Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Vampire

Today it's cold and gloomy outside my window, with rainy weather keeping everyone inside. This reminded my of the infamous Year Without a Summer in 1816, which led to a memorable storytelling contest that gave birth to Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley wasn't the only one to come up with a good idea during that contest, though. George Gordon Byron wrote a spooky tale about a man dying while visiting ancient sites in Turkey, but never finished it. However, his personal physician and traveling companion, John Polidori, wrote a complete novella inspired by story and published it as The Vampyre in 1819.

Byron was irate at the pirating of his story, especially as many readers falsely attributed Polidori's work to him. When he published his long poem Mazeppa later that year, Byron added to it "A Fragment" dated June 17th, 1816, which he claimed was his original tale. This fragment is not explicitly about a vampire, but rather ends with the mysterious Augustus Darvell being buried by the narrator.

Polidori's novella changes Darvell's name to Lord Ruthven, a rather cruel twist, since Lord de Ruthven was the name Byron's ex-girlfriend Caroline Lamb had used for the Byronic figure in her fictionalized takedown of him, Glenarvon. As in Byron's fragment, the mysterious man in The Vampyre extracts a strange vow from the protagonist before he dies. In Polidori's novella, Ruthven's friend must not reveal the aristocrat's death for a year and a day.

The rest of the story (which does not appear in Byron's fragment) recounts how the protagonist returns home to find Ruthven not only raised from the dead, but now courting his sister. Since Ruthven is the Earl of Marsden, he would be an eligible bachelor, were it not for the fact that he is literally a blood-sucking monster. The protagonist's vow is so strong, however, that every time he tries to warn people, he is supernaturally prevented from uttering the words.

If this sounds to you like a great setup for a play, you wouldn't be alone. The popular dramatist James Planché wrote The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles based upon Polidori's novella, premiering it at the Lyceum Theatre in London on August 9th, 1820. Planché's adaptation also drew inspiration from a French melodrama, Le Vampire by Charles Nodier, Achille de Jouffroy, and Pierre-Frédéric-Adolphe Carmouche, which had premiered that June in Paris and was likewise based on Polidori's tale.

Numerous imitations followed Planché's drama. William Thomas Moncrieff opened his play The Vampire on August 22nd, 1820 at the Royal Coburg Theatre. Charles Edward Walker brought the new trend to the patent theatres when his play Warlock of the Glen opened at Covent Garden on December 2nd, 1820. Unlike the tales by Byron and Polidori, these plays were set in Scotland, frequently making use of Fingal's cave, a natural formation on the island of Staffa, with hexagonal columns made of basalt.

Planché's play begins in Fingal's cave, where a Spirit of the Flood and a Spirit of the Air look over the heroine, Lady Margaret, who is stretched on a tomb. (No, I don't think there are any actual tombs in Fingal's cave, but it makes for a spooky setting.) We are told that Ruthven is possessed by the spirit of Cromal the Bloody, but that his reign of terror will end if he cannot prey upon a virgin before the set of the full moon.

Since the play was performed as a melodrama in one of the minor theatres of London, it was required by law to include extensive musical sequences. The play's songs are usually based on pre-existing Scottish tunes, including "Johnny Cope," "The Lass of Patie's Mill," "Ye Banks and Braes," "There's Nae Luck About the House," "Down the Burn, Davie," "Of a' the Airts," and "Fly, Let Us Awa to the Bridal."

Music also plays a role in the play's final scene, which features "A large Gothic Window, through which the Moon is seen going down." The audience watches in anticipation as Ruthven tries to marry and feed upon Margaret before the moon sets. At the Lyceum, he disappeared through the famous "vampire trap" made of India rubber that allowed the actor to disappear in an instant.

That rainy June in 1816 certainly had a tremendous influence on literature and drama. Today, vampires abound on the stage, as well as on screens large and small.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Strange Gentleman

I just finished taping an episode of Pickwick Monthly for the Rosenbach Museum and Library, where Ed Pettit and I discussed (among other things) The Strange Gentleman, the first play author Charles Dickens had professionally produced.

The two-act play--technically a "comic burletta"--debuted on September 29th, 1836 at the St. James Theatre run by John Braham. I was disappointed in the play when I first read it, but when I re-read it last night in preparation for the show, it wasn't quite as bad as I remembered.

Dickens himself came to dislike the piece, claiming he wouldn't want it performed again for a thousand pounds. (Originally, he received only 30 pounds for the copyright.) Still, the first production was successful, and the play was later performed in both New York and Philadelphia.

