From Gothic Novel to Gothic Drama

Both indication of and effect of the popularity of gothic novels, dramatic productions in the gothic style proliferated during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain. Critics disagree on the extent to which these productions constitute a dramatic tradition; a critic might refer to a "gothic" play as a tragedy, a melodrama, or a Romantic drama without in any way contradicting another critic for whom the same play is clearly and only gothic. Those critics who do recognize a singular tradition of gothic drama, however, certainly agree that its conventions were first established by gothic literature, but opinion again differs on the extent to which gothic novels were successfully translated to the stage. Such gothic horrors as ghosts, dark-robed figures in shadow, and grandiosely threatening settings could be effectively rendered with ingenious stagecraft, yet the danger always remained that the physical representation of these horrors would lessen the terrible (wonderful) effect that textual description could have upon the imagination of a palpitating reader.

The following plays represent a fair sampling of the most important plays in the gothic style, but they also represent an interesting study, for those familiar with the gothic tradition in literature, of the differences between the gothic novel and the gothic drama. Two of the plays excerpted here are adaptations of popular Gothic novels: The Count of Narbonne is based on Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, and The Italian Monk is based on Ann Radcliffe's The Italian. Two others are plays written by well-known authors of classic gothic novels: The Castle Spectre was written by Matthew G. Lewis, author of The Monk, and Bertram was written by Charles Robert Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer. The remaining play, De Monfort, differs interestingly from the other works of its author, Joanna Baillie: While many of her works were "closet plays," meant to be read rather than performed, De Monfort was produced and performed with marked success. Following each excerpt are passages from some of the major criticism of these works and authors. The excerpts from the plays have been chosen so as to provide examples that relate to the critical discussion.

The Count of Narbonne (1781), by Robert Jephson
The Italian Monk (1796), by Robert Boaden
The Castle Spectre (1796), by Matthew G. Lewis
De Monfort (1800), by Joanna Baillie