Category Archives: Primary literature (plays)

Lady Audley Advertising Woodcut

Lady Audley Advertising Woodcut

As I’m revising my conference paper on ekphrasis in Lady Audley’s Secret, I’m trying to incorporate as many different visual depictions of her as possible. And I’m realizing that, given the prominence of her portrait in the novel, maybe any “portrait” of her can count as ekphrasis under the definition I’m using. So here she is pushing George Talboys into the well. This scene is not actually directly represented in the novel, but it’s the scene that all the adaptations (even H.J. Byron’s) revolve around. It’s a scene of intense movement and interaction between the two actors. We can see several different representations of movement in this woodcut: Lady Audley’s posture, for example, is inclined forward, back hunched, arms locked, hair flapping behind her. George Talboys is poised to fall into the well, arms raised, hat already fallen off. Even the crumbling rocks can be seen falling into the depths of the well. But here’s what’s weird. Lady Audley is inclined forward, as if she’s ABOUT to push George into the well. But George is already falling. The two figures are not touching–even their feet, which are almost touching, are not actually in contact. This is simultaneously a picture of Lady Audley ABOUT TO push George and a picture of Lady Audley HAVING PUSHED George. Two temporalities coexist in this woodcut, future and past–Lady Audley about to do something, and the thing already having been done. So, how should we read this? Perhaps this registers the frenetic pace of the adaptations–a pace that Henry Morely critiques in his journal when he mentions that too many things are happening all at once, on top of one another, losing the measured pace of the novelistic original. Maybe this is motion overlapping motion–our knowledge of the novel fills in the gap that the woodcut creates. Or does this lack of contact between Lady Audley and her victim diminish some of her agency in this act? Although the woodcut clearly portrays her intention to shove George, in actuality, it appears that he falls before she even touches him. This may seem like a minor point, but in a novel that already complicates her culpability in the attempted murder to such an exquisite degree, this illustration, perhaps, portrays her desperation more than her aggression. Either way, this odd sense of movement is complicated even more by the fact that it’s solidified in a woodcut–which refers us to the moving stage adaptation.

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February 24, 2013 · 9:40 am

East Lynne, by T.A. Palmer

This was the most popular adaptation, apparently, and it follows the novel pretty closely, so I’m not going to bother summarizing it here. But there was a big part of East Lynne that I had forgotten in the time since I read the novel, and this part stood out to me even more after having just read Tom Robertson’s Society. Archibald Carlyle runs for MP against Francis Levison. Levison is a baronet, while Carlyle is a lawyer. Okay, now I really wish I had a better grasp on the fine distinctions between the middle- and upper-class professional hierarchies during this period…. but let me try. In Robertson’s Society, as in Lady Audley’s Secret, the protagonist is a barrister, which means that he’s a gentleman and doesn’t really need to work at his profession. Maybe he’s a second son, or maybe his family doesn’t have money, but barristers have a family name, I think. So, in Society, the “name” ends up being more important than the capital. In East Lynne, the opposite is true. Levison has a “name,” but he’s a typical aristocratic, rakish villain. Carlyle is distinctly middle-class, but he’s so much the hard-working, David Copperfield-esque Victorian that he builds up enough capital to buy East Lynne from the dissipated Lord Mount Severn. Another victory for capital over name. He’s also, reputedly, a very hard worker, as lawyers have to be, I guess, when they’re not barristers. His sister, Cornelia, is always implying that he’s away from the office too much, which (given Cornelia’s disposition) is meant to imply the opposite. He, of course, also puts business above his wife, Isabel. No seaside vacations for hardworking lawyers.

Of course, he doesn’t seem very analogous to the Chodds of Society, who inherit their wealth from Chodd Senior’s brother, but actually, Carlyle inherits his practice from his father, who was a hard worker before him. So the paradigm of inherited wealth stands in both texts. But in one the middle-class hero wins the MP position, and in the other, the penniless aristocrat wins the MP position. I don’t have enough background on these politics and class statuses yet to make anything of this, but I sense that this is something to remember and analyze further.

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Society, by Tom Robertson

After reading so much about the Bancrofts and the Prince of Wales’s theater, it was pretty amazing to read my first Tom Robertson play, Society. The Bancrofts depended heavily on Tom Robertson in a time when it was unusual for a theater to have such strong ties to a single playwright. I put Robertson on my quals reading list because he is credited with bringing into vogue the “cup-and-saucer” style of drama, which is famous for its detailed and realistic plots, sets, and props. In a photograph from Society, Squire Bancroft and Marie Wilton drink tea on stage–not a big deal nowadays, but definitely a subject of comment in the 1860s. I also put this play on my list because it’s probably a good example of “realism” on the mid-century stage, and it’s a genre that’s contiguous with sensation drama.

