Gothic Drama Criticism: Overviews - Essay

Criticism: Overviews

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ranger, Paul. “The Gothic Spirit.” In ‘Terror and Pity Reign in Every Breast’: Gothic Drama in the London Patent Theatres, 1750-1820, pp. 1-18. London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1991.

[In the following essay, Ranger details the various motifs, settings, stock characters, narrative devices, and themes of the Gothic drama.]

Neither eighteenth-century playwrights, nor members of their audiences, used the term ‘a gothic drama’. It was a label applied by literary critics only with hindsight to certain types of play. Instead, words suggesting the form rather than the content described the work. Thus the St James's Chronicle referred to The Castle Spectre (Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1797) as ‘a drama of a mingled nature, Operatic, Comical and Tragical’ and at greater length the Morning Chronicle defined George Colman the Younger's play, Feudal Times (1799), as ‘an exhibition of music and dialogue, pantomime and dancing, painting and machinery, antique dresses and armour, thunder and lightning, fire and water …’1 Yet in spite of this variety of form, there was an homogeneity about the content that prompts one to question why certain scenes or stock devices repeatedly appeared. An establishment of the common ground held by a multiplicity of plays categorised as ‘gothic’ would eventually be a help in arriving at an understanding of this term.

In the prologue to The Castle Spectre Lewis suggested a starting point for this exploration. He used the figure of Romance to introduce his listeners to a number of specific locations which he would deem to be gothic:

She loathes the sun, or blazing taper's light;
The moon-beam'd landscape and tempestuous night
Alone she loves; and oft, with glimmering lamp,
Near graves new-open'd, or midst dungeons damp,
Drear forests, ruin'd aisles, and haunted towers,
Forlorn she roves, and raves away the hours!(2)

In his list of church-yards, dungeons, forests, ruined churches, castles—all locations frequently used by the gothic playwright—Lewis was harking back to Samuel Johnson's dictionary definition of the word ‘Romantick’: ‘wild … improbable; false … ; fanciful; full of wild scenery’.3 Lewis wrote an epilogue to Thomas Holcroft's play, Knave or Not (1798) in which he added to the list of locations some of the other appurtenances of the gothic:

Give us Lightning and Thunder, Flames, Daggers and Rage;
With events that ne'er happened, except on the Stage;
When your Spectre departs, through a trapdoor ingulph her,
Burn under her nose, too, some brimstone and sulpher.

Miles Peter Andrews, in his preface to the publication of the songs in The Enchanted Castle (1786), listed other elements he had detected in similar entertainments:

The Clank of Chains, the Whistling of Hollow Winds, the Clapping of Doors, Gigantic Forms, and visionary Gleams of Light …4

Not all playwrights banished these listings to prologues and epilogues. The gothic motifs were so integral to the plot that the audience's attention was drawn to them in the course of the action as John O'Keeffe did in The Castle of Andalusia (1782): standing in the moonlight outside the castle of the title, Don Caesar, the leader of the banditti, sang of the baying wolf, the midnight hour, shrieking females and maurauding brigands. To modern readers it appears that playwrights were setting out markers surrounding the gothic territory in which the action was to be placed.5

Eighteenth-century novelists had fused location and action more securely for the lengthier form in which they worked. Unencumbered by the necessity to compress a story into the couple of hours allowed to the playwright, writers took the opportunity to present themes of darkness in an expanded and integrated fashion. Many would nominate Horace Walpole's romance, The Castle of Otranto, as the seminal gothic novel.6 On the banks of the Thames at Twickenham Walpole had created a miniature gothic castle, a fantasy which served as the backdrop of his own self-conscious existence. At first no more than a cottage, ‘the prettiest bauble’ said Walpole, his domain eventually boasted a library, the Round Tower, the Holbein Bedroom and the Great Cloister, whilst still retaining the bijou quality of the original building. Within, a warm darkness pervaded which Walpole termed ‘gloomth’.7 Here Walpole wrote his chivalric romance, a tale of strange, supernatural events. But whereas the details of his real castle, Strawberry Hill, were neat and contained, Otranto was conceived on a vast scale, the stage for colourful processions and tournaments. Both castles were alike in their enveloping gloom (‘Take away that light,’ shouted Manfred, demonstrating the villain's hatred of the clear light of day); alike, too, in their respective owners' love of the odd and the incongruous, and in the impression given that both buildings were likely environments in which to await supernatural visitants.8 Walpole's own phobias were writ large in Otranto so that they might terrify the reader,—the giant feathers on the expanding helmet which killed the young Conrad for example.

Terror was an important constituent in the gothic novel. The literary landscape which the essayists John Aikin and Anna Barbauld viewed was one strewn with such catastrophes as murders, shipwrecks, fires and earthquakes, all events with which the gothic playwrights were familiar. A ‘gothic fragment’ by the two writers was set in the ruins of a ‘large antique mansion’ on which a storm beat while hollow groans resounded in the subterranean vault. The effect of these circumstances was, claimed the authors, to elevate ‘the soul to its highest pitch’, again as much an aim of the playwright as the novelist.9 With such works in mind, George Colman light-heartedly summed up the constituents of the gothic novel:

A novel, now, is nothing more
Than an old castle and a creaking door:
A distant hovel—
Clanking of chains—a gallery—a light—
Old armour—and a phantom all in white—
And there's a novel.(10)

The writer who fashioned similar settings and circumstances into lengthy, involved works of art was Ann Radcliffe. For her the landscape was of paramount importance; through it her heroines were perpetually journeying from one great house to another. Although her settings were less overtly horrific than the Aikin-Barbauld scenery, Radcliffe supplied for dramatists many a castle in ruins, underrun by secret passages, rotting in a wild, brigand-infested landscape:

This was a scene as Salvator would have chosen, had he then existed, for his canvas; St Aubert, impressed by the romantic character of the place, almost expected to see banditti start from behind some projecting rock, and he kept his hand upon the arms with which he always travelled.’11

No wonder that her novels found adaptors prepared to transmute them to the stage.

