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On the Art of Dramatic Probability: Elizabeth Inchbald's Remarks for The British Theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 April 2021

Lisa A. Freeman
English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
E-mail address:


In 1806, Longman & Co. publishers commissioned the accomplished actress, playwright, and novelist Elizabeth Inchbald to compose a series of prefatory remarks for the plays to be included in their British Theatre series. One hundred and twenty-five in all, each of the plays for Longman's British Theatre was originally published and sold separately at a rate of about one per week. Once the series was complete, the plays were bound together and sold as a twenty-five-volume set. As the surviving diary entries from the two-year period during which she wrote her Remarks testify, the task proved both arduous and unrelenting for Inchbald, especially as she had no hand in selecting the plays to be included and no control over the order in which she was asked to compose her critical commentaries. Working almost constantly, no sooner had she read one play, drafted her remarks, and copyedited the proof, than she had to turn to the next play sent by Longman, collect her thoughts, and start the process all over again. For the most part, as Annibel Jenkins has noted, “[T]here seems to be no pattern of publishing by date or genre; a tragedy by Shakespeare came out one week and a contemporary comedy the next.” At one point, the strain of this process was so unbearable that Inchbald even tried to renege on her contractual obligations, writing to Longman, “begging to decline any further progress.” This request, as her first biographer, James Boaden, records, Longman “could not be expected to permit; and she was therefore compelled to remark through the whole year.” In the event, and however “dreadful” the task may have been for Inchbald, the widely advertised series proved a “great commercial success,” and Inchbald's Remarks have come down to us as one of the first great achievements in English dramatic criticism of the early nineteenth century.

Copyright © The Authors, 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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Initial research for this essay was supported by a fellowship at Chawton House Library. I am especially indebted to the Director of the Library at the time, Gillian Dow, and to our colleagues in residence: Sonjeong Cho, Kate Gadsby-Mace, Aleksondra Hultquist, and Flavia Ruzi for their astute conversation and good company during our sojourn together.


1 Longman's British Theatre was a continuation of Bell's The British Theatre series, the rights to which Longman had recently purchased. See Jenkins, Annibel, I'll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky), 452–3Google Scholar.

2 Robertson, Ben P., Elizabeth Inchbald's Reputation: A Publishing and Reception History (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), 149Google Scholar.

3 See Jenkins, who writes, “Her 1806 pocket-book is not extant, but those for 1807–1808 are, and the entries constitute a history of her writing and the methods she and her publisher used to make a great commercial success of their project” (452). Inchbald's 1807 and 1808 pocketbook diaries are held by the Folger Library, which also holds those for 1776, 1780, 1781, 1783, 1788, 1793, 1814, and 1820. These have all been transcribed in The Diaries of Elizabeth Inchbald, ed. Ben P. Robertson, 3 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007). In the letter to George Colman the Younger that was printed with her “Remarks” on his The Heir at Law, Inchbald described her lack of input with respect to the entries as follows: “One of the points of my agreement was, that I should have no controul [sic] over the time or the order in which these prefaces were to be printed or published, but that I should merely produce them as they were called for, and resign all other interference to the proprietor or editor of the work” (vi). All of Inchbald's “Remarks” have been gathered in facsimile form in one volume as Remarks for The British Theatre (1806–1809), with an introduction by Cecilia Macheski (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1990). The “Remarks” appear in the volume alphabetically by play title and, per their facsimile form, are each paginated separately. Note: hereafter I reference the “Remarks” by play title and by page within that entry.

4 Jenkins, 452.

5 Boaden, James, ed., Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald: Including Her Familiar Correspondence with the Most Distinguished Persons of Her Time, 2 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1833), 2: 87Google Scholar.

