Commemorating Manfred’s Bicentenary: An Introduction

Omar F. Miranda (University of San Francisco)

This volume of essays commemorates the 200th anniversary of one of the most popular and influential literary works of the nineteenth century, Lord Byron’s Manfred: A Dramatic Poem (1817). In June 1817, when John Murray published the drama, it was no surprise that all 6,000 copies sold out rather quickly. A work about a tormented nobleman from the Swiss Alps, Manfred captured the European imagination upon its publication for two major reasons. First, it dramatized one of the greatest scandals of the day: the allegations that Byron had committed incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, which forced him into exile from Britain the previous year. Second, in addition to addressing these rumors, the drama catered to the European-wide craze created by the wild popularity of his works and his consequent celebrity. With its publication, Manfred delivered a new iteration of Byron’s best-selling product, the Byronic hero, a figure that he produced through the exploitation of his own public image. On one level, Manfred fused the autobiographical elements of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with the Orientalist flair of the heroes from his popular Turkish Tales, including the Giaour (The Giaour), Conrad (The Corsair), Alp (The Siege of Corinth), Selim (The Bride of Abydos), and Lara (Lara). On another level, it transformed the Byronic hero into a philosophical thinker who possessed uncanny power and knowledge.

Begun in Switzerland in 1816, Manfred shares its genesis with another great literary achievement of the early nineteenth century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Each work is an adaptation of the Faustian legend: both Victor Frankenstein and Manfred seek out forbidden sources of knowledge and are haunted by their ill deeds. Enduring a series of afflictions, including exile and the ruin of their loved ones, both end up seeking to forget their past and even contemplate suicide. Manfred and Frankenstein—along with John Polidori’s The Vampyre—were conceived during the summer of 1816 in Geneva when Byron, the Shelleys, and Polidori exchanged ghost stories in a contest at Byron’s rented Swiss home, Villa Diodati. Byron’s contribution of a “fragment” on that legendary evening seemingly inspired him shortly thereafter to compose Manfred as his first dramatic composition, which was written—like Frankenstein—in a gothic key.

Manfred bears a number of literary influences, including Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Edward Young’s The Revenge, Johann von Goethe’s Faust, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and Percy Shelley’s Alastor. Shortly following Manfred’s publication, the play was translated into several languages throughout Europe, including German, Russian, Polish, and French. Friedrich Nietzsche felt a personal connection to Byron’s title character, who partially inspired his concept of theÜbermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-91). The drama inspired many other notable works, as well, including Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Manfred is also a source for later Byronic heroes, including Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Rochester from Jane Eyre, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, Pechorin from A Hero of our Time, Michael Corleone from The Godfather, Eric Draven from The Crow, and Bruce Wayne from Batman.

Like many Romantic dramas, Manfred has rarely been performed as a full theatrical production on stage. Byron himself cautioned that his dramatic poem was not intended for the stage but rather belonged to a category of metaphysical drama that he called “mental theatre.” Nevertheless, an adaptation of the play directed by Alfred Bunn and set to music by Henry Rowley Bishop took place at Covent Garden in 1834. In 1848, Robert Schumann adapted Manfred for musical performance, and it opened to much success at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1852. Inspired by the 1834 Covent Garden production, Drury Lane theater presented another stage version of Manfred in October 1863. In 1885, the Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, turned the play into the Manfred Symphony. More recently, the BBC produced the play as a radio drama in 1988. The broadcasting network revived the dramatic reading in January 2017 in honor of the Manfred bicentenary. 

