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The Gothic Drama and the Coexistence of Ghostly Visitants

The Gothic Drama and the Coexistence of Ghostly Visitants
© Photograph by Santi G. Barros

After something of an absence, ghosts began to rise up through trapdoors and onto theatrical stages throughout Europe during the eighteenth-century, and the question is, why? The appearances of ghosts, particularly in the works of Shakespeare, had always produced an extremely popular dramatic effect, one that audiences anticipated and enjoyed. With the advent of sensibilities informed by the currents of rationalism and scientism, however, ghosts fell on hard times.

As Keith Thomas notes, they had become socially irrelevant by the eighteenth-century (1971, 606), so one of the central controversies during the development of gothic drama was what to do with the transcendent residue that was the ghost? How could a rational and reasonable European countenance the meddling of ghosts in the action of dramas? Or, as Henry Fielding put it in Tom Jones, ghosts “are indeed, like arsenic, and other dangerous drugs in physic, to be used with the utmost caution” (316).

Although attempts were made to do away with ghosts and other supernatural paraphernalia, the gothic dramatist soon came to realize that banishing the supernatural altogether was not what the audience wanted.

This chapter will trace the appearances of a variety of ghosts as lingering manifestations of what Taylor has defined as the “porous self.” That is, by placing a ghost at the center of the dramatic action and forcing the protagonist to confront and sometimes speak to a ghost in order to solve the mystery, the gothic drama held up to its audiences a reanimated picture of the older transcendent belief system, suggesting that believing in such an option was still in fact imaginatively possible in a world in which one had many intellectual options for the pursuit of “human flourishing.”

By using Charles Taylor’s theories, we can also claim that the ambivalent theatrical depictions of the ghost represent yet again the uncanny doubleness at the heart of ambivalent secularisation. That is to say; gothic drama seeks to contain within itself the new secularisation paradigm: both the old, premodern worldview as well as the newer immanent perspective.

At the conclusion of many of these dramas, a “buffered self ” emerges and addresses the audience, but the focus and energy throughout the work has been on the trials and tribulations of the “porous self ” who has been confronted with a ghost who represents the powers of the transcendent as well as the potency of the past. One could claim that in presenting both modes of consciousness on stage, the gothic drama attempted to have it both ways, preserving God, the devil, and the scientific agenda in one powerfully seductive imaginative construction.

The gothic drama was immensely popular because it was invested in presenting for its audience a magical and imaginary space wherein the immanent and transcendent could coexist. Such a practice reveals that the rational and the supernatural were viewed as equal options for the audience to accept, with the belief a question of the individual’s own preference. As such, the reemergence of the ghost on the gothic stage represents yet another cultural practice that served to instantiate scenarios of ambivalent secularity.

It is necessary to begin, however, by sketching the broader conditions of the theatrical scene during this period. The growth of European theatrical entertainments in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuries was fairly sudden for a number of economic and social reasons.

First, the sphere in which theatres competed with each other expanded as a robust economy produced an ever-increasing market of independent artisans and bourgeoisie with disposable income.

Early-nineteenth-century London also saw a dramatic increase in theatrical productions, mainly resulting from the new and broader interpretations given to the Licensing Act of 1737. Initially, this act had created a theatrical monopoly for the two royal theatres (called patent theatres) in London — Drury Lane and Covent Garden — with a sort of loophole for the existence of the Haymarket, which was allowed to stage plays during the summer months. However, in the early nineteenth-century, the theatrical legislation was reinterpreted to allow other and minor theatres to exist as long as they did not present dramas (which were defined as performances of spoken dialogue only).

As Jane Moody notes in her study of “illegitimate” theatre in London, it was the political culture of the 1790s, the fall of the Bastille, and England’s war against Napoleon that “provided the iconographic catalyst for the rise of an illegitimate drama. This theatre of physical peril, visual spectacle, and ideological confrontation challenged both the generic premises and the cultural dominance of legitimate drama” (10). And very quickly technologies of visual spectacle developed to complement the “illegitimate” productions of melodrama, the gothic, pantomimes, burlettas, and various quadruped extravaganzas.