All of the gothic plays were set in the past, the past of an indeterminate, quasi-mediaeval Europe. Precision may have seemed pedantic. Walpole, after the publication of The Castle of Otranto, wrote to William Cole that his mind was filled with ‘Gothic story’ and the preface to the first edition stated that the action took place between the first and the last of the Crusades; in other words, between 1095 and 1243, a leeway of over one hundred and fifty years.12 Clara Reeve, who, after Walpole, wrote a similar tale of chivalry in which a process of rationalisation was applied to supernatural events, forebore to make a precise statement about the period of her work, instead referring to it as a ‘picture of Gothic times and manners’.13 The term was used as an indication of atmosphere, rather than as a reference to given dates. When gothic works were staged this vagueness was an occasion of difficulty for the scene and costume designers, as well as leaving the audience with the impression that it was suspended in an indeterminate time-scale. A writer in the Critical Review, after seeing Andrew MacDonald's play, Vimonda (1787), summed up this feeling of disorientation:

Events are supposed to have taken place in the days of chivalry: a word with which we constantly connect the idea of something wild and extravagant.14

Many spectators, however, simply accepted the vagueness. After the first night of The Haunted Tower (James Cobb, 1789) the Prompter reported that history had ‘nothing to do with the groundwork of this Opera’.15 That admission made, there was no further reference to infelicities in the presentation of the past, for the interest of the audience lay in the characters and situations. The activities of these characters reflected not the actions of folk in mediaeval moralities and mysteries so much as the deeds of the dark characters of Jacobean and Caroline tragedy. Indeed, the later plays of Shakespeare and the blood-suffused dramas of Thomas Otway were highly popular in the latter part of the eighteenth century and their atmosphere seeped into the gothic.

Not until the stage management of John Philip Kemble, with his antiquarian interest demanding correct and detailed settings, aided by his scene designer, William Capon, was the visual element of the gothic drama presented with historical accuracy. Capon scrupulously kept drawing books of London's mediaeval and Tudor buildings which served as the basis for the scenes he painted in his large studio.16 Viewing the progress, in addition to Kemble, would be men such as James Boaden, the editor of the Oracle, and Sir Joshua Reynolds who commended, wrote Boaden, ‘the accuracy and bold execution’ of these ‘scenes of past ages’.17 The result of this accurate visual portrayal should have been to root the plays in an historical truth, but this eluded most of the audience. Applause was for the spectacular nature of Capon's settings, not their veracity.

More attention was, however, paid to an accuracy in the representation of the geographical settings for the concept of place is more tangible than that of time. Thomas Gray was but one of many writers who kept careful notes of tours, whether to the Lake District or further afield.18 The upkeep of a travel diary with its detailed descriptions of scenes and the accounts of the author's response provided an important literary souvenir. These diaries were far from private: each traveller aimed to publish his thoughts, giving to library shelves such works as the Revd William Gilpin's various sets of observations made whilst in the highlands of Scotland, Richard Warner's prose account of his ramble through Wales and William Sotheby's verse compilation on the sights of the principality. Farther from home the Revd William Coxe kept an account of his travels in the Alps and Ann Radcliffe commented on her visit to Holland and Germany. This established habit of travellers putting pen to paper prompted Joseph Cradock to remark:

As every one who has either traversed a steep mountain, or crossed a small channel, must write his Tour, it would be almost unpardonable in Me to be totally silent, who have visited the most uninhabitable regions of North Wales …19

Both playwrights and novelists made reference to this literary corpus which tended to improve the accuracy of scenic descriptions. Mrs Radcliffe's Emily journeyed from one castle to another in The Mysteries of Udolpho surveying and responding to the wild scenery of her travels. Conversations, too, were full of the talk of scenery: as Valancourt conversed with Emily ‘there was often a tremulous tenderness in his voice, and sometimes he expatiated on [the scenes] with all the fire of genius’.20 Even when Emily reached her several destinations she would stand by the open casement gazing at the ‘wild grandeur of the scene, closed nearly on all sides by alpine steeps, whose tops, peering over each other, faded from the eye in misty hues …’21 Nevertheless, the landscape did not exist in its own right but as part of the heroine's consciousness. Aesthetically it upheld her, although its benignity was sometimes at variance with the roughness of the terrain.

Gothic romances served as a source for playwrights and the detailed visual backgrounds were helpful in creating settings in the text. They were equally helpful to the scene designer in his attempts to provide a setting for the play. James Boaden, for instance, took another of Radcliffe's novels, The Italian, which he used as the basis for his play, The Italian Monk (1797). The descriptions of the lush Italian countryside found their echo in the dialogue. But they were doubly used, for Gaetano Marinari, the Haymarket's scene painter, was in a position to use both the playwright's stage-directions, as well as the novelist's accounts of prospects and architecture, in creating the settings for the play.22

Painters travelled, as well as writers, recording in water-colour scenes which later were to be worked into easel paintings. The notes made on one of Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's tours of the county of Derby were used as a series of scenes for an entertainment at Drury Lane entitled The Wonders of Derbyshire (1779), in which such concrete images as a view of Matlock, Chatsworth House and Gardens and the caverns of Castleton anchored the entertainment in a factual depiction of specific locations.23 The sketch-books of another scene painter, Michael ‘Angelo’ Rooker, reveal his detailed interest in such subjects as castles, the ruins of abbeys at Netley, Llanthony and Glastonbury and a variety of townscapes. It was this keen observation which gained commendation for his stage depictions of such locations as St James's Park, Portsmouth illuminated for victory celebrations and the view of London from Highgate Ponds.24 Designers tended to resort to clichés in their over-easy presentation of castle and convent interiors. Then the audience found the stock scenes or rapid knock-ups unconvincing. On the other hand, specific townscapes were a challenge to which designers rose with aplomb. The portrayal of the Grand Square in Moscow in Frederick Reynolds's play, The Exile (1808), was greeted with acclaim by the critic in the European Magazine and it had earlier praised extravagantly the view of Orleans seen at dawn in Valentine and Orson (Thomas Dibdin, 1804).25

