Foul Play by Dion Boucicault

Act I:  The Proserpine sinks.  Mr. Burtenshaw (one of the underwriters) pleads for his family.  Wylie and Nancy get reunited.  Michael Penfold tries to get news of his son from Wylie.  Arthur finds out that Helen was on board the Proserpine.

Act II:  Robert and Helen are stranded on an island.  Robert tells Helen he’s an outcast; Helen tells Robert she loves him.  Helen purposely ignores a ship that could have saved them from the island.  Arthur finds out that Helen is alive, and living on an island with Robert Penfold.  We find out that Robert and Helen have made an agreement to try to get rescued for one year, and then they will get married on the island.  But Rolleston finds Helen and takes her back to England.  Helen promises to clear Robert’s name when she gets home.

Act III:  Captain Hawkins, of Scotland Yard, is introduced.  He has Arthur sign a warrant for Wylie’s arrest, on the authority of a note Helen brought home in which sailors Cooper and Welch make dying declarations that Wylie scuttled the Proserpine.  Hawkins clearly suspects Arthur of the crime.  Helen declares her love for Robert to Arthur.  Wylie is trying to outrun the law while still keeping Nancy close by.  Wylie is living in a haunted house in Southwark, where he is stashing Arthur’s gold.  Wylie stashes his own 2000 pounds in a chimney corner, but Nancy finds it and gives it to Hawkins, thinking that Hawkins is about to arrest Wylie for debt.  Hawkins handcuffs Nancy and Wylie together when he sees Wylie’s hand searching for the money.  Comedy ensues as a result of the handcuffs.  Wylie makes Nancy promise to marry him if he “makes a clean breast of the thing.”  He meets Arthur in the vault with the gold and tells him that he has confessed, so Arthur locks Wylie in the vault, thinking he has silenced him forever.  But unknown to Arthur, Hawkins has been in the vault this whole time, and has heard the entire exchange.

Act IV:  Wardlaw senior notices that the account books have been fixed, and accuses Michael Penfold, who then points the finger where it belongs: at Arthur.  Hawkins and Wylie show up to confirm Arthur’s guilt.  Then, Robert, Helen, and Nancy show up.  Arthur goes mad, but Robert gets his reputation back.  Then Arthur dies.

Just based on the plot of this theatrical adaptation, it seems like the narrative has been stripped of any nuance.  Unlike in the novelistic counterpart, Arthur is 100% evil, and Robert and Helen are 100% good.  Wylie still gets a comparative level of depth, but Nancy’s character is strikingly disappointing.  In Boucicault’s version, Michael Penfold says to Helen, “Nancy is but a poor ignorant girl, and when she finds the man that she loves accused, she will stick all the closer to him!” (28).  Helen has the gumption to return, “I know her better than you, and I am confident that she will cast him off forever” (28), but she’s wrong, either way.  Contrast that characterization to Reade’s:

In love, Nancy was unfortunate; her buxom looks, and sterling virtues, were balanced by a provoking sagacity, and an irritating habit of speaking her mind.  She humbled her lovers’ vanity one after another, and they fled.  Her heart smarted more than once. (396)

Also, we learn in the novel that Nancy “was resolved to better herself.  This phrase is sometimes drolly applied by servants, because they throw Independence into the scale.  In Nancy’s case it meant setting up as a washerwoman” (397).  Of course, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to complain about lack of nuance in a theatrical adaptation, given the necessity to compress action and characterization. But still….

Even more significantly, I don’t actually think that this theatrical adaptation lacks nuance at all…  Heidi Holder’s chapter in the Blackwell Companion to Sensation Fiction, “Sensation Theater,” makes a lot of props, sets, and stage mechanics in the reading of sensation plays.  So, I don’t think that I’m going to be able to rely on analyzing characterization when I look at these adaptations…. First of all, Holder mentions the “cup-and-saucerism” of this theatrical tradition–in other words, the proliferation of realistic props onstage, and the elaborate interactions that the actors have with these props.

I see some of this cup-and-saucerism in the rewriting of the detection sequence from Reade’s novel to Boucicault’s play.  In Reade’s novel, Mr. Undercliff, the handwriting expert, is a huge touchstone in the detection plot.  Handwriting is the key to restoring Robert’s reputation and condemning Arthur.  Readers are invited to be active readers in this process of detection, since we get to see and compare two of the critical samples of handwriting that point to Arthur’s forgery.  We also get to read Mr. Undercliff’s expert report, which helps us interpret the handwriting for ourselves.  This is a type of cup-and-saucerism that lends itself well to the novel form.  After all, it’s an easily-integrated piece of “matter-of-fact” realism to include facsimiles of a handwritten note in the pages of a novel.  What I like about this is the idea that writing is presented as a material process… Mr. Undercliff can explain that part best, I think:

The varieties in a man’s writing, caused by his writing with his glove on, or off, with a quill, or a bad steel pen, drunk or sober, calm or agitated, in full daylight or dusk, etc., etc., all this is a dead letter to them [the lawyers], and they have a bias towards suspicion of forgery.” (454)

Writing, specifically handwriting, is the “prop” in this novel–the material thing that we can all handle and interact with.  Mr. Undercliff invites us to think about the “scene” that we are a part of, along with the characters.

In Boucicault’s version, handwriting no longer drives the detection plot.  Instead, the gothic house in Southwark, with its dark subterranean vault of gold is the thing that gets followed and traced.  This is an interesting rewriting, since of all the commodities that get catalogued and inventoried in Reade’s novel, the gold basically falls out of the narrative early on.  This is one of the baldest moments of trade in the novel–a ship full of gold for Helen’s life–and we spend most of the novel not even thinking about the gold.  The play restores the gold as a major prop for the characters to interact with.  Maybe this means that Marx is popping up again in my thought process, since I’m seeing novelistic writing processes get increasingly tangible and commodified when these processes get translated onto the stage. But also, the Southwark house makes this detection plot a lot more static, since the characters have to interact with an unmoving set, rather than pieces of paper that keep circulating through the plot as they all move around to and fro. I have much more thinking to do about this….


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