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DIEGO SAGLIA “The Frighted Stage”: The Sensational Proliferation of Ghost Melodrama in the 1820s I N A LETTER OF II SEPTEMBER 1823, MARY SHELLEY INFORMED LEIGH HUNT, then in Italy, that she had attended a performance of Richard Brinsley Peake’s adaptation of Frankenstein as Presumption; or, the Fate ofFrankenstein, which had opened at the English Opera House, the former Lyceum, on 28 July. As is well known, she enjoyed Thomas Potter Cooke’s acting as the nameless Creature (indicated as “__________ ” in the playbill), some­ thing that not only confirms the importance of naming in her novel, but also throws into relief the peculiarly spectral nature of this stage version of Frankenstein’s creation.1 To be sure, Peake’s text constantly refers to its material presence: the doctor initially dubs it “a huge automaton in human form” and then goes on to list its repulsive physical traits by echoing vol­ ume 1, chapter 4, in the novel.2 Yet the play also repeatedly qualifies the Creature through the language of the supernatural, and spectrality in par­ ticular, as Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz calls it “a hob-goblin” and Franken­ stein a “Demon” (in the Larpent version) and a “dreadful spectre of a human form.” Moreover, the Creature’s first and highly spectacular ap­ pearance presents some of the features of evanescence, since it is “discov­ ered at door entrance in smoke, which evaporates,” and then exits by “dis­ appearing] through [a] casement.”3 A year later, on 22 August 1824, Mary Shelley wrote again to Leigh Hunt to tell him that London audiences were in thrall to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz. She had seen it in the version that premiered This article is dedicated to the memory ofJane Moody and her affection for Italy and all her colleagues and friends there. 1. Shelley, Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraj't Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 136. 2. Peake, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, in Seven Gothic Dramas 1789—1825, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), 397, 398. 3. Peake, Presumption, 398, 399. SiR, 54 (Summer 2015) 269 270 DIEGO SAGLIA at the English Opera House on 23 July 1824, and gave the following account: . . . the music is wild but often beautiful—when the magic bullets are cast they fill the stage with all sorts of horrors—owls flapping the[ir] wings—toads [hopp]ing about—fierly [szc] serpents darting & the [ ] ghostly hunters in the clouds, while every now & then in the [ ] of a stream of wild harmony comes a crashing discord—all forms I assure you a very fine scene, while every part ofthe house except the stage is invelloped in darkness.4 Offered by several London theaters in competing versions during 1824, Der Freischiitz was filled with superstitions and omens, apparitions and sublime landscapes, while its action, mostly set on a darkened stage, pivoted on the scene of the casting ofthe bullets, a veritable tour de force ofsupernatural ef­ fects. Although Weber’s original was an opera, the earliest of its London adaptations was a straightforward melodrama (The Fatal Marksman; or, the Demon of the Black Forest, Coburg, 26 February 1824), and even operatic versions such as those at the English Opera House and Covent Garden bore a heavily melodramatic stamp.5 While confirming the popularity ofghost plays on the Romantic-period stage, Mary Shelley’s accounts testify to the sustained investments by play­ wrights and managers in new ways of combining spectrality with the acting style and increasingly striking spectacular effects ofmelodrama in the 1820s, the decade that, in Matthew Buckley’s words, saw “the genre’s emergence as a dominant dramatic form. ”6 In this respect, in her groundbreaking work on illegitimate theater, Jane Moody underlines how technical innovations and “monstrous generic hybridity” lay at the center ofthe “dramatisation[s| of supernatural terror” and “[supernatural monstrosity ... as both human and alien” in such popular melodramas from the 1820s (most of them star­ ring T. P. Cooke in their opening run) as Peake’s Presumption, James Rob­ inson Planche’s The Vampire; or, the Bride ofthe Isles (English Opera House, 9 August 1820), Henry Milner...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 269-293
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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