“Sympathetic Curiosity”: The Theater of Joanna Baillie

Barbara Judson
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 2006), 49-70

Published in 1798, a time when the once enthusiastic belief in sentimental ideology had been severely diminished by the Reign of Terror, Joanna Baillie’s first volume, Plays on the Passions, reassesses the ability of sentiment and sympathy to function as forces that shape morality. This essay focuses on exploring Baillie’s contribution to the discourse of sentiment, her theory of the same name, through analyzing her “Introductory Discourse” and De Montfort. Baillie defines “sympathetic curiosity” as the idea that moral feeling derives from a passion for spectatorship; she argues further that an individual’s sympathetic curiosity is properly coached by exposure to the theater, not church. In De Montfort, Baillie models the development of moral sympathy for her audience by showing a successive progression of sympathetic reactions to human suffering. While the play initially indulges a sadistic pleasure in viewing suffering, it concludes with the character Jane offering her anguished brother the counsel and support that representatives of the church have failed to provide. This essay concludes by analyzing the significance of the arrangement of characters in the play’s last scene, a tableau vivant in which Jane appears as the mater dolorosa, signifying the replacement of religious figures and deities with a purely human community.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]