Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Adaptation and the Stage in the Nineteenth Century


A One Day Colloquium organised in conjunction with

Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Keynote Speaker, Jacky Bratton, Royal Holloway, University of London

School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies

Millburn House, University of Warwick

Supported by the Humanities Research Centre, University of Warwick

Saturday 28 March 2015

10.00 am – 6.15 pm

You are invited to attend this one-day colloquium on Adaptation and the Stage in the Nineteenth-Century. Scholars of the nineteenth century have always been interested in the cultural, economic and aesthetic contexts and practices of adaptation. The adaptation of fiction, poetry, and painting into plays to feed hungry theatre managers and audiences was an important part of the overall cultural economy of the Victorian period. Adaptation from Victorian novel to film has long been the subject of discussion, debate, and theorisation, while more recently exchanges between visual culture, the novel, and the theatre in the period have gained increasing attention. This colloquium draws together scholars working in this inter-disciplinary field, with a focus on the performance cultures of the nineteenth century.

 HRC Sponsored by the Humanities Research Centre, University of Warwick


10.00 – 10.30 Millburn House Foyer, Registration

10.30 – 11.30 Room G50, Welcome from Professor Jim Davis followed by Keynote Speech

Jacky Bratton, Royal Holloway, University of London, ‘WT Moncrieff - master or monster of nineteenth-century adaptation?’

11.30 – 12.00 Millburn House Foyer, tea and coffee break

12.00 – 1.30 Room G50, Panel 1

Sarah Meer, University of Cambridge, ‘Plagiarism Pays; or, Impudent Pirates and Audacious Thieves: Boucicault, Originality, and Adaptation’

Kristan Tetens, University of Leicester, ‘“The Real Romantic Drama”: Hall Caine’s Novels on the Late-Victorian Stage’

Peter Merchant, Canterbury Christ Church University, ‘Per ardua ad Astor: the vicissitudes of Henry James’s Covering’

1.30 – 2.15 Millburn House Foyer, Lunch

2.15 – 4.15 Room G50, Panel Session 2

Peter Yeandle, University of Manchester, ‘Authenticity and artifice at Belle Vue, Manchester’

Lucy Barnes, University of Cambridge, ‘A Crowded Stage: The Legitimate Borrowings of Henry M. Milner’s Mazeppa

Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University, ‘Adapting Venus: Exhibition, Theatre, Fiction (1861-1943)’

Tracy Cattell, University of Warwick, ‘Transmitting the Thinking: The Nineteenth-Century Stage Manager and the Adaptation of Text for Performance’

4.15 – 4.45 Millburn House Foyer, tea and coffee break

4.45 – 6.15 Room G50, Panel Session 3

Kate Mattacks, University of the West of England, ‘(Per)forming the Adaptive: The Woman in Mauve (1865), Maud’s Peril (1867) and the Sensation Novel’

Renata K. Miller, City College of New York, ‘Adaptation and Sensation: Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Textual Politics, and the Melodramatic Stage’

Caroline Radcliffe, University of Birmingham, ‘Doors and Windows: Representations of the uncanny, the intermedial and the panoptical in the dramas of Wilkie Collins’

6.15 Wine Reception, Millburn House Foyer

You are all warmly invited to join us for dinner after the colloquium at Le Gusta restaurant at the Warwick Arts Centre.

Abstracts and Biographies

(in order of appearance in the programme)

Jacky Bratton, ‘WT Moncrieff - master or monster of nineteenth-century adaptation?’

‘Let him empty out his little pot of filth and welcome’ (Dickens on WT Moncrieff).

William Thomas Moncrieff has been made to carry the can for all the adaptors and dramatisers – the 'pirates' – who reworked the early Dickens novels and Christmas books for the stage. Dickens's frustrated howl when his work was staged without his consent – or his profit – has been made to justify the outright condemnation of all those early adaptations as vulgar, crude work which demeaned the great novelist's inspirations. But a very little investigation shows how unjust such a blanket condemnation is, and a slightly closer focus upon some of the adaptations reveals plays which can be shown to have shaped the contemporary response to the novels, and influenced Dickens himself. With this in mind, I want to look at the work of Moncreiff in its own right, focussing not only on his flexible and clever adaptations from Dickens, sometimes before the part publications were even half complete, but also on his successes in the burlesque of high stage art – his Giovanni in London – and on his major skill, which I argue is his inspired adaptation of traditional and other popular music to create the earliest stage musicals as we would know them.

