Saturday, January 22, 2022


Today is the 234th birthday of George Gordon Byron. Not only was Lord Byron a dramatist, but many of his narrative poems have been adapted for the stage, including Don Juan and Mazeppa.

Why would Mazeppa, a tale of a man strapped naked to a wild horse, be adapted over and over again for the stage? The answer is the 19th century's love of hippodrama: the performance of plays involving onstage horses.

H.M. Milner (who also adapted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) adapted Mazeppa to be performed at Astley's Amphitheatre in 1831--with a live trained horse--and countless imitations followed. Perhaps the most famous performances of Mazeppa were by the actress Adah Isaacs Menken, who played the hero as a breeches role, though in her case the "breeches" were a skin-tight body stocking that realistically mimicked nudity. Men flocked to see her tremendous... acting skills.

The play was also adapted numerous times for the toy theatre. The Boys of England Edition included an original script for home performances. Entitled Mazeppa; or, The Wild Horse of Tartary, the play begins in the Castle of Laurinski, where the lovers Cassimer and Olinska meet. Unfortunately, Olinska is engaged to Count Palatine, but Cassimer competes nobly in an armed tournament. (The stage directions indicate that sound effects of the tournament could be created for the toy theatre by "striking two pieces of steel, or old knives together.") The night after the tournament, Cassimer attacks the count, but he is caught. That's when Olinska's father devises the punishment of lashing him to a horse's back and using torches to chase the animal away in a mad gallop.

In Act II, Cassimer is portrayed "on a Horse, pursued by Wolves and Wild Horses." Anticipating the hero's death, a vulture is supposed to descend "by means of a thin piece of wire." As is the case in Byron's poem, however, the young man does not die. In the following scene, a shepherdess in the woods hears the story of the Volpas, a mythical giant horse that is supposed to be an ill omen. The play is mostly in verse, and when it does include a song, it isn't even poetry composed by Byron. Instead, the reveling shepherds and shepherdesses sing:

     Let the lovely shepherd maid,
     Most of all his sight evade;
     Quick to your tents hasten back,
     The pursuer is on your track;
     Fly, maiden, fly! the Volpas is nigh.

A storm comes on, and the stage directions indicate that the sound of rain could be mimicked by "peas in a tin canister" while thunder can be made with "a sheet of copper to be shaken" and lightning with "a pinch of powder in a small earthen bowl." Cassimer enters on the horse, which collapses, exhausted. The shepherdess resolves to inform the local leader, Abder Khan, who recognizes Cassimer as his long-lost son Mazeppa. Then, there comes another piece of non-Byronic verse:

     Gracious powers whom we adore,
     Our future monarch now restore.
     That our triumphant shouts may raise,
     In songs of gratitude and praise.

Like the earlier song, this actually comes from Milner's stage adaptation, not Byron's poem. Anyway, Cassimer--now Mazeppa--saves his father's life. Proclaimed the new King of Tartary, he should be happy, but he cannot be so without his beloved Olinska. He leads the Tartars back to Poland to besiege the castle and claim his love.

Act III begins in the castle, where preparations are underway for Olinska's marriage to Count Palatine. A group of wandering Tartars has been hired to provide entertainment, and Mazeppa is disguised among them. He reveals himself to Olinska, who is happy to see him. At the wedding procession outside the castle, Mazeppa claims the princess as his own bride. There is another great battle, and the curtain falls.

Curiously, Milner's adaptation ends the same way, with a climactic battle and no further dialogue. The script for the Boys of England Edition is ambiguous as to who wins, but Milner's stage directions make it clear that Mezeppa gets Olinska in the end.

That's not in Byron's poem, by the way. In the original, Mazeppa simply ends his tale after the part of the story where he is made king. Stage adaptations took little from Byron's work, but the poem still inspired countless productions.