Sensation Theater

Holder, Heidi J.  “Sensation Theater.”

Chapter 5 of the Blackwell Companion opens by discussing a play that caught my interest right away: H.J. Byron’s 1863; or, The Sensations of the Past Season.  This is definitely a relevant play for my reading, since it lampoons Lady Audley’s Secret specifically, and sensation theater and fiction more broadly.  Lady Audley was played by comic actor J.L. Toole, and Robert Audley was played by actress Fanny Josephs, so the cross-dressing is also an interesting aspect to think about (and the play seems hilarious!).  Apparently, these parodies and burlesques of sensation drama were extremely popular in the mid-century, since Dion Boucicault and Braddon’s adapters were dominating the sensation theater scene.  The Adelphi Theatre was one of the main houses for sensation drama (also called “blood-and-thunder” melodrama), and sensation plays were well-known for their special effects, or “sensation scenes.”  In discussing sensation theater’s detractors, Holder makes the comparison to present-day movie critics who lament Hollywood’s over-reliance on “special effects.”  It seems that sensation drama was guilty of the same thing.

Major playwrights associated with sensation burlesques were Gilber Abbot a Beckett, F.C. Burnand, H.J. Byron, William Brough, and Mark Lemon.  Holder looks at the temporality of sensation fiction and its corresponding burlesques, noting that the prolonged detection plot in such novels as The Woman in White or Lady Audley’s Secret gets humorously shortened in the burlesque versions.  “The customary amazing rescue, reappearance, or reclamation in sensation fiction of the lost, exiled, or presumed dead,” Holder says, “[…] happens now in burlesque time: instantaneously” (69).  Holder cites Martin Meisel’s Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (1983), which makes a parallel (though different) point to the one I made in my first paper on Lady Audley’s Secret.  I like Meisel’s way of explaining it, so I will quote it here to remind myself to go read this book:

One cannot help but be aware of a severe tension in the theater of the nineteenth century between picture and motion; between the static image, halting (and compressing) time so that the full implication of events and relations can be savoured, and the achievement of a total dynamism, in which everything moves and works for its own sake, as “wonder” and effect. (50, qtd. in Holder 69)

Holder uses this quotation to point out the difference between “sensation scenes” in the theater (which are moments of “shocking movement,” she says) and in the theatrical engravings familiar to most audience members (in which the sensation scene is frozen against a backdrop).  Interestingly, the scene painter in sensation theater became a more dominant figure, since sensation scenes were so elaborate, so the integration of the actor into the scene was a problematic issue, as was the actor’s ability to navigate the complicated scenery.  In this way, sensation theater was a very technological medium.  Special effects, like explosions or fires, often resolve tensions inherent in the plays, so Holder argues that they were far from gratuitous.  People falling from tall buildings, or throwing themselves on the ground, for example, might parallel moral rises and falls, tying physical spectacle to psychological drama.

Also significant about the stage scenery is the “cup-and-saucerism,” or “intense realism in domestic detail” (71) that Holder mentions.  Playwright Tom Robertson, for example, became famous not only for packing his stages with pianos, tea sets, etc, but for “engaging his characters in a great deal of interplay and stage business with these familiar objects on stage. Much of this interaction is carefully designed to seem routine or improvised” (72).  Even these small props contribute to the sensational effect, since the ordinary and everyday are being made to seem extraordinary, spectacular, and exotic.  Sensation theater, Holder concludes, “demanded deep physical engagement–among actors, between cast and set, and stage and audience” (77).

Timeline of Sensation Theater:

1813: The Miller and his Men, by Isaac Pocock (Covent Garden)

1829: The Collegians; or The Colleen Bawn, by Gerald Griffin

1832: The First Reform Bill

The Factory Lad, by John Walker (Surrey Theater)

1843: Theatre Regulation Act (allows spoken words on stage)

1847: How to Settle Accounts with Your Laundress, by J.S. Coyne (a farce of “blood-and-thunder” melodramas)

1852: Bleak House, anonymous (the Strand, theatrical adaptation)

1860: The Colleen Bawn, by Dion Boucicault (Adelphi theater–one of the leading theaters for sensation drama)

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (novel)

1861: East Lynne, by Mrs. Henry Wood (novel)

Jessie Ashton (novel): serialized in The Welcome Guest, a Journal of Recreative Literature

1862: Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (novel)

Miss Eily O’Connor, by H.J. Byron (a parody of The Colleen Bawn)

Jessy Ashton; or, The Adventures of a Barmaid, by Mrs. Henry Young (Effingham Theater)

1863: 1863; or, The Sensations of the Past Season opens on Boxing Day

Trial of Effie Deans, by Dion Boucicault

The Ticket-of-Leave Man, by Tom Taylor (Olympic Theater)

Aurora Floyd, by Colin Henry Hazlewood (theatrical adaptation)

Lady Audley’s Secret, by William Suter (Queen’s Theater, February; this adaptation prompted Braddon to sue)

Lady Audley’s Secret, by George Roberts (St. James Theater, February; this was a sanctioned adaptation)

Lady Audley’s Secret, by Colin Henry Hazlewood (Victoria Theater, May)

1867: Lost in London, by Watts Phillips

Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly (Pavilion Theater)

Caste, by Tom Robertson (Prince of Wales Theater)

1868: After Dark, by Dion Boucicault (Princess Theater)

1869: David Copperfield, Little Em’ly, by Andrew Halliday (Olympic Theater)

1876: Bleak House, by George Lander (theatrical adaptation, Pavilion Theater)

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1 Comment

Filed under Secondary reading

One response to “Sensation Theater

  1. Reading this section made me think of recent spoof films, like the Naked Gun series or Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid or Top Secret.

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