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History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/English Romantic

< History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now

Romantic tragedies are the domain of poets.


Percy Bysshe ShelleyEdit

Percy Bysshe Shelley explored father-daughter incest in "The Cenci". Portrait of the author by Alfred Clint (1807-1883)

Verse dramas of the like of "The Cenci" (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), based on the life of Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599), renew in part the might of Renaissance tragedies. Like Alfred de Musset's "Lorenzaccio", "The Cenci" tragedy reproduces the spirit of Renaissance in its episodes of murder, torture, and incest. Fischer-Lichte (2002) comment that "Shelley bases The Cenci on two particularly popular literary genres, the domestic play and the gothic novel. From the domestic play, he adopted the relationship of the father and child, principally father and daughter. From the gothic novel, he took the relationship between the aristocratic villain and the innocent victim. Shelley bound these two ideas to one another and turned them around: the tender father, who protects the virtue of his daughter from her seducer turns into the fiend who threatens the daughter’s virtue himself; the innocent victim, who protects her virtue under the most hideous of circumstances, commits patricide..." (p 215) The event that triggers his daughter's rape is when she tries to counter his sons' deaths. "Cenci believes he can only regain his position by transforming his sole antagonist, his daughter, into an image of himself. To do this, he must enact a ‘deed which shall confound both night and day’ (II, 2, 183), a deed which will ‘poison and corrupt her soul’ (IV, 1, 45)." (p 216)

Beatrice experiences the rape in a fundamentally different way to that experienced by the violated innocent girl of the gothic novel (for example, Antonia in The Monk) who sees the act as a violence done to the body which does not, however, touch upon her ‘angelic’ being in any way. Beatrice, on the contrary, experiences it as a distortion, poisoning and dissolution of her body in which something has occurred ‘which has transformed me’ (III, 1, 109). She has been wounded to the innermost self: ‘Oh, what am I? / What name, what place, what memory shall be mine?’ (III, 1, 74–5). Beatrice senses that the only way to find her self again,to halt the process of self-alienation caused by the violation, is to banish it at once, otherwise she will fall into the danger of a total loss of self, a total ‘metamorphosis’...When Beatrice decides to kill her father in order to recover her self, it becomes apparent to what extent her ‘metamorphosis’ has already begun: her speech contains almost exact echoes of sentences uttered previously by Cenci." (p 217) After killing her father, Beatrice believes she has found herself again...but not after her condemnation.

"The Cenci"Edit

Presumed portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

Time: 16th century. Place: Italy.

