Gavin Whitehead, “She Looks as if She’s Seen a Ghost”
Tue. Dec. 17, 2019, 220 York Street room 002 (note the change in location)
The final decade of the eighteenth century saw the ghoulish ascent of Gothic drama, the immense popularity of which largely owed to its show-stopping ghost scenes. These scenes revolve around two major players: the ghost itself as well as the witness, that unhappy figure who encounters said specter. Both feed the ghost scene’s sheer aesthetic power.
That said, not all Gothic dramatists craft scenes of this sort with the same set of priorities. Where some show greater interest in the horrifying power of a ghost on stage, paying little attention to the figure of the witness, others prefer to explore that character’s emotional and physical experience of encountering the spirit world. A compilation of excerpts from a dissertation chapter, this talk concentrates on two plays: The Castle Spectre (1797) by Matthew Lewis (1775-11818) and Orra (1812) by Joanna Baillie (1762-1851). While Lewis privileges ghost over witness, Baillie adopts the opposite approach.
Lewis’s ghost scene generated controversy. According to contemporary reviews of The Castle Spectre, female spectators became so frightened they fell into “hysterics.” This response raised questions about the dubious aesthetics and ethics of a playwright who seemingly sought to induce such violent reactions. Clearly inspired by The Castle Spectre, Baillie nevertheless critiques Lewis’s hollow sensationalism. When Baillie confronts the titular heroine of Orra with what she believes to be a ghost, Baillie does not do so to scare spectators out of their wits. Embarking on a morally instructive, medico-scientific experiment of sorts, she instead holds up for scrutiny the passion of fear in its most potent form, asking the audience to contemplate its devastating effects on the human mind and to sympathize with the harm it causes Orra.
Gavin Whitehead is a scholar, educator, theater artist, and translator who earned his MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama in 2017. A former Fulbright scholar, Gavin spent a year in Berlin studying theater after completing his undergraduate education. He holds degrees in German and Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated with Highest Honors in 2012.