The authors in this volume, whose essays are based on original talks given at an international bicentenary symposium dedicated to Manfred at New York University on April 21, 2017, re-examine Byron’s drama from an array of angles. They interrogate issues related to its publication, circulation, and reception history, while also exploring matters of authorial intent. For instance, although biographical readings of Manfred have pointed to the protagonist’s and Byron’s sense of remorse for “destroying” his sister, Astarte, Emily Bernhard-Jackson’s provocative essay, “Love in the First Degree:Manfred, Byron, and Incest,” suggests that the play offers evidence rather of Manfred’s and Byron’s lack of guilt. Several of the authors also propose that, in contrast to critics who, like Byron himself, maintained that the drama is unstageable, Manfred offers the dramaturgical potential to succeed on the stage as a performance in its own right. The play emerged at a defining moment in the history of theater and, despite its limited performance history, is rooted in the tradition of melodrama and revenge tragedy. Moreover, the present essays underscore the idea that Manfred’s generic hybridity blurs several boundaries, styles, and tones. Manfred is not only a tragedy but also a work of comedy that anticipates the humor and satire that Byron would eventually develop in Beppo and Don Juan. The readings even expand the range of cultural influences and source materials that have previously been connected with the play. With Manfred Byron created a work that fused his own celebrity myth with elements from various faiths, myths, and traditions across cultures and times. Byron fired the public imagination with a drama that, while based on his own personal scandal, moved well beyond its rootedness in a Swiss landscape and in his own biography. The drama transcends the limits of the personal and the local as an eccentric and eclectic work of global horizons.

The first section of the volume, “Foundations, Influences, Intertexts,” proceeds chronologically, beginning with some of Manfred’s oldest cultural and religious sources. In “Alpine Orientalism in Manfred,” Alan Richardson discusses Manfred’s status as a culturally heterogeneous work whose “brazen commingling of Alpine setting and Orientalist lexicon” is saturated in signs and symbols associated with Zoroastrianism. According to Richardson, Manfred provides an unusual “mixture of local and exotic,” fusing elements of Christian tradition, Greek myth, and even European witchcraft with various “Oriental” religions. Richardson connects the drama’s incest plot to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721) and finds key links to William Beckford’s Vathek (1784)—both of which contain Zoroastrian elements themselves. He proposes that Byron’s hero, short of being a Magian himself, is at the least highly knowledgeable of the tradition given his curious speeches and practices. Richardson concludes by suggesting that, as “Byron gave a pronounced Orientalist edge to an Alpine Gothic play that programmatically refuses to declare its allegiances, religious, mythological, geographical, literary, or generic,” Manfred is an “iconoclastic” work that still speaks meaningfully to our contemporary moment.

In “Freemasonry and Mental Theatre in Manfred,” Jonathan Gross highlights the conglomeration of faiths and traditions evident in Manfred. He extends Richardson's argument about Byron's debt to Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes by tracing the similarity to Byron and Montesquieu's shared Masonic beliefs, pointing out crucial images of "Magisme" in Byron's play (the casket and key in Act III) that have not been previously discussed. He argues that the play draws on Byron’s own knowledge of Masonic societies, to which Byron’s father—“Mad Jack” Byron—also belonged. Gross concludes his essay by seeing Manfred’s heterogeneous elements as a lesson in cultural tolerance and comparative religion rather than an instance of eco-criticism or twentieth-century existentialism.

In “Redeemed from the Worm: Manfred’s Celebrity Revenge Tragedy,” Clara Tuite expands on Manfred’s conglomeration of styles, registers, and tones, as well as the complicated genealogy of the Byronic hero, which she proposes stems back to Hamlet. Tuite argues that Manfred is Byron’s take on the revenge tragedy and that the eponymous hero has his origins in Zanga, the avenger from Edward Young’s The Revenge: A Tragedy (1721), whom Byron played in a performance in his youth while a student at Harrow School. Tuite suggests that these roots are connected with Byron’s own scandals and what she calls the “fraught and intriguing form of social magic, power, and intimate publicity: celebrity.” She contends that the text, which serves as an allegory of Byron’s life, offers evidence of two kinds of “unfinished business.” The first is the emotional unfinished business pertaining to the scandals that prompted his exile from Britain. The second is Manfred as an embodiment of unfinished textual business: as a synthesis of many drafts and reworkings of text, intertext, and paratext—including the revised third act at the demand of Gifford and Murray—in the months that Byron wrote it over the winter of 1816-17.