In some respects the work of the stage designer was comparable with that of the garden designer in the eighteenth century for both attempted to create a scene which would induce in the spectator an emotional response. The visitor to the theatre had merely to sit and watch the progression of the scenes but the visitor to the garden was responsible for his own progression from one setting to another. In this he was guided by a circuit walk from which vistas opened before him; he also entered a series of enclosed spaces, each designed to elicit an emotional response: a prospect might arouse in him feelings of cheerfulness and alternatively the cool darkness of a cypress grove would fill him with quiet melancholy. This changing pattern of emotion was described in Richard Graves's novel The Spiritual Quixote in the commentary on Mr Rivers's garden. It was

laid out in a romantic taste with a proper mixture of the allegro and the penseroso, the cheerful and the gloomy: tufts of roses, jasmines and the most fragrant flowering shrubs, with a serpentine walk of cypresses and laurels, here and there an urn, with suitable inscriptions, and terminated by a rough arch of rock work that covered a dripping fountain, were its principal beauties.26

In the garden of fiction the novelist created the responses. The factual garden could drawn responses just as surely, as is evident from Humphrey Repton's selection of adjectives in his account of a visit to Downton Castle, Richard Payne Knight's estate in Herefordshire:

A narrow, wild and natural path sometimes creeps under the beetling rock, close by the margin of a mountain stream. It sometimes ascends to an awful precipice, from whence the foaming waters are heard roaring in the dark abyss below, or seen wildly dashing against its opposite banks; while in other places, the course of the river being impeded by natural ledges of rock, the vale presents a calm, glassy mirror, that reflects the surrounding foliage.27

Repton contrasted awe and calmness, each induced by a separate prospect. Melancholy was envisaged as the heart's cleanser and frequent opportunities were given to savour it in Alexander Pope's garden at Twickenham, which contained a gloomy grotto, dusky groves and, as a climax at the end of a grove of cypresses, the tomb of the poet's mother.28 This stress gave truth to Walpole's dictum that it was ‘always comic to set aside a quarter of one's garden to be melancholy in’.29 Sheer terror could also be encountered in these garden scenes. On a visit to China, Sir William Chambers noted an oriental gothic garden:

Their scenes of terror are composed of gloomy woods, deep valleys inaccessible to the sun, impending barren rocks, dark caverns, and impetuous cataracts rushing down the mountains from all parts … Bats, owls, vultures, and every bird of prey flutter in the groves; wolves, tigers and jackals howl in the forests …30

He went on to tell of the inscribed stones set up in the garden which recorded barbarous acts perpetrated by brigands on the land over which the visitor passed. Chambers used the term ‘scene’ in describing these prospects.31 In this he was not alone. Thomas Whatley, gazing at one of the views at Hagley in Worcestershire, commended it as a ‘perfect opera scene’ and Repton contrasted the scene which the theatre-goer viewed with that of the garden visitor noting that the artist's use of perspective gave value to the theatrical scene, a technique of which the garden design was deprived.32 Whether the scene was in the garden or the theatre it was designed to induce an emotional response in the beholder. Mention has already been made of those features in a garden which produced a feeling of melancholy. Other scenes would produce different responses: wild crags and a cascade of water could strike terror, a fear that the place was the lair of the banditti and yet, on the other hand, an open prospect of hills and clumped trees could impart serenity.33 Some of the responses were, of course, conventionalised but playwrights nevertheless made use of emotional settings in order to hint at the action which was to follow allowing the mood of the scene to be anticipated in advance.

A formal appreciation of landscape painting, a privilege which educated members of the audience enjoyed, helped to foster discernment in viewing scenery. The eighteenth-century's most highly collectable painters were three artists active in the previous century, the Neapolitan, Salvator Rosa, and two French painters, Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.

Whate'er Lorraine light-touched with soft'ning hue,
Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew …

wrote James Thomson in The Castle of Indolence. All three men influenced landscape design and thereby, indirectly, stage design. The paintings of Claude gave one a long vista of receding planes, as if the scene was composed of wings and back-drop. In the distance mountains and wild forests were just discernible and as the planes advanced to the foreground one was conscious of the force of natural elements: the gushing river, the waterfall, wild trees twisted into a series of frames to surround the prospect, all contrasted with the order of classical buildings, quays and the commerce of mankind. We have already noticed the awe with which eighteenth-century travellers viewed the natural setting. This was suggested in the landscapes of Claude but in those of Rosa it was more than suggested—it was exaggerated. For Rosa the natural scene was untamed and the hastily applied impasto on his canvas revealed his own response to the landscape. His scenes were dark but camp fires or the full moon highlighted the brigands and uncouth shepherds who inhabited the wild hills of his fevered imagination.

The landscapes of the gothic dramas became conventionalised; castles were always ruinous, forests set in deep gloom and the seashore lashed by the storm-driven waves. Their stock nature enabled the theatre-goer to recognise the gothic quality of a play and it was only to be expected that stock characters would perform within these locations.

Visitors to the playhouse could expect to see the clearly delineated stock characters of the romantic hero and heroine; the villain, a personification of relentless greed or self-devouring jealousy and the divided hero, a man at odds with himself who, through some insidious fault, crumbled before the spectators' eyes. In contrast to these major characters, lighter entertainment was provided by a bevy of humorous domestics or rustics whose lives were lived on a different emotional plane than that of the intense and passionate breathings of their superiors.

