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.

Abstract

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.

Abstract

Early reviewers of Byron's Manfred were troubled by one of the same features that has piqued the interest of readers and audiences from Byron's time to the present: its relentless and daring religious iconoclasm. Mingling references to Christian beliefs with figures and practices from many different traditions, among them Greek mythology, European witchcraft, and various "Oriental" religions, and seeming to treat them all with equal skepticism, Byron implicitly challenged one of the linchpins of English orthodoxy: the Established Church.

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This essay explores Byron’s Manfred as an allegory of Freemasonry, arguing that ecological or existential interpretations of the play must still account for the various forms of worship (Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian) addressed.

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This essay considers Manfred, A Dramatic Poem (1817) as a form of revenge tragedy. It takes its cues from the text’s Hamlet epigraph, and from that primal text of Byronic hero-formation, Edward Young’s The Revenge (1721), whose avenger, Zanga, Byron performed at Harrow. In the wake of the separation of April 1816, and inspired by the recent memory of the 1815 London theatre season in which Edmund Kean and John Philip Kemble played Zanga, Byron returned to this ur-text of revenge, I argue, as he started work on Manfred in September 1816.

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In May 1820 Byron encountered Goethe’s remarks on Manfred which, as translated by Hoppner, began: ‘Byron’s tragedy, Manfred, was to me a wonderful phenomenon, and one that closely touched me.

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Manfred and Don Juan represent antitheses of Byron’s poetic style. However, their overt differences with respect to poetic manner, content, and sensibility obscure their shared thematic material. Observing how the ending of Manfred strikingly resembles the ending of the Don Juan source material leads to an awareness of gender issues underlying both works.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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Drawing on three collaborations between New York City’s Red Bull Theater and the New York University Department of English—the staging of Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (2012), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (2013), and Lord Byron’s Manfred (2017)—I argue that Romantic closet plays can benefit from a special kind of performance and performer: a staged reading by professional actors and directors.

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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.

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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.

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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.This lecture/essay carries forward the extensive discussion of the medley style of Manfred from my earlier lecture/essay “Byron and Wordsworth” (Nottingham: Byron Foundation, U. Of Nottingham, 1999), reprinted in my selected essays of Byron and Romanticism, ed.

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