many, it seems, the bourgeoisie suffered in prose. But Johnson, Howard recalls, would have none of this:

Having communicated this to Dr. Samuel Johnson, his words (as well as I remember) were, “That he could hardly consider a prose Tragedy as dramatic . . . that let it be either in the middling or in low life, it may, though in metre and spirited, be properly familiar and colloquial; that, many in the middling rank are not without erudition; that they have the feelings and sensations of nature, and every emotion in consequence thereof, as well as the great, and that even the lowest, when impassioned, raise their language.”

Johnson’s argument tweaked the older, neoclassical assumption that poetic decorum mandates a correspondence between the language and social rank of a drama’s principal figures. Here a tragedy’s verse style has less to do with the nobility of those represented—as had been the case for John Dryden in An Essay on Dramatick Poesie (1668), where heroic rhyme’s “exalt[ation] above . . . common converse” images “the minds and fortunes of noble persons . . . exactly”than with the intensity of the depicted afflictions. Tragedy needs verse not because its “elevation” allegorizes the status of its heroes, but because it corresponds to the magnitude of the drama’s subject matter, quite literally inscribing an emotional richness otherwise lost in the flatness of prose.

Johnson’s intervention plays out a mid-eighteenth-century discussion of the representation of emotion on the tragic stage, disclosing an unease with the degrading (if not also disenchanting) effects of prosaic suffering. Contemporaries in the period worried that prose was “fine and nervous,” disconcertingly “artless,” and “offensive,” while at the same time mere “trifling,” “below the dignity of Tragedy,” and even, for that reason, somehow “unnatural” in its expression. Consider, for example, that Johnson himself asserts that affliction “raises [one’s] language,” lapsing—naturally, he suggests—out of the grittiness of prose into the elegance of the poetic. A sort of poetry in the raw, suffering reaches after what’s already aesthetic and universal to misfortune, while prose trivializes and bogs down in the particular, rendering a tragedy “hardly dramatic,” untrue to the genre and affliction it purports to represent. Writing a few years later, Henry Mackenzie saw the genre’s strength as its ability to simulate those very same particulars, “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” that nevertheless remained in tension with the tragic. In his view, suffering of this sort was if anything too true, its realism overburdening one’s perception. “Real distress, coming in a homely and unornamented state,” he concludes, “disgusts the eye.” Obscuring its art with disturbing efficacy, the outward formlessness of prosaic suffering threatened to neutralize the pleasures of the tragic.

These concerns spoke to a moment of renewed interest in bourgeois and domestic tragedy, capping a period of formal experimentation in Britain, France, and Germany that Peter Gay claims was crucial to the Enlightenment’s “emancipation of art.” Beginning around the production of George Lillo’s landmark 1731 tragedy The London Merchant, a series of important works fashioned a new aesthetic idiom calibrated to “the ordinary feelings and exertions of life” by working through varieties of verse, prose, and the visual arts. Scholars have long cited Denis Diderot’s Le Fils naturel (1757) and Discours sur la poésie dramatique (1757) as well as G. E. Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson (1755), Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–69), and Emilia Galotti (1772) as key moments in the drama’s modernization. But a variety of lesser-known works such as Charles Johnson’s prose Caelia; or The Perjur’d Lover (1732), Lillo’s 1736 encore to The London Merchant, Fatal Curiosity (which contemporaries claimed produced domestic interiors to horrifying effect in the cramped Little Haymarket theater), and Trauerspiele like Clementina von Poretta (1760; by Christoph Martin Wieland) and Clarissa (Johann Heinrich Steffens’s 1765 dramatization of Samuel Richardson’s novel) played with the representational mechanics of what one might call “ordinary suffering,” inhabiting familiar spaces and embodied emotion in ways that contemporaries took to be radical departures from established tragic convention. Among the most revolutionary of these innovations was the sustained use of prose, which until then had been largely confined to the domain of comedy. Indeed, in London, the 1770s and ’80s alone saw the production and publication of a number of prose tragedies, including notable revivals of The London Merchant and Edward Moore’s The Gamester (1753), curious adaptations such as The Fatal Interview (1782; a domestic tragic sequel to Pamela), quasi-gothic meditations on domestic violence like Richard Cumberland’s The Mysterious Husband (1783), as well as drames bourgeois in the form of Diderot’s 1758 Le Père de famille (translated “by a lady” as The Family Picture in 1781) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’Indigent (1772; translated in London and Edinburgh as The Distressed Family in 1787). Despite the concerns of those like Johnson and Mackenzie, by the latter half of the century, a deft use of prose on the stage could render the theater uncannily intimate, calling forth a space where private woe played out for all to see.

