Maria Villiers, aspiring playwright and country girl, has spent a whole month in London without yet attending a play. She finally seats herself at a performance of Robert Jephson's Braganza at Drury Lane, securing a stage box that will show her to advantage. ‘Maria,’ we are told, ‘was absorbed in expectation; she forgot herself; she thought of nothing but the entertainment she was going to receive.’ Her special anticipation is reserved for the ‘admirable actress’ who is to play the principal character, the Duchess of Braganza, Louisa. In the final act of the tragedy, Louisa heroically resists the violent threats of Portuguese rebels:
The last scene arrived; the distress rose; the great actress, whom Maria had so eagerly expected, pierced the veil which the languid power of declamation had thrown round her; she burst forth in a blaze which aroused every dormant spark of sensibility, even in the most inattentive of her auditors.
Filled with the noblest enthusiasm, the divine fire of genius, she appeared almost more than mortal.
It was Louisa herself, the indignant queen, the tender wife, the steady heroine, the generous victim to the happiness of her people.
Her voice, her look, her attitude – the whole tableau was striking beyond description.
But you must have heard her, grasping the tyrant's arm, pronounce, ‘Feel! do I shrink, or tremble?’ to form any adequate idea of the excellence of her performance.
Every heart was chilled with terror, respiration was suspended through the whole house; the dagger seemed pointed at each particular bosom, and the shout of exultation on her breaking from the traitor (whose part was admirably sustained) also spoke the danger real.
Frances Brooke – playwright, theatre-manager and novelist – here describes that moment when a theatrical performance comes to life, its audience not simply spectating but inhabiting the same affective space as the actor. The collective shout of the audience speaks the danger ‘real’. Brooke's narrator describes a scene she admits she cannot match (the reader needs to have been there, she tells us, to realise the power of the moment). The shared experience of being there is not something that can be reproduced in print. It is necessary to hear the line pronounced to have that experience.