Friday, December 25, 2015

Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin

Christmas Eve is a time for telling ghost stories, so it is only fitting that last night, on Christmas Eve, I finished reading Richard Davenport-Hines' book Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. The 1998 study examines one of my favorite genres of literature… and of drama.

While most people trace the Gothic back to Horace Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto, Davenport-Hines considers the originator of the genre to be the 17th-century painter Salvator Rosa. After the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in December of 1631, Rosa began painting the devastated landscape around Naples. In the early 18th century, Englishmen began collecting Rosa's images of rugged mountains, menacing banditti, and witches' sabbaths, creating a vogue for such paintings in Britain.

One of Rosa's prominent collectors was the Earl of Shaftesbury, who influenced Alexander Pope. Though Pope was hardly a child of the Gothic, Davenport-Hines notes the poet had a taste for "fragments of a ruined world, wrecked buildings and withered trees." Pope's friend William Kent had an even greater influence on the Gothic, both through his illustrations of books like Spencer's The Faerie Queene and his architectural designs for country estates like Henry Pelham's house at Esher.

The Neo-Gothic style inaugurated by Kent and his contemporaries had a political motive as well as an aesthetic one. Aristocrats seeking to project their own power in a world increasingly dominated by trade used the Gothic to re-enforce ideas of antiquity, stability, and legitimacy, even as their actual power was slowly undermined. This was particularly true in Ireland, where Robert Kingsborough built the pretentious Mitchelstown Castle, which strove in vain to convince locals of the family's importance. Mary Wollstonecraft, who was governess to Kingsborough's daughters, wrote of the family:

The topics of matrimony and dress take their turn – Not in a very sentimental style – alas, poor sentiment it has no residence here – I almost wish the girls were novel readers and romantic, I declare false refinement is better than none at all.

Refined romanticism, might be false, but it could be self-consciously false, as was the case with Horace Walpole. After acquiring a house in Twickenham on the outskirts of London, Walpole named the place Strawberry Hill and began renovating everything in a gothic style he knew to be ridiculous. Just as absurd was his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subsequently adapted numerous times for the stage. Walpole's own play The Mysterious Mother was intended as a closet drama, perhaps because its plot was so outrageous the author couldn't imagine it being performed.

Though the Gothic preceded the French Revolution, the fall of the Bastille certainly fired the Gothic imagination. Davenport-Hines stresses the importance of the Revolution on other playwright-novelists, including the Marquis de Sade, Mathew G. Lewis and Mary Shelley. The Revolution unleashed a hunger for blood, and Davenport-Hines argues that what makes the monsters of this period so terrifying is their "insatiable neediness." The twin representatives of this unquenchable thirst for destruction are Frankenstein's monster and the Goya painting titled (posthumously) "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons." (One of my friends absolutely hates this painting. Another friend recently quipped: "Well, I guess it's really a matter of taste.")

One of the useful things Davenport-Hines does is recount the use of Gothic aesthetics by scene designers. Giovanni Battista Piranesi studied architecture and engineering, but became famous for designing scenery for the Venice opera house with "endless flights of balustrade stairs and domes beyond domes." In 1740, Piranesi settled in Rome where he designed scenery for the Valeriani brothers, among others. He ended up producing a series of prints, the Carceri, based on set designs, and these prints ended up permanently altering the design of European stage sets.

One British set designer influenced by Piranesi was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. When he was young, Pugin built a model theatre in his family's home. He later worked as a stage designer professionally, primarily at Covent Garden. He is perhaps best known today for assisting Sir Charles Barry in building the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster begun in 1840. Much of the building's Gothic aesthetic is due to Pugin, particularly the interiors. Alas, Pugin came to a rather Gothic end, going insane and dying in the Bedlam asylum in 1852.

Davenport-Hines also includes a whole chapter on vampires, beginning with the legend that suicides frequently became vampires, an ironic inversion of their desire for self-destruction. The word "Vampyre" first appeared in English in 1732 in relation to a man in Hungary, Arnold Paul, who supposedly tormented people after his death, even taking the lives of four unfortunate souls. A full 40 days after his death, locals dug up his body and found it free from corruption, but with blood about his nose and mouth. When they drove a stake through his heart, the body allegedly let forth "a horrid Groan," and they afterward burnt his body to ash and cast it back into the grave.

Lord Byron played a pivotal role in the popularizing of the vampire legend in England. His 1813 poem The Giaour contains the lines:

          But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
          Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
          Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
          And suck the blood of all thy race… 

Byron famously composed a tale of the undead during an 1816 ghost story competition with the Shelleys at Villa Diodati. Byron's personal physician, John Polidori, author of the unproduced dramas The Duke of Athens and Count Orlando, wrote his own tale based on the one Byron had told. An unscrupulous publisher named Henry Colburn printed the story in 1819 as The Vampyre, A Tale by Lord Byron. This novella became the basis of many subsequent vampire plays, including James Planché’s 1820 melodrama The Vampire, which was more immediately based on a French play, but reset in Scotland (allegedly because the theatre already had a stock of kilts).

Dion Boucicault wrote his play Vampire in 1852, and Davenport-Hines traces the influence of Polidori's tale even to Gilbert and Sullivan's 1887 operetta Ruddigore, or the Witch's Curse. The most famous vampire story is of course Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, first published in 1897. The novel inspired F.W. Murnau's silent film Nosferatu, as well as Tod Browning's 1931 Hollywood hit Dracula with Bela Lugosi. Browning's movie was directly based on a 1927 stage adaptation by actor Hamilton Deane and hack writer John L. Balderston, and is less than faithful to the novel.

Still, Browning's Dracula was successful enough to inspire Hollywood to make a slew of Gothic films, including James Whale's Frankenstein in 1931, Karl Freund's Mad Love in 1935, and Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein, also released in 1935. With these films, Gothic drama, Gothic literature in general, and indeed the entire Gothic aesthetic, reached even larger audiences, and as Davenport-Hines makes clear, the Gothic remains very much alive (or perhaps we should say undead) today.