"We do nothing but enact history": Thomas Carlyle stages the past

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While recent scholarly interest in the "theatricality" of Victorian culture has focused principally on novels, this essay widens that focus to include early-Victorian historical writing. Like his novelistic counterparts, Thomas Carlyle integrated pictorial and theatrical modes of representation into his historical essays despite harboring customary antitheatrical prejudices. In Past and I'resent, most particularly, Carlyle relied upon theatricality (as distinct from dramatization) as the surest means of providing his readers with the vibrant, animated, and enacted history that he promised them. This implicitly theatrical restoration of the past did not occur through a self-conscious mise-en-scène but through such basic elements of performance as bodily presence, pictorialism, and the organization of theatrical space. For Carlyle, no less than for his theatrical contemporaries, any purely narrative history was dead, linear, and typographic, while any enacted history-alive, solid, and corporeal-was inevitably theatrical. Through a close reading of passages from Past and Present, this essay illuminates correspondences between Carlyle's rhetorical embodiment of history and the staging of history in the Victorian theater.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-52
Number of pages26
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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