Nothing new under the sun?


Playbill from Theatre Royal, Hull, 1850

Hazel has recently been working on our Pettingell Collection of Victorian manuscript prompt copies, which includes the holograph of playwrights such as Dion Boucicault, Charles Hazlewood and G. D. Pitt. Many of these prompt copies, handwritten playscripts with multiple annotations relating to staging, scenery and production, came from the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, and are annotated by Frederick Wilton, the Britannia’s stage manager during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These copies arguably offer  more realistic evidence about what was being performed on the Britannia’s stage than the copies which were sent to the Lord Chamberlain to be passed as fit for the stage (censorship on the British stage was only abolished in 1968). These copes are now held by the British Library as the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

In the course of checking the status of these manuscripts, Hazel came across some overhead projector slides of playbills advertising ‘Varney the Vampire’, which led to investigation of where these should fit with the collection. As usual, in Special Collections, a straightforward task became something of a voyage of discovery; I’ve tried to summarise some of our findings here.


Illustration from 'Melmoth the Wanderer' playscript by B. West

Vampire literature became popular in the early eighteenth century, although the first real mention of a vampire in English fiction occurred in 1797 with Robert Southey’s poem Thalaba the Destroyer. During the nineteenth century, the popularity of vampire fiction was still strong; Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood first appeared as a serialised ‘penny dreadful’ in 1845 and is attributed to James Malcolm Rymer. It was of epic length; when published as a book in 1847 it had over 200 chapters and almost 667,000 words. It was this tale which provided some of the most iconic pieces of vampiric lore to later writers of Gothic fiction, for example Varney’s fangs, hypnotic powers and superhuman strength. However, Varney had no problems with sunlight, crosses or garlic. Varney also represents a creature who is a slave to his condition, finding his vampirism repellent but unable to escape it. This idea of the reluctant vampire has been echoed in fiction ever since.


Title page from Melmoth the Wanderer by C. Perkins

Varney was incredibly popular with his peers and was adapted for the stage (I can only assume in a shortened version). Another playscript which we hold (in manuscript prompt copy and printed text) is Melmoth the Wanderer, based upon Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel. Although Maturin was commenting on contemporary society through this novel, it also contains some of the hallmarks of Gothic literature. In this novel, Melmoth makes a pact with the Devil to live for 150 years, and spends his life trying to find someone to make the payment for him. This, too, is an epically long tale, setting stories within stories and ranging between the New World and Europe. The connection between Melmoth and Varney? Well, it sounds a bit tenuous to me, but our manuscript copy of Melmoth has an alternative title handwritten on the cover: Varney the Vampire or the Unearthly Bridegroom.


Title page illustration from The Phantom by Dion Boucicault

The popularity of vampires in performance was closely linked to the rise of melodrama. The first staged vampire melodrama was adapted by Charles Nodier from an unauthorised sequel to John William Polidori’s The Vampyre. (Incidentally, Polidori’s tale was inspired by Byron’s entry into the now infamous 1816 ghost story writing competition which also spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) Nodier’s version was then reworked and produced at the Lyceum Theatre in 1820, as The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles. Dion Boucicault also wrote a contribution to the genre, first produced at the Princess’s Theatre in 1852, entitled The Vampire: a Phantasm (later renamed The Phantom).


Title page for Sweeney Todd by George Dibdin Pitt

This interest in Gothic horror and the supernatural did not go unmarked by those in authority. On Tuesday 13 November 1888, Mr Channing reported to the House of Commons on the case of ‘two boys’ awaiting their trial for murder in Maidstone Gaol and how they

had been addicted by their own confession to reading of such books as “Dick Turpin”, “Varney the Vampire: or, the Feast of Blood” and “Sweeney Todd”…and that there was an enormous circulation of criminal literature among the young…these stories attractively written were widely circulated and read by enormous numbers of children, and instigated many of them to the commission of crime

The Times, 14 November 1888, p.6

In the end, we housed the overhead projector slide with a set of negatives of a prompt copy, entitled The Feast of Blood, which looks close enough to Varney’s original incarnation to make sense. But this little bit of research has shed a whole new light, for us, on Gothic and vampiric fiction (which no-one can fail to notice has made something of a comeback in the last few years). So it seems that maybe there isn’t anything new in concerns about the effects of popular fiction/culture on young people or in popular vampires (however reluctant).

Dramatic Dickens

Now that we’ve made it to the other side of the exhibition process, it’s time to look back on what we’ve achieved and where we go from here (and to breath a sigh of relief).

Programme for Little Em'ly at the Adelphi Theatre, 1875

Programme for 'Little Em'ly' at the Adelphi Theatre, 1875

2012 was always going to be a year with plenty of Dickens, and our ambitious aim is to put on three exhibitions this year about the great author’s work. The first, Dramatic Dickens and nineteenth-century theatre is all about how Dickens’ contemporaries reacted to his works: with such enthusiasm that the author found himself swamped by pirate versions of his own stories. This features original nineteenth century playbills, books, programmes and other materials.

