Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1402
Bloody Poetry opens with Percy Bysshe Shelley poetically narrating his coach ride into the Swiss Alps, having fled England with his lover, Mary Godwin; their son, William; and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairemont. They have been forced into exile because at home they were considered “atheistical perverts” and “free-lovers.” Indeed, Claire has been Lord Byron’s lover, and she has arranged for that poet to meet Shelley for the first time, on the shore of Lake Geneva.
The next day, Bysshe, Mary, and Claire walk on the beach, waiting for Byron to come off the lake. The women reveal to each other that, because they dream of being happy and free in love, they ignore the dissatisfaction they feel in their relationships with the two poets. Byron enters, hurling abuse at his biographer, Dr. William Polidori, with whom he has been boating. Claire introduces Byron to Mary and Bysshe. They discuss the current state of poetry; then Byron asks them all to dinner. As he exits, Claire tries to follow him, but Byron puts her off viciously. Bysshe and Mary discuss how they will romantically embellish the story of their meeting with the famous Lord Byron. When Claire recovers from the shock of Byron’s cruelty, she joins Bysshe and Mary in a mocking school rhyme about the alleged scandalous sexual relationship between Byron and his sister. Dr. Polidori enters and makes a critical comment about Bysshe’s poem “Queen Mab,” whereupon Bysshe, Mary, and Claire form a circle and mock him. Byron stumbles on and announces that he wants them all to summer together at a nearby house, and demands that Polidori make the arrangements. After Polidori helplessly follows him offstage, Bysshe, Mary, and Claire dance ecstatically in a circle.
The next scene occurs later in the summer. Mary and Claire walk on the grounds of their cottage. Claire reveals that she is pregnant with Byron’s child and that she expects he will therefore marry her. Claire has also slept with Bysshe. Mary announces that she is writing the story of a monster and wonders aloud whether the monster will come among them that night after dinner.
That evening, in the drawing room of the Villa Diodati, Byron, Bysshe, Claire, and Mary lounge on big pillows in the light of a candelabra while a lightning storm rages outside. Bysshe recites a poem by William Wordsworth; Byron complains that a revolutionary poet like Bysshe should not care for the writings of “England’s most reactionary poet.” Mary answers his objection with the argument of Romanticism: “Though something be nonsense, feel the feeling.” Byron, in turn, claims that he writes in the Romantic style only for commercial reasons. The puritanical Dr. Polidori enters and, in an aside to the audience, confesses his bitter jealousy of the poets and their profligate lifestyles. He speaks to the group about the lightning on the lake, which leads them to a discussion of Plato’s parable of the cave in his Republic. They decide to enact the parable. They tie up Polidori and force him to play the role of the prisoners in the cave by putting the candelabra behind him to cast shadows on the wall where he can see them. Polidori becomes frightened, and they release him.
Mary speaks of her monster again, and Byron recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about a witch. Suddenly, Bysshe suffers a seizure. Polidori assists him. As the others freeze, Polidori turns to the audience and explains that Bysshe confided to him that, in his fit, he had seen a phantom—a woman with eyes in her nipples—standing in the place of Mary, staring at him. Bysshe comments on the irony that he, an atheist, should be haunted and concludes that he is haunted by what he could be if he were truly free.
The last scene of act 1 finds Mary and Claire on the beach again, and Byron and Bysshe in a sailboat on the lake. Claire tells Mary that she found a love letter from Byron to his sister, Augusta, yet she still hopes that she can make Byron love her. Mary warns that Byron can only cause pain to those around him. Meanwhile, Byron admits to Bysshe that he knows he is the father of Claire’s child but that he does not care. He confesses that he prefers to make love with boys or with his sister. When Bysshe answers him in a neutral tone, Byron savagely denounces him as a hypocrite. Mary declares that the summer is over and invites Claire to return to England with her and Bysshe, to live with them while she has her child; Claire, however, does not want to give up the idea that Byron may still fall in love with her and take responsibility for his paternity. Out on the lake, a storm has arisen, and when Byron orders Bysshe to abandon the ship, Bysshe confesses that he cannot swim. They somehow ride the sailboat safely to shore. Byron gathers the women and they all exit the stage.
Act 2 opens with the death of Harriet Westbrook, the abandoned wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who works as a prostitute in London’s Hyde Park. She reads aloud from her suicide note to Bysshe, then drowns herself.
It is then winter in England. Bysshe is upset, having just read a letter announcing the death of Harriet. Mary calms him, then asks him to marry her. She points out that she knows that he has been having sex with Claire even though the birth of her child is imminent. Still, Mary wants to marry him, saying, “Somehow we are going to have to domesticate all these grand passions.” He finally agrees and decides to go to London and attempt to gain possession of his children by Harriet.
After Claire’s baby is born, she receives a letter from Byron asking her to name it Allegra. Mary hears from Bysshe the depressing news that they will not get custody of Harriet’s children. They decide to leave England and join Byron for the summer again. Polidori follows them, obsessed and jealous. Bysshe is now haunted by the ghost of Harriet, who sits near him always. Claire decides to go to Venice to find Byron, and Bysshe wants to go with her. This would leave Mary alone with Polidori and little Clara, her second child by Bysshe.