The minor theaters, for the most part, confined themselves to melodramatic works, which by necessity included musical numbers, sung discourse (much in the tradition of operatic recitative), and military, nautical, and pantomimic fare. By 1843, with the revocation of the Licensing Act, there were twenty-one theatres in London alone, in addition to a number of optical entertainments such as panoramas carrying on the tradition of the Eidophusikon (Ziter, 20–21).

Theatre managers who wanted to remain competitive in Paris or London had to keep pace in their use of pyrotechnics and other devices that would continue to enthral their audiences. As Paula Backsheider has noted, the growth of the London minor theatres as a mass form of popular entertainment required “the bombardment of the senses and the use of techniques that fixed manipulative tableaux in the audiences’ memories” (150).

Intense activity on stage alternated with tableaux vivants and the designers of these extravaganzas intended to create what was known as Stimmung, “moments when a landscape seems charged with alien meaning, or what we would recognise as romantic epiphany” (169). As attendance at theatres increased throughout the nineteenth-century, the technologies involved in stagecraft had to improve, and advancements in lighting, stage machinery, setting, and sound effects were all of major importance in the spectacularisation of theatrical fare.

In 1815, Covent Garden opened for the first night of its new season, proudly announcing that “The Exterior, with the Grand Hall and Staircase will be illuminated by Gas.” The Olympic Theater followed suit the next month, and in 1817 Drury Lane and the Lyceum both installed gas lighting (Rees, 9). It was not long before the gradual development of “gas tables” or “gas floats” allowed theatrical managers to control the intensity of light in separate areas of the stage during a performance.

Lighting effects were crucial to the development of gothic drama and, in particular, to depicting the supernatural on stage. Limelight was first used in 1837 at Covent Garden by heating a block of quicklime so that it would create a bright spotlight effect on the stage.

Such developments extended the earlier work of Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740– 1812), who had used coloured lights for his Eidophusikon (1781), a miniature theatre on Panton Street, off Leicester Square. As Paul Ranger notes, information no longer exists that would allow us to know precisely how he created his lighting effects, but we do have descriptions by his contemporary W. H. Pyne, who left a detailed record of one of the scenes at the Eidophusikon, of “dawn breaking over London.” Serving as the design coordinator of Drury Lane between 1773 and 1781 under the management of David Garrick, Loutherbourg was responsible for, as he put it, “all which concerns the decorations and machines dependent upon them, the way of lighting them and their manipulation” (qtd. Ranger, 86).

We also know that Loutherbourg mounted a batten of lamps above the proscenium that threw all their light on the scene while in front of them he placed stained glass chips of yellow, red, green, purple and blue, all of which rotated, changing and mixing as the altering atmospheric changes required (Altick, 123).

Loutherbourg also developed what Pyne has called “the picturesque of sound” to accompany his Eidophusikon. Lightning, thunder, rushing water waves, and the groans of devilish spirits trapped on the burning lake of hell were his particular specialties (qtd. Altick, 124), and we can see how lighting and optical effects were being combined when we look at the stage directions for an 1826 theatrical production of Henry M. Milner’s Alonzo the Brave, or The Spectre Bride, itself an adaptation of Lewis’s ballad “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene”: “The figures cast back their mantles and display the forms of Skeletons! . . . [A] strong red light fills the back of the cavern” (qtd. Rees, 150).

Such visual effects were extremely effective in conveying an atmosphere of the uncanny on stage and, as such, contributed to the popularity of gothic adaptations well into the midcentury. However, it is also important to note that the gothic during this period was poised between two competing traditions: the older one was based on the appearance of mysterious, external, or supernatural forms of anxiety, such as those found in traditional religious beliefs (monks, nuns, witches, demons) during magic lantern shows; while the second and newer shape taken by the gothic was even more terrifying because it attempted to produce unstable, internalized hallucinations of monsters that emerged out of individual psyches through the power of the morbid and terrified imagination, for example, Joanna Baillie’s Orra (see Hoeveler 2000).

This second form is similar to the ethos captured in Goya’s print of the monsters that are loosed during “the sleep of reason”, and in many ways, attending the gothic theater during this period placed one into an uncanny space in which the immanent and the transcendent orders interact with each, coexisted on the same plane, and reanimated the experience of the earlier “porous self ” as it sought to protect itself against the realm of anima and magic.

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