The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 entire section is 603 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.