History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/English Romantic
Romantic tragedies are the domain of poets. In addition to romanticism, early 19th century is characterized by the advent of melodrama. Corrigan (1967) pointed out that, unlike those in tragedy, melodramatic characters mainly suffer from external causes. Thus, there is an “overriding tone of paranoia” throughout melodrama. This explains the “overpowering sense of reality that the form of melodrama engenders even when on the surface it seems so patently unreal". Because the suffering is unfair, the style often reflects “grandiloquent self-pity”. Unlike tragedy when the individual is divided and in conflict with himself from within, the melodramatic character is “whole” and the issue becomes the “reordering of one’s relations with others". Donohue (1979) specified that "melodrama depends on a structure of transparent fantasy, presenting a world of wish-fulfilment in which evil, given apparently unlimited scope, ultimately proves to be impotent. The ethical premise of melodrama is that evil must be contained, and that it is containable; its correlative theatrical premise is that the audience must see evil contained, in a climactic way, at the end. Even as the subject matter of melodrama evolved over the course of the century, and settings and characters of rural Bohemia, for example, gave way to those of urban England- that is, even as melodrama became ostensibly more realistic- its conflicts continued to be resolved, and resolvable, in the exterior world, rather than within the characters themselves. Inner turmoil, except in the case of a villain stricken with an adventitious conscience, remains by and large unknown to the characters of melodrama, who are each the true embodiment of a basic theatrical type and who wear their moral orientations on their sleeves...The climactic 'coup de théâtre', though found in other forms as well, is an essential ingredient of melodrama because it is the direct means of reordering the world at large to suit the deserts of the virtuous" (pp 92-93). Since the early 20th century, critics respond poorly to melodrama. “Life is usually independent of intrigue, suspense, and the other trumperies of dramatic contrivance that strike us as so ridiculous in the dialogue of Victorian melodrama” (Gassner, 1956 p 46). A true statement to many, a dubious one for some who think that the statement can only be true of bad melodrama; good melodrama is often more suspenseful than good dramatic realism.
In addition to melodrama, there is the advent of a more sentimental comedy than Sheridan and Goldsmith envisaged. “Perhaps the most barren period in the history of comedy is the first half of the nineteenth century” (Bentley, 1955 p 129). A critic born in this period, Leigh Hunt, complained of the decline in British comedy. “A comic writer of the present day may be immediately distinguished by his dislike of all those difficulties which oppose a writer ambitious of imitating the best models; the whole object of his pen seems to be the attainment of applause in the easiest manner possible, and he accordingly writes for the galleries, or, in other words, for that part of the audience which is the least capable of judging, but the nosiest in declaring its judgment. He appeals, therefore, to the eye and to the ear, because they are the soonest pleased with the least reason; a new piece of scenery or an uncouth dress conquers the visual faculties of the spectators, and a volley of puns is the signal for the author's triumph. This artifice of punning, which has become a perfect system with the dramatists, is the method by which the author rids himself of the difficulty of wit, as his flowery language, when he becomes what is called sentimental, is his device to forego the necessity of thinking. By these means language becomes separated from ideas, since mere punning is nothing but an unexpected assimilation of sounds, and mere floweriness, like a harlequin jacket, is nothing but a surprising combination of colours. The incidents and characters of his pieces always agree in one alternative: they are either of very manifest commonplace, or they are clad in the most monstrous disguises to gain the appearance of novelty; they remind us of the tricks practised, according to a modern traveller, at some of our country fairs, where a vulgar woman has been dressed in catskins and a tumultuous periwig, and exhibited as a wild Indian, not to mention a shaved bear, who, in a check shirt and trousers, gained a great deal of applause as an Ethiopian savage. If he exhibits a character that has been too often handled to stand inquiry, he gives a new tone to its appearance by some prominent peculiarity of manner, which, however ill-adapted it may be, immediately catches the attention by the mere force of oddity, and deprecates your censure for the sake of the laughter it creates. This peculiarity generally consists in some hackneyed phrase or cant maxim, which is used upon all occasions, seasonable and unseasonable, and is very often as suitable to the mouth of the speaker as a tobacco-pipe would be in the lips of the Venus de Medicis” (1894 edition pp 131-132).
"Is there anything that unites all heroes of sentimental comedy? Perhaps it is their common conviction that virtue is a definite and simple thing, that it is not to be found among the wise and learned, that it need but be discerned to transform life, and that it pays. A curious blending of the spirit of the Gospel with that of the Enlightenment, of ancient sayings concerning the wisdom of the foolish with those verses in which Edward Young declared that 'All vice is dull,/A knave's a fool./And Virtue is the child of Sense.' It follows that in this art of the theatre, if in no other, we cultivate prettiness and are afraid of beauty” (Lewisohn, 1922, pp 29-30).
Fitzgerald (1870) adumbrated the difference between the theater and novel, taking as an example a stage version of Dickens' "David Copperfield" (1850). "Turn to the story, and we find that [David's] is the mind which reflects and colours the whole course of events to us. Through him, as it were, we see every character: it is his mind, his feeling, the mind of the author himself, and his own life that fills up the whole. Through the eyes of David look forth the eyes of the writer; his quick wit, his genius, illuminates that figure, brings out the wit and humour of others, as steel does with flint, and illustrates their doings with a sort of commentary. Thus Coppcrfield becomes the soul of all. We turn to the stage, and all this must disappear; there remains but a figure in a long coat and gilt buttons, who walks on and walks off, and is about as purposeless as one of Madame Tussaud's images" (pp 55-56).
