In some ways, this adaptation follows the novel more closely than Hazlewood’s does. For one thing, it keeps the oddness of the portrait of Lady Audley, rather than abbreviating the unfinished portrait into a miniature (a miniature that, somewhat awkwardly, is in Alicia’s possession in the Hazlewood version–why would she carry around a miniature of someone she hates?). Also, it develops Lady Audley at a level of complexity roughly analogous to the novel; in other words, she has a clear motivation for changing her identity in Roberts’ play, since she believes that George has abandoned her. In fact, I think she’s much more sympathetic in Roberts’ version. George’s account of his departure to Australia? Well, he got really, really mad at Helen: “I flew into a rage with her, her father, everybody, and left her, as I swore, for ever.” So… he swears to her that he’s leaving for ever, then he actually does leave her, and…. he’s surprised that she’s married to someone else when he decides to waltz back to England?! Even Braddon didn’t give Lady Audley this much ammunition for the George Talboys/Lady Audley showdown. In Braddon’s novel, George is just some poor, puppy-dog-faced guy who slips away to Australia because he feels ashamed he can’t provide for his beloved wife. Fascinatingly (for me), Wilkie Collins’s No Name very closely parallels this entire situation: boy meets girl, boy leaves girl without a formal divorce, boy meets another girl, boy lives for a significant period of time happily married to girl #2 who, unbeknownst to Society, is not his legal wife. (And yes, Collins does capitalize “Society,” as any good Victorian author should). And yeah, I guess this is just the typical bigamy plot of sensation fiction, but the point I’m trying to make with the Collins parallel is that there’s really nothing wrong with the bigamy in No Name, per se. It’s actually the legal marriage that screws things up… but more about that later.
The big thing that excites me about this adaptation is that Roberts’ Robert Audley is very similar to Braddon’s Robert Audley: he’s a failed barrister. The Robert Audley of the Hazlewood play could really be anyone–there’s nothing particularly lazy or barrister-ish about him. I love that Scene 1 of Roberts’ play opens with Robert waiting for a newspaper and reading a letter from Alice (the Alicia character) addressed to “Robert Audley, Esq., Barrister-at-Law.” “That’s Alice’s idea of a joke,” Robert says. “She’s never happy unless she’s pitching my profession into my teeth.” And Robert’s opening monologue is a soliloquy on professional confusion, as he quotes the advice of “my friends and foes,” each of whom tells him to do a different thing. This is interesting, because Braddon makes it very clear that Robert is simply lazy. He’s never tried to get a brief–he doesn’t want a brief. A brief just comes upon him in the form of George’s disappearance.
Roberts’ Audley is also lazy (“Blackstone has paled before Balzac”), but his opening soliloquy suggests that he has made an effort to get work: “Circuit! pshaw! haven’t I been round and round and round again, like a squirrel in a cage, till I’ve lapsed into a state of chronic vertigo?” And when George asks him if he’s given up the bar, he responds: “Given it up–not I; it never let me have the chance.” (Admittedly, just before that, he said that he wouldn’t let work interfere with smoking his pipe and reading French novels–just like Braddon’s Robert).
But this is where it gets interesting. As he talks to George, Robert reveals that he’d “have a twist for a nice will case, with all sorts of contradictory clauses; or what would be more to my taste, a good murder–a murder, George, that would do a fellow credit, a torturous devious plot, clogged with subtle points of evidence, and encumbered with mystery; a case that would take months, not minutes, to master. Gad, George, give me that chance, and my fortune’s made.” First of all, I don’t think Braddon’s Robert would say anything like this. He wouldn’t want to exert himself at all, especially for a case that would take “months, not minutes, to master.” Braddon’s Robert is not like this Robert–adorably unemployed, despite some honest, if bumbling, effort. No, Braddon’s Robert makes a virtue of laziness, which makes his exertion on behalf of the missing George all the more singular. The process of professionalization in Braddon’s novel is inextricably linked to a combination of strong affective bonds and fate.