The story comes from Dickens's own sketch "The Great Winglebury Duel" which was included in Sketches by Boz. The play was published as being authored by "Boz" as well, as Dickens was still using that pen name. Since the St. James's Theatre did not hold a royal patent, the play had to be performed with songs to receive the "burletta" designation.

While the script calls for occasional pieces of music, they seem detached from the action. The plot, such as it is, follows several young people planning to run off to Gretna in Scotland where they can legally marry without the consent of their parents. The most interesting character is not one of the young lovers, but the "boots" Tom Sparks who works in the inn where they are staying.

Dickens scholar Michael Slater called Tom Sparks "a sort of prototype for Sam Weller without the 'Wellerisms'" since he is a comical servant like Weller in Pickwick Papers but doesn't have the witty comments that Sam has. Ultimately, everything ends well for the lovers, and Tom hopefully receives a generous tip.

If you're interested in reading the play yourself, you can find it on the Internet Archive.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Shaw Does His Bit

The summer issue of The Shavian includes an article by Michael Waters about performances of some of Bernard Shaw's World War I plays, including his hysterical one-act comedy Augustus Does His Bit.

Shaw had already publicly come out against the war (and was roundly condemned for it), but when the Anglo-Belgian actress Lalla Vandervelde appealed to him to write a play to raise funds for the people of Belgium, he obliged.

The resulting play, Augustus Does His Bit, was a send-up not of war, but of the bureaucracy that is the bane of every soldier. The play was produced in London in January of 1917 as the war was raging, and it poked fun at the incompetence that had led to so much pointless loss of life.

Critics took issue with the play, but apparently audiences loved it. The actor F.B.J. Sharp played the meticulously fussy Lord Augustus Highcastle while Vandervelde played the mysterious lady who shows up at his office to steal government secrets from right under his nose. Fortunately, everything turns out fine, but not before Augustus is made a fool of and the audience is thoroughly entertained.

After the war ended, there continued to be a smattering of performances. St. Paul's school in Coventry put the play on in 1922, as did Dundee Training College the following year. In 1924 the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead put the piece on, together with Shaw's one-act play The Man of Destiny which has a similarly absurd depiction of Napoleon. The critics were unimpressed, perhaps because the play's moment had passed and people no longer wanted to think about the war.

Today, though, Shaw's satire sparkles, and the play calls out for performance, as does another Shaw one-act play about the war, O'Flaherty VC.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Wallack's Theatre

I've been looking at some illustrations of American theatre that appeared in Harper's Weekly, a journal that began in 1857 and remained a staple for the rest of the 19th century.

In the 1850s when Harper's began, the theatre was an extremely popular art form in the United States. During the 1857-58 season, a financial panic hit the country, yet the New York Opera reported having its best season ever.

Launching along with Harper's in 1857 was the Broadway hit The Poor of New York, the melodrama by Dion Boucicault that dealt with good and wicked characters alike navigating the effects of financial panic. The show opened at Wallack's Theatre at 485 Broadway (near Broome Street) and immediately produced a sensation by reproducing a burning tenement building right on stage.

Wallack's Theatre was referred to in the press as an "exceedingly elegant little house" catering to those with "the most delicate taste". Over the years, though, fashionable society moved uptown, and so did the theatre. In 1861, the father-and-son team of James and Lester Wallack moved their company up to 844 Broadway at 13th Street. It was here that Boucicault's play The Shaughraun played for 143 performances.

As the center of New York continued to move northward, the company (now just run by Lester, following his father's death) moved uptown again, this time to the corner of 30th Street and Broadway. It is the Wallack's Theatre here (renamed the Germania, and later the Star) that hosted a famous production of The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan featuring John Gilbert as Sir Peter Teazle and Rose Coghlan as his wife Lady Teazle.

Here's a picture that ran in Harper's showing the famous screen scene in the play:

Thursday, August 31, 2023


Last year, I appeared on CUNY TV with director Jack O'Brien to discuss the legacy of Tom Stoppard. At the time, O'Brien was directing an out-of-town workshop of the Broadway-bound musical Shucked.

Well, when I heard about the show, I knew I would want to see it. As was the case with the immersive Great Gatsby I planned to see it in previews, but then life got in the way. Well, it's been catch-up time recently, and last night I finally got to see Shucked, which is not only very funny, but has some great songs.

