Matthew Kaiser


On his book The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept

Cover Interview of April 30, 2012

The wide angle

My motivations for writing this book were largely historical and aesthetic.  I wanted to explain the proliferation of various tropes of play in Victorian literary representations of modern life.  Even though they are often portrayed in popular culture as earnest, stuffy, and unplayful, the Victorians were more anxious about play, than they were openly hostile to it.  As J. Jeffrey Franklin has argued, play was a “linch-pin concept” in nineteenth-century Britain.  It performed important ideological work. The Victorians took play seriously.

So much of the tension in Victorian literature, in fact, lies within play, among its various senses, not between play and its conceptual antitheses.  Scrooge’s miserliness, for instance, is just as pervasively marked by play as Tiny Tim’s mirth.  Scrooge embodies competition, the agonistic impulse to win.  He views life as a contest.  Far from being a protest against spoilsport modernity, against Victorian unplayfulness, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol can be read as an account of the civil war raging within the concept of play, in this case, between middle-class competition and plebeian festivity.  Dickens understood that play has no conceptual outside.  It has swallowed reality.

I had another, more mischievous and methodological, reason for writing this book.  Having been influenced by the groundbreaking work of play theorists Gregory Bateson and Brian Sutton-Smith, I set out to build an interdisciplinary bridge between play studies and Victorian studies.  I wanted to provide readers with the first comprehensive ludic theory of nineteenth-century British culture.  The book, therefore, was written in a spirit of adventure and risk.  It is the first word on the subject, not the last.  My hope is that readers will expand and complicate my paradigm, explore new dimensions to the world in play.  I built the bridge, but others must reinforce it, make it their own.