Dickens’ relationship with theatre in his own lifetime was rather ambiguous. In his youth, he had considered going on stage; there were plenty of opportunities for young men to pay in order to act in theatres. In the end, Dickens never reached professional theatre, although his interest in the stage is evident throughout his works. Pickwick, for example, has an actor as a major character, and Nicholas Nickleby has several episodes in which theatres, actors and plays are important (and ridiculed). However, within years of his first Sketches being published, Dickens’ writing was adapted for the stage and, for several decades, became a staple of Victorian theatre.

Illustration from 'The Cricket on the Hearth' adapted by Edward Stirling, firast performed at the Adelphi Theatre

Illustration from 'The Cricket on the Hearth' adapted by Edward Stirling, firast performed at the Adelphi Theatre

While he may have been flattered by the attention, Dickens was soon angered by the liberties some playwrights took with his work. This was especially the case when dramatisations were produced before the serial publications were completed. Dickens put his anger into Nicholas Nickleby, ridiculing hack playwrights and adding ‘I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations’.

Despite this anger, Dickens worked with theatres and playwrights to adapt his work and create new plays. He collaborated with various theatres to produce his Christmas stories, each written with the stage in mind. In collaboration with Wilkie Collins and others, he wrote plays such as A Message from the Sea. He also acted in amateur productions and performed dramatic readings to the public. Yet Dickens never achieved a professional acting career, nor did he succeed very frequently in making his own adaptation of his own work the most popular version on stage at any one time.

Sir Martin Harvey as Sidney Carton in 'The Only Way' c.1899

Sir Martin Harvey as Sidney Carton in 'The Only Way' c.1899

To experience the frenzied excitement and interest which followed Dickens on stage, come to the Library Gallery on level 1 of the Templeman Library to explore Dramatic Dickens and nineteenth-century theatre. The exhibition will run until mid-May, during normal library opening hours. Please do let us know what you think of the exhibition by writing in the Comments Book.

Two more exhibitions will follow on the theme of Dickens this year, one in the summer, looking at cartoons inspired by Dickens and one in the autumn, exploring the legacy of Dickens in the twentieth century. We’ll let you know more about these nearer the time.

So where next? Well, we still have some work to do on uncatalogued Dickens material, work on the Renfrew Collection and Hendrie Collection are ongoing and we’re hoping to get some more playbills digitised as well. And just to add some excitement to the mix, Chris and I investigated a small cache of collections this morning which had previously been unmarked and unsorted…more on that and all exciting developments shortly!

Happy Birthday Boz!

Today is the day that so many people have been looking forward to in 2012: the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth.

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

Script for Oliver Twist, 1838

I’d just like to take this opportunity to say Happy Birthday Boz, if not quite as popular now as in his heyday, still standing the test of time remarkably well. Who would have thought that, two hundred years after his birth in 1812, many of Dickens’ characters and stories would be part of popular culture today? With adaptations, spoofs and much-loved inspiration, Dickens’ work continues to be as powerful and timely to us as any number of twentieth century authors.

Few people could have failed to notice that 2012 was going to bring a rush of Dickensian fans to the fore; don’t worry, I’m not going to make a stand for the literary merit or try to explain the enduring popularity of Dickens’ works. Instead, I’d like to update you about what we will be doing, here in Special Collections, to mark this year.

As you may have guessed, our 2012 will be heavily focused upon Dickens. Our Dickens Theatre Collection draws together elements of our extensive Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collections with a small collection of Dickens ephemera, and will be the mainstay of our bicentenary celebrations. In fact, those of you who are regular visitors to the Templeman Library may have noticed that our new Welcome Hall display is already celebrating all things Dickens in the library. Do have a look, and try to guess the characters from the Kyd sketches. We’re working on pages for the website which will allow a virtual exploration of our Dickens holdings and hope that this will be up and running by May.

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Playbill for 'No Thoroughfare', 1868

Currently Chris, Hazel and myself are working hard to prepare for our first exhibition of the year. Dickens Dramatised will focus on nineteenth century adaptations of Boz’s works for the theatre and explore the writer’s immense popularity on the stage. From the start, with Sketches by Boz, Dickens’ work was being transformed for the stage. While many of the playwrights reworked the novels into theatrical forms without consulting the writer, Dickens himself tried try, and on some occasions succeeded in, writing for the stage. He also acted, appearing on his own stage at Tavistock House, in 1855, under the stage name Mr Crummles in Wilkie Collins’ The Lighthouse. Dickens collaborated with Collins on several occasions to produce plays, but was rebuffed when attempting to adapt his own most popular work of Oliver Twist. Dickens Dramatised will explore the relationship between Dickens’ novels and the theatre during the height of his popularity.

