In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem (1817) and based on original talks given at an international symposium at New York University on April 21, 2017, this special Romantic Circles Praxis volume offers not only a collection of essays that reassesses Lord Byron’s drama from an array of angles but also recent artistic adaptations of the script and an audio recording of a reenacted musical scene from the 1834 London production of Manfred. Among the subjects addressed in these essays are the play’s dramaturgical and staging potential, the curious history of its publication, circulation, and reception, and the authorial intent of a work based on Byron’s scandalous life. The readings also revisit the complexities behind Manfred’s hybrid genre, while expanding the range of cultural influences and source materials that have previously been associated with the play. With Manfred Byron created a work that fused his own celebrity myth with elements from various cultures, faiths, myths, epochs, genres, and traditions. Byron fired the public imagination with a drama that, in pushing well beyond its rootedness in a Swiss landscape and in his own biography, transcends the limits of the personal and the local as an eccentric and eclectic work of global horizons.
Voice in Byron’s Manfred is a vehicle for authorial power, as well as representing an unstable force that may turn against those that wield it—and thus primarily against the protagonist. Placed at the nexus of the physical and the spiritual, the human and the non-human, voice is a structural theme in the play, relating to spiritual and transcendental issues on the one hand, and questions of theatrical performance typical of the Romantic-period stage on the other. Multiplying the forms and meanings of utterance, Manfred foregrounds, explores, and valorizes voice, which in turn oscillates between a deceivingly singular denotation and an unstoppable process of proliferating connotations. In Byron’s dramatic poem, voice and voicing delineate a field of contacts, overlaps, and tensions, concentrating its questions about identity, power, authority, and control, as well as transcendental and social forms of interconnection or separation. This essay demonstrates that the process of transiting on which Byron’s play is predicated is crucially rooted in the dual nature of voice, its function as an instrument for conjuring and materializing, and its problematic relevance in the theater of the time.
In May 1820 Byron encountered Goethe’s remarks on Manfred which, as translated by Hoppner, began:
This essay suggests that Byron’s Manfred contains not an expression of Byron’s guilt about his incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, as previous critics have suggested, but rather considerable evidence of his lack of guilt. It argues that the play displays incest and torment, but in fact does not link the two, instead displaying Manfred’s love for Astarte as deeply felt without regrets. The essay then argues that one finds the same combination of deep love and lack of regret in Byron’s remarks about his relationship with his half-sister, as well as in the representations of incest in his other works. It suggests that this acceptance of incest links to Byron’s commitment to rational thinking and personal freedom, and it invites future criticism to explore this connection in more detail.
"The Dashes in Manfred" examines the ways in which one aspect of Byron’s manuscripts has been translated by his editors. The dash is one of the most distinctive and controversial features of Byron’s writing and is the vehicle for the silent part of his voice. Like many other editors, I think that accidentals can be substantive. In this paper, I look at the cultural associations of the dash, its translation from manuscript into print in Byron’s particular case, and the different versions of Manfred that come into sight (and hearing) if we use Byron’s manuscripts as a musical score.
What this essay explores is the way in which the illustrations of Byron’s poetry, particularly images of his two heroines, Manfred's Astarte and The Giaour's Leila, reveal a great deal about the public response not so much to Byron’s poetry but rather to their own projected narratives and fantasies about Byron on to his poetry. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I will argue that it is by taking a careful look at the ways in which Byron’s heroines are illustrated that we are granted a window into the public view of the poet himself.
Alfred Bunn’s production of Manfred (Covent Garden, October 29,1834 to February 18, 1835) maintained a successful season and was regularly performed during subsequent years. The major constituents, however, were in unfortunate competition. Stage lighting gave emphasis to the immense paintings by Thomas and William Grieve. The playbill forewarned the audience that “Chandeliers around the Front of the Boxes will not be used on the Evenings of the Performance of Manfred.” The backdrop paintings were crucial to Bunn’s production. “In order to produce the necessary effects of Light and Shade,” downstage action took place in the shadows. Henry Gaskell Denvil in the lead role as Manfred sought to impersonate the author, though dead and gone, reanimating himself as the character condemned to an internal vigil. His performance was intended as another stage enactment of Lord Byron and his personal scandal, representing on stage an impersonation of Byron performing the role of the Byronic character. The impersonations had become more familiar to London audiences than any of the fading memories of the poet. As Byron himself confessed, Edmund Kean was exceptionally skilled in his impersonations. When Denvil took on the role of Manfred at Covent Garden, his performance was burdened by expectations that he would not simply impersonate Byron in that role, but also reprise Edmund Kean’s well-known impersonations of Byron. Also competing with Denvil’s performance as a voice in the shadows beneath the vast backdrop paintings, was the full orchestral score by Henry Rowley Bishop, who rearranged lyrics as popular opera with elaborate solos and choruses. Among the most striking alterations was the retention of the song of the witches (“As the raven sits / On the raven stone”) from the concluding scene of Byron’s original version. Bishop has transformed the song for Ellen Tree, with chorus, at the close of her scene as the Witch of the Alps. Bishop also altered Byron’s revised conclusion, substituting a song made of lines from The Giaour (“This—as the stream and ocean greet”). Bunn succeeded in adapting Manfred as a spectacular musical production, but Bishop’s abbreviated and rearranged libretto deprived the audience of much of Byron’s dramatic poem.
As Manfred glimpses “the last infirmity of evil” from his position on the Jungfrau, he confronts a post-moral order dependent on a particular kind of relinquishment, the obverse of the forgiveness that Shelley’s Prometheus attains at the outset of his play. He claims prematurely, “I have ceased / To justify my deeds unto myself,” and his pursuit of such a mental and moral state in fact determines the action of the remainder of the play, just as his initial voiced desire for “forgetfulness” and “self-oblivion” must be achieved. At this early point in the play, Manfred’s solitude is “peopled with the furies,” just as Shelley’s Prometheus is tortured on his rock by Jupiter’s “hounds of hell.” Both heroes have something to get over: Prometheus, his vengeance and Manfred, his conscience. Going (like Nietzsche) beyond good and evil, Manfred represents an existential Romantic heroism in sharp contrast to Shelley’s messianic version; his humor is the golden laughter of a careless god.
Bicentenary Symposium on Lord Byron’s Manfred
Keynote Address @ New York University
April 21, 2017
Manfred is a very strange work as Nietzsche, perhaps more than anyone, so well understood. Partly it’s strange because it’s a genre mashup, “A Dramatic Poem” that, like Goethe’s Faust, cultivates a medley of tones that constantly shift from grave and exacting reflection to satire and comedy.  Like Oscar Wilde’s Salome, it is a work easier to illustrate than to stage, as Virgil Burnett’s wonderfully sly drawing for Manfred—done in the manner of Beardsley—shows.
"Manfred and Melodrama" considers Manfred’s—and Byron’s—relation to the dominant theatrical genre of his time, melodrama. We place melodrama’s facility in appropriating materials from other cultural forms alongside a less-acknowledged corollary: that the melodrama was also itself a major object of cultural consumption, enough so that a text like Manfred stands in mutually defining relation to plays like Bluebeard, A Tale of Mystery, and Rugantino, both technically and thematically. Canvassing critical writing on consumption from Neil McKendrick and John Brewer to Colin Campbell and Timothy Morton, we argue for the melodrama as an exemplum for understanding Romantic cultural consumption and appropriation, fed as it is by popular forms like the gothic while yet providing a critique of consumption similar to those we associate with Romantic poetry.