Matthew Gregory Lewis

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Despite considerable diversity in style and content. Matthew Gregory Lewis’s plays are generally characterized by a melodramatic intensity that is often reinforced by visual spectacle. Dramatic subtlety was difficult to achieve in the huge theaters for which Lewis wrote, and Lewis’s unsubtle ways were peculiarly suited to the physical environment in which his plays were performed. This is not to say, however, that Lewis presents no unified dramatic vision, that he has nothing to say about the state of human beings. On the contrary, his plays are surprisingly consistent in their expression of one particular theme—that the sanctity of human relationships should not and must not be violated.

Although the artistic merit of Lewis’s plays is minimal, his contemporaries enjoyed them. The sensationalism and the melodramatic moralizing of his dramatic works are symptomatic of the bad taste that produced one of the most sterile periods in British theatrical history, and if Lewis cannot be accused of creating this bad taste, he can justly be said to have been the most adept playwright of his age at exploiting it.

The Castle Spectre

The Castle Spectre, for example, relates the tale of the villainous Earl Osmond, who has sinned against the bonds of love at every opportunity and who pays the ultimate price for his crimes. Long before the action of the play begins, Osmond has already launched his egocentric career by overthrowing his own brother, the benevolent Earl Reginald, and inadvertently killing Lady Evelina, the woman whom he had hoped to marry but who had married his brother instead. Evelina has martyred herself to love by throwing her body in the path of a dagger-thrust that Osmond intended for Reginald. Her sacrifice has not prevented the usurpation of her husband’s power, but it has, as the audience is eventually informed, preserved her husband’s life.

As one might expect of such a man, Osmond has shown no more respect for the relationship between a ruler and his subjects than he has for the ties of blood, and though he conceals the guilty secret of his rise to power, Osmond is universally hated as a tyrant. He surrounds himself with brutal henchmen who deal efficiently and savagely with any who would oppose their master. At the beginning of the play, there are no obvious threats to Osmond’s continued dominion, but the isolation and loneliness that his actions have brought on him are soon to lead to his downfall.

Appropriately enough, the undoing of this sinner against the bonds of affection is the direct result of his falling in love. The unwilling object of his amorous attentions is his niece, the beautiful and virtuous Angela, daughter of Reginald and Evelina. To minimize Angela’s threat to his power (as heir to the rightful lord), Osmond has placed her with a peasant couple who have reared her as their own child. He makes the fateful decision to call her back to the court, however, when her resemblance to Evelina inspires his passion. To legitimize Angela’s sudden change in status, Osmond invents a story affirming her noble birth while concealing her actual parentage.

Like his obsession with Evelina, though, his interest in Angela is doomed to failure—again because the woman he has chosen has already selected a worthier man. During the last weeks of her peasant existence, she has fallen in love with the lowly Edric, whom she had met while she was living as a peasant, and even the opportunity to marry an earl is not temptation enough to shake her fidelity to this humble swain. Neither sweet words nor threats of imprisonment are sufficient...

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to win her consent to become Osmond’s wife.

As the audience soon discovers, Angela has chosen more wisely than she knows, because Edric is actually Percy, Earl of Northumberland, whose benevolent rule has earned for him the respect and affection of his people and whose purity of heart is suggested by the circumstances of his falling in love. Neither Percy nor Angela had been aware of the other’s noble birth, but each has recognized the other’s nobility of character. Percy and Osmond are spiritual opposites, and their rivalry for Angela is a clash between codes of behavior, between the ways of sentiment and the ways of selfishness.

One manifestation of this opposition is the method each uses to form alliances. Osmond surrounds himself with men who are motivated by fear and hatred or by self-interest. He enslaves his henchmen and awes them with his power, or he entices them with the hope of illusory rewards. His black slaves, like Hassan, have been stolen from their homelands and welcome every opportunity to wreak vengeance on the race that separated them from their loved ones. Others, like Kenric, have been promised worldly wealth and release from service in exchange for their fidelity, only to discover Osmond’s intention to betray them. Percy’s followers, on the other hand, eagerly join his effort to rescue Angela; they are motivated by love and remain faithful to their master at moments when Osmond’s followers are most likely to become undependable. One in particular, Gilbert the Knave, has been the object of Percy’s generosity during a period of personal crisis and shows his gratitude through his courageous support of his master at several key points in the play. As Percy himself says, Instead of looking with scorn on those whom a smile would attract, and a favor bind forever, how many firm friends might our nobles gain, if they would but reflect that their vassals are men as they are, and have hearts whose feelings can be grateful as their own.