6 Robertson, 155, citing Inchbald diaries; Jenkins, 452. On advertising and publicity for the series, see Robertson, 161–2. Other scholars who have noted Inchbald's achievements as one of the first, great drama critics of the early nineteenth century include Anne K. Mellor, “A Criticism of Their Own: Romantic Women Literary Critics,” in Questioning Romanticism, ed. John Beer (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 29–48; Nora Nachumi, “To Write with Authority: Elizabeth Inchbald's Prefaces to The British Theatre,” in Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, eds. Bonnie Nelson and Catherine Burroughs (NY: Modern Language Association, 2010), 174–86; Katharine M. Rogers, “Britain's First Woman Drama Critic: Elizabeth Inchbald,” in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theatre, 1660–1820, eds. Mary Anne Schofield and Ceclia Macheski (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991), 277–90; and Mary A. Waters, British Women Writers and the Profession of Literary Criticism, 1789–1832 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

7 Fiona Ritchie stands out as one of the few critics who understands Inchbald's Remarks to be fundamentally “oriented towards performance.” Ritchie, however, restricts her observations to Inchbald's “Remarks” on Shakespeare's plays, whereas this article seeks to move across the entire performance repertoire represented in Inchbald's writing. See Ritchie, Fiona, Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 98CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Francesca Saggini, who recognizes “Inchbald's insistence on the difference between the closet and the stage” in “The Art of Fine Drama: Inchbald's Remarks for The British Theatre and the Aesthetic Experience of the Late Eighteenth-Century Theatre Goer,” Textus: English Studies in Italy 18.1 (2005): 133–52, at 148.

8 The extent to which these texts were not only designed but also recognizable to Inchbald's contemporaries as performance texts, rather than as the authorized textual productions of playwrights, can be seen in Boaden's complaint that they omitted the usual prologues, epilogues, prefaces, and dedications associated with print culture, that is, all those types of front matter that “show us frequently so much of an author's mind, manners, views, and connexions” (2: 88).

9 See also Marvin Carlson, who writes, “there is clearly a theatre-going public that already has seen or can easily see these works in the theatre itself, using these printed texts as a reminder of or anticipation of that experience”; Carlson, “Elizabeth Inchbald: A Woman Critic in Her Theatrical Culture,” in Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, and Society, 1790–1840, ed. Catherine [B.] Burroughs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 207–22, at 213.

10 “Remarks” on The Mountaineer, 3.

11 Ibid.


12 Here, it seems to me, the critical question that needs our (re)consideration, and what is addressed below, is what Inchbald meant by, and what our understanding might be, when we term a play “successful.” Though Inchbald never composed a sustained treatise, this framing is designed deliberately to resonate with Aristotle's opening gambit in Poetics, to “inquire how stories are to be put together to make a good poetical work”; Aristotle, Poetics, trans. and intro. Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 17.

13 In Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie, and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), Catherine B. Burroughs argues that as a critic Inchbald modeled a “movement between closet and stage” (84). While I also refer to this movement from time to time, I am particularly interested in what Inchbald thought about the art of live stage representation and what it took to succeed at that art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Significantly, and in contrast to my focus on Inchbald's development of a concept of “dramatic probability” for live, stage performance, Mary Waters looks to Inchbald's prefaces for the articulation of “a coherent theory of closet drama” (Waters, 21). This difference underscores the extent to which Inchbald herself understood these modes of representation—via text or via performance—as distinct operations, requiring distinct aesthetic techniques and producing distinct representational effects. My interest here lies in her theorization of and opinions on the production and effects of live, stage representations.

14 In this respect, I hope to go some way toward satisfying Susan Bennett's repeated calls to move beyond the categories of evaluation to which women writers like Inchbald have thus far been consigned in theatre history and to position Inchbald, without apology or qualification, as the foremost theatrical theorist of her time. See Bennett's discussions of Inchbald's historical status in “Decomposing History (Why Are There So Few Women in Theatre History?),” in Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History, ed. W. B. Worthen and Peter Holland (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 71–87; and her “The Making of Theatre History,” in Representing the Past: Essays in Performance Historiography, ed. Charlotte M. Canning and Thomas Postlewait (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 63–83.

15 Inchbald uses this phrasing in her “Remarks” on The Winter's Tale, suggesting that the “conversations of Florizel and Perdita have more of the tenderness, than the fervour, of love; and consequently their passion has not the force of expression to animate a multitude, though it is properly adapted to steal upon the heart of an individual” (4).