Jacky Bratton is Emeritus Professor of Theatre and Cultural Studies at RHUL. She has published widely on nineteenth-century performance history and its place in the evolution of twenty-first-century practice in the performing arts, including two CUP books on British theatre history and historiography, New Readings in Theatre History (2001) and The Making of the West End Stage: Marriage, Management and the Mapping of Gender in London, 1830-1870 (2011).

Sarah Meer, ‘Plagiarism Pays; or, Impudent Pirates and Audacious Thieves: Boucicault, Originality, and Adaptation’

Playwright, actor and manager Dion Boucicault [c. 1820-1890] was often in his own time treated as a byword for the derivative. He was excoriated for basing a career on ‘adaptations from the French’, and for borrowing effects from other productions. He was also derided for hack-work, represented in cartoons as the operator of a sausage machine, or of a cheap printing press. He was, on the other hand, rarely if ever criticised for his equally prolific adaptation from fiction. Nor were his contemporaries exercised by non-fictional sources like memoir or newspaper reportage. Boucicault was sued more than once, but he was also an enthusiastic litigant, suing others for stealing from him, both in plays and in novelisations of Boucicault-dramas. Moreover he led important campaigns for dramatic copyright. My argument in this paper will be that in Boucicault’s reputation, and in the records of some of this litigation, in which Boucicault was at different times plaintiff and defence, we glimpse some of the shifts and nuances in nineteenth-century ideas of originality and inspiration, and that these had a bearing on the understanding and practice of dramatic adaptation.

Sarah Meer is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Selwyn College. Her book, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, was a finalist for the George Freedley Memorial Award. She is currently writing a book about Dion Boucicault, and is also interested in transatlantic comedies like Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin.

Kristan Tetens, ‘“The Real Romantic Drama”: Hall Caine’s Novels on the Late-Victorian Stage’

Hall Caine tells us in his autobiography, published in 1908, that he made no serious attempt to write plays until dramatic pirates began appropriating his enormously popular novels. Then he started, sometimes in collaboration with others and sometimes by himself, to adapt his own fiction into highly romantic plays for the period’s leading actors and managers, including Wilson Barrett, Viola Allen, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Mrs Patrick Campbell, George Alexander, and Arthur Collins. To the large army of invisible readers who devoured his novels, Caine now added very visible playgoers who packed theatres to see their favourite characters in the flesh. Later, many of these stage adaptations would themselves serve as source material for film adaptations. Caine was unusually successful in ‘re-purposing’ his work across multiple narrative forms to meet audience demand and he reaped the substantial financial rewards of doing so. This paper will provide an overview of Caine’s writing for the stage and take for a more detailed case study the composition and production of Ben-my-Chree, an adaptation of Caine’s first bestseller, The Deemster (Chatto & Windus, 1887), which was co-written and mounted by Barrett at the Princess’s Theatre, London, in 1888.

Kristan Tetens is a doctoral student in the School of English at the University of Leicester who will be submitting her thesis next month. 'Hall Caine’s Mahomet: Religion, Empire, and Dramatic Censorship in Late-Victorian Britain' explores the circumstances surrounding the suppression of a play based on the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, that was written in 1890 by Hall Caine for the actor-manager Henry Irving. It includes the very first comprehensive analysis of Caine's writing for the stage, which spanned three decades and consisted largely of adaptations of his bestselling novels. She has published on the political and religious contexts of British dramatic literature and theatrical performance in the Journal of Victorian Culture and Nineteenth-Century Theatre and Film.

Peter Merchant, ‘Per ardua ad Astor: the vicissitudes of Henry James’s Covering’

Henry James had two names for the country house which in his imagination he constructed on the plan of Osterley Park. The earlier of the two names was Summersoft, and the second one was Covering. Under both of those names, it enjoyed a strangely amphibious existence. After its initial appearance in a story, “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), James introduced Summersoft into the medium of drama with a short play, named for the house, which he began to plan in 1892 and completed in 1895. Covering was similarly transplanted, featuring first in the tale entitled ‘Covering End’ (1898) and subsequently receiving a fresh lease of dramatic life in The High Bid (composed 1907, staged 1908).

