In the “Introductory Discourse” to the first volume of her Plays on the Passions, Joanna Baillie explained how “sympathetic curiosity” motivates people to observe others. When a writer uses this natural interest to arouse empathy for the characters he or she has created, the result can be a more compassionate society.
Baillie’s belief that social reform comes from the heart, not from the head, and her fascination with psychological extremes place her clearly in the mainstream of English Romanticism, along with William Wordsworth, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, her emphasis on the destructive power of the passions and her insistence on the need for restraint are obviously neoclassical.
Although Baillie was convinced that drama could play an important part in influencing human behavior, she felt that in her day the theater was failing in its mission. Both the tragedies and the comedies of her time were superficial, she asserted, not because they failed to recognize the primacy of emotion in human nature but because they focused on events rather than on process. Instead of showing a character already in the grips of passion, a dramatist should introduce his hero or heroine much earlier, so that the emotion could be traced from the first hint of disequilibrium to the point when it became an all-consuming force. Thus Baillie’s dramas were meant to serve two purposes: Not only would they bring the...
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