Here’s a Character List:

Sidney Daryl: He’s a penniless barrister who’s in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maud Hetherington. He’s a good guy with a lot of fancy friends in “society.” In fact, he’s such a good guy that he raises his cousin’s daughter after she becomes orphaned–in an attempt to gain the favor of the daughter’s grandmother, Lady Ptarmigant, so that he can marry her ward, Maud…. but still. He comes from a good family, but he gave up what was left of his fortune to help his dissolute brother keep the family estate, so he has nothing, and therefore Lady Ptarmigant doesn’t want him to marry Maud. But things turn around when he runs for MP in his home town, wins, and then his brother dies. He and Maud are presumed to live happily ever after.

Maud Hetherington: She returns Sidney’s love, and agrees to marry him, money or no money. But her aunt, Lady Ptarmigant, has other plans for her: she wants Maud to marry the vulgar but rich John Chodd Junior, who’s a pretty odious guy. Maud resists, but Lady Ptarmigant puts the announcement in the papers anyway. Sidney sees the announcement, assumes Maud has betrayed him, and then makes a scene while dancing with her at a ball. She gets offended that he made such an assumption, and then goes on to make an assumption of her own, when she meets Sidney’s ward, Little Maud, and assumes that she is Sidney’s illegitimate daughter. Enraged, she agrees to marry Chodd Junior. When she finds out the truth (thanks to Lord Ptarmigant), all is forgiven, she forgets about Chodd Junior, and lives happily ever after with Sidney.

John Chodd, Senior: He’s a commoner whose brother made a fortune in Australia, which he inherited after his brother’s death. He decides to devote his wealth to trying to make his son, John Chodd, Junior, into a gentleman and get him into Parliament. He also buys a newspaper, with the help of Tom Stylus (friend of Sidney Daryl), who has started 18 newspapers in the past, each of which has failed. When he fails to give Tom the sub-editor position he wants, Tom gets mad and, while covering for the editor while said editor is sick, prints a story in favor of Sidney’s bid for the MP position, despite the fact that John Chodd, Junior is running for the same position.

John Chodd, Junior: After trying to employ Sidney as a writer in his father’s newspaper, he notices that Sidney has lots of invitations to “society” events. Knowing that Sidney needs money, he offers to pay Sidney to take him around in society and introduce him to all of his friends. Sidney refuses, saying: “I cannot entertain your very commercial proposition. My friends are my friends; they are not marketable commodities” (1.1, p. 47). Chodd Jr. gets offended, and this initiates several acts of competitive chest-thumping, including Chodd Jr’s proposal to Maud, Chodd Jr. buying all of Sidney’s debt and trying to have him arrested, and Chodd Jr. running for MP in Sidney’s home town.

Lady Ptarmigant: She’s Maud’s aunt, and also a relation of Sidney. She’s mostly concerned with money and status–she’s a gentlewoman, but without much money. She tries to force Maud to marry Chodd Jr. for his money, but once Sidney turns out to have money AND status (dead brother and MP), she discards the odious Chodds pretty quickly. Lady P., however, isn’t just about the money. She also hates men. We later find out that she was jilted at the altar at 23, and married Lord P. pretty much in order to make his life miserable, which she does. She advises Maud to do the same with Chodd Jr.

Lord Ptarmigant: He’s mostly a nonentity throughout most of the play. He’s so henpecked by his wife that he just falls asleep wherever he goes. But toward the end of the play, Sidney tells him Little Maud’s story: Lord Ptarmigant’s son, on this way to the Crimean War, told Sidney that he had fallen in love with a common woman, and he was confiding their child to Sidney’s care, since he felt that he would die–which he did. Sidney convinced him to marry the woman before he left to legitimize the daughter–which he did. When the wife died, Sidney placed Little Maud with a motherly woman and continued to oversee her care. Lord Ptarmigant is so happy to have a grandchild that he insists on making sure that Maud, his niece, knows how honorable Sidney is. Thanks to his intervention, Sidney and Maud are able to reconcile and get engaged.