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Count Francesco Cenci invites several guests at his palace to celebrate the death of two of his sons for stirring enmity against the pope. Stricken with grief, his wife, Lucretia, half-faints amid the celebrations. Although her step-daughter, Beatrice, cannot believe this to be true, letters from Salamanca confirm the rumor. Cenci is angry at his daughter and nurtures a black design against her, at which she staggers. "My brain is hurt;/My eyes are full of blood-" she confesses to Lucretia, her step-mother. "The sunshine on the floor is black. The air/Is changed to vapors such as the dead breathe/In charnel pits." A priest and friend but also would-be lover, Orsino, arrives to speak with Beatrice. "I have to tell you that, since last we met,/I have endured a wrong so great and strange/That neither life nor death can give me rest," she confesses to him. He recommends her to accuse Cenci openly for the murder of her brothers, but she prefers instead to kill him with his help and Lucretia's. Cenci's other son, Giacomo, tells Orsino of his own wrongs. "This old Francesco Cenci, as you know,/Borrowed the dowry of my wife from me,/And then denied the loan; and left me so/In poverty, the which I sought to mend/By holding a poor office in the state./It had been promised to me, and already/I bought new clothing for my ragged babes,/And my wife smiled; and my heart knew repose./When Cenci’s intercession, as I found,/Conferred this office on a wretch, whom thus/He paid for vilest service." The count then addressed himself to Giacomo's wife. "And when I knew the impression he had made,/And felt my wife insult with silent scorn/My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,/I went forth too: but soon returned again;/Yet not so soon but that my wife had taught/My children her harsh thoughts, and they all cried:/“Give us clothes, father, give us better food,” says Giacomo. He then reveals the outrage his father committed on Beatrice, a crime about to be avenged. At the stroke of midnight, Giacomo waits for news of Cenci's murder, but Orsino reveals instead that Cenci passed the appointed place too soon, so that they missed him. Distraught, Lucretia pleads with her husband one last time. "Pity thy daughter; give her to some friend/In marriage: so that she may tempt thee not/To hatred, or worse thoughts, if worse there be," she says. He says little, but commands Beatrice's presence. When she fails to appear, he curses her. "Heaven, rain upon her head/The blistering drops of the Maremma’s dew/Till she be speckled like a toad; parch up/Those love-enkindled lips, warp those fine limbs/To loathed lameness!" he cries out. Now convinced that only her husband's murder will bring them peace, Lucretia mixes an opiate in his drink. In his sleep, two hired malcontents strangle him as the legate of the pope arrives to speak with Cenci, carrying a death-warrant for his crimes. The legate discovers the corpse caught among branches of a pine-tree after it had been thrown from the castle. Officers-of-the-law discover the two murderers. One dies while resisting arrest, the other is seized carrying an incriminating letter from Orsino to Beatrice. Orsino confesses his crime under pains of torture to judges in Rome and dies without accusing Beatrice. But Lucretia and Giacomo cannot bear the pains of torture and confess the truth. Beatrice does not. "Turn/The rack henceforth into a spinning wheel," she cries defiantly to the judges. But despite the lack of confession, she, too, is condemned. "O/My God! Can it be possible I have/To die so suddenly?" she wonders, "So young to go/Under the obscure, cold, rotting, wormy ground,/To be nailed down into a narrow place,/To see no more sweet sunshine, hear no more/Blithe voice of living thing, muse not again/Upon familiar thoughts, sad, yet thus lost?/How fearful! to be nothing!" Yet after many painful ruminations, she becomes reconciled to her fate.

Lord ByronEdit

Lord Byron explored the gloomy and even suicidal moods of Count Manfred. Colored drawing of the author by an unknown artist

"Manfred" (1817) is the best effort from Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the domain of verse tragedies. "Manfred" contains tight affinities with Goethe's "Faust", whose protagonist is constantly restless, unsatisfied, seemingly searching for the impossible. Knight (1962) cites Manfred's comments on himself such as “The lion is alone and so am I” as evidence of a Timon-like grandeur. (p 233) The general characteristic of Manfred is viewed by Fischer-Lichte (2002) in the following manner. "Until the very end, Manfred demands radical autonomy: the joy of self-fulfilment is denied him; neither man nor spirit, heaven nor hell,can give any sense to the guilt and sorrow which follow from the resulting self-alienation. All that is left is for Manfred to be his own ‘damnation’, his own ‘destroyer’, with consequent self-determination. He is not prepared to confer value on any system of order, any authority, other than that of his Self. The only quality to which he attaches great importance is his autonomy: this he realises with a rebellious gesture against any who contend his right of self-determination. The aristocratic villain of the gothic novel, who in the end is forced to recognise the existence of higher values, is transformed into a metaphysical rebel for whom all values outside his own self-autonomy are utterly meaningless." (p 214)


Manfred is prevented from committing suicide by a chamois hunter. Drawing by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Time: 1810s. Place: The Alps.