The conventional quality of each role allowed actors to specialise and for each type certain qualities were needed. A singing voice was a requisite for the part of the youthful hero. A sturdy figure and a bass voice through which a range of disturbed passions could be expressed was the essential physical apparatus of the older tragic hero. Alexander Rae failed vocally in the role of Ordonio (Remorse, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1813) for, in spite of his expressive face and intellectual clarity, he suffered from an ‘effeminacy of tone … that [did] away with the impression of manly energy …’34 Many popular light actresses took on the role of the younger heroine. When Mentevole (Julia, Robert Jephson, 1787), looking at a cameo of his sweetheart, rehearsed her virtues he was describing not one but a hundred heroines:

O what a slender form is here! her polish'd front,
Blue slender veins, winding their silken maze,
Through flesh of living snow. Young Hebe's hue,
Blushing ambrosial health. Her plenteous tresses,
Luxuriant beauty! Those bewitching eyes,
That shot their soft contagion to my soul. …


The sameness of the heroine's role posed a problem for actresses, as Mrs Lister discovered while taking the part of Barbara in a revival of The Iron Chest (George Colman the Younger, 1796):

… [she] sung her airs in her old way, which is assuredly very pleasing, but her compass is so narrow that she may be said to have a cuckoo voice—hear her once, and you have heard all that she can do.35

The villain brought dynamism and vitality to the play. William Barrymore, in spite of his ‘laboured enunciation’ was judged by Thomas Dutton to be ‘the best stage tyrant the theatre can boast’.36 It would be possible to multiply instances of this type-casting but these few examples give an indication of the expectations the performer hoped to match.

The stock characters worked their way through repetitions of stock situations and devices. Strangely the audience seemed not to tire of these but found interest in the differing circumstances of each usage. Mention is made here of a few of the more common devices of the gothic stage. Mistaken identity was a convention which allowed a spate of horrors to be unleashed in the last act of the piece. The ending of Hannah Cowley's Albina (1779) was typical. With the darkness of night shrouding the characters, Edward mistook Editha for Albina and, whilst he embraced her, Gondibert, making the same misassumption, plunged his dagger into Editha's back. Rapidly avenging her death, Edward attempted to stab Gondibert who snatched the dagger from him and with it procured his own demise. The speed and complexity of the action, the gloom of the stage and the intensity of feeling produced a horrific but satisfying ending to the play.

Disguise was another theme which ran through many a gothic drama. It was a device which worked only within the framework of the stage, for characters were not permitted to question the identity of the disguised person, an accepted convention reliant on the eighteenth-century love of masquerading as a person other than oneself, whether at a masked ball or at the private theatricals which were so popular a feature of great houses or even at a fantasy such as the rituals Sir Francis Dashwood and his companions indulged in as the ‘Monks of Medmenham’, a village near Henley-on-Thames.37 Disguise offered a character an extra dimension within which to operate. It also infused the situation within which the disguised person operated with overtones of irony, strengthening the link between the performer and his audience as a bond of complicity was formed between them. For example, the central character of The Carmelite (Richard Cumberland, 1784), Lord St Valori, disguised through much of the play as the friar of the title, was able to move outside the main action and comment on it: the plot then revolved around the awaited reunion of Lady St Valori with her husband. In the early scenes of the play clues were planted which hinted at the troubled past of the friar. St Valori's disclosure of his true self was incidental but most of the disclosures made by disguised characters were a flamboyance, bringing the play to a climactic ending. In The House of Morville (John Lake, 1812) Sir Thomas attended Hugh's trial masked and disguised; both were thrown off with electric effect at the apex of the crisis. Rodmond the villain stood ‘terror struck’ and the presiding judge showed ‘an expression of astonishment’. ‘Oh, Heav'n’ cried the prisoner, ‘it is my father’ (5.6). Here the device of the disclosure of identity was interwoven with another, the discovery of a long-lost relative.

The facility with which one recognised one's kindred, for ‘relationship like murder, will out’ (3.1), was parodied by Richard Sheridan in The Critic (1779): his strictures, however, did not inhibit the gothic dramatists. The speed with which recognition was achieved in The Castle of Andalusia was as rapid as in Sheridan's burlesque. With a rush the banditti, headed by Caesar their leader, entered the hall of Scipio's castle. From Scipio the briefest of questions—‘Where's now my son, Don Caesar?’—instantly elicited a revelation. Follies of the preceding years were washed away in a couple of sentences, lacking in intensity and pathos:

DON Caesar:
My father! (Kneels to Don Scipio).
DON Scipio:
How, my Son, Don Caesar!
DON Caesar:
Yes, sir: drove to desperation by—
My follies were my own—but my vices—
DON Scipio:
Were the consequences of my rigour.—
My child! Let these tears wash away the remembrance.


Little more than a frivolous explanation of the cause of the rift was given. Other causes of the separation of relatives were varied, ranging from the prosaic to the fantastic—the Empress of Greece (Valentine and Orson) in flight from her husband gave birth to twins in a wood, one of whom was carried away by a bear. It was however rare for the cause itself to influence to any degree the structure of the plot.

As well as these situations, several stage properties were used with a measure of repetition and incidents were created around them; the principal properties were the intercepted letter and the phial of poison. Some letters were forgeries as lacking in credibility as the conventional disguise: ‘Then this unravels all’ (2.2) cried the Doge in The Venetian Outlaw (Robert William Elliston, 1805) on reading that Vivaldi had been falsely implicated in dealings with the banditti. Plans of escape could also be outlined in letters. The flight of Agnes (Aurelio and Miranda, James Boaden, 1798) from the convent was thwarted when Aurelio discovered a missive outlining the details. Similarly Bireno (The Law of Lombardy, Robert Jephson, 1797) gained written information of a plan to rescue the Princess of Lombardy which offered the recipient an opportunity to share his strategy with the audience:

Confusion! Rescue her! Come back, Ascanio!
Fly to St Mark's, collect the cohort there;
Go, place them instantly around the prison!
Bid them disarm the guard that holds that place;
And, on their lives, drive back the populace.


