First Gothics: Walpole, Evans, Frank

By Cox, Jeffrey N. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

First Gothics: Walpole, Evans, Frank


Cox, Jeffrey N., Papers on Language & Literature


I

It is unusual to be able to date the start of a literary field of study, let alone locate the origin of a literary form. Yet, in the case of the Gothic drama, it is possible to do both. Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto (1764) is said to be the first Gothic novel, also wrote the first Gothic drama, The Mysterious Mother (1768). While surely one can find elements of the Gothic in earlier plays and precursor texts for Walpole's drama, this play first brings together in a comprehensive way the tactics and themes that will mark the Gothic in the theater. Again, while the Gothic did not have a major presence in the theater until the 1790s, with another major spurt of Gothic plays occurring in the post-Waterloo years, playwrights, perhaps most famously Byron, continued to look back to Walpole's example. Byron wrote in the preface to Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, that Walpole was "the father of the first romance, and the last tragedy of our language, and surely worthy of a higher place than any living writer, be he who he may" (xx).

We can also date very precisely the arrival of the study of Gothic drama as a scholarly endeavor. While there were obviously contemporary views and reviews of Gothic drama, and while there were glances at the dramatic version of the Gothic more often studied in the novel, it was not until 1947 with the publication of Bertrand Evans's landmark Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley that the field was laid out, a canon of texts identified, and key issues set forth. It would take another forty years and more before a large body of work would be created around the Gothic drama, but Evans's work still gives impetus and shape to the study of Gothic plays.

We were reminded of the importance of Evans's book by another founder of the field of Gothic studies, Frederick S. Frank. Frank did the essential bibliographic work needed to define any field of study within the Gothic. In The First Gothics: A Critical Guide to the English Gothic Novel (1987), Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide (2002), and in his three versions of Guides to the Gothic (1984, 1995, 2005), he literally outlined the field. In 2006, he reissued Evan's seminal study, correcting the earlier book, expanding his bibliography, and supplying an essay on "The Origins of the Modern Study of Gothic Drama." Having helped bring the field of Gothic Studies to maturity through his encyclopedic bibliographic work, Frank returned us to the starting point for anyone interested in the Gothic drama. Since Frank was also deeply interested in and edited Walpole's Mysterious Mother, the starting point for Gothic dramatists, this collection of essays devoted to Frank provides an opportunity to think about that play as the origin of Gothic drama, a play which itself is concerned with origins, both issues of birth clouded by incest and of a modern sensibility and sexuality.

II

The history of the printed text of Walpole's Mysterious Mother is almost as mysterious as the history of its heroine. Walpole wrote the play from 1766-68. Upon its completion, he decided against having it submitted for performance, as he indicated that he feared the incest theme would create too great a scandal. Instead, he printed the play on his own press at Strawberry Hill. This first private edition of the play included an interesting postscript, to which we will return. Walpole did not write a preface for the play until he decided to release the drama in an edition to be printed by Dodsley in 1781, when Walpole wished to block a pirated edition, but the preface did not in fact appear then, but only in 1791 in a Dublin printing where the publishers include an advertisement (Frank ed., 171-74). He had also contemplated a 1770 edition, and various friends hoped to see the play published or planned to extract from it. Two key frames for the play, the prologue and epilogue, though almost both surely written in 1768, were not printed until 1798 in The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford. …

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