Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Novel Play: Gothic Performance and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Fiction
by Wolfram, Nathalie, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 239; 3535391
Abstract (Summary)

Gothic fiction captivated readers throughout the later eighteenth century, but in the 1790s, London's theaters began capitalizing on the popularity of novels like Matthew Lewis's The Monk and Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest by adapting them into plays. My dissertation explores the ways that dramatic and fictional representations of ghosts mutually reinforced one another amidst this post-Enlightenment vogue for the supernatural. I argue that the experience of reading a Gothic novel was continuous with the experience of seeing a Gothic performance, and in turn that the formation of the eighteenth century's most popular fictional sub-genre must be understood in terms of its live analog in the theater. In examining fiction's proximate relationship to the stage, I consider how approaches of performance studies can inflect our understanding of the rise of the novel.

My dissertation oscillates between two dominant methodologies, one consisting of formal inquiry into the narrative effects of adaptation from novel to play, and the other invested in reconstructing the mis-en-scène of historical performances in order to understand how the live action on stage interacted with—and often resisted—the printed play-text. Reading Gothic texts by way of these complementary approaches allows me to examine how texts and performances reciprocally influence one another and, ultimately, to widen the scope of eighteenth-century novel criticism by tracing the nodes of intersection between fiction and drama.

The first two chapters take a new approach to a foundational dispute within early Gothic fiction. Throughout the 1790s, Gothic authors, critics, and readers debated whether the sensation of horror should derive from the actual representation of the supernatural, or instead from the representation of the supernatural as a product of illusion or faulty reasoning. The novelists Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe embody this polarity; my chapters about them work together to interrogate how dramatic adaptations of two of their novels transformed the question of whether literary ghosts should be "real" or illusory.

The chapter on William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams (1794) and its unlikely adaptation as a musical melodrama by George Colman explores how the Gothic could be used to neutralize political discord. Why, I ask, would the theater's owner Richard Sheridan, himself a playwright and a Member of Parliament, undertake such a risky association with the notoriously Jacobin Godwin in a climate of such intense fear and paranoia about the French Revolution? In reading Colman's The Iron Chest as both a text and as a historical performance, I argue that even as Colman's adaptation works to render Caleb Williams acceptable for public consumption, the scenographer William Capon's set design for the initial production mitigated those efforts by focalizing the audience's gaze on the play's titular iron chest, a prop laden with timely allusions to the revolution that haunts Godwin's novel.

In the early nineteenth century, enterprising toymakers began issuing cutout characters and scenery for popular plays. In my final chapter, I argue that these early toy theater sets quite literally lodged Gothic narratives into the middle-class household and into the hands of children. These performance practices, I argue, helped determine how earlier Gothic and supernatural novels and plays were remembered, performed, and entered into the canons that persist today. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Roach, Joseph, Trumpener, Katie
Commitee: Roach, Joseph, Trumpener, Katie
School: Yale University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 74/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: British and Irish literature, Theater History
Keywords: British drama, Gothic fiction, Gothic performances, Supernatural
Publication Number: 3535391
ISBN: 978-1-267-85671-5
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