Peter Manning then tracks a “hypochondrisch” textual history of “self-involved protagonists” by uncovering an unexpected connection between Goethe and Byron outside of the obvious Faustian link. In “‘My pang shall find a voice’: Manfred and The Sufferings of Young Werther,” Manning fittingly turns to the work that made Goethe famous to uncover not only the commonalities between Werther and Manfred as heroes but also biographical links between Goethe and Byron themselves. Through his archival work on the editorial manuscripts of the posthumously published 17-volume collected edition of Byron's works (1832-33), housed at the National Library of Scotland, Manning’s research probes the curious editorial practices of John Wright, Byron’s editor. He reveals a genealogy that ties Werther to the rejected third act of Manfred, Byron’s five-act tragedy, Marino Faliero (1821), and even the “sensational stage display” of Alfred Bunn’s Covent Garden performance of the drama in 1834. Manning’s discoveries show how Wright, in bringing the many exchanges and dedications between Goethe and Byron to light through his editing, emphasized the “hypochondriac” and melodramatic proclivities of the authors and, by extension, their characters. Manning demonstrates how the textual history that marks Goethe’s effort to “cast critical distance on his self-absorbed protagonist” is echoed by Byron’s similar impulses in his composition of Manfred and beyond.

The section ends with Alice Levine’s “Manfred: Byron’s Other Don Juan,” in which she challenges the conventional notion that Manfred and Don Juan represent antithetical aspects of Byron’s writings. By examining Mozart’s Don Giovanni and other iterations of the legendary Hispanic libertine, Don Juan, Levine argues that Manfred—contrary to the critical consensus—served as a foundational text for Byron’s Don Juan. For her, both works involve a form of “heterosexual transgression”; each culminates not only in the disappearance of female characters but also with the protagonists’ self-assertions among a community of “powerful male authority figures.” In finding commonality between these seemingly disparate works, Levine proposes that Manfred and Don Juan are “two variations on the same plot and the same central character.”

The second section, “Text, Circulation, Image,” opens with Emily Bernhard-Jackson’s essay, “Love in the First Degree: Manfred, Byron, and Incest,” in which she reads Manfred alongside Byron’s letters and Don Juan. In doing so, Bernhard-Jackson considers Byron’s skepticism on the subject of incest. She makes the provocative case that Manfred, rather than being a work about Manfred’s guilt, is about his lack of guilt. As Bernhard-Jackson sees it, though Manfred provided Byron with a “confessional medium,” the subjects of incest and torment must be disentangled from one another. While Manfred (and Byron) feels deeply for his (half)-sister, his commitment to both rationalism and liberation keeps him from feeling remorse. Highlighting the “ambivalent registers of [Byron’s] apologetic gestures,” Bernhard-Jackson contends that incest was a way for Byron to challenge inhibiting social structures.

In “Dark Prometheus: Manfred and the Last Infirmity of Evil,” Andrew Stauffer closely examines an enigmatic seven-line passage in the first act to argue that Manfred’s character is the anti-heroic version of the protagonist that Percy Shelley later created in Prometheus Unbound: a “dark twin” who embodies “existential Romantic heroism.” Tracing this idea back to John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Stauffer concentrates on a particular phrase, “the last infirmity of evil,” asking whether it suggests Manfred’s superlative embrace of evil or, rather, his desire to purge the traces of evil in himself. He ultimately settles on a third reading, proposing instead that Manfred, in reaching the “summit of evil” and standing on “the dizzy brink of complete amorality,” moves beyond the limits of “self-justification.” Stauffer’s Manfred is one who, immediately prior to his own death, transcends his own limits by reaching a sense of calm and equanimity.

Jane Stabler offers another close reading of Manfred by analyzing the text’s inclusion of Byron’s signature punctuation—the dash. In “The Dashes in Manfred,” she interrogates Byron’s persistent use of the dash in his manuscripts as well as how his editors translated them into print. Distinguishing between the em dash and the long dash in Manfred, she argues that Byron’s usage creates the effect of a complex “musical score” that, in transgressing rules of grammar, shapes the way readers “hear” the work’s extensive range of voices and silences. For Stabler, the Byronic dash can be “a sigh, an intake of breath, a yawn, a cough, an inebriated hiccup or the musical equivalent.” In Manfred, the affect suggested by the dashing ranges from ludic interruption to wonder to gothic agony. To complement her analysis, Stabler supplies her readers with several images of Byron’s manuscripts and early printed editions from the National Library of Scotland.