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Seeking forgetfulness if not oblivion, Count Manfred summons spirits of air, mountain, ocean, earth, wind, night, and star, but these are unable to tell him whether death brings forgetfulness. While attempting to seize the seventh spirit, he collapses. After recovering, Manfred climbs atop Jungfrau mountain to plunge into a precipice, but is rescued in time by a chamois hunter. Manfred gives him gold as a reward for his care, but, dismissing his encouraging words, leaves him suddenly. Near a torrent, Manfred calls on the witch of the Alps, to whom he admits he once loved a woman named Astarte. "She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,/The quest of hidden knowledge...," as his, but his love was responsible for her death. The witch declares she may be able to help him. "To do this thy power/Must wake the dead, or lay me low with them," he responds. Nevertheless, she answers she may, provided he becomes obedient to her will, but he refuses to submit. Instead, he requests Nemesis and the Destinies to raise Astarte from the dead. She appears but cannot be made to speak, either by them or by their ruler, King Arimanes. When Manfred beseeches her to speak to him, her only answer is: "Manfred! Tomorrow ends thine earthly ills." In Manfred's castle, the abbot of St. Maurice requests him to be reconciled to the church, to which he responds: "I shall not choose a mortal/To be my mediator." He fears no after-life. "There is no future pang/Can deal that justice on the self-condemn'd/He deals on his own soul," he pronounces. Manfred leaves abruptly, but the abbot catches up to him in the castle tower. A spirit intervenes in the abbot's view. "From his eye/Glares forth the immortality of hell-" the abbot cries out fearfully. This spirit or demon calls himself "the genius of this mortal" and requests Manfred to follow him. He refuses. More demons appear. Manfred commands them all away. "My past power/Was purchased by no compact with thy crew,/But by superior science, penance, daring,/And length of watching, strength of mind, and skill/In knowledge of our fathers when the earth/Saw men and spirits walking side by side/And gave ye no supremacy: I stand/Upon my strength-" Although he succeeds in freeing himself from them, the effort overwhelms his forces. No longer able to see the abbot or anything else, Manfred asks to touch his hand. In the abbot's opinion, Manfred's hand seems "cold- even to the heart". "'Tis not so difficult to die," Manfred concludes as he fades away to death.

John KeatsEdit

John Keats delved into German Medieval lore for his only tragedy. Drawing of the author by Charles Brown, 1819

John Keats (1795-1821) wrote his own verse play: "Otho the Great" (1819), based on the life of Otto I (912-973), German emperor. The play resembles in many ways Shakespeare's history plays, sometimes providing novel poetic images, sometimes providing only weak echoes.

"Otho the Great"Edit

Tinted sandstone statue of Otto the Great, German emperor (912-973)

Time: 10th century. Place: Germany.

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Conrad, duke of Franconia, has earned Emperor Otho's respect by beating down a rebellious Hungarian army. To favor him, Otho consents that Ludolph, his son and heir, marry Conrad's sister, Auranthe. As a sign of general good will, he also sets free Gersa, prince of Hungary. A prisoner in the Hungarian camp, Erminia, niece to Otho, discovers among Gersa's spoils a compromising letter Auranthe delivered to Conrad. This letter is shown to Albert, a loyal knight in Otho's army, who promises to reveal it to the emperor, but he is delayed by drinking bouts, and it is Erminia accompanied by Etherlbert, an abbot, who interrupts Ludolph's after-wedding ceremonies. Both intend to expose Auranthe's treachery. They place a rope-ladder at Erminia's window to spoil her reputation, thereby enabling Auranthe to marry Ludolph. But since Albert holds the letter, Erminia and Etherlbert are sent to prison for false accusations. At last, Albert arrives and threatens to expose Auranthe, but, to secure her escape from the emperor's wrath, he proposes to wait for her with horses. Instead, she and her brother plot his death. While Auranthe pretends to lie sick on her wedding-night, Gersa steps up to Ludolph with the truth, which he angrily dismisses. "Look; look at this bright sword;/There is no part of it, to the very hilt,/But shall indulge itself about thine heart!" he threatens. Their mutual threats are interrupted by a page announcing that Auranthe and Conrad have escaped together. Gersa then discovers that Albert cannot be found either. Ludolph promises revenge. Ludolph finds Albert in a forest, already wounded by Conrad, and threatens death unless he reveals where Auranthe is. Albert answers: "My good prince, with me/The sword has done its worst; not without worst/Done to another,-Conrad has it home!" Auranthe arrives aghast. Ludolph mockingly invites her to complain of her lover's death, then takes her away, leaving the dying Albert where he is. Meanwhile, Gersa succeeds in freeing Ethelbert and Erminia from prison. In the banqueting-hall, Ludolph's mind appears unhinged. The room appears dark. "When I close/These lids, I see far fiercer brilliances,-/Skies full of splendid moons and shooting stars,/And spouting exhalations, diamond fires,/And panting fountains quivering with deep glows./Yes- this is dark- is it not dark?" he cries distractedly. He calls for music but is dissatisfied with this as well. Before the entire court, he threatens to kill the disloyal Auranthe, but she is revealed to be already dead.