In Roberts’ play, on the other hand, the process of Robert’s professionalization is associated with… the form of the sensation novel? Robert’s description of his ideal case sounds suspiciously like one definition of a sensation novel to me: “a torturous devious plot, clogged with subtle points of evidence, and encumbered with mystery.” And not just a sensation play, either, but a sensation novel, since it “would take months, not minutes, to master.” This passage that I’m gravitating toward is obviously being used as blunt foreshadowing in the context of the play, but I think it’s also pointing us back to the novel. To make his fortune, Robert suggests, he has to write himself into a novel.
This interplay between meta-plot and professionalization continues when Robert first meets Lady Audley. Sir Michael introduces Robert as “full of brains, but short of briefs,” and Lady Audley promises, “When I am attacked, Mr. Audley, I shall retain you as my champion.” Again, this is an overload of dramatic irony for anyone who has read the novel–but, of course, lots of Victorians saw the play before reading the book. Lady Audley, here, tries to cast Robert into a role that he, at first, doesn’t foresee existing: “In that case my chance of a brief is, I fear, hopeless,” he responds to her offer. This counterfactual awareness continues after Robert confronts Lady Audley and she responds: “Robert Audley! were I standing in the felon’s dock, I might have cause perhaps to dread your accusing tongue, but, as it is, I can afford to laugh with pity at your crazy tale.” And also, in the final confrontation, Lady Audley tells him: “Alone, unaided, I defy you, Robert Audley! Be judge, approver, all, bring forth your witnesses!” Professionalization here isn’t so much about affective ties (although it is, kind of), but more about how Robert and Lady Audley write themselves back into the novel from whence they came. They might as well preface all their statements with, “If I were a character in such-and-such a plot…” It’s almost like this play has a counterfactual relation to Braddon’s novel–IF this plot twist had happened before, it might have looked like this…
This self-reflexivity manifests itself structurally, too, since both Acts to this two-Act play open with Robert’s reflections on his professional identity. In the first Act he tells us about his professional failures, and in the second Act he has the same “is this to be my first brief?!” revelation that he has in Braddon’s novel. Both of these soliloquies are inspired by pieces of writing that I assume the actor would have been flourishing onstage, for all the audience to see (but not read, of course). In fact, this play is littered with pieces of paper, just like Braddon’s novel–and in stark contrast to Hazlewood’s play. (The weirdest thing Hazlewood does, in my opinion, is make Lady Audley garden onstage while she’s talking to Robert). So far, this supports my general observation that characters are writing themselves into and out of identities through these pieces of paper (not really a new observation about any particular piece of literature, but I’ll historicize this eventually).
But interestingly, the final ekphrastic winner of the play is the picture–an appropriately visual medium. The very last time we hear a piece of paper mentioned is when George tells Robert that Luke Marks “broke his word to me by not delivering a letter which might have saved her [Lady Audley] much.” But on a first reading, I have no idea what letter George is referring to here. And we never find out. The piece of writing is forgotten, and a few lines later, Lady Audley goes mad, prompting Alice to notice: “See, see, the look! the look that is in the picture!” This would have been fascinating to see on stage. Earlier in the play, when we saw the picture of Lady Audley… how much of that picture could the audience see? Was it actually a portrait of the actress who played Lady Audley? Given the prominence of this portrait in the novel, this is a huge interpretive question, in my opinion. The play ends in this ekphrastic moment, where the object of the picture gets trapped inside the picture. Very Julio Cortazar in “Las Babas del Diablo.” What is this saying about the visual vs. the narrative medium? The final triumph is pictorial in this play of so much paper. And unlike Braddon’s novel, where Robert’s brief actually makes him a successful barrister at the end, this play drops the question of Robert’s professional identity in favor of this final, creepy ekphrasis. Certainly, these revisions make a lot of sense, given the different media of novel vs. play, but the interplay between characters writing themselves into plots and getting trapped in paintings is incredibly fascinating.