Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn: The Theatricality of Provincial Life

Article excerpt

Maria Marten disappeared from her family home in the village of Polstead, Suffolk in May 1827. The twenty-seven year old had arranged to meet her lover - the squire's son William Corder - at the village's red barn, from where they were to elope in order to be married in the nearest major town, Ipswich. Nothing was heard from Maria after this date, although Corder sent repeated letters to her family claiming that his new wife was in good health and staying with friends. The following year Maria's stepmother, Ann, experienced a series of vivid dreams, in which she claimed that the location of Maria's murdered body had been revealed to her. Disturbed by these visions, Ann sent her husband to dig up the floor of the red barn and there he discovered the body of his daughter. William Corder was traced to London, arrested and returned to Suffolk, where he was tried and hung at Bury St. Edmunds in August 1828.

The Marten case dominated the national and regional press during the summer months of 1828 and numerous theatricalisations of the crime rapidly appeared, fostered both by the melodramatic nature of the events themselves and the high level of public interest that they provoked. These contemporary representations, on stage and in the press, shared a dependence upon the emerging mass audience(s) of popular culture and, consequently, existing accounts of the felony both acknowledge and affirm the public fascination with the murder. What is revealed through these similarities is an inherent level of theatricality within the case itself: an idea enforced in the introduction to a book-length study of the Red Barn Murder written by the respected journalist James Curtis, where he linked the spheres of popular entertainment and violent crime explicitly, stating that Polstead Village had lately been the theatre' of a dreadful tragedy.1 The points at which the three historically specific forces of the stage, the press and the audience intersected in relation to the Marten case illustrate the complexity of the relationship between early nineteenth-century mass cultural forms.

Although stage interpretations of the murder of Maria Marten were concerned with a contemporary event and that - at first glance - they appear simply to be crude examples of the melodramatic form, performances based on the tragedy spanned the entirety of the nineteenth century.2 The enduring popularity of the Red Barn plays distinguishes them from the majority of early melodrama and is witness to the way in which the tale captured the popular imagination and entered into both urban and provincial folklore. Furthermore, although the industrial technologies of mass culture were central to the prolonged fame of the crime, the melodramas that the case inspired have a notable lack of a London performance history. Rather, the story of these productions belongs to the provincial theatrical experience, the booth theatre, the portable theatre and the puppet show, where versions of the play were a regular part of the popular repertoire.3 The production pattern of touring drama during this period typically saw a play's history originate in London, with popular pieces, or adapted versions of them, then transferring to the provincial stage(s).4 Melodramas based on the tale of Maria Marten offer an unusual glimpse of a different model, where the current understanding of drama in the provinces became central both to the history of the plays and to the level of theatricality that was involved in the transmission of the tale.

In Victorian Studies in Scarlet, a study of the inter-relationships between cultural conditions and public taste, Richard Altick identified the early nineteenth-century response to murder - characterised by the Marten case - as the combined product of an anomalous succession of sensational criminal cases and the birth of a new breed of journalism; a competitive press industry that was 'ready and eager to exploit crime, even ordinary crime, as it had never been exploited before'. …