16 These concerns include a focus on the individual genius of authorship and on the psychological formation of characters that were thought by some to be more conducive to the closet. It seems appropriate to note here, however, that scholars such as Greg Kucich have argued that the antitheatrical impulse calling for a shift of dramatic focus from the stage to the page has been exaggerated in romantic criticism, and has more to do with a narrow focus on what poets and critics of that era had to say about Shakespeare than about their actual engagements with the contemporary repertoire. See, for instance, Greg Kucich, “‘A Haunted Ruin’: Romantic Drama, Renaissance Tradition, and the Critical Establishment,” Wordsworth Circle 23.2 (1992): 64–76.

17 In distinguishing between probability and dramatic probability, I am departing from Anne Mellor, who in her groundbreaking essay on Inchbald identifies an emphasis on the “probable” as a key interest that the playwright-critic shared with Anna Barbauld as part of their didactic and pedagogical project (Mellor, 38).

18 Aristotle, 53.

19 Donkin, Ellen, Getting Into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776–1829 (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 110Google Scholar.

20 Inchbald is named as having selected the plays for these two collections, but her participation in this process was minimal. Longman sent her a list for each collection, and her only brief was to review the list and strike out or add names as she saw fit. As she herself wrote in a letter in February 1809 to Mrs. Phillips, Sunday, 26 February 1809, she, “earned fifty guineas in five minutes, by merely looking over a catalogue of fifty farces, drawing my pen across one or two, and writing the names of others in their place: and now all those in that catalogue are to be printed with ‘Selected by Mrs. Inchbald’ on the title page. The prodigious sale my Prefaces have had, has tempted the booksellers to this offer” (Boaden, Inchbald, 2: 132–3). In the context of the claims of this essay, it seems not insignificant that the full title for the Modern Theatre collection is The Modern Theatre: A Collection of Successful Modern Plays, as Acted at the Theatres Royal, London. For lists of the contents of these collections, see Robertson, 167–72. For a further account of the ways in which Inchbald's prefaces for The British Theatre catapulted her to critical prominence and how, for various reasons, she ultimately resisted almost all further importunities to play the part of public critic, see Boaden, Inchbald, 2: passim, as well as Patricia Sigl, “Prince Hoare's Artist and Anti-Theatrical Polemics in the Early 1800s: Mrs. Inchbald's Contribution,” Theatre Notebook 44.2 (1990): 62–73.

21 For a useful account of Inchbald's efforts to get her plays reviewed and mounted, see Donkin, 110–31. Inchbald pointedly indicated just how far her obligations to these playhouse managers did and, more important, did not extend in her rebuttal letter to George Colman the Younger's attack on her presumption to act the role of critic. Her letter, along with his attack, were printed as prefatory material to her “Remarks” on his The Heir at Law.

22 “Remarks” on All for Love, 5.

23 See, for instance, her “Remarks” on First Love, discussed below.

24 “Remarks” on Oroonoko, 4.

25 “Remarks” on A Bold Stroke for a Wife, 4.

26 “Remarks” on To Marry or Not to Marry, 3. She is equally critical of herself for the shortcomings in stagecraft in her Wives as They Were, and Maids as They Are, writing again in the third person at the opening of this “Remark,” “The writer of this drama seems to have had a tolerable good notion of that which a play ought to be; but has here failed in the execution of a proper design” (3).

27 “Remarks” on Such Things Are, 2.

28 Thomas C. Crochunis cites some of these same “Remarks” in his excellent discussion of Inchbald's authorial self-fashioning. Where his interest lies in exploring how Inchbald shaped her public reputation, mine lies in tracing her understanding of the causes of both her own and others’ successes and failures in theatrical production. Hence while we often agree in the main, we sometimes differ in the tenor and significance that we attribute to these entries. See Thomas C. Crochunis, “Authorial Performances in the Criticism and Theory of Romantic Women Playwrights,” in Women in British Romantic Theatre, ed. Burroughs, 223–54. For recent discussions of Inchbald's plays, see, among others, Emily Hodgson Anderson, Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction: Novels and the Theater, Haywood to Austen (New York and London: Routledge, 2009); Anderson, Misty G., Female Playwrights and Eighteenth-Century Comedy: Negotiating Marriage on the London Stage (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bolton, Betsy, Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and O'Quinn, Daniel, Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770–1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

29 “Remarks” on The Road to Ruin, 6.

