Monday, May 7, 2018

The Premiere of THE CENCI

On this date, May 7th, in 1886, Percy Shelley's long neglected drama The Cenci received its world premiere in a private performance at the Grand Theatre, Islington.

Censorship laws meant that the play officially had to be a closed affair, but in practice the much-publicized event was anything but private. This ambitious production by the Shelley Society featured the prominent actress Alma Murray as Beatrice Cenci. It boasted massive sets, an orchestra, original music, and special wigs and dresses for Murray by name designers.

The Shelley Society enlisted the up-and-coming theatre reviewer George Bernard Shaw to handle press relations. I presented a paper on the play's influence on Shaw at a Shaw conference in New York in 2015. I later revised the paper, and last year it was published in the journal Shaw.

The Cenci managed to win over a select audience. According to The Saturday Review, "The applause was loud and continuous." Many of those who had packed the Grand Theatre were die-hard Shelley fanatics. This included an elderly Robert Browning, who, according to the New York newspaper The World, "stood up waving his handkerchief at the close."

After seeing the production, Oscar Wilde wrote in the Dramatic Review that "no one has more clearly understood than Shelley the mission of the dramatist and the meaning of the drama." Shaw was not so enthusiastic. He wrote a review in the magazine Our Corner in which he called the play "a strenuous but futile and never-to-be-repeated attempt to bottle the new wine in the old skins."

Shelley in fact did attempt to write other plays, including Hellas, a reimagining of Aeschylus for the Greek independence movement of the 1820s. The Cenci is the best of his plays, though. If you're interested, you can read the full text here.