In each of these plays the letters were more than conveyances of information; they instigated further action and became an integral part of the plot structure.

The phial of poison was a suspense mechanism. John Kerr used it to effect in his play The Wandering Boys (1814). Roland determined on the use of a slow poison for the two sons of the Count de Croissy which he would administer by inviting them to take some refreshment. The Count, disguised as a servant of Roland's, brought in various comestibles whilst keeping an eye on the bottle of poisoned wine that his master had introduced onto the table. Throughout the meal—lengthy for a stage repast—the audience was able to watch with growing suspense the Count adroitly switch the bottles and so poison Roland. The extraordinary length of time the drug took to become effective, for poison used as a means of resolving the action on stage usually worked with a degree of speed, was a cause of renewed suspense and it was not until two further scenes had passed that the Count opportunely told Roland, still not suffering from the effects of the draught, that it was he, not the boys who had been poisoned: ‘He who composed the hellish drug best knows how long or short his time of lingering, or what may be his torments’ (2.3). Audiences demanded finality from the poison. This was lacking in The Inquisitor (Thomas Holcroft, 1798) when the Patriarch, like a deus ex machina, descended to the dungeon in time to prevent the young lovers incarcerated there from taking poison. The inconclusive use was condemned in the epilogue:

… if sad Melpomene must have rotation,
Let her dagger be sharp, and her poison-bowl brimful,
As Cowslip's, who brings Rusty-fusty one, creamful:
Let Juliet quite stabb'd be, and Romeo quite poison'd;
And let not, by signal of moon just horizon'd,
A Patriarch pop in, 'tween the cup and the lip so,
Nor the Hero and Heroine dally and sip so!

Recurrent devices such as these were a further means of recognising the gothic qualities of a play; they added to its atmosphere and occasionally became telling symbols, capable of arousing terror and pity in the audience.

So far we have looked at various motifs in the plays, the setting of the play within its time and place, and the stock characters and devices. Our purpose has been to discover the common ground on which the dramas were constructed. Before we can begin to answer the question ‘What constitutes a gothic drama?’ we must be aware of one important formative influence on the plays: the ideas of the German romantic playwrights Friedrich von Schiller and August von Kotzebue.38 The remarks of reviewers of Charles Robert Maturin's play Bertram (1816) highlighted objections to the German school. The British Review attacked the tone of the play:

Rotten principles and a bastard sort of sentiment, such, in short, as have been imported into this country from German moralists and poets, form the interest of this stormy and extravagant composition.39

The Monthly Review was more specific in its objections. The author was charged with sapping ‘the foundation of moral principle by exciting undue compassion for worthless characters, or unjust admiration of fierce and unchristian qualities’.40 A romantic presentation of low-life or roguery together with criticism of the ruling classes was to some a cause of outrage. John Larpent, the Lord Chamberlain's Reader of Plays refused to grant a licence for Joseph Holman's direct translation of Schiller's banditti drama Die Räuber in the belief that the text offered an immoral glorification of brigandage. Holman was left to recast the subject matter, converting the banditti into Knights Templars, and to reissue the piece as The Red Cross Knights (1799).41 Spotting Germanic themes became a game for critics,—one played by the Monthly Mirror in reviewing Lewis's play The Castle Spectre:

Mr Lewis's intimacy with German literature is strongly proclaimed … the dream of Osmond, his Atheism, Reginald's sixteen years immurement, (derived, probably, from The Robbers) and the frequent appeals to Heaven, with a levity unusual to our stage, are all German.42

The dark side of human nature, its greed, lust and power, its attempts to over-reach, its suspected godlessness, when openly acknowledged by playwrights caused distress; more than that, its exemplification became a direct target for the Tory publication, the Anti-Jacobin Review.

It is difficult to define the nature of gothic drama. The gothic was not a movement in the sense that it was built on clearly formulated principles. Instead, it can be thought of as an artistic climate assimilated by practitioners of a range of the creative arts. Its early manifestations were seen in such fantasies as the gothic temple which closed the canal vista at Shotover Park outside Oxford and in the delightful circuit walk and mystery ponds William Kent designed at Rousham House near Bicester.43 It found expression in the interior design of houses which were improved to contain a gothic library and chapel, as at Milton Manor in Oxfordshire.44 The sad reflections of John Dyer on human mutability in ‘Grongar Hill’ were an early manifestation of the gothic spirit in words, later developed by novelists who, in the expansiveness of their romances, were able to draw out a multiplicity of dark themes. It was to the novel that Bertrand Evans in his own work on the text of the gothic dramas turned in attempting to formulate a definition:

A Gothic play … is one marked by features which have long served to identify a Gothic novel.45

There was a danger that the formulary would become imprisoned in its own cross-references. However, Evans went on to list some of the characteristics which have been considered in this chapter:

These features include specialized settings, machinery, character types, themes, plots, and techniques selected and combined to serve a primary purpose of exploiting mystery, gloom and terror.