Osmond refuses to recognize this sentimental truth, and as a result, he loses the loyalty of a man who is in a position to reveal more about Osmond’s perfidious nature than that noble cares for the world to know. When Kenric discovers that his master is plotting to kill him, he tells Angela the secret of her birth and that her father Reginald is alive, hidden away in a dungeon by Kenric himself so that he might blackmail Osmond if the need should ever arise. Unfortunately, Osmond overhears this conversation and goes in search of his hated brother, intending to carry to completion the fratricide that he had thought he had already committed.

Before the climactic arrival of the principal characters at Reginald’s dungeon, the sympathy of the supernatural with the defenders of sentiment has been implied by the spectacular appearance to Angela of her mother’s ghost. The specter of Evelina blesses Angela and directs her to rescue her father. Elements in this scene suggest the triumph of love over hatred, a triumph that occurs in the play’s busy final moments. Osmond and Angela come on her father’s darkened cell at almost the same time, and Osmond uses the occasion to threaten her with Reginald’s death unless she acquiesces to their immediate marriage. This she is about to do when Reginald stops her by saying that he will take his own life rather than see his daughter dishonored. Enraged by this declaration and by news that Percy’s forces have taken the castle, Osmond prepares to kill his brother but falls back in horror when Evelina’s ghost repeats the self-sacrificing gesture of the living Evelina. Angela then strikes Osmond with the same dagger with which her mother had been stabbed, and the sinner against sentiment is carried away to die.

As one might imagine, despite the extraordinary commercial success of The Castle Spectre, it was not a universal favorite of the critics. This fact seems not to have concerned Lewis, however, who was especially cavalier in his response to one very particular objection to his play. When the critics pointed out that his inclusion of black slaves in the cast of characters of a gothic story was a patent absurdity, he defended himself by saying that he had done it to “give a pleasing variety to the characters and dresses” and that if he could “have produced the same effect by making my heroine blue, blue I should have made her.”

Alfonso, King of Castile

Obviously, Lewis did not take The Castle Spectre seriously as a work of art, but he did feel considerable artistic pride in Alfonso, King of Castile. Nevertheless, the two plays have essentially the same theme: The forces of sentiment are pitted against the forces of selfish ambition, and after the moral superiority of sentiment has been clearly displayed, ambition is defeated. In Alfonso, King of Castile, however, there are surprising twists of plot and characterization that create a greater sense of dramatic sophistication than is evident in the earlier play.

The curtain rises on a narrative situation that is already quite complex. Alfonso has been a good king, but he has been duped into committing one act of injustice. He has imprisoned his best friend, Orsino, on the basis of evidence fabricated by Orsino’s enemies. As a result, Orsino’s wife, Victoria, has died in poverty-stricken exile after swearing her son, Caesario, to avenge his father. Concealing his identity, Caesario has insinuated his way into the good graces of the king and has so successfully encouraged the rebellious spirit of the king’s son that the son has defected to the king’s foes. Caesario has also secretly won the love of and married the king’s daughter, Amelrosa, but he has not managed, as the play begins, to break the filial bond between Alfonso and his daughter.

Ironically, it is love—for his parents—that causes Caesario to become filled with hatred. His hatred is directed against a man whose only fault is gullibility, and he attempts to make use of the innocent love of a virtuous woman to further his despicable ends. Like Osmond, Caesario is a sinner against the dictates of sentiment, and he, too, will pay with his life for his crimes.

That Caesario’s actions are crimes is made clear in a number of ways. First, while courting Amelrosa, Caesario has shown his duplicitous nature by carrying on an illicit liaison with Ottilia, the vicious wife of Marquis Guzman, the man primarily responsible for his father’s fall from grace. The difficulties of this situation cause him to weave a web of lies that suggest that his feelings toward neither woman are genuine. Furthermore, as the moment of Caesario’s final vengeance against Alfonso approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that a desire for personal power is at least as important in motivating Caesario as any wish to punish his father’s persecutor. In fact, the killing of Alfonso is to be carried out in a way intended to alert any English audience to his murderer’s villainy; a cache of explosives is to be detonated beneath Alfonso’s palace, an obvious allusion to the infamous Gunpowder Plot.

