The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

Childe Byron begins with a curious musical duet: The lush viola solo from Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (1834) mingles with forceful, driving sounds from a computer, suggesting the conflict between romance and reason, father and daughter, that will be enacted before the audience. A spotlight from the rear of the stage reveals the outlines of a woman, ill and coughing, sitting on a chaise longue. Out of the dark comes Byron’s voice, accompanied by the viola melody, addressing his daughter with the opening lines from canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819): “Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child?/ Ada, sole daughter of my house and heart?” Drowned by the noise of electronic computers, the music fades as Ada’s voice responds, fierce and precise, not answering her father’s question but describing the structure of her calculating machine, the Analytical Engine. This disjunctive and cacophonously scored dialogue of disembodied voices continues until the spotlight fades and the lights come up, revealing the bedroom of Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, on the last day of her life. She is thirty-six and dying of cancer.

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Ada sits in front of a table piled high with books and manuscripts, Byron’s poems, musical scores, mathematical charts, loose notes, and notebooks. To the side are a complicated model of her machine, a violin case, dueling pistols and broadsword, and various decanters of wine and medicine. She is trying to finish her will, but she cannot inscribe her final testament without confronting the father whom she never knew—but whose notorious life nevertheless seems inescapably linked to hers. In her hallucinatory state, drugged and dying, she calls up her father’s ghost and insists that he justify his life and his paternal neglect. Byron accommodatingly appears, romantically turned out in cloak and open collar, the embodiment of everything Ada has learned about him. She wants more, however, than this romantic icon; she wants to find out “what you really were. Logically. Without regret, or sentimentality.” As her own Analytical Engine might do, she prepares to tabulate her data, comparing the information she has before her with the responses Byron makes to her questions and charges. Equally eager to discover the daughter whom scandal forced him to abandon in her infancy, Byron accepts her right to know the truth.

In presiding over and commenting on the dramatized vignettes called up from Byron’s past, father and daughter do discover each other, but the process unfolds rather like a legal duel, with each making accusations, demanding satisfaction, and taking shots. Consulting her notes like a cool-headed prosecutor, Ada first accuses Byron of the cold, selfish rape of her pregnant mother, the formidable bluestocking Annabella Millbanke, and of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron counters by going back to his boyhood and tracing his sexual development. In the first of the conjured-up historical scenes, the Boy Byron enters, limping to the strains of Berlioz’s The Childhood of Christ (1854). He is a morbid, posing little fat boy blessed, as Byron remarks, with “a clubbed foot and a grandiose penis.” At nine he “learned the dance of sex to the cadence of Job” at the hands of his nurse, and he claims that for him sexual enjoyment was joined to damnation ever after.

The next several scenes show Byron growing up: mocked by the gentry at a garden party because of his coarse, boozy, unstable mother; mocked by a young girl because of his clubbed foot; and mocked by a young man at Cambridge, who then makes a sexual pass at him, for his view of women. Byron must learn to “be a man”—to fence and box and shoot as well as to face the negative reviews of his first volume of poetry and the loss of his first male lover. He also learns how to travel. Ropes and a sail appear onstage, and Byron is joined on the Lisbon Packet by a throng reading ecstatically from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. With the publication of his versified travelogue, he has awakened to find himself famous—interviewed, pursued, propositioned by a grasping, adoring public whose rhapsodies he meets with sarcasm. Soon, however, the literary and social lion falls into disgrace over the affair with his half-sister. To free himself from the claims and insults of the public, Byron decides that he must marry. At this the crowd recedes, and Ada steps forth, dressed to play her own mother in the next act.

To the strains of a waltz from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830), act 2 opens at the dance where Byron first meets Annabella. Logical, provincial, direct, this “Princess of Parallelograms” catches the mighty poet, but this auspicious beginning is belied by a grim wedding day and a worse honeymoon night. A chorus of young men and women narrate the “trouble in Picadilly”—his debts and perversities, her inability to laugh away despair like Byron’s beloved Augusta Leigh. In the midst of the squabble a child is born, a separation is demanded, incarceration in a madhouse is threatened, and gossip steadily mounts as the charges accumulate against Byron: incest, sodomy, homosexuality. Accused by a public chorus now grown disgusted and vengeful, he turns to confront the society he has scandalized and indicts them as jackals and hypocrites. He is forced by the jeering crowd to sign the separation, forced into exile, and forced to relinquish claims on his daughter.

