Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Corsican Trap: Its Mechanism and Reception

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Corsican Trap: Its Mechanism and Reception

Article excerpt

In 1852, Charles Kean commissioned Dion Boucicault to adapt Les Freres Corses (1) for the English stage. Boucicault took the 1850 Parisian version, adapted it into The Corsican Brothers and under the direction of Charles Kean, who also played both leads, the play opened on 24 February at Kean's Princess's Theatre (Era 29 February 1852).

The play is a revenge tale about twin brothers who share a psychic link. Split into three acts, the first two acts take place chronologically at the same time and lead to the one brother's death and his ghostly appearance to the other. The third act leads to the surviving brother's revenge. As a melodrama, the time discrepancy in the play is interesting as is the premise of the ghosts and the way the action plays out. The play should have been no better received than its French counterpart, but due to the staging of Kean's production, it was to become immensely popular.

One month after opening at the Princess, The Corsican Brothers was running in five other London Houses (Era 21 March 1852), by April it had reached the Adelphi in Edinburgh (Era 4 April 1852) and the next week it opened in the Queen's Royal Theatre in Dublin. In Kean's eight year tenancy at the Princess, it was performed two hundred and thirty six times (Wilmore 114). It was also popular with the royal family: Queen Victoria had visited the play several times and Prince Albert commissioned Edward Corbold to paint a scene of The Corsican Brothers "as performed at the Princess Theatre, and embracing portraits of all the principal performers" (Caledonian Mercury 12 April 1852). An insight into the popularity of the play can be found in the Era newspaper, ten years after Kean's first production:

The Corsican Brothers, with a freshness of invention, a well-constructed plot, and an admirably contrived ghost movement, at once seized the attention of the audience, and has not palled on the popular taste. (Era 23 February 1862)

The "admirably contrived ghost movement" referred to was the result of a device called a "glide trap", also known as "the Corsican trap". The first 1852 review said that the ghost was "astonishingly contrived" in the play:

First the head was seen, and then, as it slowly ascended higher and higher, the figure advanced, increasing in stature as it neared him, and the profound silence of the audience denoted how wrapt was their attention. Melodramatic effect was never more perfectly produced. (Era 29 February 1852)

The article remains for the most part, non committal about the worth of the rest of the play, describing the dialogue as "unexceptional". A rival newspaper, however, said that it was "artistically neat in execution--terse, if not brilliant, in dialogue" (Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper 29 February 1852).

As it turned out the cause of the play's popularity was not the script, but the trap: as the play opened about London and the rest of the country, the trap went with it, provincial theatres installing it as part of their wood stage systems. When the play was revived in the years following its initial success, such as at the New Theatre in Nottingham, the draw for the audience was the "Corsican trap and other machinery" (Era 3 December 1854) and not the play itself. What is interesting about this is not the mere contrivance of a ghost upon the stage in a melodrama, but that the device itself was seen as essential to the production, as if the play was incomplete without the machinery.

The glide trap is as much a part of The Corsican Brothers as the main characters Fabien and Louis dei Franchi are; from the first night it was staged the trap has become, as it were, part of the text of this play. This can be demonstrated in two late twentieth-century collections of Victorian plays. Michael R. Booth based his 1969 text of The Corsican Brothers on Charles Kean's promptbook from the Harvard Theatre Collection "collated with the Lord Chamberlain's copy" (Booth 30) and his version of the end of act one when the glide trap is first used is "LOUIS DEI FRANCHI has gradually appeared rising through the floor, in his shirt sleeves, with blood upon his breast" (Booth 30). …

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