- 1 Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 2 Lord Byron
- 3 John Keats
- 4 William Wordsworth
- 5 Dion Boucicault
- 6 George Colman the Younger
- 7 Douglas William Jerrold
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Verse dramas of the like of "The Cenci" (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), based on the life of Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599), renewed in part the might of Renaissance tragedies in its episodes of murder, torture, and incest.
"Nowhere else in Shelley...does this world drama come out of the clouds and reveal itself with such clarity and power. There is passion in the persons, climax in the situations, and directness in the language such as the romantic drama had rarely shown. The philosophical conception and the tangle of human motives do not indeed quite harmonize. Beatrice's lie and her unworthy seeking after life are bits of the story which interfere with our acceptance of Beatrice the martyr" (Thorndike, 1908 pp 353-354). The latter comment is disputed by several critics. Gassner (1954a) was impressed with the gallery of Romantic characters. "Beatrice is a magnificent heroine, worthy of Webster, if not of Shakespeare; her equally unhappy stepmother, Lucretia, is a deeply realized portrait of a helpless victim; and several of the other characters are etched with remarkable precision. Although Count Cenci is a melodramatic villain, he is also more than that. He is the product of unchecked power and social corruption which is condoned by the Church, then in its moral nadir. He has always been able to buy off the guardians of justice with a slice of his property, and he can think of no crime that he cannot commit with impunity. His victims, led by the wronged Beatrice, can find no alternative to having him murdered. And such is the state of society and of the Church (which is not, however, without one noble representative) that it is only when the victims have risen up to defend themselves that the long arm of justice intervenes. Suddenly it is discovered that 'law and order' have been violated, and Beatrice and her associates are executed! Beatrice, condemned by her papal judges, goes to her death unbroken in spirit and triumphant in her tragically won knowledge of 'what a world we make, the oppressor and the oppressed’— a vision worthy of Euripides" (pp 344-345).
Fischer-Lichte (2002) commented that "Shelley bases 'The Cenci' on two particularly popular literary genres, the domestic play and the gothic novel. From the domestic play, he adopted the relationship of the father and child, principally father and daughter. From the gothic novel, he took the relationship between the aristocratic villain and the innocent victim. Shelley bound these two ideas to one another and turned them around: the tender father, who protects the virtue of his daughter from her seducer turns into the fiend who threatens the daughter’s virtue himself; the innocent victim, who protects her virtue under the most hideous of circumstances, commits patricide... The event that triggers his daughter's rape is when she tries to counter his sons' deaths. "Cenci believes he can only regain his position by transforming his sole antagonist, his daughter, into an image of himself. To do this, he must enact a ‘deed which shall confound both night and day’ (II, 2, 183), a deed which will ‘poison and corrupt her soul’ (IV, 1). Beatrice experiences the rape in a fundamentally different way to that experienced by the violated innocent girl of the gothic novel (for example, Antonia in 'The monk') who sees the act as a violence done to the body which does not, however, touch upon her ‘angelic’ being in any way. Beatrice, on the contrary, experiences it as a distortion, poisoning and dissolution of her body in which something has occurred ‘which has transformed me’ (III, 1). She has been wounded to the innermost self: ‘Oh, what am I?/What name, what place, what memory shall be mine?’ (III, 1). Beatrice senses that the only way to find her self again, to halt the process of self-alienation caused by the violation, is to banish it at once, otherwise she will fall into the danger of a total loss of self, a total ‘metamorphosis’...When Beatrice decides to kill her father in order to recover her self, it becomes apparent to what extent her ‘metamorphosis’ has already begun: her speech contains almost exact echoes of sentences uttered previously by Cenci" (pp 215-217).
"Beatrice's unhinging has its psychological component in the breaking of an incest taboo, compounded with the horror of rape. It also has a more conceptual component in her assuming false alternatives as to the nature of the act: either that the incest has somehow never taken place, or that it has become for all time part of her essence. In this error we find the key to the Beatrice who orders the murder of the count, and the Beatrice who unheroically denies that she has participated in the murder plot" (Lockridge, 1988 p 97). Only after killing her father does Beatrice believe she has found herself again; this is no longer true after her condemnation. But unlike tragic protagonists recognizing their flaw in the sense given by Aristotle's "Poetics" (335 BC), "at the end...she continues in the delusional belief of her own innocence" (Dempsey, 2012 p 880). "Beatrice gives up hope of escape. In her despair, she turns to her God. It is not her father's God of Power or Shelley's God of Love but it is the only one that, in his eyes, her distorted religion has to offer: a just and vengeful God" (Whitman, 1959 p 252).
Time: 16th century. Place: Italy.
