REVIEW OF BOADEN’S THE ITALIAN MONK (1797)
Boaden’s The Italian Monk opened at the Haymarket on 15 August 1797 and was performed twelve times during the season. Boaden absurdly reclaimed Schedoni and restored him to domestic happiness, and the piece was diversified with music and songs by Colman. The actor Mr Palmer, when he took leave of the acting profession a year or two later, took Boaden aside and said that ‘he could not quit London without in a particular manner thanking me for the part of Schedoni’. The following review is interesting for showing how, first, a novel may be rendered less subversive by the conventions of the theatre, and second, how subversive meanings in the novel can be reinserted by the actors despite the text of the adaptation.
(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)
This play is founded upon a late romance of Mrs. Radcliffe’s, entitled The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents.
The privilege of borrowing the plot of a play from a novel has never been denied to the dramatic writer. Shakspere [sic] drew nearly all his materials from the same source. But we are apt to question the prudence of adhering too strictly to the original author. To compress an entire story into the narrow limits of a drama, is a work of extreme difficulty, and, after all, the interest must suffer by the transposition.
Mr. Boaden, however, seems to possess the enviable talent of conveying the leading points of a novel into a play, without any material injury to the whole; he knows, at once, what can be appropriated to dramatic use; and, by judiciously abstracting the less interesting parts of the narrative, he contrives to communicate, in a very short compass, the spirit of many hundred pages.
It was thus he treated a former production of Mrs. Radcliffe, in his play of Fontainville Forest, Herman of Unna a German novel, in his Secret Tribunal, and, in the same manner, though with evident improvement, he has now employed his skill upon the ITALIAN MONK.
The only point in which the author has essentially differed from the romance, is in blending the two characters of Ansoldo, and The Monk of Paluzzi. The plot is consequently much simplified, and a probable way prepared for the reform and eventual preservation of Schedoni; for, instead of being an Agent of Mischief, assuming an air of mystery to reveal the guilt, and occasion the destruction of Schedoni, and thereby to gratify his own revenge; he appears here as a Guardian Minister, watching the conduct, and frustrating the schemes, of the Monk, and is, at last, the means of securing the happiness of all parties. The motives, too, for this mysterious intervention, are accounted for with more probability than in the book. Schedoni’s confession made to Ansaldo, on the eve of San Manco, is supposed to awaken his pity; and being himself implicated, as the suitor of Schedoni’s wife when she received the poniard of her husband, he manages to gain his confidence, and is thus enabled to prevent the accomplishment of his dark intentions.
With the Plot Mr. Boaden has occasionally adopteded the sentiments of the novel; but these he has cloathed [sic] in the language of blank-verse; and his style bears no resemblance to the feeble dialogue of modern tragedy, but is bold, nervous, and, in several passages, sublime. The interview between Schedoni and the Marchioness, and that between Ansaldo and Vivaldi in the prison of the inquisition, are very forcibly sustained in this respect. Nor have we often witnessed finer declamation than that put into the mouth of Ellena when she replies to the arguments of the Abbess. The author has evidently studied in the school of Shakspeare [sic], and fortunately discovers more of the strength than quaintness of his master’s muse; that is, he has not been content with a mere imitation of his phraseology.
Though the fable is conducted with great art, it is yet not perfect; for instance, a languor is sometimes induced by the repetition of circumstances which have previously past in action this is the case with the old woman’s account of Paulo’s bravery, and Vivaldi’s relation of Ansaldo’s visit. The argument also between the assassins in the second act breaks in upon the interest; but the ingenuity with which the catastrophe is concealed is admirable.
The comic characters are by no means so well supported as the serious, though, indeed, it is obvious that the author thrust in the humour against his own inclination, to avert the fate which now attends all exhibitions purely tragic. Paulo, however, is just the merry, faithful domestic Mrs. Radcliffe has drawn him, and he serves very well to relieve the gloomy passages of the play. We beg leave here to correct a mistake of one of the daily critics, who taxed the author with inconsistency, in making Paulo a Coward in one scene, and a desperado in another. The censor forgot that Paulo’s fear was entirely superstitious; and this sort of timidity is by no means incompatible with natural courage.
Mr. C. Kemble
Mr. R. Palmer
Miss De Camp
THE ACTING We often hear of a dramatic production being supported and kept alive by the performers. The success of the Italian Monk, however, can never be attributed to the excellence of the acting: not that we mean to impute negligence to any individual concerned in the cast, for we believe they exerted themselves to the utmost; but the female part of the company is positively so inadequate, in point of ability as well as number, to the purposes even of the most subordinate provincial theatre in the kingdom, that a serious drama is sacrificed and ruined in such miserable hands. Where all is so very indifferent, we will not create any jealousy by determining which is the worst. We will venture, however, to intimate to Miss De Camp, who is really a very clever young actress, that she is by far too boisterous in the scene before alluded to with the Abbess. It is only intended that Ellena should be firm in her replies, dignified in her deportment, animated in her action, and resolute in her determination; as one who is maintaining the rights of truth and justice against the sophistry of the cloister, and the wrongs of oppression; Whereas the excessive violence of Miss De Camp almost alarmed us for the personal safety of poor Mrs. Hale, another fine tragic actress of the Haymarket theatre, who seemed to sit very uneasy in her elbow chair.
Palmer looked Schedoni admirably well, nor did he play it amiss; only he has a sad habit of relying on the extremes of his voice, and leaving the middle tone unexercised, so that we are either condemned to hear nothing, or, like Sir Richard Steele, when his workmen reminded him of their unpaid labours, to hear too well. . . .
[SOURCE: Monthly Mirror, 4 (July 1797), pp. 1002]
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