The Drama, the Melodrama, and the Sensation Novel

Andrew Sanders

Robert Browning’s tragedy Strafford had been conceived and written in the mid-1830s at the earnest request of the great actor William Charles Macready. Macready was a determined and intelligent pillar of the English stage, a committed reformer and performer of the Shakespearian repertoire as much as a patron of new national talent. Strafford pleased him, though he confessed on his first reading of the play that he had been ‘too much carried away by the truth of character to observe the meanness of plot, and occasional obscurity’. It needed substantial revision before it reached the stage of the Covent Garden Theatre in April 1837. It has very rarely been performed since. Macready also directed, and took the leading roles in, other now-forgotten plays by Victorian writers whose reputations today are exclusively based on their work in other media. The most notable of these was the historical novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote The Lady of Lyons; or, Love and Pride for Macready in 1838, following it in 1839 with the tragedy Richelieu. Both dramas remained standard repertory pieces throughout the century, attracting actors of the standing of Charles Kean, Helen Faucit, and later Henry Irving and Ellen Terry to its star roles. Irving, the leading Shakespearian actor of the second half of the century, was also instrumental in the honourable, if unacclaimed, staging of Tennyson’s sprawling verse-drama Queen Mary in 1876. In 1893, after the poet’s death, Irving took the lead in the more favourably received Becket, the second of Tennyson’s three epic dramas concerned with turning-points in English history. The shade of Shakespeare haunts the theatrical work of all those Victorian writers, from Bulwer-Lytton to Swinburne, who attempted to evolve a modern equivalent to his tragedies and history plays. The scrupulous, scholarly, elaborate, and often admirable productions of Shakespeare which so mark the history of the theatre in the nineteenth century tended to smother all serious imitation under the weight of fussy period costumes, archaeologically correct properties, and an appropriately fustian language.

The Victorian theatre evolved a far more fluid and inventive comic style than it did a tragic one. Although Charles Dickens dabbled unprofitably with burlesque in the mid-1830s, he clearly sensed that neither his talent nor his power to make money lay in that direction. Where the dialogue in his early sketches and novels is vivid, that in his plays is stilted and contrived; the conventions that he transforms in his fiction remain irredeemably conventional in his stageworks. Dickens’s friend Douglas Jerrold (1803-57) proved a far more successful writer of comedy. His farce Paul Pry (1827) and his popular nautical melodrama Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs (1829) established his once considerable reputation, but Jerrold was increasingly drawn away from the theatre and from theatrical management by his commitment to journalism, and especially to Punch (founded in 1841). The only mid-Victorian dramatist to have found favour with twentieth-century producers and audiences, and thereby to have been rescued from the semioblivion of ‘theatre history’, is Dion Boucicault (1820-90). Boucicault’s Irish roots are evident in his three witty admixtures of comedy, crime, nationalist politics, and love-interest, The Colleen Bawn (1860), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864) and The Shaughraun (1874). These brought the figure of the resilient ‘stage Irishman’ to the fore, quietening British fears of the new anti-British force of Fenianism and dulling the edge of much Nationalist aspiration (this same figure was rejected by the later playwrights associated with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin). Boucicault’s earliest success was, however, the thoroughly English five-act comedy, London Assurance (1841), a play successfully derived in its plot, style, and setting from the models provided by Goldsmith and Sheridan. Boucicault was an unashamed plagiarist, cobbling together elements from existing plays (English and foreign), from history, from fiction, and from popular topics of the day to shape the 200-odd plays ascribed to him. The realistic domestic comedies of the almost equally prolific Thomas William Robertson (1829-71) remain comparatively neglected. Robertson came of a theatrical family, and like Pinero (who later represented him as Tom Wrench in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’), intimately understood theatre life and theatre people (as his novel David Garrick of 1864 suggests). His best work, the six comedies presented at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre between 1865 and 1870, also indicates the extent ofhis grasp of theatrical techniques. The plays, which include Society (1865), Caste (1867), and School (1869), proved innovatory in their rejection of bombast in favour of delicacy, observation, and an anti-sentimental presentation of love.