Manfred and Melodrama

"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 BluebeardA 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.

Manfred and Melodrama


We were both very pleased to be invited to join the special Romantic Bicentennials Commemorative Event: Lord Byron’s Manfred: Performance and Symposium. Many thanks to Omar F. Miranda and Jerome McGann, as well as everyone associated with the bicentennial project. It was a rare treat, indeed, to be able to watch Red Bull Theater’s staged reading of Byron’s play, which brought the text to life in exciting new ways. Once we saw an initial list of symposium topics, it became obvious that we were taking up similar questions: Jeff had been thinking about Manfred and melodrama for several years and had written about Byron’s play in his Romanticism in the Shadow of War; Michael had just talked on the topic at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia (2017). Having worked together before, we agreed to co-author a piece. Our writing process began with Jeff responding to Michael’s paper and then with both of us pursuing a back and forth exchange, as we added new ideas and developed each other’s further; by the end, we had a truly collaboratively-written talk. Then, given that this was a performative celebration of Byron’s drama and, given the fact that we were scheduled to speak late in the day, we decided we should do something a little performative ourselves, dividing up the paper into what seemed to us logical sections or finding what seemed to be good points for there to be a change in voice; we also decided to read the quotations being cited during each other’s passages. What we present here is a transcript of what we delivered, with a few corrections made and references added in; we appear as the characters JC and MG. In the spirit of our own arguments, we hope some consumer of this piece will be able to develop further than we could the idea of melodramatic consumption.

1.        JC: We take our epigraph from Michael’s recent talk at the 2017 MLA in Philadelphia:

MG: Consumption, in fact, might also be the best way to understand the hybridity both of melodrama and of Manfred.

JC: Elsewhere I have argued that melodrama is a machine built for speed (Cox Romanticism 51). I now want to follow Michael and argue it is a machine built for speedy consumption—that is, it is designed to absorb and to digest whatever is put in its way. And in this way, melodrama became arguably the key dramatic form of the period, absorbing not just other theatrical modes, but topical events, fads, ideas, and ideologies. To give just one example: Thomas Holcroft's Tale of Mystery, performed at Covent Garden in 1802, was the first melodrama in English to be identified by that generic marker. The play is a translation/adaptation of a French play, René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s Coelina, which itself was an adaptation of a novel for the stage. Just as Holcroft imported a hot theatrical commodity from Paris, so had Pixérécourt sampled a wide range of cultural goods, as James L. Smith reminds us:

MG: Almost everything in Coelina was borrowed, and not only from the romance of that title by Ducray-Duminil which provided Pixérécourt with his first two acts. The rugged mountain scenery of Act Three . . . was first built for [a production of] Schiller. Boulevard pantomime provides the action-packed but almost wordless finale. The singing miller and clodhopping peasantry appear by courtesy of Sedaine's music-drama. But the greatest debt is to the drame, that genre of serious prose tragicomedy which derives its sentimentality from Cumberland and its bourgeois didacticism from the horrible homilies of George Lillo. (Smith 3)

JC: Pixérécourt, in many ways the father of classic melodrama, did not so much create a form full-grown from his brow as cobble together a hybrid, an assemblage of all the bits and pieces to hand.

2.        Consuming everything in its path, the melodrama was also itself a major object of cultural consumption. Comprehending this requires that we recall the melodrama’s dominance within the cultural industry that was the Romantic-era theater. In France, there were over 30,000 performances of Pixérécourt’s plays alone between 1797 and 1834. His counterpart, Auguste von Kotzebue, dominated the German stage, so much so that even Goethe at his theater in Weimar offered some 87 stagings of Kotzebue’s plays compared to 19 of his own and 18 of Schiller’s. Kotzebue also, in the years leading up to the premiere of A Tale of Mystery, ruled over the London stage, accounting for nearly a quarter of all performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden between 1798 and 1800. It is for this reason that ten of the nineteen plays in Benjamin Thompson’s German Theatre of 1800 are by Kotzebue; Goethe has but one play. Melodrama in both its parts and wholes circulated throughout Europe and beyond, so that we have Holcroft adapting Pixérécourt, Pixérécourt drawing on Kotzebue, and Kotzebue, as least according to Coleridge, stealing from earlier English writers. [1] 