The section closes with Ghislaine McDayter’s investigation of the reception history of Manfred, focusing on the way artists and illustrators rendered the play in the nineteenth century. In “The Iconography of Forgiveness: Manfred’s Astarte,” McDayter analyzes a series of illustrated editions of both The Giaour and Manfred in order to highlight a trend in the play’s reception. Examining portrayals of each work’s hero and their love interests, Leila and Astarte in particular, she demonstrates how these interpretations are more concerned with Byron and his scandals than with the works themselves. McDayter proposes that a study of the depictions of these heroines offers “a window into the public view of the poet himself.” McDayter accompanies her analysis with reproductions of the various illustrations that she explores.

The third section, “Voice, Performance, Adaptation,” begins with Diego Saglia’s look at the function and problem of voice in Manfred. In “Voice in Manfred: Sign, Symbol, and Performance,” Saglia demonstrates how voice in the play is simultaneously a “vehicle for authorial power” and a representation of an “unstable force.” Saglia argues that voice in Manfred serves an “oscillatory function.” It operates on the threshold between several domains, including that between transcendence and materiality, page and stage, drama and melodrama, theater and metatheater, absence and presence, the real and imaginary, the embodied and disembodied, and the visible and invisible. At the same time, Saglia highlights the relevance of unstable voices on the Romantic-era stage, suggesting that Byron wrote Manfred with “questions of theatrical performance” in mind. In producing these “transdimensional interconnections,” voice in Manfred becomes one of the major elements behind the play’s textual and performative distinctiveness. The play is “one of the major Romantic texts on the power and meaning of uttering words.”

Saglia’s analysis of the liminality of voice sets the stage, as it were, for my own essay, “Between Page and Stage: The Happy Medium for Romantic Drama,” in which I consider the performative possibilities of Manfred, a “dramatic poem” that generally emphasizes high poetic language above dramatic action. Despite a long history of skepticism about its performability, dating back to Byron’s own comments about his reluctance to it being staged, I argue that Manfred does indeed belong on the stage as a performance. By basing my findings on the recent New York City performances of Sardanapalus (2012), Prometheus Unbound (2013), and Manfred (2017), I argue that these kinds of hybrid Romantic works, which have typically been considered closet dramas, can benefit from a special kind of performance and performer: a staged reading produced by a professional director and actors. I propose that the staged reading offers what I call a “happy medium,” a form of compromise between the page and the stage that produces a pragmatic and rewarding method for encountering these works as performances. I contend that such an experience offers an alternate interpretive space for the text, a performative mode that responds directly to the challenges of closet drama, and a mutually beneficial opportunity between literary critics and theater professionals.

In the spirit of the theatrical possibilities of Manfred, Jeffrey Cox’s and Michael Gamer’s “Manfred and Melodrama” follows my own with an unexpected adaptation of the conventional article format. Emulating their presentation of it at the April 2017 symposium, they offer a dialogue that not only places Manfred in conversation with the tradition of melodrama but also attempts to understand “Romantic cultural consumption and appropriation” more broadly. In their reading, Byron reverses the usual order of things by consuming that most consuming of nineteenth-century genres, melodrama. Manfred’s heterogeneous style and “melodramatic roots,” they show, are most evident in the rejected third act, which is (as Manning points out) what Alfred Bunn drew on for his Covent Garden staging of Manfred in 1834. 