More news on this coming soon, I hope!

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

Scene from 'The Only Way', 1899

We hope to produce two more exhibitions this year, one in the summer term, examining Dickens’ impact on visual art in the twentieth century through cartoons held by the British Cartoon Archive, and one in the autumn, looking at the Dickens craze as it moved beyond the author’s lifetime. As soon as we have dates for these exhibitions, I will let you know.

Just in case you feel that there is such a thing as too much Dickens, don’t despair; we’re also hoping to work on the Dion Boucicault Collection throughout the year, digitising playbills and cataloguing materials. Theatre is one of our key areas for development, but I am sure there will be plenty of exciting developments to the Collections during this year.

So as you’re munching on your special Dickens birthday cake, I hope that you’ll join with us in wishing Boz a very happy two hundredth birthday!

Melodrama and Silliness

Some of you may have noticed that, in the last couple of days, images have been appearing on some of the theatre records on the Special Collections website. This initial digitisation has allowed us to put up all of the smaller sized playbills from the Britannia Theatre which are held in the Bigwood Collection. This is all thanks to Chris Hall, who has been volunteering with Special Collections two and a half days a week. Not only has he made a start on this long-awaited digitisation, but he even agreed to write a blog post to keep us up to date.

A few months ago, I was speaking with my friends on the subject of great British playwrights. We came up with the usual names, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson for the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, Sheridan, Shelley and Coleridge for the Romantics. Then we skipped roughly 80 years and listed Wilde and Shaw as the major figures of the late 19th Century stage. But what of the mid Victorians, who were their great playwrights? To be honest, I still can’t think of one, but there is a reason for that, because in the mid-Victorian age, something rather bizarre, yet very entertaining, happened to British theatre, and it is codified by the Bigwood collection of playbills from the Britannia Theatre.

Front page for 'After Dark Galop'

Scene from Boucicault's 'After Dark'

Most people would have heard of melodrama, but probably in a different context. When we think of melodrama, we think of melodramatic actors delivering their lines with overemotional abandon – think Brian Blessed playing Hamlet. However, the root of melodrama is slightly different to how we know it now. The root of the word is simply melos from the Greek for music, and the French drame, which needs little explanation. Essentially then, melodrama is musical drama. Not in the sense of it being a musical, instead music was often used to underscore the dialogue in order to raise the emotions, a technique used so much in modern film and theatre that we barely even notice it. It is this style of theatre which dominated with mid 19th Century, as well as high and low comedies and adaptations of Shakespeare. These were big productions, with full scale orchestras, evil villains, courageous heroes and fainting damsels, who were probably tied to railway tracks on a fairly regular basis. With this conception of melodrama in mind, we can begin to picture the spectacle of a play performed in the 1860s.

Playbill from Britannia Theatre, 25th November 1867

Playbill from Britannia Theatre, 25th November 1867

The Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, London, was one of the most glamorous and capacious theatres in the city at that time. The most famous version was constructed in 1858, with the previous building being classified as a saloon, rather than a theatre. Unlike many theatres of that time, The Britannia took the relatively modern approach of providing drinks and food in the auditorium, possibly setting a standard for what we now take for granted when we go to the theatre. Sarah Lane, wife of the theatre’s founder, Samuel Haycraft Lane, was the manager and also performed in many productions as a dancer. However, the collection that this blog entry is about was amassed by George Bigwood, who gathered the playbills, largely from the 1860s. The playbill is a valuable resource in researching theatre culture in the 19th Century. Many of them display a melodrama of their own; the print is large and bold, not too far removed from the typography seen in modern tabloids. One bill alone promises such titles as ‘THE KING’S DEATH-TRAP’ described as: ‘A New Historical Drama (never before acted)’ and the familiar name of ‘RIP VAN WINKLE’.

These playbills are a vital part in the study of the history of British theatre, and helps fill a gap between the plays of the late 18th Century and the fin de siècle. While this was not theatre designed to be great art, it does not lessen the importance of the plays in 19th Century culture. The writers of this era were not the jobbing playwrights of Shakespeare’s time, who were immersed in, or possibly constrained by, classical education. Indeed, they were men of the people, writing for the people. Of course, with Sarah Lane as manager, it wasn’t just men delivering this entertainment. As such, this collection represents a vibrant, if a little silly, period of theatre. But there’s nothing too wrong with a bit of melodrama and silliness from time to time.

Chris Hall

Larger playbills from the Britannia in this collection need to be scanned on a large overhead scanner which is currently experiencing some technical problems, so we’re awaiting developments there. Next, we intend to digitise the Britannia playbills in our general playbill collection, so keep watching the website!