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  • Stagings in Scarlet:Exploring History, Historiography, and Historicity with Late-Victorian Murder Melodrama
  • Justin A. Blum (bio)

In the autumn of 2009, I arranged four murders. These were carried out in public to reactions that included titters of amused laughter, yawns of overt disinterest, and gasps of what appeared to be genuine shock, although in all cases there was applause at the end. The killings I conspired to instigate were theatrically enacted fictions presented to the public on three consecutive evenings (30 October–1 November) as part of a cabaret of performances sponsored by the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies (hereafter Drama Centre) at the University of Toronto.1 Billed as the “Hallowe’en Vaudevilles,” the program distributed to audience members described the mixed bill as an opportunity for PhD students writing dissertations on nineteenth-century theatrical topics “to explore their own academic research in performance practice.” My dissertation is a work of theatre history that explores how the theatrical culture of late-Victorian London became enmeshed in the press and public furor that surrounded the 1888 Whitechapel murders, providing much of the iconographic material for the creation of the mythic figure of Jack the Ripper that came to be associated with these still unsolved crimes. My contribution to the performance evening was to stage murder scenes from four popular melodramas originally performed in London and Paris in the late 1880s that are analyzed in that work. Two of the dramas from which I excerpted scenes are relatively well-known to historians of the nineteenth-century theatre: the version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was dramatized by T. R. Sullivan for the American star Richard Mansfield, and the original melodrama La Tosca written by Victorien Sardou as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. Both have been written about because of the importance of their lead performers and the significance of their stories in other dramatic and literary media. The other two plays—London Day By Day, written for the Adelphi stage by George Robert Sims and Henry Pettitt; and Jacques l’éventreur by Gaston Marot and Louis Pericaud as performed at the Théâtre du Château-d’Eau in Paris—are rather less remembered and written about, although the former featured one of the first star turns by George Alexander prior to his famous stint as manager of the St. James Theatre, where he was associated with Pinero and especially Wilde. So far as I have been able to ascertain, our staging of scenes from these two dramas marked the first time any portion of either play has been publicly performed since its original nineteenth-century run.2

Both the evening as a whole—which also featured a series of music hall–style knockabout comedy turns and the presentation of a disembodied-head illusion based on an 1865 performance—and my own contribution to it were commissioned by the Drama Centre as experiments with practice-based research (PBR). Six MA students were assigned to provide dramaturgical and production support in conjunction with a course taught by a group of faculty members in which they studied the emerging literature on PBR, contributed to projects like the Hallowe’en Vaudevilles created by senior students, and performed their own projects on a slightly smaller scale. Although I had no marking authority over the MA students, the work they did for me and other project coordinators was considered part of their curriculum. A number of undergraduate students were also involved in the production as actors, for which they received credit as part of a program requiring drama undergrads to attend and participate in a certain number of theatrical events outside of the regular curriculum [End Page 157] each academic year. The production process that I devised for my portion of the evening, which was subtitled “The Ripper Quartet,” was shaped by my identity as an aspiring university educator and emerging theatre historian, and by my understanding of current discussions and debates about the practice of theatre history and historiography, the relationship of this mode of academic inquiry to performance practice in both past and present contexts, and the contested ways in which these intersect in the disciplinary spaces occupied by...


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