Theater in “The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight”

One of the main reasons I read this book was due to an article about three of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “theater novels,” The Black BandOnly a Clod, and The Cloven Foot. The article observed that it was strange that theatrical adaptations of these theater novels didn’t include any of the theatrical elements of the novels. You’d think that theatrical adaptors would have a heyday with novelistic actresses, actors, and playwrights, right? Nope. The article argues that since the class position of people associated with the theater was so delicate, and since playwrights and actor-managers were keen to see their class positions gain more clout, they effaced all references to the theater, even if they were positive. While novels could portray theater workers completely sympathetically as middle-class workers, theatrical professionals themselves didn’t want to foreground their own labor.

This is a great argument, and based on what I’ve read so far, I completely agree with it. Moving in a different direction, the thing that interest me most about theater in The Black Band is the echoes of Hamlet I’m seeing (or trying to see?). I’m interested in tracing Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s use of Hamlet in Lady Audley’s Secret, and I feel like there’s a lot to be said about The Black Band as well. Here, I’ll just try to trace some broad parallels.

First of all, the most obvious connection: Antony Verner is a tragedian who routinely plays Hamlet. And just like Robert Audley (the other Hamlet I’m identifying), he’s an amateur detective figure who falls in love with a girl named Clara (wow, Mary Elizabeth Braddon repeats names A LOT). Here’s my favorite quotation: “‘I dare not stop a moment longer to investigate this matter now,’ he added, looking at his watch, ‘or they will have to perform the tragedy of Hamlet with the part of ‘Hamlet’ omitted; but the first thing tomorrow morning, we will have the boxes cleared away and open this door, even though it should lead to some haunted chamber and I have to encounter the ghost single-handed” (274).

This brings us to the murderous brothers, which is a part that’s definitely missing from Lady Audley’s Secret. While Antony Verner is not investigating his own family, he’s still investigating the usurpation of one brother by the other. Frederick Beaumorris (Claudius) steals the inheritance of his brother, Jasper Melville/Arthur Beaumorris (Hamlet Sr.), and later tries to kill him via (what else?) poison. This fraternal usurpation is doubled in the Willoughby household, as Lionel usurps his brother’s title.

This gets me wondering about the use of play-acting to evaluate guilt. According to many accounts of the Victorian anti-theatrical prejudice, it seems like Hamlet’s method of trapping his uncle (in the famous Mousetrap scene) would be odious to Victorian audiences. In fact, Robert Audley doesn’t do much of this–he’s usually pretty direct with Lady Audley, as I remember. And the same goes for the aristocratic/upper-class characters in The Black Band: Robert Merton confronts Lady Edith directly, for example. However, Joshua Slythe (the word “sly” is even part of his name) definitely uses play-acting to catch criminals. This might be an interesting thing to investigate further… More later.

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Filed under Primary literature (novels)

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