William WordsworthEdit

William Wordsworth described conflicts arising at the borderline of England and Scotland. Drawing of the author by an unknown artist

Like "Otho the Great", "The borderers" (1842) first written in 1795-96 by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), is a history play, only more removed from Shakespeare's influence and closer to that of traditional English and Scottish ballads.

"The borderers"Edit

Time: 13th century during King Henry III's reign. Place: Borders between Northern England and Scotland.

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Amid furious battles between borderers and Scottish bandits pilfering in England, Baron Herbert disapproves of Idonea's love for Marmeduke. "My child, forgetful of the name of Herbert,/Had given her love to a freebooter/Who here, upon the borders of the Tweed,/Doth prey alike on two distracted countries,/Traitor to both," he declares. Marmaduke is told by a beggar-woman that Idonea is not Herbert's daughter, since she herself gave him the child raised as his own. In actual fact, this woman was paid to lie by Marmaduke's disgruntled colleague, Oswald, to entrap his leader, whom he calls one of those "fools of feeling". Oswald hates Marmaduke because he once saved his life, thereby losing face before his comrades in arms. As a result of Oswald's insinuations, Marmaduke suspects Herbert intends to deliver Idonea to Clifford, a dissolute baron. Marmaduke also hears of a silent madwoman suspected of being Herbert's bastard. For all these reasons, Oswald tempts Marmaduke to take Herbert's life while sleeping in Clifford's castle. Late at night, Marmaduke hovers over the sleeping father, but is unable to do it. Nevertheless, this case is discussed with the entire band of borderers, who decide that Herbert should be put on trial, their own selves acting as justicers. Marmaduke has a second opportunity to kill Herbert, this time on the moor, but once again he is unable to. Meanwhile, the borderers discover Oswald's treachery by means of the beggar-woman's confession. Unconsciously, on leaving Herbert in the wilds, Marmaduke takes away his script of food. On coming back to look for him, he discovers his unintended victim too late, lying dead from hunger. When meeting Idonea, Marmaduke admits his fatal negligence, at which she faints. Found guilty of treachery towards their leader, the borderers kill Oswald. Yet Marmaduke will no longer fight the Scots among them or marry Idonea, but instead wanders away: "Over waste and wild/In search of nothing-," he announces gloomily.

Dion BoucicaultEdit

In comedy, Dion Boucicault showed how far one can go with London assurance, 1878

In comedy, Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) succeeded with "London assurance" (1841).

Boucicault also succeeded in melodrama, especially "The octoroon" (1859), the first notable English play set in the United States. Corrigan (1967) mentions that in melodrama, unlike tragedy, characters mainly suffer from external causes. Thus, there is an “overriding tone of paranoia” throughout melodrama. This explains the “overpowering sense of reality that the form of melodrama engenders even when on the surface it seems so patently unreal". Because the suffering is unfair, the style often reflects “grandiloquent self-pity”. Unlike tragedy when the individual is divided and in conflict with himself from within, the melodramatic character is “whole” and the issue becomes the “reordering of one’s relations with others".

"London assurance"Edit

Time: 1840s. Place: London and Gloucestershire, England.