In what follows, I want to explore the affective stakes of this turn to prosaic suffering. Or rather more precisely, I want to trace a line through the contested process by which suffering became prosaic in eighteenth-century bourgeois and domestic drama in order to draw some implications for the history of emotion and the dialectics of realism at midcentury. My claim is that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction, thereby navigating a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking and engaging and testing them across page and stage. Unlike the “heroick suffering” of classical, pathetic, or otherwise “high” tragic forms prevalent at the earlier part of the century, prosaic suffering performed its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted in their implications. Prosaic suffering presents the tragic figure as an emblem of abandonment, in which (as Georg Lukács claimed of the novel) everyday life is experienced as simultaneously leaden and trivial. I anchor my discussion in a close reading of Moore’s The Gamester, a drama whose importance to the development of realism was well known in the eighteenth century, and whose use of prose at midcentury tracks this shift in suffering most clearly, though by no means exclusively (as will become clear). Adapting the novel’s “writing to the moment” for the theater, (a method almost certainly absorbed in Moore’s reading of Clarissa and correspondence with Richardson on the novel’s formal effects), prose conferred a lively presence upon the performance of suffering, in ways that denied its spectators the sort of rhetorical elevation that stood in for transcendence. In making this case, therefore, I place the practices of British bourgeois tragedy in dialogue with contemporary performance and aesthetic theory so as to reconstruct the terrain of emotion’s exploration onstage. If, as one critic has claimed, versification serves to beautify the experience of suffering, prose insists on its crude intolerability, its reality and resistance to poetic gilding. Continue reading …

This essay looks to bourgeois tragedy’s use of prose in the mid-eighteenth century as an episode in the histories of realism and emotion, arguing that the emergence of prosaic suffering on the period’s tragic stage helps to imagine modern forms of affliction. Taking Edward Moore’s 1753 drama The Gamester as emblematic of this shift, and situating the text in its performative and aesthetic contexts, I trace the “emotional practices” that navigated a range of confessedly “ordinary” feelings by evoking, engaging, and testing them across page and stage. Performing its grief with troubling immediacy and a raw intensity, in ways that were personal and familiar, absorptive rather than theatrical, and provocatively disenchanted, bourgeois tragedy thereby embodied a middling mode of existence in which the prosaic qualified not only the drama’s form but also, ultimately, its content.

ALEX ERIC HERNANDEZ is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he works on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature and culture. This essay is part of his book in progress titled Modernity and Affliction: The Making of British Bourgeois Tragedy.


The Origins of Modern Prose

Mercury’s Words: The End of Rhetoric and the Beginning of Prose

by John Guillory

The essay begins:

The origin of modern prose style was the subject of much scholarly debate in the first half of the twentieth century, but interest in the subject waned thereafter. Today, few scholars other than Restoration specialists or historians of rhetoric are likely to recall the terms of the debate between Morris W. Croll and Richard Foster Jones or their successors. And yet prose style has once again become an important locus of work in literary study, most conspicuously in the new field of digital analysis, which has returned scholarship to some very old concerns of literary history. After decades in which literary study has been dominated by contextual hermeneutics, it seems possible once again to think about literary change in formal terms, as Franco Moretti has notably argued: “For me, formal analysis is the great accomplishment of literary study, and is therefore also what any new approach—quantitative, digital, evolutionary, whatever—must prove itself against.” I would endorse this provocation, and indeed I want to raise the stakes of formal analysis in this essay by taking a step back from the computational project and from the favored object of Moretti’s project—the novel—and look instead at prose itself as the perennial subject of discourse about style. The aim of my argument is to recover a crucial episode in the historical conceptualization of style and thus to restore the emergence of modern prose to its key position in our understanding of English literary history.