During the course of the play, Orsino is discovered to be alive, and, despite his bitterness over the sufferings of himself and his family, he condemns Caesario’s plans for the overthrow of Alfonso. When Alfonso has come to beg his forgiveness, his resentment has been too great to allow a reconciliation to occur, but when his son reveals his dastardly plotting, Orsino affirms the basic goodness of his former friend and allies himself with Alfonso rather than with Caesario. In a speech that summarizes the central idea of the play, he tries to draw his son back to the paths of virtue:

True gloryIs not to wear a crown but to deserve one.The peasant swain who leads a good man’s life,And dies at last a good man’s death, obtainsIn Wisdom’s eye wreaths of far brighter splendourThan he whose wanton pride and thirst for empireMake kings his captives, and lay waste a world.

Unfortunately, Caesario’s hatred and ambition blind him to the truth of his father’s statement.

As they generally are in a Lewis play, the final scenes of Alfonso, King of Castile are almost overburdened with action. When the play ends, all the principals, with the exception of Alfonso himself, are either dead or dying, and Orsino, mortally wounded, has been forced to choose between killing his vicious son and watching the flawed but virtuous Alfonso be murdered. He chooses, in an odd affirmation of the laws of sentiment, to save the friend who had once betrayed him and to sacrifice the son.

Timour the Tartar

Although it does call for the simulated detonation of a cache of gunpowder, Alfonso, King of Castile is less dependent for its success on sensational stage effects than are most of Lewis’s plays. Timour the Tartar, for example, is unashamed stage spectacle from beginning to end. A play in which live horses take part in elaborate battle scenes and in which one particular equine performer leaps with its rider over a parapet into the sea could hardly be anything else. Nevertheless, the same thematic material that gives Alfonso, King of Castile some semblance of high seriousness is also to be found in Timour the Tartar, another tale of the triumph of sentimental virtue over egocentric vice.

Timour himself is the ruthless villain whose selfishness threatens the very existence of those whose actions are motivated by selfless love. Even his father, Oglou, fears for his life when in Timour’s presence. As the code of sentiment dictates, however, he loves his son despite being afraid of him. Throughout the play, Oglou struggles to act in accordance with this love for his son while at the same time behaving properly toward two of his dearest friends, Agib and Zorilda, the most dangerous of Timour’s enemies.

Agib is the son and Zorilda the widow of the murdered Prince of Mingrelia, and when the play opens, Agib is Timour’s captive. Fortunately, Agib’s jailer is the kindly Oglou, whose life was once saved by Zorilda. Oglou will protect Agib as best he can, but he lacks the courage to defy his son by setting Agib free. In a display of the deepest maternal fortitude, that task is undertaken instead by Zorilda.

Zorilda boldly enters Timour’s palace disguised as his fiancée, the Princess of Georgia, a woman to whom Timour has become engaged without having met her. Her intention is to demand that Agib, a threat to their united power, be placed with her compatriots for safekeeping. Unfortunately, just as this plot is about to succeed, Oglou is forced to reveal Zorilda’s true identity because he anticipates a similar revelation by Octar, Timour’s messenger to the Georgian court.

In defiance of every rule of sentiment and decency, Timour proceeds to demand that the spirited Zorilda become his bride despite her obvious distaste for her husband’s barbaric murderer; her son, Agib, is to be killed if she refuses. The necessity of making such a choice is obviated, however, when the faithful Oglou assists in getting Agib out of the palace. He asks only, as paternal sentiment demands, that mercy be shown to Timour if Agib and his allies succeed in overthrowing the tyrant. Out of respect for their friend’s fatherly feelings, Zorilda and Agib agree.

By this point in the play, there have been illustrations of the sentiments appropriate to a number of human relationships: widow to deceased husband, son to deceased father, mother to son, father to son, and friend to friend. The play’s final scene portrays, in rather spectacular fashion, the courageous love of a son for his mother. As Agib and his troops gather for their attack on Timour’s stronghold, Timour, in full sight of the massed armies, attempts to kill the captive Zorilda. She flees and is forced to leap into the sea, at which point Agib spurs his horse over a parapet and rescues his mother from a death by drowning. The stage then becomes a battleground where the forces of virtuous sentiment defeat the forces of self-serving oppression with convincing finality.