As the setting which James started to shape in 1888 was three times set down in fresh literary soil, thanks to his oscillation between fiction and drama, so the original template admitted of more and more extensions. James can first be seen superimposing Knole upon Osterley Park, and then crossing both with Hever Castle. William Waldorf Astor’s purchase of Hever in 1903 pitched American money against English heritage in just the way that James was using Covering and the characters drawn there to do. However, the plot which James had fashioned collapses one apparent antithesis between the values of the trusted veteran and those of the vulgar moneyspinning incomer; and, in 1907, the reversion of this material from fiction to drama would collapse another.

Peter Merchant lectures in the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University, where from 1990 onwards he piloted that institution’s first postgraduate programme in nineteenth-century studies. He has co-edited two volumes of essays – with Suzanne Bray and Adrienne Gavin, Re-Embroidering the Robe: Faith, Myth and Literary Creation after 1850 (Cambridge Scholars, 2008); with Catherine Waters, Dickens and the Imagined Child (Ashgate, 2015) – and contributed to the newly published Blackwell-Wiley Encyclopedia of British Literature 1660-1789. Forthcoming publications draw upon the unpublished papers of two authors active in the 1880s and 1890s: Thomas Anstey Guthrie (‘F. Anstey’) and Mary Eliza Haweis.

Peter Yeandle, ‘Authenticity and artifice at Belle Vue, Manchester’

Manchester's Belle Vue zoological gardens was the largest animal collection in the UK outside London. Unlike London and Bristol, however, Belle Vue was a commercial enterprise with a deliberate orientation towards multi-platform spectacular display: zoo, circus, amphitheatre, fairground, auditorium, museum. Its owners were staunch imperialists. For them, the zoo was a microcosm of empire; the animal collection an arc, in the biblical sense, displaying both British global might and civilising/conservationist mission - what Susan Nance, in context of animal studies historiography, calls 'zoological colonialism'. Yet despite a huge growth in the study of zoos and circuses as performance sites, very little has been said about Belle Vue's other, larger, appeal - and that is its massive and commercially successful performance arena in which huge spectacles were regularly staged. For almost a century, Belle Vue staged dramatic fireworks shows (about which David Mayer has written) and military battle re-enactments. These re-enactments featured both real soldiers and real animals. Sometimes they were historical (Waterloo, Gibraltar, Indian Mutiny); sometimes they were contemporary (Omdurman, Ladysmith, western front). To generate authentic displays of Africa, elephants become stars of the show. It did not matter that the elephants were Indian. My paper, then, explores the interface of real and imagined, authenticity and artifice, in these battle re-enactments - focusing specifically on how these performances adapted and retold the news both for profitmaking and propagandistic purpose.

Peter Yeandle is currently a temporary lecturer in British History at the University of Manchester. He previously worked as researcher for Kate Newey and Jeffrey Richards on their cultural history of English pantomime project. He has retained an interest in performance histories and has essays forthcoming on music-hall ballet and military spectacular, pantomime, and animal performance. With Kate and Jeffrey, he is an editor of Politics, Performance and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain which will be published by MUP later this year.

Lucy Barnes, ‘A Crowded Stage: The Legitimate Borrowings of Henry M. Milner’s Mazeppa

The opening scene of Henry M. Milner’s equestrian drama Mazeppa (1831) contains an unmistakable echo of Hamlet, as, on battlements lit by ‘the uncertain glimpses of the moon’, a cautious sentinel calls out, ‘Who goes there?’ The play is characterised by such recycling and repurposing. It is a theatrical adaptation of Byron’s poem Mazeppa (1819) that also draws upon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, as well as Matthew Lewis’ famous hippodrama Timour the Tartar (1811). Due to these previously unexplored influences, the play was a nexus between high and low forms of cultural production as the illegitimate and spectacular genre of hippodrama borrowed from the Shakespeare plays that were performed at the patent theatres of Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket.

Byron and the French Romantic artists he inspired, such as Géricault and Delacroix, portrayed Mazeppa as a symbol of the exceptional individual. My paper will explore how Milner’s play introduced spectacle, songs, folklore and comedy to assert the communal aspects of the tale, representing Mazeppa as a lower-class hero who discovers his royal origins thanks to his ‘wild ride’. By combining popular stagecraft with influences from Byron and Shakespeare, the play foregrounds issues of legitimacy and supremacy even as it takes part in the negotiation between genres that forms the basis of adaptation

Lucy Barnes is in the third year of her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she is exploring nineteenth-century theatrical adaptations of English novels and poetry. This paper is taken from the research for her current chapter, which investigates the dramatic adaptations of Byron’s Mazeppa (1819).

Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, ‘Adapting Venus: Exhibition, Theatre, Fiction (1861-1943)’

The source for the musical comedy One Touch of Venus (1943) by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S.J. Perelman is F. Anstey’s little known novel ​The Tinted Venus (1885). The novel is not only a hilarious reworking of the Pygmalion and Galatea myth, but also a direct reference to a polychrome statue called Tinted Venus (1851-56) by John Gibson, a member of the Royal Academy. A pioneer in using pigment on marble sculptures in the nineteenth-century recuperation of ancient Greek practice, Gibson caused a sensation when he displayed his Tinted Venus at the London International Exhibition of 1862. The statue and its coverage in the press (and Anstey’s treatment of the suddenly animate statue of Venus in his novel) raise important points about race, class, aestheticism, and performance inherent in the public display of an originally white stone statue to which colour has been applied. The sculpture’s impact on the production of Gilbert’s 1871 Pygmalion and Galatea is clear from the periodical press; actress Mary Anderson’s commentary on her role in Gilbert’s play emphasizes the complex relationships between sculpture, gallery exhibition, satirical cartooning, theatrical press interviews, theatre, and fiction that swirl around Anstey’s novel, its own sources, and its dramatizations.

Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Davis Professor of English at Louisiana State University, is author of Performing the Victorian: John Ruskin and Identity in Theater, Science, and Education (2007) and Ruskin’s Mythic Queen: Gender Subversion in Victorian Culture (Outstanding Academic Book, Choice magazine, 1999). Now North American Editor of Nineteenth-Century Theatre and Film, she previously guest-edited issues of both Nineteenth-Century Prose (2008) and Nineteenth-Century Theatre and Film (2012); her special issue of NCTF is a scholarly edition of the 1847 melodrama Sweeney Todd. Her current book project is ‘Victorians on Broadway: The Afterlife of Nineteenth-Century British Literature on the American Musical Stage.’

Tracy Cattell, ‘Transmitting the Thinking: The Nineteenth-Century Stage Manager and the Adaptation of Text for Performance’

Whilst the adaptation of fiction, poetry and painting into plays contributed importantly to the Victorian cultural economy, the practical adaptation of playtexts into promptbooks, as operation manuals from which to regulate the technical elements of each performance, was an important and skilful process which was essential to the commercial success of this cultural creativity by ensuring its translation from page to stage. Throughout the nineteenth century, developments can be identified within promptbook annotatory practice which supported the adaptation of scripts into living performances with complex and interdependent technical elements, co-ordinated and regulated through the promptbook.

Charles H. Shattuck has described the promptbooks of the Victorian stage manager G. C. Ellis as ‘works of art’ which recorded ‘the stage art that was passing before him’, and observed that, in preparing a copy of one of W. C. Macready’s promptbooks for the American actor Hermann Vezin, ‘a scholarly and artist-like stage manager is seen in the very act of transmitting the thinking of a scholar-actor of one age to a scholar-actor of the next.’ This paper will consider the professional skill and artistic imperative of the initial and continual adaptation of scripts by stage managers in order to transmit, translate, and represent the thinking of authors and actor-managers within promptbooks, and the contribution of such practice to maintaining the commercial viability of nineteenth-century performance.

Tracy Cattell is in the final stages of completing a part-time PhD at the University of Warwick, where she has been studying the history and development of professional stage management in the United Kingdom. She is a professional Deputy Stage Manager, and has a particular interest in the development of cued performance. Prior to commencing her research, Tracy worked professionally across most genres of producing theatre from theatre-in-education and small-scale touring to subsidised repertory, daily repertoire, and opera; a two-year engagement with Scottish Opera coincided with the turn of the millennium, as a result of which she had the opportunity of touring three productions to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich in the year 2000, which remains a career highlight.

