Review: The Gothic Novel and the Stage

The Gothic Novel and the Stage: Romantic Appropriations

By Francesca Saggini. (Oxford: Routledge, 2015.  299 pages). ISBN 9781848934146

Francesca Saggini’s book The Gothic Novel and the Stage examines the relationship between two very important genres: the Gothic novel and the Gothic drama in the late 18th and the early 19th century. Her study highlights the transformation of the Gothic novel into a stage play and vice versa. She distinguishes between two appropriations: page-to-stage and stage-to-page (p. 3).  Saggini explains appropriation as follows: “appropriation is both process and product, and thus may be compared to adaptation. In effect appropriation may be perceived and enjoyed as a form of re-telling.” (p. 5). In her introduction Saggini outlines her approach and explains why she has chosen Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk and Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest as her case studies. One main factor for Saggini was to choose on the one hand a female novelist for “female” Gothic or the school of Terror and on the other a representative for “male” Gothic and the school of Horror (p. 18).

As a representative for the stage Saggini chooses James Boaden who was not only well known for his detailed biographies of famous actors, containing behind the scene anecdotes, but also for his plays. He adapted Ann Radcliffe’s highly anticipated novel The Romance of the Forest for the London Stage and renamed it Fountainville Forest. Further he wrote stage versions of Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and Lewis’ The Monk. (p. 157).

When producing Fountainville Forest Boaden clearly states the title of the source that the play is based on, thus giving him the advantage that a bestseller would surely attract a huge audience including Radcliffe’s readership. I think important to mention here  – although the example comes from the end of the 19th century – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (based on his bestseller) was performed at the Olympic Theatre in London 1871 and achieved over a hundred performances.

Ann Radcliffe’s famous Romance and Lewis’ The Monk serve Saggini as case studies for a page-to-stage and stage-to-page version. (p. 2 -3) Saggini is also looking at Lewis’ The Castle Spectre  as a stage-to-page case study. Lewis’ stage hit was transformed into a novel (p. 10). With the flourishing of chapbooks (also called bluebooks) – where texts and songs are printed on a single sheet of paper and then folded – it was only a matter of time before plays were available to all to read, reprint or rewrite into a new play or a novel. With a successful play other versions, like pantomimes and comedies of the same play, started to circulate and were performed in theatres and travelling companies.

Saggini explains, “Theatrical subtexts are virtually present in the Gothic novel” (p. 11).  The Ideal Reader is defined through knowing and understanding what the author wants to say and in Matthew G. Lewis’ case the Ideal Reader would have knowledge of theatrical set codes and stagecraft. (p. 4). In case of the stage Saggini mentions Umberto Eco’s Ideal Receiver. She argues that the knowing receiver is “somebody who is aware of the existence of either a novelistic source text in the case of an adaption or a cluster of performance forms and texts in the case of a spectacular novel. (…) In this sense the Ideal Receiver of the stage appropriation coincides with Umberto Eco’s Ideal Receiver.” (p. 14). When adapting a bestselling novel for the stage the playwright can be confident that a large part of every night’s audience has read the book beforehand.

Saggini explains that the third part of her book is “dedicated to the 1790s, the decade mirabilis of the Gothic.” (p. 5).

Gothic drama was long forgotten and a lot of material was lost whenever a theatre was destroyed by fire. Michael Kelly, who composed the music for Lewis’ The Castle Spectre lost all his songs and musical scores when the new built Theatre Royal, Drury Lane burnt down.

With the help of newspaper articles, reviews, journals, biographies and stage directions it is possible to reimagine how each play was produced on the stage. A valuable source that Saggini mentions is “An Artist and an Antiquary” (p.112). The writer describes whole sets and costumes in detail while criticising inaccurate historical costume and stage design. Theatres were rebuilt and enlarged to make space for new machinery that was used for special effects. The audience wanted to be entertained and every performance was a spectacle. With new machinery and special effects a new professional group became very important – the machinists and scene painters. Scene designers started to be paid more and their names were often printed in larger letters on the playbills, at times even before the names of the actors (p.112-113).

In further chapters Saggini discusses plots and character types – the Gothic villain-hero, the heroine, the lover (p.140-141), the crime of the past (p.146), machinery, stage traps and special effects, stage lighting, and weather effects like thunder and lightning (p. 122-123).

Saggini also mentions German schauerromane (p. 52). Matthew G. Lewis translated plays from German into English  – for example Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe. August Kotzebue’s The Stranger was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and John Philip Kemble produced and stared in Kotzebue’s Pizarro. Richard Brinsley Sheridan altered Pizarro for the London Stage and even changed the ending.

Saggini’s study gives us an opening point for further research into this topic including theatre in Germany and Austria. In the beginning of the 19th century a new star appeared on the Viennese theatre scene. One of Franz Grillparzer’s plays was partly based on a German novel that had, yet again, an English novel as a source. An old curse is responsible for a ghostly figure that haunts an old castle. The audience in Vienna enjoyed a haunting on the stage as much as the English and soon after the opening night of his play everyone in Vienna knew the name Grillparzer. In Germany Ernst Raupach wrote a play in which a parade of ghosts stride over the cemetery. These are only two examples – there are many more plays to be found.

Saggini’s introduction is well written and understandable. Therein she states that Michael Gamer’s theory of Romantic authorship had a great influence on her study. (p.1.) In his book Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation Gamer focuses on Joanna Baillie’s plays and discusses Sir Walter Scott’s and Matthew G. Lewis collaboration and German translations. Saggini also cites two very important studies on Gothic Drama: Jeffrey Cox’s Seven Gothic Dramas: 1789-1825, and Paul Ranger’s Terror and Pity Reign in Every Breast: Gothic Drama in the London Patent Theatres, 1750-1820  (p. 49).  Saggini successfully intertwines two different genres: the novel and the stage play and discusses topics such as authorship, readership and audience. Her study is thoroughly researched and presented containing crucial facts for the reader. Figurines, playbills and advertisements for plays give more insight information. For her research Saggini visited libraries and archives in London, Oxford, Dublin, Florence, including the Yale Centre for British Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bodleian Library thus making this study very valuable for everyone who is interested in the Gothic and Theatre, stage lighting, special effects and beyond.

Review by Nora Olsen


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