Sarah Siddons so riveted English theatergoers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that a host of admirers—statesmen, poets, painters, groupies—proclaimed her the greatest actress of all time, one who moved her audiences to “frantic and ungovernable” applause, as one observer put it. Siddons made women shriek and men cry.
It was her voice, more than anything, that forged her reputation. That got Judith Pascoe, a specialist in Romantic-era arts, thinking about what it might have been like to listen to actors like Siddons (1755-1831) in the decades just before it became possible to record voices to tinfoil or wax cylinders. “The Romantics were the last generation that went unrecorded, and so inspired a particular fascination with their voices,” writes the scholar, a professor of English at the University of Iowa and author of The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
In her Siddons “audio files,” Pascoe writes that Siddons “audiophiles” recorded their idol as they could—through slavish portraiture, and by memorizing her voice. Repeated visits to their heroine’s performances aided the latter, so that “we might regard the memories of Romantic theatergoers as recording devices,” says the author.
It was a time when the capacity for attention differed considerably from today’s erratic tendencies, but audience members’ feats of memory expressed an emerging anxiety. Cultural and scientific forces were gathering that would usher in audio recording and reproduction, and the Romantic-era public worried that people were losing their ability to concentrate on the human voice.
Today, thanks to cell phones, YouTube, and “vocaloids” (computer-generated Japanese pop robots), all atwitter, “we feel like we’re now in a moment where the experience of listening is totally changing,” Pascoe says in an interview. “But there was also an anxiety about the experience of listening in Siddons’s time because, for example, theaters were getting bigger, and because of a new, heightened awareness of the fact that the voice was ephemeral.”
Ephemerality cut both ways, the Romantics realized. Writes Pascoe: “When Siddons’s voice was thrilling audiences, Wordsworth was fretting about the loss of the voice, but also worrying about the burden a voice might become if it could not be lost. Those who heard Siddons speak were already grappling with the issues that new recording technology would eventually bring to the fore.”
Considering Siddons’s day, Pascoe realized that the auditory provided a new entrée to advance modern-day studies of Romantic-era theater. Until the last decade or two, theater has been the “stepchild” in the study of Romantic culture, because it seemed a hodgepodge of sappy dramas, superannuated classics, and bowdlerized Shakespeare, all littered with such features as instant repetition of popular scenes. “Yet,” Pascoe says, “all the Romantic poets were huge theatergoers, and all the famous literary figures admired Sarah Siddons, and went to see her over and over. So, in the moment, drama was huge and you feel that influence in many other Romantic-era works.”
The scholar began to notice voices throughout Romantic literature—in poems like Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper,” in much of Keats’s verse… Voice suffused Romantic artistic culture: “Now, reviewers very seldom say anything about an actor’s voice. But in the Romantic era, they would always talk about that, and quite authoritatively, quite bossily.” To be an artist drew comment on one’s voice: Shelley spoke like “a cracked soprano,” said one observer; Wordsworth’s voice was “something quite breezelike,” said another. As for Coleridge, he sang his “Kubla Khan” so mellifluously that he would “irradiate” the parlors of the literati.
At the same time, Pascoe notes, an elocution movement arose that pressed the educated to talk proper.
The author began her quest for Siddons’s voice after a reviewer complained that she had slighted the actress in an earlier book, Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (1997). “Whenever I looked at her,” Pascoe allows, “I had no idea why she was such a big deal.” Trying to find out, the author enrolled in a summer voice-for-actors class, and even asked a vocal coach to study her teaching voice. That alerted her to how fashions in vocal stylization change over time. The actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), whose voice was recorded, sounds quite odd, today. “There seems to be a sense, with every generation, that we’re progressing toward a more naturalistic style of acting,” says Pascoe. “People were saying it about Siddons and about Edmund Kean, after her. But to us it wouldn’t seem like that.”
And did Pascoe’s project permit her to hear Siddons’s voice? “No, it really was a totally failed endeavor,” she says. “I think I knew it was going to be from the beginning. But it was a really productive failed endeavor…I know a whole lot more about the circumstances in which her voice was resonating, and a whole lot more about how people listened differently in the Romantic period than they do now.”
Along the way, the author aptly developed her own voice—her gift for felicitous, first-person writing, still a skeptically viewed undertaking in academic monographs. Inspired by books like Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (1993) and D.A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (2003), Pascoe succeeds in creating an account, personal and learned, of her quest, as she did in her previous book, The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (2006).
She spices The Sarah Siddons Audio Files with lively writing: When Pascoe mentions French-theorist-infatuated literary critics, she imagines them “wearing a garter belt and smoking Galoises.” She describes herself intoning from the front of classrooms “out over a sea of reversed baseball caps.” And, with a literary counterpart to Siddons’s riveting voice, she recounts her efforts to persuade herself that it is not absurd to think about how the actress might have sounded, even though she knew, in reality, that she could never fully experience what it was to fall “under the spell of Mrs. Siddons’s enchantment.”—Peter Monaghan