Symptoms of the Self
Tuberculosis and the Making of the Modern Stage
by Roberta Barker
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Pub Date 04 Jan 2023 | Archive Date 04 Jan 2023
University of Iowa Press, University Of Iowa Press
Symptoms of the Self offers the first full study of the stage consumptive. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, Britain, and North America, tuberculosis was a leading killer. Its famous dramatic and operatic victims—Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias and her avatar Violetta in La Traviata, Mimì in La Bohème, Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, to name but a few—are among the most iconic figures of the Western stage. Its classic symptoms, the cough and the blood-stained handkerchief, have become global performance shorthand for life-threatening illness.
The consumptive character became a vehicle through which standards of health, beauty, and virtue were imposed; constructions of class, gender, and sexuality were debated; the boundaries of nationhood were transgressed or maintained; and an exceedingly fragile whiteness was held up as a dominant social ideal. By telling the story of tuberculosis on the transatlantic stage, Symptoms of the Self uncovers some of the wellsprings of modern Western theatrical practice—and of ideas about the self that still affect the way human beings live and die.
“In this insightful comparative study of the theatrical history of tuberculosis, the stage prop of the blood-stained handkerchief rematerializes as an expression not simply of a character’s pathology but of their very humanness, that is, their possession of an interior and authentic self. Rooted in detailed readings of plays and their production histories, Barker’s investigation reveals how the melancholy tropes and sentimental archetypes of the stage consumptive both fed into and sought to satisfy the circulatory demands of a rising affective economy. Through such adept and sensitive readings of the archives of the consumptive repertoire, one feels at times that they, as a reader, are being transported back to the nineteenth-century stage itself, with its parade of coughing heroines, flushed and brooding heroes, and empathically suffering publics. By the end of the book, one wonders whether the modern Western theatre would itself have even come into existence without the corresponding rise of such a horrific disease.”—Amy Holzapfel, author, Art, Vision, and Nineteenth-Century Realist Drama: Acts of Seeing
“In Symptoms of the Self, Roberta Barker assesses the interplay of disease, dramaturgy, and subjectivity in theatrical depictions of tuberculosis, deftly tracking the ‘consumptive repertoire’ as it grew and transmuted on French, English, and American stages in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beyond its historical value, Barker’s book is beautifully written; it renders the categories ‘reading for pleasure’ and ‘reading for research’ nearly indistinguishable from one another.”—Meredith Conti, author, Playing Sick: Performances of Illness in the Age of Victorian Medicine