The English Gothic drama, like the Gothic novel, was characterized by a reliance on supernatural elements and dramatic spectacles of suffering. Generally confined to a brief period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Gothic plays were condemned by critics as atheistic and unenlightened, but were tremendously popular with audiences seeking the escapism the works provided. Romantic poets and dramatists ridiculed Gothic productions as superstitious, and the stereotypical ghostly figure slowly rising through a trap door on the stage became synonymous with Gothic excess, often eliciting more laughter than terror.
Critics point to a number of factors that converged in the late eighteenth century to produce the sudden success of the English Gothic drama. These include domestic civil unrest in England, revolutionary events in America and France, and changes in theatrical aesthetics. According to Jeffrey N. Cox, although Gothic plays appeared as early as the 1770s and continued far into the nineteenth century, the form's popularity peaked around two important political events: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Contemporary commentary posited a connection between the new form of drama and innovations in the political arena, between the real horrors of revolution and the staged horrors of the Gothic drama. Paula R. Backscheider reports that the genre reflected the insecurities and anxieties of the age, a time when the “public and private, the affectionate, the social, and the political become areas of uncertainty and insecurity, and every person and every event is capable of arousing dread.” Further, Diane Long Hoeveler suggests that the plays convey an anarchic message to the English monarchy to reform or risk revolution. According to Hoeveler, the dramas “attempt to mediate between classes, races, and genders that were at odds over the shape and power structure of the evolving bourgeois society.”
Another factor that encouraged the rise of the Gothic genre was the expansion during the 1790s of two important London theaters—Drury Lane (capacity: 3,600) and Covent Garden (capacity: 3,013)—whose cavernous size dictated that visual spectacle on a grand scale would play better than subtlety and nuance, particularly since dialogue could barely be heard by many in the audience. Increased competition from the numerous new theaters in the area added to the pressure on theatrical producers to stage the spectacular and the unexpected in order to draw substantial audiences. The period also saw advances in staging techniques, lighting, and special effects that made possible some of the ghostly apparitions associated with the Gothic.
Gothic dramas were typically set in dungeons or castles, ruined churches or cemeteries, dense forests, steep mountainsides, or other forbidding natural landscapes. Their dramatic situations were usually projected far into the past for the purpose of deflecting criticism by contemporary reviewers who found the Gothic reliance on ghosts and specters to be out of step with the post-Enlightenment age. By placing the action safely back in medieval times, playwrights attempted to make the characters' belief in superstition and the supernatural seem more plausible. Gothic themes involved terror, jealousy, violence, death, abductions, seduction of virtuous young women in the sentimental novel tradition, and revelations of crimes and punishments. Progression from enclosure or imprisonment to freedom characterized many Gothic texts, as did the influence of the past on present (and future) characters and events. Stylistic devices at the staging level included ghosts and visions appearing behind gauzy screens or rising out of trap doors in the floor of the stage, disembodied voices, and clanking armor. Because the presence of ghosts on the stage drew so much ridicule from critics, Gothic playwrights often defended their inclusion in the drama by invoking Shakespeare's use of ghosts in Macbeth and Hamlet, or by insisting that the supernatural elements were the product of a character's imagination or an elaborate hoax played on one character by another. Robert P. Reno claims that the criticism leveled against the use of apparitions on stage sheds light on the period's changing view of reality. He explains that “while the supernatural had been rationalized into nonexistence by the end of the eighteenth century, it had not yet been animated fully with the symbolic or psychological reality so familiar to twentieth-century audiences. Unwilling to believe in ghosts as an objective reality and unable to describe them as a psychosymbolic reality, the late eighteenth-century critic rejected them absolutely.”
Serious Romantic writers, sensitive to what they perceived as the lowbrow nature of Gothic theater, often disassociated themselves from the genre by publishing their works anonymously or by writing “closet dramas,” those plays intended to be read rather than staged. Despite the stigma, though, a surprising number of authors associated with Romantic high culture produced dramas that drew on the Gothic tradition: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Remorse (1813); Lord Byron's Manfred (1834) and Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci, (1819) are among them.
Playwrights such as Joanna Baillie constantly struggled to maintain their legitimacy as dramatists while competing with the popularity of Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Castle Spectre (1797) or George Colman the Younger's Blue-Beard (1798). Michael Gamer describes Baillie as having to balance the demands of profit-driven theater managers, quality seeking critics and, “a growing middle- and working-class audience that favored escapist fantasy as an antidote to the increasing drabness of industrial life.”