After reading so much about the various class dynamics in theaters, I can see a lot of that playing out in Society. This play definitely favors the aristocracy, portraying the Chodds–who think they can write a cheque for their entrance into “society”–as naive rubes. Sidney’s election speech is an obvious moment of aristocratic superiority, since he basically relies on the winning formula of landowning aristocracy: “hey, c’mon everyone, you all know me and you’ve known my family forever. The end.” This is essentially a play about all the things that money can’t buy. And actually, it can’t buy anything, really. Even the newspaper–which the Chodds do buy–ends up belonging to the aristocratic Sidney. Money gets passed around all over this play, but it never really buys anything. The irony is that all the money that the Chodds flourish ends up supporting Sidney in one way or another. Definitely an assertion of dominance over the rising mercantile class, but a deeply cynical one, since Robertson spent lots of his life living hand-to-mouth, and the life of a playwright was far from glamorous, or even financially comfortable.

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Sweeney Todd: George Dibdin Pitt

Actually, I couldn’t find the actual play by George Dibdin Pitt, so this one is by Austin Rosser, based on the play by George Dibdin Pitt. Oh well. This is a really interesting adaptation, especially after seeing Tim Burton’s take on The String of Pearls. Like the Tim Burton adaptation, this one engages what Elaine Hadley calls the “melodramatic mode” in order to translate Thomas Preskett Prest’s distinctly disorganized narrative into a triumph of middle-class virtue over working-class vice. The chaotic disorganization of The String of Pearls complicated our adherence to these comforting categories, I think, and sometimes we were sympathizing with Sweeney Todd in spite of ourselves.

This theatrical adaptation opens with Sweeney Todd taking on Tobias as an apprentice. Interestingly, this version fleshes out Tobias’s flights of emotion when Sweeney Todd says, “Your ma told me that you come from a very ‘delicate’ family, and easily upset, that you’ve been tenderly nurtured and you’re to be treated as such” (2). Not so with Prest’s Tobias, whose mother seems jolly and affectionate, but not overly attached to her son. Tobias’s “delicacy,” apparently, explains why he’s always crying and wringing his hands (although, to be fair, he has plenty of reason to cry). It also aligns him with middle-class sensibilities, like those of Joanna.

Anyway, Mark Ingestrie is pretty much what he was in Prest’s novel–a seafaring man who comes back home with a string of pearls to claim Joanna’s hand. He stops by Sweeney Todd’s barber shop for a shave, gets thrown down to the basement by the mechanical chair, and survives the fall thanks to an obliging corpse, who breaks his fall. This is not exactly what happened in the novel, but actually, Prest doesn’t tell us anything about Mark until he shows up, destitute, as Mrs. Lovett’s new baker. What happened to him in the meantime? Prest doesn’t really care. Get over it.

In this version, Mark escapes from the dungeon, somehow climbs back up through the mechanical chair, instructs Tobias to run to Joanna and alert the police, and then hires himself out to Mrs. Lovett as a baker. He bites into only one pie before he realizes that they’re made of human flesh: first, he finds a hair (not that surprising), but then he finds a fingernail, which might also be a bone–and he jumps to the right conclusion.

Meanwhile, Joanna is busy fending off the lecherous advances of the local priest, who has her mother’s blessing to marry her by force, if necessary. He “helps” her search for Mark when she decides that he’s missing, but then tries to rape her in an alley. Not sure how the original version by Pitt treated this scene, because it’s fairly graphic in this Rosser re-make. I would normally say it’s more graphic by nineteenth-century standards than by 21st-century standards, but I think that rape is graphic by any standards, really. But Sweeney Todd interrupts them at the key moment, and Lupin (the priest) retreats. Then, Todd tries to slit Joanna’s throat, since he knows she’s looking for Mark (who he thinks he’s killed). But then Lupin re-interrupts after he hears Joanna scream. In the confusion, she runs off in a panic, and Lupin takes the opportunity to make an appointment for a shave.

As in the Tim Burton adaptation, this version gives Joanna much less sexual agency than she had in the novel. Prest’s Joanna also had a mother who wanted her to marry a lecherous priest, but she refused, insulted by the idea. Admittedly, it helped that she had a father on her side, who was willing to physically shame the priest–but still, the novel shamed the priest, while the play subjects Joanna to attempted rape (twice).