30 “Remarks” on John Bull, 4.

31 “Remarks” on The Road to Ruin, 3.

32 Styan, J. L., The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 275, 305Google Scholar.

33 Ibid., 277.


34 “Remarks” on Every One Has His Fault!, 4.

35 See also Saggini, 139–40, 149, who notes Inchbald's particular interest in the types of affective and cognitive responses aroused by theatrical representations.

36 “Remarks” on De Monfort, 3.

37 Ibid., 5–6.


38 Donkin, 120.

39 “Remarks” on The Belle's Stratagem, 3.

40 Ibid., 4; italics mine.


41 “Remarks” on Love Makes a Man, 4.

42 “Remarks” on She Wou'd and She Wou'd Not, 3.

43 “Remarks” on All in the Wrong, 4.

44 “Remarks” on A Bold Stroke for a Wife, 5.

45 “Remarks” on The Battle of Hexham, 5.

46 “Remarks” on The Gamester, 3.

47 Ibid., 3–5.


48 “Remarks” on Speed the Plough, 5.

49 See Inchbald's “Remarks” on The Merchant of Venice, where she writes, “Probability is, indeed, continually violated in ‘The Merchant of Venice;’ but so it should ever be in plays, or not at all—one improbable incident only, among a train of natural occurrences, revolts an audience; but where all is alike extravagant, comparison is prevented, and extravagance becomes familiar” (3).

50 “Remarks” on King Henry V, 4.

51 Ibid.


52 “Remarks” on First Love, 4.

53 Ibid.


54 “Remarks” on The Careless Husband, 5.

55 Ibid.


56 Saggini, 143.

57 “Remarks” on The Careless Husband, 7.

58 Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

59 See Greg Kucich, “Rewriting Women in British Romantic Theatre,” in Women in British Romantic Theatre, ed. Burroughs, 48–76; and Gevirtz, Karen Bloom, “Peer Reviewed: Elizabeth Inchbald's Shakespeare Criticism,” in Shakespeare and the Culture of Romanticism, ed. Ortiz, Josephy M. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 3149Google Scholar. See also Mary Waters, who writes, “Her criticism reveals an understanding of the potential for collaboration among source author, actor, playwright, and even audience that suggests that she regards theatrical texts as possessing far less integrity than today's scholarship normally attributes to a literary work” (78–9).

60 “Remarks” on The West Indian, 5.

61 “Remarks” on Cure for the Heart-Ache, 3.

62 “Remarks” on The Rival Queens, 4. Inchbald offers similar observations on Arthur Murphy's The Grecian Daughter, writing that although the performances of Barry and Siddons made the play “a brilliant success . . . [i]t is hardly possible to read this tragedy of ‘The Grecian Daughter’ without laughing as well as crying. Some passages excite tears, whilst certain high-sounding sentences, with meaning insignificant, are irresistibly risible” (3–4).

63 “Remarks” on The Winter's Tale, 3–4.

64 Ibid., 6.


65 For accounts of this performance, see, for instance, Thomas Campbell, The Life of Mrs Siddons, 2 vols. (London: Effingham Wilson, 1834), 2: 264–71; and James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1825), 2: 314–15.

66 Franca Dellarosa, “Dramatic Theory and Critical Discourse in Elizabeth Inchbald's Remarks on The British Theatre,” in Women's Romantic Theatre and Drama: History, Agency, and Performativity, ed. Lilla Maria Crisafulli and Keir Elam (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 147–58, at 152.

67 Coleridge's famous observation appears in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria (1817), where he discusses his contributions in Lyrical Ballads in depicting those “persons and characters” who otherwise appear “supernatural.” In this formulation, he was charged with “transfer[ring] from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. and intro. George Watson (1817; London and Melbourne: Dent, [1975] repr. 1984), 168–9.

68 Cima, Gay Gibson, “‘To be public as a genius and private as a woman’: The Critical Framing of Nineteenth-Century British Women Playwrights,” in Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. Davis, Tracy C. and Donkin, Ellen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3553Google Scholar, at 35.

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