Why exploit ‘mystery, gloom and terror’? Whilst evenings of mystery, and even of terror, may be acceptable in the theatre, we might now think that there is slight hope that evenings of gloom will draw large audiences. Eighteenth-century taste would deny that assertion. In 1763 James Macpherson published translations purporting to be of the Gaelic poet Ossian's work, which was immediately admired for its wild spirit. Professor Hugh Blair, lecturing on this newly discovered poet, selected that paraphernalia in his works which appealed to readers—the darkness, hoary mountains, solitary lakes, old forests.46 These were, he said, ‘ideas of a solemn and awful kind, and even bordering on the terrible’; the effect of the motifs was to raise the reader out of himself to the sublime; in some measure they recreated the effect that the actual phenomena exerted on travellers in their original experience. A fellow professor, James Beattie, looking at objects more terrifying than those Blair contemplated—vast caverns, overhanging precipices and stormy seas—realised that even aesthetic horror could, in turn, lead beholders to the sublime.47 It was in this spirit that the ‘mystery, gloom and terror’ of the gothic dramas were acceptable in the theatre.48

A succinct definition of the gothic drama, then, is difficult to devise. In this chapter, however, we have seen that it was a reflection of the dark and wild side of human nature, mirrored in an equally violent natural world or in architectural settings which, in their ruinous state, spoke of human mortality. Although the gothic stage represented the psyche of eighteenth-century man—his innermost fears and longings—the presentations were of plays set in an undefined and romantically conceived mediaeval past. The plays were subject to Germanic influences which queried the traditional eighteenth-century concepts of social hierarchy, sympathy and respectability. Finally, we have been aware that the playwright's expression of the gothic was not an isolated art form: it was expressed through the visual and plastic arts as well as in verse and prose. The gothic was a spirit, moving where it would. Although it was a dark spirit, it was capable of illuminating some of the submerged recesses of human personality.


  1. St James's Chronicle, 16-19 December 1797; Morning Chronicle, 21 January 1797.

  2. Monthly Mirror, IV (December 1797), 357.

  3. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1775).

  4. Miles Peter Andrews, The Songs, Recitatives, Airs, Duets, Trios and Choruses introduced into the Pantomime Entertainment of ‘The Enchanted Castle’ (1786), p. iv.

  5. An extended discussion on the gothic territory may be found in: David Jarett, ‘“Gothic” as a term in Literary Criticism in the Eighteenth Century’, unpublished thesis, University of Oxford, 1968; Alfred Longueil, ‘The Word “Gothic” in Eighteenth Century Criticism’, Modern Language Notes, XXXVIII (1923), 453-60; Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (1957).

  6. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764), ed. Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (1969). An evaluation of his contribution to the gothic genre is to be found in Varma, Gothic Flame, pp. 44-65.

  7. Horace Walpole, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, ed. Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (1937-80), X, 307.

  8. Walpole, Otranto, ed. Lewis, p. 22. Warren Hunting Smith contrasted the two buildings in ‘Strawberry Hill and Otranto’, The Times Literary Supplement, 23 May 1936. Walpole's eclectic taste and scholarship are explored in: Charles Locke Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872), pp. 44-51.

  9. John Aikin and Anna Letitia Barbauld, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1792), p. 121 and pp. 127 ff.

  10. S. M. Ellis, The Life of Michael Kelly (1930), p. 254.

  11. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), ed. Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford, 1980), p. 30; see also pp. 78, 102, 227, 230, 302, 358 and 631.

  12. Horace Walpole, Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Mrs Paget Toynbee (Oxford, 1903-05), VI, 195; Walpole, Otranto, ed. Lewis, p. 3.

  13. Clara Reeve, The Old English Baron (1777), Preface to the Second Edition (1778), ed. James Trainer (1967), p. 3.

  14. Critical Review, LXVI (1788), 359. A detailed and disapproving analysis of Vimonda is to be found in: Willard Thorp, ‘The Stage Adventures of Some Gothic Novels’, Papers of the Modern Language Association, XVIII (1928), 479-80.

  15. Prompter, 27 November 1789.

  16. William Capon's notebooks are in the collection of Robert K. Sturtz, New York.

  17. James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble (1825), II, 101.

  18. Thomas Gray, Mr Gray's Journal (1775).

  19. Joseph Cradock, An Account of Some of the Most Romantic Parts of North Wales (1777), p. 1.

  20. Radcliffe, Udolpho, ed. Dobrée, p. 105.

  21. ibid., p. 241.

  22. The influence of the gothic novel on the drama is discussed further in: Michael Booth, English Plays of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 1969), I, 24.

  23. Ralph G. Allen, ‘The Wonders of Derbyshire: A Spectacular Eighteenth Century Travelogue’, Theatre Survey, II (1961), 54-66.

  24. Sybil Rosenfeld and Edward Croft Murray, ‘A Checklist of Scene Painters working in Great Britain and Ireland in the Eighteenth-Century’, Theatre Notebook, XIX (1965), 144-5; Patrick Conner Michael Angelo Rooker (1984), pp. 49-93 and 122-37.

  25. European Magazine, LIV (1808), 391 and XLV (1804), 297.

  26. Richard Graves, The Spiritual Quixote (1773), ed. Clarence Tracey (1967), p. 186.

  27. Humphrey Repton, Sketches and Hints (1794), p. 103.

  28. Pope's villa at Cross Deep, Twickenham, was demolished in the 1820s by Sophia Howe, ‘Queen of the Goths’, but the mutilated grotto remains.

  29. Horace Walpole, On Modern Gardening (1762-71), ed. Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (New York, 1931), p. 60.

  30. William Chambers, A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (Dublin. 1773), p. 27.

  31. Chambers, Oriental Gardening, p. 28.

  32. Whatley's remark is cited in: Lawrence Fleming and Alan Gore, The English Garden (1979), p. 109; and Repton's in Peter Bicknell, Beauty, Horror and Immensity, Fitzwilliam Museum Exhibition Catalogue (Cambridge, 1981), p. 43.

  33. The sentimental garden is discussed in Fleming and Gore's book (see note 32), pp. 85-180.

  34. Theatrical Inquisitor, II (1813), 64.

  35. Monthly Mirror, XVI (1809), 117.

  36. The Times, 25 June 1798; Thomas Dutton, Dramatic Censor, I (1800-01), 46.

  37. The private theatre in the eighteenth century is described in: Sybil Rosenfeld, Temples of Thespis (1978).

  38. This subject is fully explored in: F. W. Stokoe, German Influence in the English Romantic Period (Cambridge, 1926), pp. 19-34.

  39. British Review, VIII (1816), 70. Informative biographical details of Charles Maturin are to be found in: Samuel Smiles, Memoirs and Correspondence of the Late John Murray (1891), pp. 288-303.

