The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)