Count Francesco Cenci invites several guests at his palace to celebrate the death of two of his sons for stirring enmity against the pope. Stricken with grief, his wife, Lucretia, half-faints amid the celebrations. Although her step-daughter, Beatrice, cannot believe this to be true, letters from Salamanca confirm the rumor. Cenci is angry at his daughter and nurtures a black design against her, at which she staggers. "My brain is hurt;/My eyes are full of blood-" she confesses to Lucretia. "The sunshine on the floor is black. The air/Is changed to vapors such as the dead breathe/In charnel pits." A priest and friend but also would-be lover, Orsino, arrives to speak with Beatrice. "I have to tell you that, since last we met,/I have endured a wrong so great and strange/That neither life nor death can give me rest," she confesses to him. He recommends her to accuse Cenci openly for the murder of her brothers, but she prefers instead to kill him with his help and Lucretia's. Cenci's other son, Giacomo, informs Orsino of his own wrongs: "This old Francesco Cenci, as you know,/Borrowed the dowry of my wife from me,/And then denied the loan; and left me so/In poverty, the which I sought to mend/By holding a poor office in the state./It had been promised to me, and already/I bought new clothing for my ragged babes,/And my wife smiled; and my heart knew repose./When Cenci’s intercession, as I found,/Conferred this office on a wretch, whom thus/He paid for vilest service." The count then addressed himself to Giacomo's wife. "And when I knew the impression he had made,/And felt my wife insult with silent scorn/My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,/I went forth too: but soon returned again;/Yet not so soon but that my wife had taught/My children her harsh thoughts, and they all cried:/"Give us clothes, father, give us better food". He then reveals the outrage his father committed on Beatrice, a crime about to be avenged. At the stroke of midnight, Giacomo waits for news of Cenci's murder, but Orsino reveals instead that Cenci passed the appointed place too soon, so that they missed him. Distraught, Lucretia pleads with her husband one last time. "Pity thy daughter; give her to some friend/In marriage: so that she may tempt thee not/To hatred, or worse thoughts, if worse there be," she pleads. He says little except to command Beatrice's presence forthwith. When she fails to appear, he curses her: "Heaven, rain upon her head/The blistering drops of the Maremma’s dew/Till she be speckled like a toad; parch up/Those love-enkindled lips, warp those fine limbs/To loathed lameness!" Now convinced that only her husband's murder will bring them peace, Lucretia mixes an opiate in his drink. In his sleep, two hired malcontents strangle him as the legate of the pope arrives to speak with him, carrying a death-warrant for his crimes. The legate discovers the corpse caught among branches of a pine-tree after it had been thrown from the castle. Officers of the law then discover the two murderers. One dies while resisting arrest, the other is seized carrying an incriminating letter from Orsino to Beatrice. Orsino confesses his crime under pains of torture to judges in Rome and dies without accusing Beatrice. But Lucretia and Giacomo cannot bear the pains of torture and confess the truth. Beatrice does not. "Turn/The rack henceforth into a spinning wheel," she cries defiantly to the judges. But despite the lack of any confession, she, too, is condemned. "O/My God! Can it be possible I have/To die so suddenly?" she wonders, "So young to go/Under the obscure, cold, rotting, wormy ground,/To be nailed down into a narrow place,/To see no more sweet sunshine, hear no more/Blithe voice of living thing, muse not again/Upon familiar thoughts, sad, yet thus lost?/How fearful! to be nothing!" Yet after many painful ruminations, she becomes reconciled to her fate.
"Manfred" (1817) constitutes the best effort from Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the domain of verse tragedies. The play contains tight affinities with Goethe's "Faust", whose protagonist is constantly restless, unsatisfied, seemingly searching for the impossible. Knight (1962) cited Manfred's comments on himself such as “The lion is alone and so am I” as evidence of a Timon-like grandeur" (p 233). "Nature, the ever-recurring theme of the romantic poets, is here given something akin to dramatic treatment. The impassioned descriptions create a presence, not one 'that disturbs him with the joy of elevated thoughts', but 'the wild comrade of Manfred's antipathy to men'. The mountains become sharers in the hero's tirades, though their nights's 'dim and solitary loveliness' is the only power that curbs his fierce unrest" (Thorndike, 1908 p 352).
“Manfred is superior to other mortals and alienated from them; he is pursued by the unrelenting Furies of a private guilt. Neither an atheist nor a revolutionary, he is yet defiant of powers and structures outside of himself, including the demands of such systems as pantheism, Manicheanism, and Christianity...proffered by the Witch of the Alps, Arimanes, and the Abbot...Manfred is ironically dubbed as a short term of “Man Freed”, “a projection of the Romantic ego which triumphs in its independence and skepticism, while deepening the ironic dimension of his status as hero. A hero, yes- but he is a cursed hero, doomed for all his independence” (McVeigh, 1982 p 603-604). "Until the very end, Manfred demands radical autonomy: the joy of self-fulfilment is denied him; neither man nor spirit, heaven nor hell, can give any sense to the guilt and sorrow which follow from the resulting self-alienation. All that is left is for Manfred to be his own ‘damnation’, his own ‘destroyer’, with consequent self-determination. He is not prepared to confer value on any system of order, any authority, other than that of his Self. The only quality to which he attaches great importance is his autonomy: this he realises with a rebellious gesture against any who contend his right of self-determination. The aristocratic villain of the gothic novel, who in the end is forced to recognise the existence of higher values, is transformed into a metaphysical rebel for whom all values outside his own self-autonomy are utterly meaningless" (Fischer-Lichte, 2002 p 214).
Time: 1810s. Place: The Alps.
Seeking forgetfulness if not oblivion, Count Manfred summons spirits of air, mountain, ocean, earth, wind, night, and star, but these are unable to tell him whether death brings forgetfulness. While attempting to seize the seventh spirit, he collapses. After recovering, Manfred climbs atop Jungfrau mountain to plunge into a precipice, but is rescued in time by a chamois hunter. Manfred gives him gold as a reward for his care, but, dismissing his encouraging words, leaves him suddenly. Near a torrent, Manfred calls on the witch of the Alps, to whom he admits he once loved a woman named Astarte. "She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,/The quest of hidden knowledge...," as his, but his love was responsible for her death. The witch declares she may be able to help him. "To do this thy power/Must wake the dead, or lay me low with them," he responds. Nevertheless, she answers she may, provided he become obedient to her will, but he refuses to submit. Instead, he requests Nemesis and the Destinies to raise Astarte from the dead. She appears but cannot be made to speak, either by them or by their ruler, King Arimanes. When Manfred beseeches her to speak to him, her only answer is: "Manfred! Tomorrow ends thine earthly ills." In Manfred's castle, the abbot of St Maurice requests him to be reconciled to the church, to which he responds: "I shall not choose a mortal/To be my mediator." He fears no after-life. "There is no future pang/Can deal that justice on the self-condemn'd/He deals on his own soul," he pronounces and leaves abruptly, but the abbot catches up to him in the castle tower. A spirit intervenes in the abbot's view. "From his eye/Glares forth the immortality of hell -" the abbot cries out fearfully. This spirit or demon calls himself "the genius of this mortal" and requests Manfred to follow him. He refuses. More demons appear. Manfred commands them all away. "My past power/Was purchased by no compact with thy crew,/But by superior science, penance, daring,/And length of watching, strength of mind, and skill/In knowledge of our fathers when the earth/Saw men and spirits walking side by side/And gave ye no supremacy: I stand/Upon my strength -" Although he succeeds in freeing himself from them, the effort overwhelms his forces. No longer able to see the abbot or anything else, Manfred asks to touch his hand. In the abbot's opinion, Manfred's hand seems "cold - even to the heart". "'Tis not so difficult to die," Manfred concludes as he fades away in death.
