Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"The Frighted Stage": The Sensational Proliferation of Ghost Melodrama in the 1820s

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"The Frighted Stage": The Sensational Proliferation of Ghost Melodrama in the 1820s

Article excerpt

IN A LETTER OF 11 SEPTEMBER 1823, MARY SHELLEY INFORMED LEIGH HUNT, then in Italy, that she had attended a performance of Richard Brinsley Peake's adaptation of Frankenstein as Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which had opened at the English Opera House, the former Lyceum, on 28 July. As is well known, she enjoyed Thomas Potter Cooke's acting as the nameless Creature (indicated as "__" in the playbill), some thing that not only confirms the importance of naming in her novel, but also throws into relief the peculiarly spectral nature of this stage version of Frankenstein's creation. (1) To be sure, Peake's text constantly refers to its material presence: the doctor initially dubs it "a huge automaton in human form" and then goes on to list its repulsive physical traits by echoing volume I, chapter 4, in the novel. (2) Yet the play also repeatedly qualifies the Creature through the language of the supernatural, and spectrality in particular, as Frankenstein's assistant Fritz calls it "a hob-goblin" and Frankenstein a "Demon" (in the Larpent version) and a "dreadful spectre of a human form." Moreover, the Creature's first and highly spectacular appearance presents some of the features of evanescence, since it is "discovered at door entrance in smoke, which evaporates," and then exits by "disappear[ing] through [a] casement." (3)

A year later, on 22 August 1824, Mary Shelley wrote again to Leigh Hunt to tell him that London audiences were in thrall to Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischutz. She had seen it in the version that premiered at the English Opera House on 23 July 1824, and gave the following account:

   ... the music is wild but often beautiful--when the magic bullets
   are cast they fill the stage with all sorts of horrors--owls
   flapping the[ir] wings--toads [hopp]ing about--fierly [sic]
   serpents darting & the [ ] ghostly hunters in the clouds, while
   every now & then in the [ ] of a stream of wild harmony comes a
   crashing discord--all forms I assure you a very fine scene, while
   every part of the house except the stage is invelloped in darkness.
   (4)

Offered by several London theaters in competing versions during 1824, Der Freischutz was filled with superstitions and omens, apparitions and sublime landscapes, while its action, mostly set on a darkened stage, pivoted on the scene of the casting of the bullets, a veritable tour de force of supernatural effects. Although Weber's original was an opera, the earliest of its London adaptations was a straightforward melodrama (The Fatal Marksman; or, the Demon of the Black Forest, Coburg, 26 February 1824), and even operatic versions such as those at the English Opera House and Covent Garden bore a heavily melodramatic stamp. (5)

While confirming the popularity of ghost plays on the Romantic-period stage, Mary Shelley's accounts testify to the sustained investments by playwrights and managers in new ways of combining spectrality with the acting style and increasingly striking spectacular effects of melodrama in the 1820s, the decade that, in Matthew Buckley's words, saw "the genre's emergence as a dominant dramatic form." (6) In this respect, in her groundbreaking work on illegitimate theater, Jane Moody underlines how technical innovations and "monstrous generic hybridity" lay at the center of the " dramatisation [s] of supernatural terror" and " [supernatural monstrosity ... as both human and alien" in such popular melodramas from the 1820s (most of them starring T. P. Cooke in their opening run) as Peake's Presumption, James Robinson Planche's The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (English Opera House, 9 August 1820), Henry Milner's The Man and the Monster! or, the Fate of Frankenstein (Coburg, 18 August 1823), and Edward Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman; or, the Phantom Ship (Adelphi, 1 January 1827). (7) In fact, more radically innovative melodramatic forms than ghost plays emerged in this decade, such as domestic and nautical melodramas that dealt with realistic themes and topical plots. …

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