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Sir Harcourt Courtly intends to marry Grace Harkaway, niece of his old friend Max Harkaway, a squire. "I am about to present society with a second Lady Courtly; young blushing eighteen; lovely! I have her portrait; rich! I have her banker's account; an heiress, and a Venus!" he gushes. But Harcourt is unaware of the extravagances of his son, Charles. While Charles recuperates from a drinking bout, Harcourt thinks of him as: "a perfect child in heart- a sober, placid mind- the simplicity and verdure of boyhood, kept fresh and unsullied by any contact with society". Misled into thinking of him as a family friend, Max invites Dazzle, a parasite, to his mansion, accompanied by Charles under the assumed name of Augustus Hamilton, who is struck by love at first sight with Grace, though she herself is rather cool towards him. "It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion," she says. "If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell." Dazzle is glad to announce to Max he considers himself "splendidly quartered" where he is. Max next receives the visit of Harcourt. At the point of introducing Augustus to his own father, Dazzle convinces him to "deny his identity" altogether. Although Harcourt is stunned on seeing Augustus so like his son in feature, he is led to believe it is not he, but Grace is not fooled. Nevertheless, Harcourt advises Max he should get rid of the two "disreputable characters". To his astonishment, Max learns that Harcourt has never seen Dazzle in his life. Dazzle does his best to keep Harcourt away from his betrothed while his son courts her. But when Grace's cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, arrives, Harcourt is immediately smitten by her, an enthusiast of hunting pleasures. "Ay, there is harmony, if you will," she acknowledges. "Give me the trumpet-neigh; the spotted pack just catching scent. What a chorus is their yelp! The view-hallo, blent with a peel of free and fearless mirth! That's our old English music- match it where you can." To Harcourt's disappointment, she admits to being married, though to a submissive nonentity. To help Charles in his courtship, Dazzle falsely insinuates to Harcourt that Lady Spanker is equally smitten with him. Alone with Augustus, Grace assures him she will never be Harcourt's bride. Encouraged by this piece of news, he kisses her, a sight discovered by Lady Spanker, to whom Charles admits his true identity as well as revealing that his father has fallen desperately in love with her, which she answers with a scream of delight. After dinner, Grace complains of being excluded from men's company. "The instant the door is closed upon us, there rises a roar!" she exclaims, whereby Lady Spanker comments: "In celebration of their short-lived liberty, my love; rejoicing over their emancipation." Grace retorts: "I think it very insulting, whatever it may be," to which her cousin answers: "Ah! my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour- it is the dinner hour, I suppose." To Grace's further grief, Augustus suddenly leaves the house, but, to her surprise, he comes back as Charles Courtly, who announces to her that Augustus has met with a road-accident. He rejoices to see her swoon, though she only pretends to. He specifies that the man is dead, news, to his surprise, she accepts very calmly. Meanwhile, Lady Spanker makes a fool of Harcourt by pretending to love him. On finding out this seeming relation, a lawyer, Meddle, congratulates Spanker that his wife is about to elope. When both men mistakenly think they have caught the erring couple in the act, Meddle advises him thus: "Now, take my advice; remember your gender. Mind the notes I have given you." To protect herself, Lady Spanker assures her husband that the elopement was only Harcourt's idea and encourages him to fight a duel with him, which he reluctantly agrees to. Max reveals to his daughter that Harcourt has waived his title to her, which she, displeased at Charles' behavior, accepts fuming, but Lady Spanker is horrified at Harcourt apparently emerging safe from the duel and runs out frantically to look for her husband. Harcourt then assures Grace that the duel was interrupted by her uncle with no harm done. Angry at Charles, Grace now avers she would like to marry Harcourt after all, but a creditor arrests Harcourt as a consequence of his son's debts and announces that Augustus and Charles are the same man. Although Harcourt refuses to pay his son's debts, Grace generously accepts to do so and then asks for the father's blessing. One last thing disturbs the entire company: who is Dazzle? "I have not the remotest idea," he answers.