Frederick Burwick closes the section with “Staging Manfred” by focusing on Bunn’s production of Manfred at Covent Garden with Henry Denvil performing in the titular role, music by Henry Rowley Bishop, and scenery by Thomas and William Grieve. In examining reviews and first-hand accounts of the staging, Burwick argues that all the stage elements, including the scenery, the music, and the acting, created a spectacular effect that invoked Byron’s own biography. Burwick proposes that Bunn “succeeded in adapting Manfred as a spectacular musical production,” yet maintains that Bishop’s libretto “deprived the audience of much of Byron’s dramatic poem.” Burwick enriches his study with fascinating materials, including a copy and an original performance of Bishop’s musical score, “The Witches Carnival,” which Bishop inserted into the finale of the Witch of Alps scene (Act II, scene two). These materials, along with two stage adaptations of Manfred, can be found in this volume’s Table of Contents (Section V. Supplementary Materials)

This volume culminates with an adapted version of Jerome McGann’s keynote address, “Manfred, a Play of Language; or, Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Erring Manhood,” in which he symbolically returns to the material with which he launched his distinguished career several decades ago with Fiery Dust (1969). McGann revisits not only the subject of his groundbreaking scholarship but also his interest in the performance of Romantic drama, as he was one of the founding members of Cain’s Company in Chicago in the late 1960s, a theater group that dedicated itself to staging neglected dramas, including Byron’s Cain. In his essay, McGann offers a close reading of the text and its patterns of versification that neither insists on a single approach nor authoritative interpretation. Instead, he begins by assuming a position of negative capability, in the process underscoring how Manfred is a “very strange work” that is replete with enigma and ambiguity. Through his explorations of the text, McGann echoes the volume’s other contributors, pointing out the intricacies of the various influences that make up Manfred. His interrogation of several passages leads him to an important conclusion. Being of “rich and cryptic linguistic particulars,” Manfred is indeed a “play”: a play of words, of “language in which secrets lie about everywhere, awaiting—seeking—discovery.” Manfred recasts the Faustian legend as comedy in part through a style that intimates the tongue-in-cheek mode that Byron realized most maturely with Beppo and Don Juan.

McGann has played an invaluable role in helping to make the present volume possible. Back in December 2015, when Stuart Curran announced that the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Byron Society of America were accepting proposals to sponsor events in commemoration of the Romantic Bicentennials, I imagined that a work of the reach and scope of Manfred needed a celebration that was attentive to its ambition and originality. I therefore proposed an event that would fuse both scholarship and performance—one that would bring Byron scholars from around the globe together with New York City's singularly brilliant theatrical community. McGann agreed to partner with me to realize a modern production of Manfred on stage. The dramatic reading, which was produced by Red Bull Theater, took place on Thursday, April 20, 2017 at the Loreto Theater of the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street (a review of it can be found online at Romantic Circles). Both McGann and I assumed roles as resident dramaturges, offering the actors and the rest of the production team important background and context of the play during rehearsals. The curtain rose with a nearly sold-out crowd in a theater with a 220-seat capacity. McGann also delivered the keynote address, “Manfred: The Long Disease of my Life,” at the bicentenary symposium that took place the following day, which convened the present scholars from the U.S., Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia. In honor of the celebratory occasion, moreover, Broadview Press agreed to publish a special bicentenary edition of Manfred and offer complimentary copies of it to all our presenters.

I would like to thank Jerry McGann—first and foremost—for joining me on this journey. I am also indebted to this volume’s many authors for partaking of the two-day event in New York City back in April 2017 as well as for developing these new and fascinating readings of Manfred. I am grateful to the NYU Department of English, the University of Virginia Department of English, the Byron Society of America, the Keats-Shelley Association of America, and Broadview Press for their generous support. Thank you to the Romantic Circles team, including Neil Fraistat, Paul Youngquist, Orrin Wang, David Rettenmaier, and Jeffrey Moro, for their assistance with producing this Praxis edition of many essays and supplementary materials—a hybrid volume that seems appropriate to me for an edition dedicated to Manfred. Finally, I would like to recognize my research assistant, Hailey Pope, whose dedication, precision, and talent have helped to elevate this volume to its current state.

As this volume marks the bicentenary of Manfred’s publication, it indirectly commemorates the 200-year milestone of its critical reception. The present essays have, on one hand, drawn significantly on the criticism from the foregoing two centuries in order to develop their own interesting and surprising claims. On the other hand, these critics have carved out new and refreshing possibilities for Byron’s first drama and, in so doing, have pointed auspiciously toward the future of Byron studies. In preparing the way for new readings of the play, they have also highlighted the fundamental place of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem within Byron’s oeuvre.