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.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.