When Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) wrote a Preface articulating to the London literary establishment one of the first class-based defences for a rapidly changing theatrical scene in Europe. For the autodidact Holcroft, it was necessary that London critics recognise that the theatre was not only increasingly serving as a locus of secularised religion, but also as a place where the lower classes could be educated in the behaviours and attitudes that would allow them to function usefully in a rapidly changing society.
In addition to serving a “civilizing process” (in Norbert Elias’s sense of the term), the contemporary theatre also had a political role, its aim being to “rouse” and “impel” the lower-class audience to “actions” that could be considered “heroic” (P. Cox, vii-viii).
Holcroft’s early plays, like ‘The Road to Ruin’ (1792) or ‘The Deserted Daughter’ (1795), are largely comedic imitations of Molière or Oliver Goldsmith’s works, while his most important plays are those that imported the techniques of the French mélo-drame. In bringing the French tradition onto the British stage, he secularized the gothic ethos, creating a form of gothic melodrama that has persisted in popularity to this day.
Whereas the gothic adaptations of Boaden, Siddons, and Lewis had a fairly limited vogue on the stage, the gothic melodrama has had real staying power as a popular dramatic form with the lower and middle classes, and the question is why? And how does the gothic melodrama differ from the slightly earlier works of gothic drama? These answers can only be discerned by returning to its origins and examining two of Holcroft’s best-known adaptations from the French, ‘Deaf and Dumb: or, The Orphan Protected’ (1801) and ‘A Tale of Mystery, A Melo-Drame’ (1802).
In Paris, September 1800, at the apex of Napoleon’s reign, a displaced aristocrat named René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773–1844) perfected a new dramatic form — the melodrama — by building on the earlier work of J. N. Bouilly (1763–1842) and François Thomas Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud (1718–1805).
Pixérécourt had managed to survive the worst of the French Revolution by hiding in a Parisian attic, and although one would think he might have been somewhat distracted, he managed to cobble together this new hybrid genre, which in turn would prove to be one of the most lasting artistic legacies of the Revolution. His ‘Coelina ou l’Enfant du mystère’, originally performed in 1800 at the Ambigu Comique in Paris, became the first full-fledged example of a melodrama as we understand the genre today (although some critics have assigned this honour to his slightly earlier Victor, ou l’enfant de la forêt, also performed at the Ambigu Comique in Paris, 1798).
But also roaming around Paris during that 1800 theatre season was Thomas Holcroft, a British Jacobin who was searching for theatrical and novelistic ideas to bring back with him to an England that he hoped had become more sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause. Holcroft noted later that he saw advertisements for eighteen different theatres in Paris that season, but there were actually twenty-three in 1789 and thirty-two by 1807 (Rahill, 41).
Holcroft is primarily remembered today as a writer of Jacobin novels, a compatriot of Wollstonecraft, Inchbald, Godwin, and Helen Maria Williams. But it would appear that it is more accurate to see Holcroft as the man who wrote — or more accurately stole — the first British melodramas from France. J. N. Bouilly’s ‘L’Abbé de l’Epée’ (1800) became Holcroft’s ‘Deaf and Dumb, or the Orphan Protected (Drury Lane, 1801), while Pixérécourt’s Coelina became in Holcroft’s hands A Tale of Mystery’ (Covent Garden, 1802). But as Holcroft’s adaptations of both works are virtual translations (or in the case of ‘A Tale of Mystery’, practically a pantomimed version) of its source, their analysis has to begin with the French origins of melodrama (see Marcoux).
It is necessary first to sketch Holcroft’s background in order to understand the role he played in transporting melodrama from France to England. In the first chapters of his Life, which he himself composed (the remainder was completed by Hazlitt after his death), Holcroft tells us that both his parents were peddlers and that he spent his early years following them from town to town, sometimes working as a stable boy or a shoemaker, eating so little that his growth was permanently stunted.
In 1770, at the age of twenty-five, he joined a troupe of travelling actors, primarily playing roles in comedies. Marrying for the first time at an early age, he found himself in need of money as his family increased. It was then that he turned to writing for the stage, as well as writing novels and translating the works of Madame de Genlis, Johann Caspar Lavater, Frederick II, Baron Trenck, and Goethe from the French and German (Gregory, 53).
His first trip to France was in 1783 as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Herald, but he returned the next year with the intention of watching enough performances of Beaumarchais’ thrashing of the aristocracy in Le Mariage de Figaro to present his own English version on the London stage. His 1784 adaptation, ‘The Follies of a Night’, proved unsuccessful, but the strategy of adapting a liberal French play for British audiences henceforth became one of Holcroft’s primary means of support.
Holcroft’s political sympathies were liberal long before the French Revolution gave a focus and impetus to his beliefs. In 1783 he published a theatrical review that made explicit his position that the state should institutionalise the theatre in order to serve as a force to liberalise and educate the populace as a whole: “The Theatre is as well worthy the contemplation of the Philosopher and the Legislator, as the Man of Taste. We are persuaded it contributes, in its present state, to humanise the heart, and correct the manners. . . . If it is not uniform in the tendency of its effects, it is because Legislators have never yet been sufficiently convinced of the power of the Drama, to incorporate it with the constitution, and make it a legal and necessary establishment; or rather, perhaps, because some men were fearful, lest while they were erecting the temple of morality, they should erase the tottering structure of superstition, in the preservation of which themselves, their children, or their dependents were materially interested.” (qtd. Bolton, 17)
Positioning “morality” against “superstition,” Holcroft became a major voice in the secularisation process that was occurring during this period. As Betsy Bolton observes, Holcroft’s theories “link the civilizing force of the drama to a leveling of social classes” (17), while other London critics of the period feared that the theatre actually encouraged class warfare in its pitting of the audience against the theatre managers (witness the Old Price Riot in 1809).
Clearly, the theatre has functioned as one of society’s most publicly contested spaces, a ritualistic arena where social, cultural, sexual, and religious ideologies converge in staged combat, poised to compete for the hearts and minds of the audience.
In the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British culture, however, the public-private debate took on a new urgency, and the stakes were indeed high. A corrupt aristocracy sought to stave off the sort of political unrest that would shortly engulf France, and the theatre was very obviously a potent weapon in either calming the populace or inflaming it.
In a blatant bid to shore up British nationalism and patriotism, revivals of Shakespeare and classical works dominated the early eighteenth-century theatre, but increasingly the public was attracted to works that dealt with contemporary social and political issues.