Props, Art, and Circumstantial Evidence (and an attempt at an argument…)

I’m heading into my 5th month with this blog, and it’s time for my prospectus to have a clear, logical argument. I’m not sure I can accomplish that with the way I’ve set things up in my current prospectus draft, so I’m going to think through that now.

According to my director, I’ve set up several ideas that are not clearly woven together, which is definitely the feeling I had while writing the draft. I’ve tried to incorporate the idea of professionalization into my argument, but as I’m thinking about it now, I’m really only interested in that in relation to Lady Audley’s Secret and Foul Play. Gender and single authorship are also ideas that I don’t think I can make arguments about right now, although I think they are definitely relevant to my thinking for this project. Here’s the one idea that I think I can relate specifically to theatrical adaptations of sensation novels: the idea that the novels focus on texts/documentation. 

At this point, I’ve done enough reading to know (basically) what texts I want to focus on, so let me see if my new ideas will cover all of them sufficiently. After the research that I’ve done so far, I think that props and circumstantial evidence are the most interesting things that relate to both the novels and their theatrical adaptations. Sensation theater sets were very elaborate, and they were celebrated for their proliferation of props–the “cup-and-saucerism” that I cited in an earlier post. And sensation novels were famous for the same proliferation of real-life objects they depicted. And those real-life things were often central to the plot, since they provided the evidence that drove the detective narrative. This is all common knowledge. What I might be able to do is to put these two ideas together in a new way: (1) there were lots of props on the sensation stage, and (2) lots of objects are necessary for sensation plots in novels. I think that the interpretive choices that go into deciding which novelistic props to incorporate into a theatrical adaptation–and how the actors should interact with them, how they should fit into the set, at what point(s) in the narrative they should appear, who should handle them, etc.–could be fascinating to examine in relation to the physical props available in the pages of sensation novels themselves.

Let’s see if I can make this work with all of my texts…

Lady Audley’s Secret: This is a progress narrative in terms of novelistic props. In other words, the novel is, to a certain extent, about how a brief gets written and how a painting gets painted. The brief is very similar to the sample of Arthur Wardlaw’s handwriting in Foul Play–we get to see the actual brief in the pages of the novel. Both of these objects are present in George Roberts’s adaptation, and I’ve already discussed their interaction in a previous post (the one about George Roberts). I’m interested in the use of the portrait as a prop and as a piece of evidence, and I think this could lead to an interesting discussion about what constitutes evidence in a sensational detective plot. But even more “argumentatively,” I could see myself making a clear argument in this chapter that the interactions between these props point to a larger struggle between novelistic and theatrical forms.

East LynneThis is much like No Name in that characters act and manipulate props in the actual novel. I need to read the main theatrical version of this again before I go further here, though. Nonetheless, I think this method would work.

Foul PlayHere’s where I could make an argument about props as commodities, and examine their routes of exchange through the novel and its theatrical adaptation. Like Lady Audley’s Secret, there could be some tension between orality and literacy here, since one of the “props” of the novel is literally a piece of handwriting. But there is so much to talk about in both the novel and the play, including the exchange of gold for bodies in both versions, the handcuff and chimney scene in the play, the literal commodity exchange in the novel, and Robert’s industrious use of objects on the island. 

No NameI haven’t read the theatrical adaptation yet, so I’m going to wait on this discussion. But from my reading of the novel so far, Magdalen literally uses props all over the place, and I assume she does in the theatrical adaptation as well. Together with East Lynne, this might make a good chapter on gender and disguise. 

My larger “argument” might be something like: Although many scholars have examined the metaphorical and extra-textual uses/meanings of the countless objects in Victorian (sensation) novels, many of these novelistic objects had a literal, material life on the stage. Looking at how these literal pieces of circumstantial evidence were brought to life on the stage can give us new insight into their novelistic significance. More later…


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