All the major Gothic novels were dramatized, often in more than one version. The first Gothic drama was Robert Jephson’s The Count of Narbonne (1781), a dramatization of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto; James Boaden adapted several Gothic novels; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave rise to several different productions. George Colman dramatized Godwin’s Caleb Williams, titled Falkland, in 1796, with an excellent Gothic library for the stage set; he also satirized the genre. Sometimes the route by which the novels went on stage is curious: Planché’s The Vampire, for example, is based on a French translation of Polidori’s The Vampyre rather than directly on Polidori’s novel. Lewis and Maturin wrote original, and very successful, productions for the stage, and Lewis adapted German Gothic novels for the English stage.
According to Montague Summers, Thomas Holcroft’s Gothic play Tales of Mystery (1802) was the first time that the word ‘melodrama’ was used on the title page of an English play. Modern critics debate whether to call these productions melodramas or dramas or tragedies. The action in most of them is very stilted, and in any modern performances an audience might be tempted to call them farces. But Walpole’ The Mysterious Mother, Lewis’s The Castle Spectre, Maturin’s Bertram and Baillie’s De Monfort all carry poetic conviction, and these titles still give pleasure, at least as ‘closet plays’ if not on the stage. I have not included Romantic dramatic poems such as Byron’s Manfred (1817) or Shelley’s The Cenci (1819), though they derive much inspiration from Gothic productions at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The most interesting characters of Gothic dramas were invariably the villains, including some women as well as men. Much of the critical attack on ‘hobgobliana’ was specifically an attack upon Gothic melodrama, which had the highest profile in attracting a popular audience.
A literary anthology is at a disadvantage in demonstrating the pleasures of drama, which of course depend heavily on action and spectacle, and even music. Gothic drama was especially ‘spectacular’, and achieved some notable successes. The setting of Act V, Scene VI in Robert Jephson’s The Count of Narbonne (first performed at Covent Garden on 17 November 1781) was not untypical: ‘The inside of a Convent, with ailes [sic] and Gothic arches, part of an altar appearing on one side; the statue of Alphonso in armour in the centre. Other statues and monuments also appearing. Adelaide veiled, rising from her knees before the statue of Alphonso.’ Walpole himself supervised the production, instructing the actors, adjusting their costumes, even loaning medieval garb from his own collection. Walpole’s arguments with Jephson over the set Walpole felt it was more authentic for the statue of Alphonso to be recumbent on his tomb, whereas Jephson thought it should stand erect led to their estrangement.
It is difficult to adequately represent dramas in anthologies, for they take up so much space; even selection of an entire act will not show how the dramatic action develops over the whole course of the play, which has dramatic reversals, surprises, comic interludes and so on. In any case, the action that took place on stage is not necessarily accurately reflected by the printed play: Lewis’s The Castle Spectre, for example, was cut to half the length of the printed text before it was performed on the stage. I have placed the Gothic drama in context by including contemporary reviews of dramas, and contemporary discussions of ‘behind the scenes’ activities, such as how to most effectively portray a spectre on the stage, or how the audience reacted to the acting of Mrs Siddons, Britain’s greatest tragic actress.
(Copyright 2000, 2013, 2014 Rictor Norton)
1768 The Mysterious Mother by Horace Walpole
1783 Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons by James Boaden
1794 'A Ghostly Performance' by James Boaden
1797 Review of Boaden's The Italian Monk
1797 The Castle Spectre by Matthew Gregory Lewis
1797 "Reminiscences of M. G. Lewis" by Michael Kelly
1798 De Monfort: A Tragedy by Joanna Baillie
1800 "On the Absurdities of the Modern Stage" by "Academicus"
1800 "A Performance of Julia and Agnes" by Mary Russell Mitford
1816 Bertram by Charles Robert Maturin
1816 'On "German" Drama' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
1820 The Vampire by James Robinson Planché
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