John Keats (1795-1821) wrote an underrated verse play: "Otho the Great" (1819), based on the life of Otto I (912-973), German emperor. The play resembles in many ways Shakespeare's history plays, sometimes providing novel poetic images, sometimes only weak echoes.
"Otho the Great"
Time: 10th century. Place: Germany.
Conrad, duke of Franconia, has earned Emperor Otho's respect by beating down a rebellious Hungarian army. As a reward, Otho consents that Ludolph, his son and heir, marry Conrad's sister, Auranthe. As a sign of general good will, he also sets free Gersa, prince of Hungary. A prisoner in the Hungarian camp, Erminia, niece to Otho, discovers among Gersa's spoils a compromising letter Auranthe wrote to Conrad, seeming to indicate brother-sister incest. This letter is shown to Albert, a loyal knight in Otho's army, who promises to reveal it to the emperor but fails to do so, because he wishes to protect Auranthe. Erminia, accompanied by Etherlbert, an abbot, arrive too late to prevent the wedding between Ludolph and Auranthe. They nevertheless accuse Conrad and Auranthe of incest, but neither Otho nor Ludolph believe the two. Albert shows the letter to no one, and so Erminia and Etherlbert are sent to prison for falsely accusing the royal pair. At last, Albert threatens to expose Auranthe, but, to secure her escape from the emperor's wrath, he proposes to wait for her with horses. Instead, she and her brother plot his death. While Auranthe pretends to lie sick on her wedding-night, Gersa steps up to Ludolph with the truth, which he angrily dismisses. "Look; look at this bright sword;/There is no part of it, to the very hilt,/But shall indulge itself about thine heart!" Ludolph threatens. Mutual threats are interrupted by a page announcing that Auranthe and Conrad have fled together. Gersa then discovers that Albert cannot be found either. Ludolph promises revenge. He discovers Albert in a forest, already wounded by Conrad, and threatens death unless he reveals where Auranthe is. "My good prince, with me/The sword has done its worst; not without worst/Done to another,- Conrad has it home!" Albert answers. Auranthe arrives aghast. Ludolph mockingly invites her to complain of her lover's death, then takes her away, leaving the dying Albert where he is. Meanwhile, Gersa succeeds in freeing Ethelbert and Erminia from prison. In the banqueting-hall, Ludolph's mind appears unhinged. "When I close/These lids, I see far fiercer brilliances,-/Skies full of splendid moons and shooting stars,/And spouting exhalations, diamond fires,/And panting fountains quivering with deep glows./Yes- this is dark- is it not dark?" he cries distractedly, then calls for music but is dissatisfied with this as well. Before the entire court, he threatens to kill the disloyal Auranthe, but she is revealed to be already dead.
Like "Otho the Great", "The borderers" (1842) first written in 1795-96 by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), is a history play, only more removed from Shakespeare's influence despite Oswald's resemblance to Iago and Marmaduke's to Hamlet (Smith, 1953), nearer instead that of traditional English and Scottish ballads.
Oswald expresses “a high regard for reason and a relative disregard for feelings as guides to moral conduct...Oswald's meditations in his retirement made of him an introspective egoist, convinced above all else of the powers of the individual self-sufficient mind, when it is freed of its usual dependence upon external things"...Moreover, he sees himself as existing...'in a universe that it is valueless, in human terms- it is morally neutral, indifferent to all human good and evil'. [But unlike Byron’s 'Manfred', Wordsworth shows] the terrible dangers of this self-sufficiency of the individual mind... Marmaduke is from the first the soul of benevolence, if with no very strong mind. He has firm faith in two principles: first, in the untutored intuitions of the heart into the goodness of others; second, in the ultimately moral nature of the universe...Although Marmaduke's faith in his second principle is not restored, to an extent his faith in his first principle is. Herbert had indeed been innocent, he discovers, and had he obeyed the intuitions of his heart against Oswald's 'proofs' (and it is well to remember that not only Marmaduke, but all the rest of the band are for a time convinced by these proofs), the tragedy would have been averted. This realization plunges Marmaduke into the deepest remorse, and, unlike Oswald, he refuses to abandon his guilt, for in it he finds the only identity left him, the last remnant and realization of his humanity” (Thorslev, 1966 pp 86-102).
Allen (1923) criticized Herbert and Idonea as “a lachrymose picture of virtue in distress; the blind old man is a sentimentalized Oedipus, and his daughter is a Greuze maiden, a girl with a broken pitcher, who has stepped out of her frame to go a-wandering; her angelic perfection only exasperates. Even the 'little dog, tied by a woollen cord', that guides the wandering Herbert, has a sentimental pedigree, he is the faithful animal of current novels- the descendant, for example, of virtuous, old Trusty, the 'shag house-dog' of ‘The man of feeling’...Marmaduke is a noble nature against his better impulses led into crime by Oswald, a Machiavellian villain, who undermines all his principles by Godwinian arguments. He scoffs at Marmaduke's compunctions, urging him to be superior to pity, to reject those general principles by which weak, unthinking creatures guide their conduct, and to decide what is right by the aid of his own unfettered reason. When Marmaduke discovers that he has been duped, the result is moral chaos, and, like so many other sinners in romantic literature, he becomes an unhappy wanderer in the waste places of the world” (pp 267-268).
