Terror Machine: Automated Affect in London's Gothic Theatre 1790-1840
I intend to investigate London’s popular theatre of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly those plays either adapted from Gothic novels or adhering to the genre’s aesthetics. This theatre was criticised in its time for preferring spectacle over textual meaning, its elaborate sets and technological innovations – and the visceral affective responses they inspired – taken to be the focus of attention. I want to study the relationship between this technological spectacle and the industrial society developing in England during the same period. By interrogating the automation of affect in this Gothic theatre – whose primary concern is the consistent production of terror throughout its audience – I will explore the relationship between technology and emotion under an emerging industrial capitalism, reflecting on popular attitudes regarding the new pseudo-automaton labour performed by industrial workers domestically and slave populations abroad. The study of automation in this period’s theatre will allow me – especially given the carnivalesque tendencies of the Gothic genre – to explore mechanical qualities inherent to performance itself, qualities that complicate the supposed humanity of the actor. This popular Gothic theatre offers a venue for confrontations with the potential horrors of existence alongside technology, while firmly consigning the prior technological epochs represented by the castles and aristocratic persons populating Gothic literature to the past. As Fred Botting suggests, the Gothic genre provided Enlightenment society a heterotopic mirror, presenting them with the darkness, superstition and violence of a history they now thought of themselves in opposition to. However, these plays’ apparent success in generating affect – leading to, for example, accounts of physical reactions including fainting – threatens the audience with absorption into the theatre’s own automatic process, reflecting their growing need to situate themselves within an increasingly automated society.