The unresolved inquiry begun by Croll and Jones set out from the manifest difference of modern prose from its Renaissance and medieval antecedents. As a subset of language change, the development of prose style has its own set of complex determinations. All prose, let us stipulate, is the sum of stylistic features determined by a familiar set of conceptual operators: form, genre, author, period, literary fashion, and perhaps others as yet unspecified. But prose as such is a purely conceptual entity; it functions as a kind of raw material for composition, seemingly undetermined with regard to content and yet constrained by conventions of grammar and usage. The components of style further limit prose, however difficult these elements are to specify. Croll argued that the emergence of modern English prose style in the later seventeenth century was a result of the anti-Ciceronian movement, which was correlated with a reorientation of the genre system that privileged the forms of essay and treatise over the form of oratory. Jones, by contrast, traced modern prose to a series of polemics emanating from the Royal Society on behalf of the “plain style,” which he saw as directly influencing composition in prose. Although both Croll and Jones grasped aspects of the transformation of prose, their causal hypotheses failed to demonstrate a definitive mechanism of change that would explain the syntax and diction we recognize as modern. I remain agnostic about causal arguments and propose here a different kind of historical hypothesis: New developments in the discourse of prose style betray the recognition of prose avant la lettre as a medium. This recognition was more precisely a misrecognition, in the sense that the “plain style” was understood as a new kind of prose rather than an intuition about the nature of prose itself. Nevertheless, this misrecognition had the perhaps unintended effect of dislodging prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and severing its link to the preeminent genre of oratory. Prose changed when this regulatory regime was lifted, though not necessarily in ways prescribed by the advocates of anti-Ciceronianism or the plain style. Further, composition in prose continued for some time to be described in rhetorical terms, because no other technical lexicon was yet available. The importance of this lexical overhang is a part of the story I mean to tell, and has consequences that extend into the present.

In this story, oratory is more important than narrative. The fact that we never encounter any prose that is not generically or formally marked means that prose is always somewhere behind its manifestations, of which narrative is only one. For this reason, I do not offer here a “prosaics” based on the instance of narrative, which has been the premise of most efforts to construct a theory of prose, from Viktor Shklovsky onwards. Prose was understood in antiquity rather as the complement of verse, which long predated it as a kind of marked speech. If poetry has an obvious signal in the aural form of meter, prose has been strangely harder to define, often yielding to Monsieur Jourdain’s naive apprehension: prose is any speech or writing that is not verse. Yet prose first appeared in ancient Greece in the rarified form of an art—rhetoric—complementary to the art of poetry. The first rhetoricians called the object of their art “persuasive speech.” This speech was obviously different from poetry, but such was the oddity of it that the Greeks could only name it “bare” or “naked” speech (logos gymnos), to indicate the absence of meter. Although the sophists elaborated this bare speech into complex syntactic schemes and figurative modes of expression, it somehow still remained nominally bare speech. The Romans struggled with the same paradox in what they called prosa oratio, “straightforward speech.” Prosa, which gives us our vernacular word prose, is a contraction of pro + vertere, to turn straight forward; prose means speaking “right on,” to quote Shakespeare’s Marc Antony (who, as it happens, is speaking neither forthrightly nor in prose). Eventually the umbilicus to oratory was severed, and prose came to be associated in a special way with the kind of writing that is visually distinct from verse, or written to the margin of the page. But it is not easy to say exactly when this break with oratory was accomplished. Writing in early modernity continued to exhibit what Walter Ong calls an “oral residue” for as long as oratory occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of prose genres.

Scholars have identified several beginnings of prose even after its inception with Greek rhetoric, for example, the one advanced by Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich in their study, The Emergence of Prose, which locates an origin of prose in the transition to French vernacular writing of the later middle ages. Kittay and Godzich see in this prose an irreversible movement away from the deictic situation of the French jongleurs, who recited (or sang) their vernacular verses, thus rooting their compositions in a single time and place of performance. French narrative prose, by contrast, whether chronicle or fiction, displaced this deixis to a purely “textual space” (116), in which Kittay and Godzich see the appearance of a new “signifying practice” that is highly versatile and pulls together any number of discourses in its web—in short, “the birth of modern prose” (195). That this moment of transition, which is linked to the privileged instance of narrative, fully comprehends the possibilities of prose in modernity seems unlikely to me, although where one stands on this question depends on how one defines modernity. In any correlation of prose with modernity, these two terms will define each other. Still, we can safely say that each emergence of prose enables what follows, and this is the explanatory framework I adopt in this essay. The emergence of prose in the seventeenth century is possibly the last of a series beginning in Greek antiquity—that is, if we are not now on the cusp of a new digital prose. Continue reading …

This essay offers a new interpretation of a longstanding and unresolved controversy concerning the origins of modern prose style. Setting aside causal explanations proposed for the marked changes in prose style during the later seventeenth century, I argue that what emerges in urgent polemics for the “plain style” is a recognition of prose itself as a medium of composition. This intuition about the nature of prose had the unintended effect of liberating prose from its immemorial subordination to the system of rhetoric and opening up new possibilities for its exploitation as a means of communication.

JOHN GUILLORY is Professor of English at New York University. His current work includes a book on the figure of philosophy in Renaissance writing and a study of close reading as “cultural technique.”