  40. Monthly Review, LXXX (1816), 179. Further information on the reception of the play is given in: Niilo Idman, Charles Robert Maturin, His Life and Works (1923), pp. 102-25.

  41. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.: letter of Joseph Holman to John Larpent, W. b. 67 (63-63v); Joseph Holman, The Red Cross Knights (1799), pp. i-iv; L. W. Conolly, The Censorship of English Drama (San Marino, 1976), pp. 98-101.

  42. Monthly Mirror, IV (1797), 356.

  43. Kenneth Woodbridge, ‘William Kent's Gardening’, Apollo, C (1974), pp. 286-9; Margaret Jourdain, The Work of William Kent (1984), p. 80. The gothic temple at Shotover is possibly by William Townsend, see: Jennifer Sherwood and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire (1974, rep. 1975), p. 765.

  44. Stephen Wright was the architect; wood-carving by a London craftsman, Richard Lawrence; see: Suzanne Mockler, Milton Manor, Oxfordshire (n.d.).

  45. Bertrand Evans, Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1947), p. 5.

  46. Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1787), I, 48-9.

  47. Cited in: Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime. A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth Century England (Michigan, 1960), p. 129.

  48. The theme of the beholder's response to the sublime is explored also in: Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque (1967) and in Bicknell, Beauty, Horror and Immensity.

Jeffery N. Cox (excerpt date 1992)

SOURCE: Cox, Jeffrey N. Introduction to Seven Gothic Dramas: 1789-1825, edited by Jeffrey N. Cox, pp. 1-77. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Cox provides an overview of the history of Gothic drama and an examination of its main features and themes.]

On 14 December 1797, Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis's The Castle Spectre was played for the first time at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Rarely did Drury Lane have such a success. Opening half-way through the season, The Castle Spectre was performed forty-seven more times before the theater closed for the summer in June, an extraordinary run at a repertory theater of the day. It was offered another nineteen times during the next season at Drury Lane; and, in eloquent testimony to the play's popularity, the rival Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, also presented the play on 30 April 1799 during a period when it was still being offered on almost a weekly basis at Drury Lane.

The Castle Spectre long continued as part of the repertoire, receiving regular performances until the 1820s and revivals in 1838 (Drury Lane), 1840 (Sadler's Wells), and 1880 (Gaiety). It opened in New York on the first of June 1798 and was still being performed there thirty-six years later, in 1834. Lewis's biographer and best critic, Louis F. Peck, records the comments on the Drury Lane playbills that testify to the audience's infatuation with the play: “The Fatigue attending the representation of some of the Characters renders it impossible to repeat the performance every night in the week” (18 December 1797); “Notwithstanding the great demand for places for the Castle-Spectre; the system of giving as much Novelty as possible at this Theatre necessarily prevents its repetition till Monday next, when it will be performed for the 22nd. time” (15 January 1798). John Waldie, D. Lit. and indefatigable theater enthusiast, might stand for many other avid theater-goers in his continued delight in the play, which lead him to see it at least four times at different theaters over a ten-year period.1

The Biographia Dramatica tells us that “Except, perhaps, Pizarro and Blue Beard, this piece was, we believe, more productive of profit to the theatre than any other for twenty years preceding it.” Of course, the Biographia Dramatica goes on to relate an anecdote about a disagreement between Lewis and Sheridan: “about the end of the season, Sheridan and Lewis had some dispute in the green-room; when the latter offered, in confirmation of his arguments, to bet Sheridan all the money which the Castle Spectre had brought, that he was right—no, said Sheridan, I cannot afford to bet so much; but I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll bet you all it is worth!”2

Immense popularity and little critical respect—this might be the epitaph for the Gothic drama that filled the London stages in the decades around the turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. We almost completely ignore these plays, that found such favor with audiences of the day, not yet finding in them the interest we have discovered in the Gothic romances which also sit at the margins of the “great tradition.” It is ironic, given the obscurity of the Gothic drama, that the Gothic romance provides a key example of the new processes of canon reformation within the academy. A core of masterworks has been established, led by Radcliffe's Italian, Lewis's The Monk, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and backed up by many obscure popular novels that demonstrate the breadth of the Gothic's appeal. To demonstrate the importance of the Gothic to works within the traditional canon, scholars have located the Gothic impulse in as varied practitioners as Percy Shelley, Lawrence, Austen, and the Brontës. Criticism also reminds us of the Gothic presence still lurking within the horror movies and romances of contemporary culture. The Gothic novel is thus established as an important area of academic study, one valuable in its own right and having significance for the examination of the novelistic tradition as a whole and the exploration of our own culture.

But the Gothic drama has received no comprehensive attention since Bertrand Evans's Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley (1947). This neglect has persisted despite the fact that Lewis was at least as well known for his Castle Spectre as for The Monk, that Maturin was made famous by his tragedy Bertram, or that the popular image of Frankenstein probably owes more to a number of melodramas (and the films that grew out of them) than to the novel they purported to stage. We note the importance of the Gothic to the romantic poets but not the fact that Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron were more engaged in the Gothic drama than the novel. The Gothic drama has for the most part simply dropped out of our vision of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Gothic drama's disappearance down a vampire trap of dramatic history is perhaps not so very surprising given the traditional scholarly treatment of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century drama. The history of the drama—particularly as it is embodied in anthologies and survey courses—leaps over the nineteenth century, or at least that part of it that precedes the advent of Ibsen, Strindberg, Checkov, and Shaw. However refined specific scholarly analyses of early nineteenth-century plays are, we teach a vastly simplified version of the history of the drama of which they are a part and, by doing so, perpetuate a devaluation of the past.

