- Staging The Frozen Deep as Practice-led Research:"Illusion can only be perfected through the feelings."1
Rapturous tributes to performances of The Frozen Deep by Wilke Collins in 1857 may be hard to understand when we read the drama today; indeed, they even provoked skepticism at the time. Writing in the Examiner in 1857, for example, a reviewer worried that audiences familiar with the sentimental language and stock characters of melodrama, but "who have not seen and judged" Collins's play for themselves, "may not unreasonably suspect us of exaggerated eulogy," when he recorded "the silent tribute of irrepressible tears" recently observed at a private production ("Tavistock House Theatricals" 38). This article suggests that we likewise receive only a partial impression of the play's effect when reading the script in isolation. Emotion is writ large in melodrama and direct verbal articulation is only one device through which nineteenth-century actors communicated heightened feelings. Practitioners also utilized a combination of gesture, music and staging to create affective action and arouse sympathy.2 Such effects are now lost because, like many Victorian melodramas, the play is rarely performed. However, in response to a recent research production of The Frozen Deep, viewers reacted warmly, noting surprise at the play's "emotional intensity" and "emotional power." Although the dialog is stagy and overblown by current standards, the drama retains the potential to communicate and elicit emotion when words are contextualized in performance.
A practice-led methodology that decenters Dickens's involvement and [End Page 329] ignores questions about collaborative authorship, biography, and managerial methods has several advantages.3 First, it enables us to conduct a "theatrical close reading" (Whipday and Cox Jensen 292) which illuminates interactions between the ensemble of players, and dialog and movement, that are not accessible when reading the playscript alone. Attention to the cooperation required for any performance by an ensemble of players, musicians and auxiliary personnel also helps us understand the play's emotional effects and intensity. I make this claim based on a research production James Phillips and I co-directed in October 2016, when we staged selected scenes from The Frozen Deep at the annual Dickens Day conference held in Senate House Library, London.4 Drawing on this production, I explore how nineteenth-century performance techniques (including attitudes, realization and tableaux) shape the actor-audience dynamic and the emotional impact of the play.
Practice-led research, I should explain, uses "creative performance as a method of inquiry" (Kershaw qtd in Fleishman 28) to examine what can be gathered from "specialised embodied knowledge" (Walton 123).5 The methodology is particularly apt for enquiries led by scholar-practitioners (Peters), theater historians (Bush-Bailey), and musicologists (Hibberd and Nielsen), as each expert investigates bodies of work that are activated by the "experiential and tacit knowledge" of performers (Symonds 212). It is also appropriate to studies of Dickensian dramaturgy.6 The findings presented here are the outcome of a collaborative and interdisciplinary practice which echoes the characteristic intertheatricality of Victorian theatrical cultures [End Page 330] (Robinson, Cox Jensen and Whipday 163).7 Our production would have been impossible without the contributions and advice of musicologists, theater historians, site managers and performers. In addition, by taking advantage of an audience broadly familiar with the play, we were able to position delegates as "co-researcher[s]", rather than "test subject[s]" when we examined their reactions and written responses to post-show questionnaires (Walton 132). Naturally, I do not claim that contemporary audience reaction can be mapped on to those of the original spectators. Affective responses are ephemeral and cannot be empirically measured, particularly at a historical distance. Instead, analysis of actor and audience experiences contribute to a theatrical close reading by offering multiple perspectives on the production. Accordingly, I use the term "practice-led research"–as opposed to "practice-as-research" or "practice-based-research"–to describe "the process of staging Dickens's play[s] as a mode of exploration, rather than as a means of testing a pre-existing hypothesis" (Robinson, Cox Jensen and Whipday 162). My emphasis, therefore, is not on "what is intended but what is learnt" (Symonds 222; italics in original).