In Venice, Bysshe and Claire become open lovers and Bysshe confronts Byron about Claire. Byron explains that he cares nothing for Claire and that he will put Allegra in a convent. Once again, he denounces Bysshe as a hypocrite, then takes him to a madhouse to cure him of his idealism. Mary and the children join the others in Venice; once they are there, little Clara dies. Mary, furious, tells Bysshe that she is angry with him “for the cruelty, pointless cruelty of all your schemes.” Calming herself, she asks, “What have you achieved, Bysshe? Is the price of a poem—the death of our child?” Claire tries to reconcile and make them all form a circle as they did in earlier scenes, but she does not succeed.
The next scene takes place on the beach at the Gulf of Spezia. Byron and Bysshe discuss starting a radical newspaper, but their conversation quickly turns gloomy. Byron reveals that Allegra died in the convent; Bysshe says that Mary has suffered a recent miscarriage. Byron exits to go sailing. Mary and Claire enter, and Bysshe declares that he is going to take his boat out on the lake. When Mary questions his motives, he explains that he is taking Jane Williams (the boatman’s beautiful daughter) out for a sailboat ride. He exits. Mary reveals that she has found a love poem by Bysshe, called “The Triumph of Life,” dedicated to Jane Williams.
The stage darkens. Polidori wanders drunkenly around the auditorium, giving his distorted, gossipy version of the events leading up to Bysshe’s death. Bysshe appears on the stage and recites a long poem about the sea and freedom. In the last scene, after a brief blast of storm effects, the lights come up on Bysshe’s body wrapped in a sail. The ghost of Harriet is in the back. Byron looks at the body and declares, “Burn him! Burn us all! A great big, bloody, beautiful fire!” The play ends in a blackout.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
In Bloody Poetry, Howard Brenton depicts the difficulty of the unconventional artist’s life through painting narrative descriptions of events and through poetry. Bysshe and his entourage’s flight from England and coach ride into the Swiss Alps are depicted by Bysshe’s poetic account, delivered from the window of a coach in flickering shadows. At first, he speaks in short, choppy sentences, in the rhythm of the bumpy coach ride, “The Alps. Switzerland. The coach. Aching bones. Dirty clothes.” Then he looks up and sees Mont Blanc towering above him. His prose soars momentarily as he describes the rich, fantastic scene. Then he returns to the dreary coach ride, “Bump, bump, bump—dejected thoughts. In exile.” His musings again assume a poetic form as he describes the pathetic state of the country he left behind. He finishes his speech by setting the next scene with the words, “The shore of Lake Geneva. The 25th of May, eighteen hundred and sixteen.”
Bysshe struggles in his poetry to be honest about his feelings and his experiences. One night at dinner, he recites a poem by Wordsworth that describes its writer’s disenchantment with adult life and longing for the lost idyllic days of his youth. Byron counters him by describing Wordsworth’s actual youth, which was far from idyllic, having been spent in Paris at the height of the French Revolution. Bysshe answers him by declaring that the feeling of Wordsworth’s poem is honest, even if the events it recounts do not correspond to reality.
The character of Dr. Polidori is used to reveal conventional society’s view of the poets and their lives: He despises them, yet he is envious of the liberties they take in their behavior. He describes them by saying, “Byron is an overweight alcoholic, Shelley is an anorexic, neurotic mess! The planet is bestrewn with their abandoned children, lovers of both sexes and wives!” While they recite parts of Plato’s Republic, Byron, Bysshe, Claire, and Mary tie up Polidori and make him play the role of the unenlightened prisoners in the cave; this underscores their rejection of him and his society’s values. In fact, he may well be the “monster” that “does not love us” that Mary predicts will come among them “of his own accord.” Polidori, however, is able to revenge his rejection by this group. He says, “I’ll dog them . . . I’ll gossip. I’ll send back tasty bits to the literary magazines. The Shelleys will belong to me!” Indeed, he spreads malicious stories when Bysshe dies: “Suicide, yes, no doubt, an utterly unstable little prick, y’get m’innuendo.”
Harriet describes her suffering by reciting a love poem that Bysshe wrote to her and contrasting that with her wretched treatment at his hand. She goes to her death quoting her suicide note to him, then returns as a ghost to comment on events in the light of her knowledge of Bysshe’s past.
Bysshe describes his moments of crisis on the sea and in the madhouse in Venice through poetry. On the sea, just before he dies, he begins a lengthy poem:
As I lay asleep in Italy There came a voice from over the Sea And with great power it forth led me To walk in the visions of poetry.
Bysshe knows that his rebellion against society causes pain in his life, but he maintains that this suffering plays an important role in his art. After his trip to the madhouse, he recites, “Most wretched men/ Are cradled into poetry by wrong,/ They learn in suffering what they teach in song.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93
Sources for Further Study
Boon, Richard. Brenton the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1991.
Cameron, Ben. “Howard Brenton: The Privilege of Revolt.” Theater 12 (Spring, 1981): 28-33.
Gore-Langton, Robert. Review in Plays and Players. December, 1984, 25.
Itzin, Catharine. Stages in the Revolution. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980.
O’Connor, John. “Howard Brenton.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William M. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Rehm, Rush. Review in Theatre Journal 39 (December, 1987): 521-522.
Robinson, Marc. Review in Theatre Journal 39 (December, 1987): 506.
Simon, John. Review in New York 20 (January 19, 1987): 53.
Wilson, Ann. Howard Brenton: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992.
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