Before I started writing novels, I used to write plays for radio and stage. It’s a completely different discipline and I’ve been feeling that I’d like to get back to it for a change. The thing that’s set me thinking about it, though, is the fact that I’m writing a sequel to The Figurehead and part of the action concerns the visit of a theatrical troupe to Aberdeen in 1842. It’s meant that I’ve had to revisit 19th century drama, which was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis and I’ve been reminded of how passionate audiences were then about plays.
The most popular form was melodrama and, in France in the 1830s (when revolutionary spirits were high), the theatre was a literal battle ground between the Romantics and the Traditionalists. The opening line of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (famous for the ‘Battles of Hernani’ that erupted in the audience night after night) throws down a gauntlet because the play’s written in a verse form called alexandrines which followed strict rules (until Hugo started loosening them). They were self-contained lines of 12 syllables and their meaning should never run on into the following line. But Hugo’s play begins with an old servant asking:
Serait-ce déjà lui? (Un coup.) C’est bien à l’escalier
Which, very loosely translated, is :
Is he here already? (A knock on the door.) That’s certainly from the hidden
Splitting the noun and adjective in that way was a direct challenge and there was uproar immediately. Different parts of the audience threw cabbages and even worse things at one another.
In another part of the play, the king asks a courtier ‘What time is it?’ Cue more uproar because that’s not how kings speak. And when the courtier replies ‘Nearly midnight’, the traditionalists go bananas because courtiers would never be so familiar with monarchs. A contemporary English melodrama showed the way with the same sort of Q & A.
– Is midnight passed?
– Long since. Just as we crossed the glen the monastery chime swang heavy with the knell of yesterday.
Melodrama had its own language, its own range of gestures. Audiences knew what characters were thinking (or, more often, emoting) without any words being said. But the interesting thing is the degree of passion the theatre aroused. There’s one anecdote which illustrates it perfectly.
Antony was a play written by Alexandre Dumas. It was a huge success and had full houses every night. The character of Antony, played by the famous actor Bocage, loves Adèle d’Hervey, played by the sensational Marie Dorval. Adèle is married with a daughter but Antony wants her to run away with him. They’re madly in love but Adèle refuses to leave her daughter. In the last act, Antony tracks her down to an inn and enters her room. Her husband’s on his way to join her and, just as Antony is about to drag her away by force, there’s a knock on the door. It’s the husband. If he comes in and finds them together, she’ll be dishonoured (even though they haven’t done anything). Adèle says Antony must kill her to save her honour. He kisses her and stabs her, the door crashes open and the husband sees his dead wife. Antony says ‘Yes. Dead. She was resisting me. I killed her’. Whereupon, the curtain falls to thunderous applause. End of play. That last line became famous and crowds continued to flock to the theatre to see and hear it.
One night, an over-eager stagehand dropped the curtain when the husband came in and struck his horrified pose. There was no time for Bocage to say the line. The audience went crazy, screaming and yelling for the curtain to go up again, threatening all sorts of mayhem and refusing to leave the theatre. The trouble was that Bocage was already getting changed. He’d started taking off his makeup and refused to go back on stage. But the gallant Marie Dorval saved the day. She told the stagehand to raise the curtain again. He did and she staggered to her feet from her prone position, limped to the front of the stage and said ‘Yes. Dead. I was resisting him. He killed me’. The audience loved it and went home even happier than if they’d heard the line spoken by Antony.
You don’t find baying crowds nowadays except at football matches, so that sort of passion has disappeared even though theatre is still capable of generating intense catharsis. But the anecdote demonstrates how theatre can, at the same time, be unbearably intense and fundamentally absurd. That really was a willing suspension of disbelief.