Ada slips out of her mother’s costume and resumes her interview, asking Byron to rehearse the years of exile. As he recounts the seven years with Countess Guiccioli, the years with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the flight to Greece, and the heroics of his suicidal struggle for Greek independence, a sudden intimacy forms. Ada fights it, lashing out at him as a vampire who has made her merely another conquest. A savage counterpoint leads to a final reconciliation, however, as Byron pieces together Ada’s story of bankruptcy and disgrace in the financing of her machine, while she narrates the final chapter of Byron’s life in Greece, the two stories thus bringing the protagonists to the moment of their deaths. In this exchange they discover that their lives run parallel: achievement, disgrace, death at thirty-six. Ada relents, declaring her problem solved, and proceeds to finish her will: She will be buried with her father in his vault. As she puts down her pen, Byron is barely visible, and the lights fade.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

In its allusion to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the play announces its principal shaping device. Just as Byron in his poem presented a series of romantically rendered scenes taken from his famous Continental journey, so Childe Byron presents a provocative group of sketches drawn from the poet’s equally famous life. They are both enormously entertaining travelogues that feature a guide who is by turns lively or moody, and somehow not altogether reliable. Both have, as well, an almost cinematic sweep, the sense of covering enormous expanses—geographically, chronologically, and emotionally. Harold throws himself into the landscape, coloring it imaginatively, invading the past and conjuring out of the soil of Greece or Portugal, Italy or Switzerland a sense of its heroes and history that reflects the state of his own violently changing emotions. In his headlong, brooding passage through Europe he eclipses all monuments and natural phenomena, making himself the irrefutable hero of his poem. Byron has the same commanding posture and seductive effect as a character in Linney’s play. He is inescapably central: Whether being harangued or embraced by his daughter, reviled by a critic or propositioned by an admirer, he dominates and tries to shape his daughter’s response to the action presented.

As a framework for this central series of anecdotal pictures, Linney creates the debate between father and daughter. Linney seems to want to know why this woman who has never before given much thought to her notorious father should now become obsessed with him, and why she should in fact suddenly end her life revering him. Much of the initial act is concerned with exposition, in which Ada emerges as an intellectually rigorous, emotionally demanding figure who in her last painful hours must come to terms with the father she knew only from the public scandal surrounding his name. Once the grounds are established for this confrontation of personalities, the play can begin to offer the tableaux from Byron’s life. The selection of incidents largely excludes those which are literary or political, focusing rather on his sexual irregularities (choirboys and Cambridge students, sodomy and incest), public behavior (defiance and contempt), and marriage. A group of up to six cast members performs the parts of major figures who pass through Byron’s life; it also functions as a chorus—editorializing, gossiping, and helping to stitch the scenes together more seamlessly.

Linney makes effective use of Byron’s poetry throughout the play, cobbling together passages from well-known and obscure works to create a texture within which his own lines can resonate. The play begins and ends with lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and the chorus tellingly weaves in lines, most especially when the stanzas from “She Walks in Beauty” are sung to open the act 2 courtship. Underlying the lyrics themselves is the Byron-inspired music of Berlioz, particularly themes from Harold in Italy, the Requiem (1837), and the Symphonie Fantastique.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 89

Sources for Further Study

DiGaetani, John L. “Romulus Linney.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, edited by John L. DiGaetani. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Kalem, T. E. Review in Time 117 (March 9, 1981): 74.

Moe, Christian H. “Romulus Linney.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Oliver, Edith. Review in The New Yorker 57 (March 9, 1981): 74-76.

Rich, Frank. “The Ghost as Hero.” New York Times, February 27, 1981, p. C3.

Wilmeth, Don B. “Romulus Linney.” In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

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