As Jerome McGann identifies a “romantic ideology” permeating the criticism of early nineteenth-century poetry which he believes has made it impossible for us to view this poetry objectively,3 we might postulate a “dramatic ideology” found in the treatment of this period's drama which makes it nearly impossible for us to perceive it at all. We might define this “dramatic ideology” through two key features. First, there is what we might call the “peak phenomenon”: a small number of great figures are seen as speaking to one another across the ages, from the rare mountaintops of dramatic excellence—essentially Classical Athens, Renaissance and Baroque England, Spain, and France, and modern Europe from Ibsen to Brecht, Beckett, and Pinter. The rest of dramatic history is largely condemned to silence. The second underlying tenet might be termed the “culture gap”: canonized plays are presented as having more in common with their great precursors and descendents than with the dramatic and theatrical cultures within which they were created. An account of dramatic history based on such precepts offers neither a synchronic grasp of the institution of drama during a particular period nor a diachronic sense of the drama's development. Such a “dramatic ideology” creates a deeply ahistorical conception of dramatic art, a “great man” account of the drama.

Of course, not all scholars of the drama or the theater have been captured by this “dramatic ideology”; we have many important studies that place plays within their context or that trace the slow evolution of dramatic features and forms. However, within this dominant critical perspective, the drama of the nineteenth century must always be a “valley” when compared to the celebrated “peaks” of dramatic history. Most anthologies, most survey courses, and even many histories of the drama skip from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteen-hundreds, with perhaps a glance at Sheridan, a glimpse of Diderot, or a nod at the great German drama of Goethe, Schiller, and Keist. Even collections drawn specifically from nineteenth-century drama (such as those by Rowell and Corrigan) focus on Victorian plays and slight the earlier part of the century. The presence of the “culture gap” is even more striking in such selections of nineteenth-century plays, for these volumes tend to enforce the split between “high” and “low” culture that we are all told exists during the period. Thus, Kauvar and Sorenson's collection includes only verse dramas by major romantic and Victorian poets, from Wordsworth's The Borderers to Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon, while Michael Booth's two volumes of nineteenth-century drama eschew the works of the poets for those of popular writers such as Pocock and Boucicault.4

This distorts our sense of the development of nineteenth-century drama. The concentration upon dramatic “peaks” results in a tendency to see nineteenth-century drama from the perspective of the great works of realism and naturalism that arise at the close of the era. The enforcement of the “culture gap” then artificially divides the drama of the period, relegating the works of the great writers of the day to the “closet” and finding in the popular works the preconditions for late nineteenth-century drama. The “peak” at the end of the century imposes a teleology on histories of the period: everything is presented as working towards the realistic drama—otherwise, it is dismissed as retrograde, mere “Elizabethanizing.” The “gap” insures that our best dramatic and theatrical histories of the period provide a place for the Boadens, Kotzebues, and Pixérécourts, but not the Byrons, Schillers, and Hugos—let alone the Lewises, Baillies, and Maturins.

In order to have a fuller and more accurate history of nineteenth-century drama, we need to have before us the plays obscured by this “dramatic ideology.” The Gothic drama provides one central set of texts that challenge the controlling preconceptions about nineteenth-century drama. These plays provide an opportunity to explore the complex interactions between authors, texts, genre, the literary institution of the theater, and larger cultural or ideological constructs during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That is, they force us to move beyond an account of “great” dramatists and “key” texts to investigate the entire dramatic and theatrical scene as part of the even larger literary, cultural, and political landscape. The Gothic—as a meeting point between high and low culture negotiated by both popular writers such as James Boaden and J. C. Cross and canonized poets such as Byron and Shelley, as a mode that extends throughout much of the period's dramatic and nondramatic writing, and as a particular response to the literary, theatrical, and political pressures of the age of revolution—can tell us much about the drama and culture of its day. The story of the Gothic drama contradicts standard dramatic and theatrical histories, closing the gap between high and low forms, linking poetry and the novel to the theater, and establishing an alternative tradition to the movement towards late nineteenth-century realism.

This collection of Gothic dramas argues for a reconsideration of these all-but-lost plays. The volume includes works interesting in their own right and that also offer a framework for a history of the Gothic drama. While the Gothic arose as early as Walpole's Mysterious Mother (1768), the present collection begins with the explosion of Gothic works in the 1790s, offering the texts of Francis North's Kentish Barons (1791) and J. C. Cross's Julia of Louvain; or, Monkish Cruelty (1797). These plays can help us to define the Gothic drama during its first period of widespread success and to understand how it fit within the generic, institutional, and ideological structures of its day; more specifically, we will see that the Gothic becomes the dramatic form for the revolutionary years of the 1790s. Matthew Lewis's The Castle Spectre (1797), as I have already noted, stands as the greatest theatrical success of the Gothic drama, and it also serves as an exemplary model of Gothic dramatic techniques and tactics. Together with Lewis's The Captive (1807), The Castle Spectre enables us to explore the generic permutations of the Gothic, for these plays embody the two poles of dramatic practice at the turn of the century—the monodrama and the melodrama—and they suggest how Lewis, among others, would work to convert the Gothic into tragedy. We will also see how this move to transform the Gothic into “high” culture worked to limit its radical potential.

Joanna Baillie's De Monfort (1798) demonstrates that the Gothic was open to lines of development other than this conservative reformation. Like Lewis's plays, De Monfort comes at a point within the evolution of the Gothic that enables its author to reflect upon Gothic conventions, but Baillie does so not to render the Gothic ideologically tame but to raise potentially radical questions about its portrayal of women. The final two plays in the volume, Charles Robert Maturin's Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1815) and Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) provide a sketch of the second major phase of the Gothic drama, during the post-Napoleonic period. We find these plays continuing and extending Gothic conventions, but they do so within a changed literary and ideological moment. The Gothic drama after Waterloo is no longer the key theatrical resolution of the generic and political questions facing the dramatist; it is instead a protest against the dominant ideology of the day and against the rise of the new dominant popular form, the...

(The entire section is 24685 words.)