Time: 13th century during King Henry III's reign. Place: Borders between Northern England and Scotland.
Amid furious battles between borderers and Scottish bandits pilfering England, Baron Herbert disapproves of Idonea's love for Marmeduke. "My child, forgetful of the name of Herbert,/Had given her love to a freebooter/Who here, upon the borders of the Tweed,/Doth prey alike on two distracted countries,/Traitor to both," he declares. But yet Marmaduke is told by a beggar-woman that Idonea is not Herbert's daughter, since she herself gave him the child raised as his own. In actual fact, this woman was paid to lie by Marmaduke's disgruntled colleague, Oswald, to entrap his leader, whom he calls one of those "fools of feeling". Oswald hates Marmaduke because he once saved his life, thereby losing face before his comrades in arms. As a result of Oswald's insinuations, Marmaduke suspects Herbert intends to deliver Idonea to Clifford, a dissolute baron. Marmaduke also hears of a silent madwoman suspected of being Herbert's bastard. For all these reasons, Oswald tempts Marmaduke to take Herbert's life while sleeping in Clifford's castle. Late at night, Marmaduke hovers over the sleeping father, but is unable to do it. Nevertheless, this case is discussed with the entire band of borderers, who decide that Herbert should be put on trial, their own selves acting as justicers. Marmaduke has a second opportunity to kill Herbert, this time on the moor, but once again he is unable to. Meanwhile, the borderers discover Oswald's treachery by means of the beggar-woman's confession. Unconsciously, on leaving Herbert in the wilds, Marmaduke takes away his script of food. On coming back to look for him, he discovers his unintended victim too late, lying dead from hunger. When meeting Idonea, Marmaduke admits his fatal negligence, at which she faints. Found guilty of treachery towards their leader, the borderers kill Oswald. Yet Marmaduke will no longer fight the Scots with them or even marry Idonea, but instead wanders away: "Over waste and wild/In search of nothing-" he announces gloomily.
Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) succeeded in comedy with "London assurance" (1841). Boucicault also succeeded in melodrama, especially "The octoroon" (1859), the first notable English play set in the United States.
In "London assurance", "youthful high spirits offset its artificial wit, and boisterous good nature tempers the elegance of Dazzle...when he exerts his London assurance upon country gentlefolk for their own good. Sheridan’s traditions stamp the morals as well as the style. Drunkenness, divorce and debt, serious evils to the minor drama, are subjects for humour here" (Disher, 1949 p 227). When "London assurance" was revived at a later date, Scott (1899) complained of the realist style of acting being imposed on it. "When ‘London Assurance’ was revived at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre under the Bancroft management, the part of Lady Gay Spanker was played in the modern style. The famous description of the hunt was spoken by Mrs Kendal, seated at a drawing-room table, precisely as a lady in real life would relate the incident; and the effect was nil. Mrs Nisbett was accustomed to deliver the lines close to the footlights, with eyes fixed on the audience; and at the close would cross from left to right, and back again, cracking her whip as she did so. The effect was electrical. All honour to the exponents of the modern realistic school of acting; but dramas written under different conditions must be acted in a different manner" (vol 2, p 36). Likewise, Fitzgerald (1875) complained of another lack in acting ability relating to this play. Boucicault's "earliest pieces reflect the tone of the good old school of character, and his comedy of 'London Assurance', with its extraordinary vivacity, its unflagging diameter, its Dazzle and Lady Gay Spanker, which, in the cant phrase, act themselves, will never be dropped out of the list of acting plays. Yet a single fact in connection with this play should have warned existing actors of the hopeless incapacity into which they have drifted. Not long since a performance of 'London Assurance' was given, in which was combined, for some charitable benefit, the strength and flower of every company in London. The list of names represented all the acknowledged chiefs in the respective walks. Yet the failure was disastrous— more disastrous from the very pretension. The actors seemed not at home in such old-fashioned parts their line was the imitation of extreme eccentricities; they had lost the famous old art of getting within the mere rind of a character, possessing themselves by study of the key-note, the leading principle, which would, without effort, supply the true illustrative accompaniments of voice, gesture, and oddity" (pp 21-22).