One O’Clock

For his next theatrical effort, Lewis turned from the comparatively new equestrian drama to the more familiar gothic drama. He transformed his earlier The Wood Daemon into One O’Clock: Or, The Knight and the Wood Daemon, advertising this extraordinary concoction as “a grand musical romance.” In keeping with this designation, it contains considerable singing and dancing, and its costumes, sets, and stage machinery are more extravagant than anything used in Lewis’s previous productions. Nevertheless, One O’Clock is thematically consistent with Lewis’s other plays in that it deals with the corrupting influence of egocentric ambition and the saving grace of sentimental virtue.

The power-mad villain of this particular piece is Hardyknute, a former peasant who has become the Count of Holstein by forming a pact with Sangrida, the Wood Daemon. Sangrida has granted him wealth, beauty, eternal youth, and invulnerability in battle in exchange for an annual sacrifice of a child. Each year, on the seventh of August, Hardyknute must spill innocent blood or become the Wood Daemon’s perpetual slave. If he fails to accomplish his hideous task before Sangrida’s clock strikes one in the morning, he will be subjected to everlasting torment. The play centers on Hardyknute’s attempt to sacrifice a ninth child, Leolyn, and take possession of his reward, the beautiful peasant girl Una.

The representatives of virtuous innocence within the play are Leolyn, Clotilda, Oswy, and Una. Leolyn is the long-lost son of the former count, Ruric, whom Hardyknute clandestinely murdered in order to seize power. Leolyn, who had been entrusted to Una’s sister, Clotilda, was stolen by marauding Gypsies and reappears as the play opens, struck dumb and recognizable only by a birthmark on his wrist. Una, whose name suggests (among other things) the dreaded hour of sacrifice, is a young peasant maiden who has been so confounded by the magic of Sangrida that she is on the brink of marrying Hardyknute; her heart, however, belongs to Oswy. Oswy is the poor but faithful peasant who loves Una to distraction and would unhesitatingly lay down his life for her.

To an even greater extent than usual, Lewis concentrates the significant action of the play in the final scenes. The first two acts contain a painfully slow exposition of the plot, the introduction of sentimental subplots that are never satisfactorily integrated with the main plot, and the insertion of various entertainments and spectacles that are obviously intended to dazzle and divert the audience. Storms, secret passages, disappearing statues, and a miraculous bed are only a few of the special effects, with other diversions including a chorus of spirits, a procession of Gypsies, a triumphal march of troops leading a captured giant and dwarfs, a prophetic dream, and a ballet of the seasons, as well as intermittent outbursts of ballad-singing and guitar-playing. By the end of act 2, however, Hardyknute has come to realize, through the venerable device of the birthmark, that his predecessor’s son is within the castle and that he must act if he is to preserve his power. He has also been reminded, by the terrifying voice of Sangrida, that only a few hours remain before he must make his annual sacrifice.

In the final act, the allegiance of the central characters to the laws of sentiment is tested, and only Hardyknute is found wanting. Clotilda, suspicious of Hardyknute’s murderous intentions, guards Leolyn’s bedchamber and is foiled in her vigilance only by a treacherous mechanism that lowers Leolyn’s bed into a subterranean dungeon. At this point, Oswy is called on to seek help from the King of Denmark, a task he undertakes despite his worries concerning the wavering fidelity of his beloved Una. Una herself is tried most severely of all. After gaining access to the dungeon into which Leolyn has been caged and releasing him from his chains, she is confronted by Hardyknute, who reveals his dreadful secret and makes clear that he will spill her blood in place of Leolyn’s if he can save himself from Sangrida in no other way. His love for her will make the murder difficult, but his self-love, being greater, will steel him to commit the crime. Faced with the choice of becoming Hardyknute’s accomplice by revealing Leolyn’s hiding place or of jeopardizing her own life, Una hesitates for a moment but then chooses to save the innocent young boy. Leolyn, in turn, proves himself worthy of Una’s courageous selflessness by remaining in the dungeon and by finding a means of preventing her death. In full sight of Hardyknute, he climbs to Sangrida’s clock and pushes the hands forward to the hour of one, thereby calling up the demon before Una can be killed. Sangrida appears immediately and, in a scene that is reminiscent of the conclusion of The Monk, four fiends drag Hardyknute away to his eternal punishment.


Analysis: The Monk