3.        MG: Again, we need to stress the ability of the melodrama to absorb materials from just about anywhere. The plot of a melodrama might be derived from myth or history, the Bible, or the news. A play might be set in medieval Europe or roughly contemporary America or some imagined South Seas locale—Pixérécourt's plays alone range from Robinson Crusoe’s island to the mines of Poland. While perhaps not going as far as the pantomime in its engagement with contemporary fashion—harlequinades, after all, were at the cutting edge of product placement, with, for example, a card manufacturer paying for a scene in Charles Farley’s Harlequin and Fortune (Covent Garden, 1815) to advertise his newly redesigned deck—melodramas were seen as tackling the issues of the day, from absentee landlordism in Pocock’s The Miller and his Men (Covent Garden, 1813) to slavery in Fawcett’s Obi; or Three Finger’d Jack (Haymarket, 1800); they were read as taking up “fashionable,” if questionable, moral theories, as Coleridge makes clear in his attack upon Maturin and Kotzebue in the Biographia Literaria; and they were experienced as representing the rhythms of contemporary life. While we think of the melodrama as engaging in reductive exaggeration and faked emotion, the Times (November 15, 1802) reviewer of Holcroft’s Tale of Mystery emphasized its ability to capture “real life,” arguing the play is

JC: natural and characteristic . . . There is no extravagance of idea—no elaborate research after simile and metaphor . . . the thought seems to arise from the moment, the words appear to be suggested by the circumstances which pass under the eyes of the spectator. (2)

MG: Much like the 1970s “Made for TV Movies” that were “ripped from the headlines,” the melodrama convinced its audiences that it was mirroring their lives even if it was through a glass not so much darkly as immediately sensational.

4.        As a machine built for consumption, melodrama needs to be placed within the rise of the consumer society that has been described by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, that has been theorized by Colin Campbell in relation to a “romantic ethic,” and that has been seen by, for example, Tim Morton as a key to Romantic poetics, what Morton identifies as a poetics of spice. Campbell follows the historians in seeing the rise of a bourgeois consumer culture that is marked by the rise of the novel, a cult of romantic love, and the creation of the modern fashion industry. He identifies a distinctly modern hedonism grounded in dreams of desire, with individuals

JC: not so much seek[ing] satisfaction from products, as pleasure from the self-illusory experiences which they construct from their associated meanings. The essential activity of consumption is thus not the actual selection, purchase, or even use of products, but the imaginative pleasure-seeking to which the product image lends itself, "real" consumption being largely a resultant of this "mentalistic" hedonism. (89)

MG: Having constructed this imaginative hedonism, Campbell then finds Romanticism, with its exaltation of the imagination, as providing an ethos to support this spirit of modern consumerism, as it locates in the imaginative creation of pleasure a counter-argument against attacks on emotionalism and sentimentality.

5.        JC: The Gothic novel appears in Campbell’s account as a particularly egregious example of how literature can be put in the service of a consumerism that traffics in the promulgation of day dreams and longings for the exotic, of desires that stand against the routines of everyday life. But as anyone who has pondered the Fate of Frankenstein (Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein; English Opera House, 1823) knows, the Gothic novel was consumed, at least in part, by the Gothic play. Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto had been out of print for fourteen years when Robert Jephson first adapted it for the stage as the Count of Narbonne for Covent Garden in 1781—and since then, Walpole's novel has never been out of print. The suggestion here is one less of adaptation—novel to drama—than symbiosis. Walpole's gothic novel may have given rise to Jephson's gothic play, but the adaptation in turn renewed its original.

