A GHOSTLY PERFORMANCE (1794)

JAMES BOADEN (1762–1839)


The dramatist and theatre manager James Boaden exploited the popularity of Gothic novels by adapting some of them for the stage, including Lewis’s The Monk for Aurelio and Miranda (1799) and Radcliffe’s The Italian for The Italian Monk (1797). Boaden’s earliest adaptation was of Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, which he read with great pleasure when it came out. He admired ‘the singular address by which Mrs Radcliffe contrived to impress the mind with all the terrors of the ideal world; and the sportive resolution of all that had excited terror into very common natural appearances’. It struck him that the novel would provide ‘the ground-work of a drama of more than usual effect.’ During the winter of 1793 he began work on Fontainville Forest, which grew to a full five acts and was produced at Covent Garden (of which he was the manager) on 25 March 1794. It was designed specifically to compete with a production of Handel’s Oratorios with which John Philip Kemble was opening his New Drury Lane Theatre that season. The pièce de résistance of Boaden’s medieval set was the appearance of a spectre inspired by Fuseli’s painting of Hamlet, exhibited in the Shakespeare Gallery on Pall Mall. Not to be outdone, New Drury Lane followed with Macbeth on 21 April that year, with Kemble and Mrs Siddons in the title roles. But Covent Garden drew the crowds back with Henry Siddons’s dramatization of A Sicilian Romance; or, The Apparition of the Cliffs, an Opera – based upon Radcliffe’s earlier novel.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)


On the 12th of March (1794) the town was at once astonished and delighted by the opening of the new Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Its spaciousness was entirely sunk in its lightness and proportion. Had I the construction of twenty theatres, this should be their model. It seemed to grow out of the pointed architecture, from its effect; though its parts did not imitate that mysterious order, or perhaps disorder, of composition. Why, since, theatres have affected so solid an inside front, it were perhaps fruitless to enquire. As to their exterior, convenience is the only principle that is imperative in such piles; and that, consequently, has been put out of sight altogether. The carriages have hardly any space to move in, and the audience are exposed to the wet, as speedily as possible, on their leaving the lobbies. The exit doors are still too few.
          The oratorios were naturally well attended; and the coup d’oeil of the orchestra, piled up in Capon’s actual building of a Gothic chapel, magnificent and even sublime. The house was at once ascertained to be a fine musical structure; and when applied to its positive purposes, with a company upon its stage seldom equalled and never surpassed – with all the leading beauties of England at the head of the polite, the liberal, the intelligent public – again, I say, our dear Kemble’s heart might swell with pride at being manager of such a theatre.
          I am brought back to the rival theatre, by being myself selected to supply part of the means by which Drury Lane was to be opposed. I have already ventured, some pages back, to interest the reader in the discussion, how the supernatural may best be exhibited upon the stage: and I, at the same time, showed that the author [i.e. Boaden himself] of Fontainville Forest meditated some improvements which were suggested to him by the sister art of painting. How far the stage execution might correspond with his notion was matter of experiment. A ludicrous misconception of his instructions might have ruined his whole design. Perhaps the reader may find some amusement in the miseries of an author. The great contrivance was, that the spectre should appear through a blueish-grey gauze, so as to remove the too corporeal effect of a ‘live actor,’ and convert the moving substance into a gliding essence.
          As, to speak the absolute truth, any great effect in this play depended on the management of the ghost scene, Mr. Harris ordered a night rehearsal of it, that the author might judge how happily the stage had seconded his conceptions. Mrs. Pope had charmed us with the pathos of her recitation – the entrance of the spectre approached. On came good, honest, jolly Thompson, ‘in his habit as he liv’d,’ with the leathern pilch, ‘time out of mind the player’s armour’ – as thick nearly as he was long, –

And over all, that he might be
          Equipt from top to toe,
His grey gause VEIL, as buckram stiff,
          Right manfully did throw.

No; never, except a river god in some procession, with all his sedge about him; never did I behold such a figure! I was rivetted to my seat with astonishment. Mr. Harris, who sat in the front by my side, said he thought the effect very good. But not staying to dispute this opinion, I made no secret of my distress and alarm; and clearly explained to him what my own idea really was. He laughed heartily at the mistake, and we soon found, across a portal of the scene, a proper place for the gauze worn by old Thompson. The clumsy effect of the traditional stage armour he did not so soon admit, and asked at last, rather briskly, how it could be made better? I told him that, in the first place, the present ghost must be laid, and a much higher spirit be invoked; and at length we found the tall, sweeping figure, that was to freeze the spectator with horror, in the person of Follet, the clown so royally celebrated for the eating of carrots in the pantomimes. Follet readily agreed to lend his person on this momentous occasion – his stride might have delighted Mr. Fuseli himself – his figure was of the heroic height – his action whatever you chose to order. But notwithstanding all these requisites for the part, there occurred one formidable difficulty. The ghost had but two words to utter, ‘PERISH’D HERE’ – now ‘that will be exactly the case with the author,’ said Follet, ‘if I speak them.’ The fable had taught every body, that though the animal might be concealed, the voice would betray him. We therefore settled it, that, in imitation of the ancients, he should be only the MIME, to make the action on the stage, and that poor Thompson, disencumbered from the pilch [coarse garment] of the Majesty of Denmark, should yet at the wing, with hollow voice, pronounce the two important words; to which the extended arm of Follet might give the consentaneous action.
          All that remained now was to dress the spirit; for which purpose I recommended a dark blue grey stuff, made in the shape of armour, and sitting close to the person; and when Follet (of course unknown) was thus drest, and faintly visible behind the gauze or crape spread before the scene, the whisper of the house, as he was about to enter, – the breatheless silence, while he floated along like a shadow, – proved to me, that I had achieved the great desideratum; and the often-renewed plaudits, when the curtain fell, told me that the audience had enjoyed

That sacred terror, that severe delight,

for which alone it is excusable to overpass the ordinary limits of nature.
          For a whimsical dilemma that occurred, I may be excused in speaking of myself. I can only add that the public was extremely indulgent to my effort, and that I found the author’s receipts very considerable indeed.


[SOURCE: James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825), vol. 2, pp. 115–19]

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