This brings us to Mrs. Lovett–another helpless victim in this adaptation. Again, in the novel, she’s portrayed as fully, willingly, voluntarily evil. She has some fits of conscience toward the end, but she’s not much of a victim–certainly not a victim of extortion. Here, she’s kind of pathetic. She’s looking for a husband–again, not something she did in the novel (who needs one, when your human-meat-pies are bringing in so much business?). She flirts with Lupin, who flirts back in order to get dirt on Todd. He then stupidly tries to blackmail Todd, who promptly uses his mechanical chair, and then Lupin is no longer a threat. Later, Mrs. Lovett tries to quit the pie-making business, telling Todd that she is “still a country girl at heart” (25). Todd threatens to kill her, extorts her continued cooperation, and then the play suggests that he rapes her. Wow. More rape. The subtle suggestion here is that, according to the logic of melodrama, she “deserves” to be raped, because she’s an accomplice to all of Todd’s murders. This upsets me for a lot of reasons, but for now, I’ll just focus on how UNLIKE Prest’s Mrs. Lovett this Mrs. Lovett is. Prest’s Mrs. Lovett actively uses her sexuality to sell pies, playing on the emotions of her predominantly male clientele. She uses this same sexuality to imprison the men who work in her bakery, and never seems the least bit bothered by any of this until the end of the novel, where she, inevitably, gets her comeuppance. This Mrs. Lovett has very little agency, acts like the trauma victim that she is, and eventually gets thrown in the furnace, just like Tim Burton’s Mrs. Lovett.

After this dramatic scene, Sweeney Todd is passed out drunk in the bakery, while Mark impersonates a disembodied Voice in an attempt to scare Todd (which doesn’t work very well). Mark eventually confronts Todd, who beats him up, and is about to kill him when he decides that it would be a better idea to tie him up and make him watch his lover get raped. At this point,  Todd goes off on a love-hating rampage: “all you lusty young loving couples, watch out! Sweeney is on the prowl! And I hate yer. It’ll be you, then her. Eh? Eh? Haha! All you young fellows with fancy notions in your heads, wenching in shop doorways, in narrow alleyways, yearning for it under the arch of a bridge–watch out tonight, ‘cos old Sweeney is on the loose and he’ll uncouple you” (35). This Sweeney Todd seems to be motivated by the more melodramatic factors of rage and jealousy, while Prest’s Sweeney Todd was more motivated purely by greed. He never would have gone about “uncoupling” lovers, unless they had something valuable for him to steal. His murderous rampage was purely economic. This one is much more squarely melodramatic.

But it gets even weirder. After killing Fogg after running into him on the street (another helpless victim in this version, rather than the pure evil he was in Prest’s version), Todd grabs Joanna (who randomly happens to be walking alone in a dark alleyway) and takes her down to the basement where he has Mark tied up. By this time, the police are out looking for Todd (since Tobias had already alerted Joanna some time ago), so he has to be quick about things. But, as he’s getting ready to rape her in front of Mark, he insists that she tell him she loves him, which she refuses to do. She loves Mark, after all, not Sweeney Todd. This draws things out long enough for the police to be almost there by the time that Sweeney gives up and starts crying in response to Joanna’s sympathy: “I don’t love you–I don’t–I don’t–I feel sorrow for you–a terrible sorrow–I …” (40).

Okay, let me try to work through this here. After the quote above, the stage directions say: “Joanna breaks off as she realizes that her arms are thrown out impulsively towards Sweeney and that there are tears on Sweeney’s face” (40). Her arms are thrown out “impulsively.” Because she doesn’t really know or have control of what she’s doing. Just as she instinctively can’t lie about who she loves, even for her own self-preservation, she also instinctively reaches out to comfort her would-be rapist when she notices he’s crying. Wow. Just… wow. What happened to Prest’s cross-dressing, mystery-solving Johanna? For his part, Sweeney responds to the sympathy by saying, “Just one kiss. (He pauses) Just the one kiss which has been denied me all my life–(hesitantly)–that pure kiss which penetrates the soul!” (40). Hmmm. There are two words that Prest’s Sweeney would have mocked incessantly: “hesitantly” and “pure.” This Sweeney is just… what? A neglected child who never got the love he needed? Just as much of a victim as the countless people he himself has victimized? This is the note the play ends on, as he kills himself just as the police are about to arrest him, and Joanna continues to try to comfort him as he falls. Fascinating.