In "The octoroon", the "characters spoke in favour of the South, while the story went against it. When the old negro, just before the slave sale, calls his coloured 'bredrin' around him and tells them they must look their best so as to bring a good price for the 'missis', sympathy was felt for the loving hearts of the South. When people realized that the darky was a slave, they became abolitionists to a man. When Zoe, the loving octoroon, is offered to the highest bidder, and a warm-hearted Southern girl offers all her fortune to buy Zoe and release her, the audience cheered for the South. When she was bartered for, they cheered for the North" (Disher, 1949 p 253). "Photography doesn’t just work in the service of what Scudder calls a 'higher power', it represents and materializes a power literally above the law—acting as 'eye' and judgment of the 'Eternal' and as an extension of the audience’s judgment. In representing the camera as an instrument of divine justice, Boucicault aligns the technological with the supernatural...Photography’s seemingly extra-theatrical, transcendent evidentiary force and divine role leave little room or need for the photographer in The Octoroon. The only successful picture taken is the one in which no one is operating the camera- the photograph that would catch M’Closky red-handed, standing over Paul’s lifeless body. Scudder’s technologically impossible self-developing plate only emphasizes photography’s transcendence further. Boucicault presents us with the spectacle of photography without photographers- a fantasy of automation in the age of mechanical reproduction. Scudder’s description anticipates the disembodied “eye of the Eternal” of our current surveillance society" (Novak, 2016 pp 44-45). Pocock (2008) argued that “while Scudder's sudden zeal to convict could be attributed to his faith in the new-found photographic evidence, it must be recalled that the evidence against Wahnotee was at least as damning. His sudden shift seems rather to be motivated by a desire for revenge against M'Closky for his financial exploitation of the Peytons and his purchase of Zoe- a noble enough sentiment for melodrama, but one that sits uneasily on the judicial stage. The duplicity of his rhetoric is underscored by his reference in both speeches to the ‘hearts’ of the jury: in the first, the all-white jury's eagerness to lynch the Native American Wahnotee makes them 'a circle of hearts, white with revenge and hate, thirsting for his blood', while in the second, their desire to execute M'Closky reveals that they hold the law in their ‘real American’ hearts. If the law is, as Scudder asserts, located ‘in the hearts of brave men', it exists in a volatile variable medium, as subject to fits of white-hot rage and bloodthirstiness as to intuitions of honesty and truth. Scudder's orchestration of the impromptu trial ultimately achieves the equilibrium of the melodramatic stage: the villain receives a painful death as punishment for his crimes. Yet from a judicial standpoint the trial is a spectacular failure, leading not to a legal execution, but to a revenge killing” (pp 559-560).
Time: 1840s. Place: London and Gloucestershire, England.
Sir Harcourt Courtly intends to marry Grace Harkaway, niece of his old friend Max Harkaway, a squire. "I am about to present society with a second Lady Courtly; young blushing eighteen; lovely! I have her portrait; rich! I have her banker's account; an heiress, and a Venus!" he gushes. But Harcourt is unaware of the extravagances of his son, Charles. While Charles recuperates from a drinking bout, Sir Harcourt thinks of him as: "a perfect child in heart-a sober, placid mind- the simplicity and verdure of boyhood, kept fresh and unsullied by any contact with society." Misled into thinking of him as a family friend, Max invites Dazzle, a parasite, to his mansion, accompanied by Charles under the assumed name of Augustus Hamilton, who is struck by love at first sight with Grace, though she herself is rather cool towards him. "It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion," she says. "If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell." Dazzle is glad to tell Max that he considers himself "splendidly quartered" where he is. Max next receives the visit of Harcourt. At the point of introducing the so-called Augustus to his own father, Dazzle convinces him to "deny his identity" altogether. Although Harcourt is stunned on seeing Augustus' features so like his son's, he is led to believe it is not he, but Grace remains unfooled. Nevertheless, Harcourt advises Max he should get rid of the two "disreputable characters". To his astonishment, Max learns that Harcourt has never seen Dazzle in his entire life. Dazzle does his best to keep Harcourt away from his betrothed while his son courts her. But when Grace's cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, arrives, Harcourt is immediately smitten by her, an enthusiast of hunting pleasures. "Ay, there is harmony, if you will," she acknowledges. "Give me the trumpet-neigh; the spotted pack just catching scent. What a chorus is their yelp! The view-hallo, blent with a peel of free and fearless mirth! That's our old English music- match it where you can." To Harcourt's disappointment, she admits to being married, though to a submissive nonentity. To help Charles in his courtship, Dazzle falsely insinuates to Harcourt that Lady Spanker is equally smitten with him. Alone with Augustus, Grace assures him she will never be Harcourt's bride. Encouraged by this piece of news, Augustus kisses her, a sight discovered by Lady Spanker, to whom he admits his true identity as Charles Courtly as well as revealing that his father has fallen desperately in love with her, which she answers with a scream of delight. After dinner, Grace complains of being excluded from men's company. "The instant the door is closed upon us, there rises a roar!" she exclaims, whereby Lady Spanker comments: "In celebration of their short-lived liberty, my love; rejoicing over their emancipation." "I think it very insulting, whatever it may be," Grace retorts, to which her cousin answers: "Ah! my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour- it is the dinner hour, I suppose." To Grace's further grief, Augustus suddenly leaves the house, but, to her surprise, returns as Charles Courtly announcing that Augustus has met with a road-accident. He rejoices to see her swoon, though she only pretends to, and then specifies that the man is dead: news, to his surprise, she accepts very calmly. Meanwhile, Lady Spanker makes a fool of Harcourt by pretending to love him. After finding out this seeming relation, a lawyer, Meddle, congratulates Spanker that his wife is about to elope. When both men mistakenly think they have caught the erring couple in the act, Meddle advises him thus: "Now, take my advice; remember your gender. Mind the notes I have given you." To protect herself, Lady Spanker assures her husband that the elopement was only Harcourt's idea and encourages him to fight a duel with him, which he reluctantly agrees to. Max reveals to his daughter that Harcourt has waived his title to her, which she, displeased at Charles' behavior, accepts fuming, but Lady Spanker is horrified at seeing Harcourt emerge safely from the duel and runs out frantically to look for her husband. Harcourt then assures Grace that the duel was interrupted by her uncle with no harm done. Angry at Charles, Grace now avers she would like to marry Harcourt after all, but a creditor arrests Harcourt as a consequence of his son's debts and announces that Augustus and Charles are the same man. Although Harcourt refuses to pay his son's debts, Grace generously accepts to do so and then asks for the father's blessing. One last thing disturbs the entire company: who is Dazzle? "I have not the remotest idea," Dazzle answers.
Time: 1850s. Place: Louisiana, USA.