That shouldn't be surprising since Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, who co-wrote the music and lyrics, both have long resumes as writers of popular country songs. The music is best when it hews closely to its country roots, as with the Act I numbers "Woman of the World" and "Somebody Will." The lyrics can be delightfully self-mocking, as country songs often are. The Act II opener "We Love Jesus" follows up its title line with the words "but we drink a little."

O'Brien did an excellent job directing the piece, and was aided by choreographer Sarah O'Gleby, who turned the song "Best Man Wins" into a tour-de-force of dance. The purposefully askew set designed by Scott Pask works for the off-kilter show, and the costumes designed by Tilly Grimes project the country characters who form the bulk of the cast, as well as the one outsider, who comes from that well-known cosmopolitan metropolis... Tampa!

Yes, this is a corn-ball show, and it's proud of it! There's also a digital lottery and rush ticket policy, so be sure to check it out if you can.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Robert Dighton's Caricatues

The author Dion Clayton Calthrop said in an article about the Regency-era artist Robert Dighton, “The essence of caricature is polite laughter and polished attack.” That description seems to fit Dighton’s theatrical portraits, which are well worth a look.

Dighton was born in 1752 and lived until 1814. He first exhibited his work at the Free Society of Artists when he was only seventeen, and he continued to exhibit from 1769 to 1773. In 1775 he exhibited some drawings at the prestigious Royal Academy, but his fame came from more popular works.

In December of 1806, Dighton published a portrait of Angelica Catalani, the famed opera singer who caused much controversy on the London stage. Rumored to be mistress to the brutal politician Lord Castlereagh, Catalani became a target of numerous xenophobic attacks. Dighton's hand-colored caricature of her is sympathetic, though, showing her in the opera Semiramide by Rossini.

Another famous caricature Dighton did was of the actor Stephen Kemble, who was famous for playing Falstaff without needing any extra padding for the role. Kemble allegedly weighed 18 stone, about 250 pounds. Sadly, Dighton's depiction of Kemble playing Hamlet is less than sympathetic.

By the way, Kemble was brother to both John Kemble and the enormously popular Sarah Siddons. Here's his vision of Siddons as Elvira in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play, Pizarro:

Dighton's son Richard followed him into the print-making business. Richard Dighton later engraved a portrait of William Farren, an actor known as "The Cock Salmon" (don't ask) who famously appeared as Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal, also by Sheridan.

Farren, by the way, essentially acted as stepfather to the Victorian actress Helen Faucit. Much to Faucit's embarrassment, Farren had carried on an illicit affair with her mother. The actor did eventually marry his live-in mistress, but only after Faucit's father died.

And you thought your parents were embarrassing....

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Immersive Gatsby

When I was in London last year, there was an immersive production of The Great Gatsby that I was interested in seeing. However, I had a lot of things to do, so I wasn't able to fit it into my schedule.

That's why I was happy when I heard the immersive adaptation of the classic novel was opening in New York. I was going to get tickets while it was in previews, but stuff happened, as it often does in life. I kept putting off going, but finally got to see it this afternoon.

Well, the show closes tomorrow, so I caught it just in time, and I'm very glad I did. Though I had my doubts, the production does a good job of telling the story while also integrating the audience at important moments. While key scenes take place in a main ballroom, audience members are also invited off into numerous side rooms, where some of the most interesting parts occur.

Mister Gatsby himself invited me and a number of other "potential investors" into his study for a "business proposal" and asked us questions about ourselves while also revealing some of his own secrets. Later he selected a smaller group of us, and after dodging questions from a nosey reporter, he took us back to a bedroom with stacks of his famous shirts.

The reporter showed up again in a scene in a darkroom where pictures were being developed. In another scene, Daisy invited us to play charades, and in another Myrtle started a game of truth or dare where certain truths about her relationship with Tom were revealed. The interactions with the audience felt just right, seeming natural, while the cast members were also ready to steer things in the direction they needed to go.

Other scenes were more traditional pieces of theatre, where we all watched either a key interaction from the book or listened to a character (usually Nick) provide narration in F. Scott Fitzgerald's immortal words. This made the show quite different from the immersive juggernaut Sleep No More which contains virtually no dialogue and is closer to a dance piece than a traditional play.

Of course, there's also plenty of dancing in The Great Gatsby, for both the performers and the audience. (I was pleased I got a chance to Charleston.) And there's lots of live music. It was a wonderful time, Old Sport!