6.        Or, moving forward a decade or two, we might remember that Matthew Lewis wrote only one Monk (1796), but that there existed no fewer than four adaptations of it by the turn of the nineteenth century. Two were for the stage: Charles Farley's grand ballet of action, Raymond and Agnes (Covent Garden, 1797), and James Boaden's Aurelio and Miranda (Drury Lane, 1798). These in turn inspired a chapbook version in 1798 and a ballad retelling in Tales of Terror in 1801. And, if we're to believe Lewis's bibliographers, the success of these productions in turn inspired Lewis—who, like Walpole and Maturin, was both a novelist and a dramatist—to adapt from himself, producing a chap-book version of the Raymond and Agnes story and then, later, a melodrama, Raymond and Agnes: or, The Travellers Benighted. As you probably already suspect, Lewis's melodramatic act of self-consumption was, of course, consumed in turn—in this case, by H. W. Grosette, who produced what became the standard dramatic version of Lewis's novel, Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun of Lindenberg, an interesting melodrama (Norwich, 1811; Haymarket, 1811).

7.        MG: What we haven't yet mentioned, however, is that most foundational aesthetic form that melodrama consumed—music—especially music expressive of the action at hand. Looking again to the Times review of A Tale of Mystery, we find in it a fairly startling pronouncement:

JC: The hurry and the perturbation of the scene were forcibly depicted by the agitated notes of the orchestra, and this new adjunct to the interest of the drama was immediately felt by the whole audience. (2)

MG: Part of what made melodrama feel not just new but also more realistic for audiences was its successful borrowing of incidental music from ballet and pantomime and applying it to dramas of suspense. One might say that melodrama's composers discovered in such music an uncomic potential, not just in expressing physical action but also underlying mental anguish, as when, in A Tale of Mystery, to disquieting music, "Bonamo reads the Letter to himself with great agitation" (Busby 23), or "Enter Fiametta, Alarmed" (Busby 9). Such scenes feel incredibly old-fashioned to us, smacking as they do of silent film; but to audiences at the turn of the nineteenth century, they constituted a revolution in naturalism similar to that heralded by David Garrick half a century earlier.

8.         As we've noted, earlier studies of Romanticism and consumer culture have unearthed an overarching interplay between a consuming society and a Romantic ethos (Campbell), and a tendency to treat commodities simultaneously as material objects to be consumed and as vehicles for creating a poetics of transumption (Morton). With melodramatic music, we aren't far from both. The scores of melodramas were hot properties; composers quickly converted them to sheet music for single instruments, usually piano forte, and sold them at a premium to musical and theatrical amateurs keen for the newest sounds—who then would transform these materials back into private performances, both musical and theatrical. For The Castle Spectre, for example, the British Library holds no fewer than five separate musical publications, most in multiple copies—of the overture, of individual popular songs, and of the celebrated ghost scene, itself so popular that London publishers printed both it and its source music, a chaconne of Jomelli, at great profit. With A Tale of Mystery, we see something even more innovative—not merely selections, as was traditional, but the entire score, including overture, songs, book, and the incidental music.

9.        JC: In our search for an exemplum of Romantic consumption, then, we wish to suggest that the melodrama provides a better example than Campbell’s deluding novel or Morton’s spicy poetry. Melodrama attends to both strands of Romantic consumption. At once fed by and feeding the Gothic in all its forms, it provided a site for fashion and for idealized love. Yet it also—at least in the hands of its greatest practitioners—provided a critique of consumption similar to those Morton locates in Romantic poetry. And so, in this twin spirit, let’s turn to one final site of melodramatic consumption—a most gothic instance, the library—that place where Colin Jager, following Deidre Lynch, finds writers tapping the

MG: twin impulses, commercial and historical, of modernity . . . [where] acts of canon creation are poised between the desire for the dead to be safely dead so that they can be smoothly incorporated into a national heritage, and the need to reanimate the dead, bring them back to life, so that the living will be haunted by the power of the dead writers in whose tradition they stand (pp. 145, 144).

JC: Certainly at this point we are not far from Manfred, nor should we be surprised to find various melodramas, most conspicuously Grosette's Raymond and Agnes, opening in "A Gothic Library" in the Castle of Don Felix, where a bookish Raymond is about to leave off book learning for the more dangerous realism of a very Gothic world.