Back after a long time abroad in Paris, George Peyton settles at the Terrebonne plantation with his Aunt Nellie in the aftermath of her husband's death as an heir to the estate heavily encumbered with debts. The present overseer, Salem Scudder, informs him that the previous overseer, Jacob McClosky, profited from the overspending tendencies of his uncle to buy the best part of Terrebonne. Jacob wants more. He informs Aunt Nellie that her banker has died and the executors have foreclosed all overdue mortgages, so that Terrebonne is now for sale. Nellie cannot prevent it unless she can recover a debt owed to her husband from a company in England, for which she is awaiting news by boat-mail. Jacob approaches Zoe, Aunt Nellie's husband's bastard child to a slave woman, an octoroon (one-eight black) whom she nevertheless fondly takes care of. Jacob flirts with Zoe, but she ignores him. As he blocks her path, Salem steps forward knife in hand to force him away. But by secretly rummaging through Nellie's desk, Jacob discovers that Zoe was freed as a slave while there was a legal judgment pending against her master, so that the paper proving she is free is void. He pilfers the papers on his way out. Later, he overhears George declaring his love of Zoe. Although she points out to George she is an octoroon, it does not matter to him. After the couple leave, Jacob notices Paul, a black slave boy sitting on the mail-bag possibly containing overseas news for Nellie. The boy is waiting to have his picture taken by his Indian friend, Wahnatee, who takes the picture and then wanders off with a bottle of rum. Jacob kills the boy by striking him over the head with Wahnatee's tomahawk and then recovers Nellie's letter. When the Indian returns, he thinks the photographic apparatus killed Paul and so destroys it. Meanwhile, the plantation slaves, including Zoe, are up for sale and Jacob succeeds in buying her. When the planters discover Paul's body, they infer that Wahnatee murdered him, a view supported by Jacob, who acts as his accuser in a make-shift trial set up to lynch the Indian. However, the planters discover a photograph made just before the murder, Jacob standing over Paul with the murder weapon. As a result, Jacob is taken into the hatch of a moored ship, but then frees himself from his captors. He next throws a lighted lamp on turpentine barrels so that the ship catches fire. Ready to escape, his flight is impeded by Wahnatee, who stabs him repeatedly.
George Colman the Younger
Another celebrated comedy includes "John Bull, or The Englishman's fireside" (1803) by George Colman the Younger (1762–1836). Donohue (1979) pointed out that the play “extols the traditional English values of hearth and home. Colman's approach is to construe general moral values and, more specifically, the ideal English national character in domestic terms. Having a contemporary Cornwall locale, with settings in a public house, a manor house, and a brazier's shop, John Bull deftly contrasts values of city and country by presenting a range of characterizations clearly associated with one or the other. Students of the drama performed over the century-and-a-quarter beginning with Etherege and Congreve will perceive from Colman's comedy that a notable shift in social values has occurred. Tom Shuffleton, a city 'swell', and his eventual mate, the chic Lady Caroline Braymore, represent all that is deceitful and self-centred. They are city types, superior only in their temporary ability to gull certain country characters (Sir Simon Rochdale, the local magistrate, and Frank Rochdale, his son and a friend, he thinks, of Shuffleton) into believing them sincere. Shuffleton’s and Frank’s referents in character types help to illustrate the historical shift in social and ethical values embodied in the play. Earlier comedy frequently features a pair of vital young men, sharing attitudes and values which, though healthy enough, seldom inhibit their pleasures" (pp 88-89).
"The Englishman's fireside"
Time: 1800s. Place: Cornwall, England.
After nearly drowning in a shipwreck, Peregrine arrives at the Red Cow Inn having nearly lost all his fortune acquired in India. On hearing a woman cry out, he rushes out but is unable to prevent the robber from taking all her money. Reluctantly, the victim, Mary, reveals she was on her way to ask money from her plighted lover, Frank, who has impregnated her but left her to marry a richer woman. "As soon as day broke," she explains, "I left the house of my dear father, whom I should tremble to look at, when he discovered my story, which I could not long conceal from him." Having heard of Frank's village love, his father, Sir Simon, baronet, requests his son's friend, Tom, to dissuade him from that purpose, offering money under cover of a loan. Frank receives a letter from Mary, describing details of her miserable condition. He is tormented for having abandoned her, but wishes to obey his father. Tom suggests he provide her with an annuity. "An annuity flowing from the fortune, I suppose, of the woman I marry!" Frank sarcastically exclaims. "Is that delicate?" "'Tis convenient," Tom replies. Meanwhile, Peregrine visits a benefactor from his boyhood, Job, a brazier in the midst of bankruptcy after being robbed by a friend. Peregrine offers Job money to prevent the seizing of his goods, but he refuses. Having found out Job is Mary's father, he finally convinces him to accept the money and thus restore his daughter's condition. When Tom meets Frank's intended wife, Lady Caroline, he woos her for himself, then delivers Frank's letter to Mary, who swoons on learning he will see her no more because of "family circumstances". Peregrine treats Tom roughly after learning of his intention to send her to a disreputable woman during her pregnancy. When Job and Mary unite, Peregrine reveals his intention of requesting Sir Simon, as justice of the peace, to force Frank to marry her. Peregrine then confronts Frank with the same purpose. "Marry her!" exclaims Frank, "I am bound in honor to another." "Modern honor is a coercive argument," Peregrine replies, "but when you have seduced virtue, whose injuries you will not solidly repair, you must be slightly bound in old-fashioned honesty." When Mary confronts Frank, he becomes at last convinced to follow this course. "I- I am almost glad, Mary, that it has happened," he admits. "When a weight of concealment is on the mind, remorse is relieved by the very discovery which it has dreaded." For his part, Job confronts Simon, but is met by a solid wall of refusal and a threat to arrest him for abusing a justice of the peace, at which Peregrine ushers the angry Job out of the room. But Simon's wedding plan on behalf of his son is thwarted after discovering that Caroline married Tom. He is at last forced to accept his son's marriage to a mere brazier's daughter after finding out that Peregrine is his own long-lost older brother and so the entire estate now belongs to him, as well as the treasure recovered from the seas. Job turns to Frank. "I forgive you, young man, for what has passed," he declares, "but no one deserves forgiveness who refuses to make amends when he has disturbed the happiness of an Englishman's fireside."
