Anne Hermanson. The Horror Plays of the English Restoration. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. vii, 186p., ill. ISBN 9781472415523. US $109.95 (hardback).
Anne Hermanson’s Horror Plays of the English Restoration begins with the claim that the horror plays written between 1670 and 1680 constitute a distinct genre of early modern drama. Defining these plays as characterized by their spectacle, violence, and complete lack of moral resolution, Hermanson situates the work of playwrights like John Dryden, Nathaniel Lee, Aphra Behn, Thomas Shadwell, and others during this decade within the political anxieties of the years immediately preceding the Exclusion Crisis in England. In doing so, she makes a strong argument for the political importance of the horror genre, while separating that genre from the Jacobean revenge tragedies that preceded it and the more overtly partisan plays that dominated the Restoration stage immediately following. While the argument for the political nature of the plays of the 1670s is not new, having been persuasively put forth by Susan Staves in her classic text Players’ Scepters, Hermanson’s focus on the particular genre of horror plays allows her to guide her readers through a detailed analysis of these often-maligned yet fascinating plays, making her work a strong and valuable addition to the body of literary criticism focusing on the political impact of the Restoration theatre in England.
Hermanson uses a multi-faceted approach to demonstrate her argument, creating a rich description of the literary, social and political contexts in which these plays débuted. While she places great importance on the desires of the Restoration audience for spectacle and titillating horrific drama, Hermanson’s argument is not actually grounded in theories of reception; rather, she situates her analysis of the plays in contemporary philosophical debates and print culture. Each chapter is organized around a few specific plays, chosen for their similar thematic concerns—spectacles of horror, the lingering trauma of the civil war, monstrous women, mad patriarchs, incestuous pollution, and atheism. Buttressing the claim for the horror plays as a distinct genre, Hermanson emphasizes the ways in which these plays all portray their destructive elements as internal threats, as originating within the kingdom or the family, and as spreading outward through imitation and contagion. While Hermanson’s close readings are attentive and persuasive, the real strength of her argument is her inclusion of a variety of extra-literary evidence from scientific and philosophical tracts and, in particular, her careful attention to books that were reprinted during the 1670s.
Hermanson’s argument that “the genre of horror gains its popularity at times of social dislocation” (33) has important implications both for a deeper understanding of the forces driving the dramatic productions of the Restoration stage during the 1670s and for scholars working on the horror genre more broadly. Though she does not refer to the horror plays as a type of popular culture, Hermanson’s interest in the audience desires revealed through plays like Lee’s The Tragedy of Nero and Shadwell’s The Libertine, along with her careful discussion of the former and Rochester’s Lucina’s Rape as adaptations changed by their authors in crucial ways to respond to their current political and ideological environments, places her work within a larger cultural studies framework. However, the strength of Hermanson’s research is that her methodologies are varied, drawing on elements of cultural studies, print culture, reception studies, affect, and new historicism to weave together a detailed and exciting account of the horrific spectacles that took over the Restoration stage for this brief period.
University of Manitoba