10.        And if we move beyond literal libraries to other Gothic sites where books and texts are encountered—through ubiquitous Gothic halls and Gothic laboratories to the Faustian Gothic gallery of Manfred—we can see into the ways that melodrama—especially the early Gothic and Ghost melodrama of Byron's time—thinks about its consumption of the past, its need both to destroy and to purchase the cultural capital that underwrites it. And that may be in part because early melodrama so frequently yokes the evocation of an imagined Gothic past to the simulacra of the now offered by the melodrama.

11.        Like the Gothic novels that Lynch and Jager discuss, Manfred is obsessed with its literary precursors—Shakespeare, Marlowe, Goethe, Lewis, Wordsworth, and on and on. It is significant that in the first scene in the Gothic gallery, when Manfred goes beyond Faust to summon up not a single Erdgeist but a series of spirits, he does so on the basis of a “written charm / Which gives me power upon you” (I.i.35-6). Given Manfred's status as a closet drama, so far so good, and we half-expect Manfred to produce a volume and read from it. But this is not the way the scene goes. His first command not heeded, Manfred moves beyond texts to "sign[s]" (I.i.38) and again bids the spirits appear—but in vain. Finally, he must abandon text and even written signs for spoken incantation, calling on:

MG: a power,
Deeper than all yet urged, a tyrant-spell,
Which had its birthplace in a star condemn’d,
The burning wreck of a demolish’d world,
A wandering hell in the eternal space;
By the strong curse which is upon my soul,
The thought which is within me and around me,
I do compel ye to my will.—Appear! (I.i.42-9)
JC: And only then do the spirits come. They do so, moreover, in a scene as filled with gothic markers of theatrical conspicuous consumption as Manfred's invocation is of gothic imagery. For Manfred's "gothic gallery" recalls that most expensive of mechanized theatrical sets, the famous "blue chamber" of George Colman the Younger's Blue-beard (Drury Lane, 1798). And the seven spirits Manfred summons harken back to the mixed dramas of the 1790s and 1800s, and to the supernaturally crammed stages of John Philip Kemble's revivals of Macbeth and Richard III.

12.        Still more remarkable is the spirits' collective response, which is preceded by the following stage direction: "A star is seen at the darker end of the gallery: it is stationary; and a voice is heard singing" (I.i.49).

13.        MG: Last night we were treated to Manfred performed; in the days leading up to that performance, both Jeff and I sought to imagine what this first scene would be like, particularly this question of singing. Would there be music? Should there be? If Byron's play had premiered at Drury Lane during the 1815-16 season, how sumptuously would it have been staged, and with what kind of incidental music? If we wish to follow melodrama's consuming practices to that imagined premiere, we think that melodrama would have found its match in Manfred, whose opening scene declares its readiness to harness melodramatic spectacle and tactics to turn them back into—nay, to revive—tragedy, even though its structure is not the traditionally legitimate five acts, but melodrama's truncated three. Given the success of Coleridge's Remorse three years earlier, we believe that Byron's play would have been the hit tragedy he was looking for the year he sat on Drury Lane's governing board—the year he ransacked yet another library, Drury's manuscript collection of fallow plays, looking for a tragedy that could hold the stage. Imagine this first scene of Manfred melodramatically, with the spirits’ incantation (I.i.193-262) chanted or sung as Manfred is overcome by his own grief. Add music expressive of both the words and of Manfred's emotional turmoil. Finally, place it all in a cavernous gothic library—and it's hard not to expect the melodrama to continue. All this in the opening scene of a play that supposedly eschews theatricality generally and melodrama particularly.

14.        JC: If we had world enough and time we could go on to talk about other ways in which Manfred offers a kind of transumption of melodramatic consumption. If the melodrama absorbs the theatrical tactics of a myriad of forms from tragedy to pantomime, Byron’s play takes on the music, spectacular sets, and supernatural machinery of the melodrama to use it in the service of a new kind of tragedy. If the melodrama often explores a family mystery that, once solved, allows a return to a conventional domestic order, Byron regrounds family relations in the tragic sphere of incest. If the lead characters of the melodrama, in the words of Hegel, pursue “spiritual conversion and surrender of self" in order to reassert “ordinary morality” (92), Manfred repeatedly refuses to give up the complexity of a selfhood he sees as standing beyond any morality, ordinary or not. Byron consumes—completes and destroys—the melodrama in the name of Romantic tragic drama.