Douglas William Jerrold
Another notable melodrama of the period is "Black-eyed Susan" (1829) written by Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857).
"Owing but its title to Gay's long-popular song, Sweet William's Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan, this three-act nautical drama renders a simply planned story in a dramatic fashion...The dialogue is neat, pointed, but on the whole natural, much of the lighter talk coming from Dolly Mayflower, the only other woman character, and her lover Gnatbrain— 'a half- gardener, half-waterman—a kind of alligator that gets his breakfast from the shore, and his dinner from the sea'" (Jerrold, 1914 pp 116-118).
"The decision of the court, Guilty, and the reading of the sentence, Death, were terrible blows to William's scores of friends before the footlights; and William's subdued 'Poor Susan!' found echo in every sympathizing heart in the audience. The interest in the drama, however, did not reach its intensest point until the last scene of all the execution. The farewells with his shipmates and friends, the last dying gifts and bequests, and his parting from Susan, were all very harrowing, and very real, and very choking; but the culmination was William's standing under the yard-arm, his bare neck ready for the rope that was 'to launch' him, the parson on the black platform, the twelve melancholy-looking captains, the grief-stricken Admiral Leffingwell, and the entrance of Captain Crosstree with his pardon, and his honorable and explanatory speech" (Hutton, 1875 pp 155-156).
"No one can fail to observe the deliberate contrasts in Jerrold’s work, contrasts invaluable for dramatic purposes, the sorrow of Susan, and her struggles to keep a home above her head, exchanged for the joy of William’s return, the exhilaration of the reunited couple frustrated by the accident that makes of a brave sailor a condemned criminal. There is plenty of light as well as shade in the old Surrey drama...And yet...when I saw the play, I had to own that the tearful passages were overstrained; that the misery of the picture was too acute; that the agony was drawn out to a hysterical point; and that, although the taste of the whole thing from first to last was irreproachable, art was not quite satisfied" (Scott, 1899 vol 2, pp 145-146).
"No drama was ever more nautical; no other seamen so redolent of tar, so virtuous compared with landsmen, so full of seafaring oaths, exclamations, similes and metaphors—salt water is rarely out of their mouths and often fills their eyes. William never utters a phrase that is not seaworthy. Law is built of green timber, manned with loblolly boys; a woman makes more sail—outs with her studding booms— mounts her royals, moon-rakers and sky-scrapers. Several scenes show how constant Susan is despite her landlord, and how brave William is despite many smugglers. At length the plot begins when Captain Crosstree in his cups kisses Susan and is cut down by William. All is ready for the hanging from the fore-yard when Crosstree rushes forward with a pre-dated discharge ‘When William struck me he was not the king’s sailor— I was not his officer'" (Disher, 1949, pp 143-144).
Time: 1820s. Place: England.
With William off to sea as a sailor, Doggrass has been making life hard for William's wife, Susan. Despite her being his dead brother's daughter, he hounds her for rent-money. When she cannot pay, he confiscates what he can out of house-goods. Moreover, Doggrass is in cahoots with a band of smugglers led by Captain Hatchet. To favor his design of marrying her, the captain pays the rent-money owed to Doggrass. As the smugglers prepare to work at sea, they are caught in a trap by Lieutenant Pike, disguised as a French officer, though set free again by reinforcements. Hatchet engages his subordinate, Raker, to tell a false tale of William's death by drowning, but the latter arrives in time to hear everything. He threatens to make "small biscuit of 'em" and strikes Hatchet with the flat part of his cutlass until Pike and the rest recapture the smugglers. "Today we'll pitch care overboard without putting a buoy over him, call for the fiddles, start the rum cask, tipple the grog, and pipe all hands to mischief," William joyfully cries out. But all too brief is his stay, as Captain Crosstree orders his men aboard. Before going, he spies out Susan and likes what he sees. She asks the captain to favor her husband with a leave of absence, or, if that cannot be given, permission for herself to climb aboard. "Go on board, that you shall!" the captain cries out with enthusiasm. "You shall go in the captain's gig, you shall live in the captain's cabin." When she resists, he seizes her. Her cries alert William, who stabs him with a cutlass. For this deed, he is court-martialed for manslaughter against a superior officer. In his defense, William declares as follows. "I had not been gone the turning of an hour-glass when I heard Susan giving signals of distress. I out with my cutlass, made all sail, and came up to my craft. I found her battling with a pirate. I never looked at his figure-head, never stopped - would any of your honors? Long live you and your wives, say I. Would any of your honors have rowed alongside as if you had been going aboard a royal yacht? - No, you wouldn't; for the gilt epaulets on your shoulders; can't alter the heart that swells beneath you would have done as I did, and what did I? Why, I cut him down like old junk. Had he been the first lord of the admiralty, I had done it." To no avail. He is sentenced to be hanged. Near the vessel in a little boat, Doggrass strains his ears to hear the sentence, loses his balance, and drowns. Men recover from his corpse a letter meant for William which he intercepted, announcing his discharge from the navy. "When William struck me, he was not the king's sailor, I was not his officer," a repentant Crosstree is glad to announce, so that the navy sets him free to return contentedly with Black-eyed Susan.