Kate Mattacks, ‘(Per)forming the Adaptive: The Woman in Mauve (1865), Maud’s Peril (1867) and
the Sensation Novel’

This paper repositions the sensation novel within a Victorian performance culture which existed far beyond its initial response to the socio-economic conditions of the early 1860s. As a former actress, aspiring playwright and prominent sensation novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s work typified a creative impulse in which ideas of melodrama, genre and theatre practice could be re-negotiated for a readership keen to bring public visual culture into the private domestic space. Her friendship with the playwright Watts Philips indicates a dynamic collaborative interplay between textual forms and highlights a shifting culture reliant on adaptation, revision and transformation which could paradoxically satisfy a demanding market for innovation. Using previously unseen archive material from M.E. Braddon’s manuscripts and the plays in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, I analyse how Watts Phillips’ The Woman in Mauve (1865) and Maud’s Peril (1867) were symptomatic of the move beyond simple replications of familiar sensation fiction to create a collaborative cultural space where ideas of intertextuality, influence and piracy converge. This performative space allowed the inherently adaptive sensation form to create and then exploit cultural anxieties surrounding authenticity and cultural frames of reference.

Kate Mattacks is a Senior Lecturer in Drama at UWE, Bristol. She has worked on The Victorian Plays Project and the ‘Buried Treasures’ Project at Royal Holloway/British Library and published numerous articles on M.E. Braddon, dramatic copyright and T.H. Lacy. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Awkward Silences: Changing Representations of Speech Disability in the Long Nineteenth Century.

Renata K. Miller, ‘Adaptation and Sensation: Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Textual Politics, and the Melodramatic Stage’

Adaptations of novels have been viewed, both in the Victorian period and today, as emblematic of the Victorian theater’s lack of originality. To Allardyce Nicoll, in his history of nineteenth-century drama, adaptations were not only without merit; they were also a cause of the theater’s decline, infecting the stage with poor theatrical techniques. Nicoll specifically attacks adaptations of the novels of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott as ‘further developing the melodramatic tradition.’ (I: 99)

My presentation identifies a more productive relationship between the novel and the theater in the process of adaptation, and it finds that relationship in what has perhaps been considered the most melodramatic of novelistic sub-genres: the sensation novel. I consider Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-62) in the political context of divorce and property legislation, and I compare the novel’s narrative form to its stage adaptations. Adaptations of Lady Audley’s Secret, in employing melodramatic conventions, alter Braddon’s criticism of the rise of power of the professional male, but they also alter the representational conventions and politics of stage melodrama, specifically its nostalgia for deference hierarchies. These adaptations, thus, reveal changes in melodrama, challenge the affinity between the sensation novel and melodrama, and help us to better understand the influence that the novel had on the theatre.

Renata Kobetts Miller is associate professor and chair of English at City College of New York. She is the author of Recent Reinterpretations of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Why and How This Novel Continues to Affect Us (Mellen, 2005), and her work on Victorian theatre has appeared in MLQ and BRANCH, among other publications. She is currently completing a book manuscript titled ‘Setting the Stage: The Victorian Novel, Theater, and the Actress,’ and her essay ‘Nineteenth-Century Theatrical Adaptations of Novels: The Paradox of Ephemerality’ is forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, edited by Tom Leitch.

Caroline Radcliffe, ‘Doors and windows: representations of the uncanny, the intermedial and the panoptical in the dramas of Wilkie Collins’

Wilkie Collins's dramas, The Red Vial, Miss Gwilt and The Moonstone, all shared a process of 'arrangement' between stage and novel. In this paper I will consider how, in the dramatic versions, Collins uses the onstage door as an exit to the dead/alive theatre space offstage emphasizing the uncanny. Placing the dramatist in the position of the observer, the actors can be viewed as conforming to Foucault's description of Bentham's Panopticon, in which the offstage rooms and cells they inhabit 'are like so many small cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible'. Located not only within the disciplinary locations of the asylum, hospital, mortuary but also within the home, doors open onto an intermedial theatrical space in which suspended animation, madness and opium-induced trances are similarly rendered visible within the audiences’ imaginations. I will emphasise Collins’s carefully formulated use of the offstage in evoking the uncanny through a comparison of Bramwell’s adaptation of The Dead Secret. The actual materiality of Collins’s dramatic holographs reflects his methods of scenographic compartmentalisation comparable to Bolter and Grusin’s concept of the windowed interface paralleling the windowed stage.

Caroline Radcliffe is a lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham with a background in performance. She researches and writes on aspects of Victorian drama and on popular performance. She is currently writing a monograph on Wilkie Collins and the drama.

poster for woman in white

Images: Frederick Walker, Poster for adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, 1871

Bernard Partridge, Illustration for F. Anstey, The Tinted Venus, A Farcical Romance, 1898