15.        But there is a final twist to this story of eating and being eaten: when Alfred Bunn staged Manfred in 1834, he returned it to its melodramatic roots. The title page of the printed text highlights the

MG: “New Music, extensive Scenery, Machinery, Dresses and Decorations,”

JC: along with the

MG: “Transformations and Properties”

JC: of the supernatural scenes. Any hint of incest is removed and Manfred and Astarte are reunited at the close of the play. In the final act, we learn that the demon Astoreth

MG: “rises and sings,”

JC: only to be dismissed so that Manfred can reconcile with the Abbot. [2]  The play then moves out from Manfred’s gothic hall to the Alps, where not one but three Chamois Hunters appear to sing a glee, as this musical drama—his Melo-drama—removes any vestige of tragedy, any hint of the radical potential of Byron’s play. A machine built for consumption, the melodrama can in the theater consume even its strongest competitors.

Works Cited

Boaden, James. Aurelio and Miranda. First Performance: Drury Lane Theatre, 29 Dec. 1798. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 1232.

Busby, John. The Overture, Marches, Dances, Symphonies, and Songs, in the Melo Drame, called A Tale of Mystery. London: E. Riley, 1802.

Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Bruford, W. H. Theatre, Drama and Audience in Goethe’s Germany. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Programme of the Solos, Choruses, Scenery, and Incidents in The Grand Dramatic Poem of Manfred! London: J. Miller, 1834.

Carlson, Marvin. The German Stage in the Nineteenth Century. Scarecrow Press, 1972.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Edited by James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, 2 vols., Princeton UP, 1984.

Colman, George. The Mountaineers. First Performance: Drury Lane Theatre, 3 Aug. 1793. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 989.

Cox, Jeffrey N. In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany, England, and France. Ohio UP, 1987.

---. Romanticism in the Shadow of War: Literary Culture in the Napoleonic War Years. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Farley, Charles. The New Pantomime of Harlequin and Fortunio; or, Shing-Moo and Thun-Ton; with a Sketch of the Story. London: John Miller, 1815. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 1893.

---. Raymond and Agnes. First Performance: Covent Garden Theatre, 16 Mar. 1797. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 1157.

Fawcett, John. Songs, Duets and Choruses in the Pantomimical Drama of Obi, or, Three-finger'd Jack. 11th ed., London: Woodfall, 1809.

Grosette, H. W. Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun of Lindenberg; an Interesting Melodrama. First Performance: Theatre Royal Norwich, June 1811. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 1597.

---. Raymond and Agnes: Or, The Bleeding Nun of Lindenberg. A Melo Drama, in Two Acts. London: J. Duncombe, 1820.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. On Tragedy. Edited by Anne and Henry Paolucci, Harper & Row, 1974.

Holcroft, Thomas. A Tale of Mystery. First Performance: Drury Lane Theatre, 13 Nov. 1802. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 1361.

Jager, Colin. Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk. 3 vols, London: J. Bell, 1796.

Lynch, Deidre. "Gothic Libraries and National Subjects." Studies in Romanticism vol. 40, Winter 2001, pp. 29-48.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Indiana UP, 1982.

Morton, Timothy: The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. Cambridge UP, 2000.

Peake, Richard Brinsley. Presumption: Or, The Fate of Frankenstein. First Performance: 28 Jul. 1823, English Opera House. Huntington Library Manuscript LA 2359.

Pixérécourt, René-Charles Guilbert de. Théâtre Choisi. 4 vols, Paris: Tresse, 1841.

Pocock, Isaac. The Miller and his Men: A Melodrama in Two Acts. London: Chapple, 1813.

Smith, James L. Melodrama. Methuen, 1973.

The Times. London: John Walter and others, 1785-present.


[1]See Cox, 1987, pp. 45-46; Carlson, pp. 37-40; Bruford, pp. 261-64; Pixérécourt, 1:lxiv BACK

[2] Astoreth appears in II, iii of the performance version; British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Plays 42927, Vol. LXIII, ff. 786-813 June-Sept 1834. BACK


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