After reading this adaptation, I think this is a good time to reflect on one of the dominant narratives I was told about literary history as an undergrad: we should avoid criticizing the past for being the past. The other dominant narrative was the opposite of this: authors from the past lived in different times, and those times were sometimes reflected (negatively) in their work. While I understand the first model–we shouldn’t criticize the past for being the past–I think it’s outlived its usefulness for me. I can definitely see the melodramatic context of this George Dibdin Pitt adaptation, and can appreciate that it portrays some Victorian female characters in a recognizably Victorian way. Fine. But I think that when we advise students not to “criticize the past for being the past,” we reinforce this notion that the past is simply one thing, that it’s monolithic in some significant way. This cautionary narrative of reading literary history actually capitalizes on stereotypes, in my opinion. We might say, “well, Victorians had different notions of femininity, and we shouldn’t criticize them for not behaving as 21st-century people would.” That’s certainly true, and the problem I have with that logic is not that it seems to be apologizing for something we might call “sexism” or “misogyny,” but that we assume that Victorians had a monolithic notion of sexuality that they should not be judged for. As I’m seeing from the differences between the Prest version and the Burton and Pitt versions, there are many different Johannas and Mrs. Lovetts that Victorian readers/theater-goers consumed. And the Johanna that I’m praising–Prest’s Johanna from The String of Pearls–isn’t even a representation that I’d describe as “subversive” in any way. That might seem like an easy descriptor for a cross-dressing female detective in a novel of the 1840s, except that Prest wrote for an extremely popular, extremely rich, and extremely powerful publishing house–and The String of Pearls is a product of this hegemonic publisher, whose top executives were in the top 1% of British earners. So, in the context of British publishing culture, it’s dangerous to label any of this output as “subversive,” really. Prest’s Johanna is just a typical, conventional, cross-dressing, assertive Victorian heroine. So, can I criticize Pitt’s Joanna for being a typical passive, submissive Victorian victim? Yes. Absolutely. Because there’s no “the past” to criticize. “The past” is not a thing, does not exist. There are only pasts, which overlap, oppose, and contradict each other, and I can absolutely prefer some pasts over others. That doesn’t make me any less of a historicist, I don’t think, because I’m engaging in versions of the same debates that my source material was engaged in–which keeps the literature alive just as much as paeans to its literary merit do.

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Lady Audley’s Secret, by George Roberts

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 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.

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Lady Audley’s Secret, by Colin Henry Hazlewood

Act I:  Opens with an interaction between Luke and Phoebe.  We learn that Alicia and Robert are engaged.  Everyone is getting together for Sir Michael’s 70th birthday.  Robert is late because he has run into his old friend, George Talboys, who accompanies him to Sir Michael’s birthday party.  Alicia introduces them to Lady Audley via a miniature she carries with her.  George recognizes his “dead” wife, wanders off, and ends up confronting Lady Audley.  They have a long exchange, in which George vows vengeance.  Lady Audley throws him down a well, not suspecting that Luke Marks has seen everything.

Act II:  Alicia complains to her father that George’s disappearance has postponed her marriage to Robert.  Luke confronts Lady Audley with his knowledge and extorts money from her.  She promises to bring him 100 pounds at the tavern she bought for he and Phoebe upon their marriage, four months prior.  After he exits, Robert enters, having returned from London, where he was searching for George.  He converses with Lady Audley, and then eventually confronts her with his suspicions that she is Helen Talboys, and that she has done some sort of mischief to George.  They agree to be eternal foes, and then Robert offers to let her leave Audley Court in exchange for his silence; otherwise, he will publicize his suspicions.  After he leaves, Lady Audley accuses him to Sir Michael and Alicia of hitting on her, and asks Sir Michael to banish him from Audley Court, which request Sir Michael promptly complies with.  Robert heads to Mt. Stanning, where Luke is drunk and bragging about that fact that he has a secret about Lady Audley.  Robert tries to get him drunker so that he’ll talk, but Luke just falls asleep.  Lady Audley comes to give Luke his extortion money, but when she sees Robert and Luke together, she decides to set fire to the inn to silence both of them.  She sends Phoebe back to Audley Court while she sets fire to Mt. Stanning.  Alicia intercepts them on the road to Audley Court with the news that Sir Michael has suffered a fit.  Phoebe sees Mt. Stanning burning, and intuits Lady Audley’s role in it when Lady Audley tries to prevent her from returning.  Robert intercepts the abduction Lady Audley is trying to carry out.  He denounces her as a murderess, and a dying Luke shows up to corroborate his story.  Then Alicia shows up to say her father is dead.  Then George shows up to say that he is alive.  Then Luke dies and Lady Audley goes mad.

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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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