"The octoroon"Edit

Everyone is stunned on seeing Jacob McClosky win the bid to acquire Zoe, the octoroon slave. Winter Garden Theatre, New York City, 1859

Time: 1850s. Place: Louisiana, USA.

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Back from Paris after a long time, George Peyton settles at the Terrebonne plantation with his Aunt Nellie in the aftermath of her husband's death. He is heir to an estate heavily encumbered with debts. The present overseer, Salem Scudder, tells him that the previous overseer, Jacob McClosky, profited from the overspending tendencies of his uncle to buy the best part of Terrebonne. Jacob wants more. He informs Nellie that her banker has died and the executors have foreclosed all overdue mortgages, so that Terrebonne is for sale. Nellie cannot prevent it unless she can recover a debt owed to her husband from a company in England, for which she is awaiting news by boat-mail. Jacob approaches Zoe, Aunt Nellie's husband's bastard child to a slave woman, an octoroon (one-eight black) whom she nevertheless fondly takes care of. Jacob flirts with Zoe, but she ignores him. As he blocks her path, Salem steps forward with knife in hand to force him away. But by rummaging through Nellie's desk, Jacob discovers that Zoe was freed as a slave while there was a legal judgment pending against her master, so that the freed paper is void. He pilfers the papers on his way out. Later, he overhears George declaring his love of Zoe. Although she points out to George she is an octoroon, it does not matter to him. After the couple leaves, Jacob notices Paul, a black slave boy sitting on the mail-bag possibly containing overseas news for Nellie. The boy is waiting to have his picture taken by his Indian friend, Wahnatee, who takes the picture and then wanders off with a bottle of rum. Jacob kills the boy by striking him over the head with Wahnatee's tomahawk and then recovers Nellie's letter. When the Indian returns, he thinks the photographic apparatus killed Paul and so destroys it. Meanwhile, the plantation slaves, including Zoe, are up for sale and Jacob succeeds in buying her. When the planters discover Paul's body, they infer that Wahnatee murdered him, a view supported by Jacob, who acts as his accuser in a make-shift trial set up to lynch the Indian. However, the planters discover a photograph of Paul made just before the murder, with Jacob standing over him with the murder weapon. As a result, he is taken into the hatch of a moored ship, but then frees himself from his captors. He next throws a lighted lamp on turpentine barrels so that the ship catches fire. Ready to escape, his flight is impeded by Wahnatee, who stabs him repeatedly.

George Colman the YoungerEdit

George Colman the Younger showed that no one is more comfortable at his fireside than an Englishman. Portrait of the author by an unknown artist, 1800s

Another celebrated comedy includes "The Englishman's fireside" (1803) by George Colman the Younger (1762–1836).

"The Englishman's fireside"Edit

Time: 1800s. Place: Cornwall, England.

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After nearly drowning in a shipwreck, Peregrine arrives at the Red Cow Inn having nearly lost all his fortune acquired in India. On hearing a woman cry out, he rushes out but is unable to prevent the robber from taking all her money. Reluctantly, the victim, Mary, reveals she was on her way to ask money from her plighted lover, Frank, who has made her pregnant and left her to marry a richer woman. "As soon as day broke," she explains, "I left the house of my dear father, whom I should tremble to look at, when he discovered my story, which I could not long conceal from him." Having heard of his son's village love, Sir Simon, baronet, requests his son's friend, Tom, to dissuade his son from it, offering money under cover of a loan. Frank receives a letter from Mary, describing details of her miserable condition. He is tormented for having abandoned her but does not wish to run counter to his father's wishes. Tom suggests he provide her with an annuity. "An annuity flowing from the fortune, I suppose, of the woman I marry!" exclaims Tom sarcastically. "Is that delicate?" "'Tis convenient," replies Tom. Meanwhile, Peregrine visits a benefactor from his boyhood, Job, a brazier in the midst of bankruptcy after being robbed by a friend. Peregrine offers Job money to prevent the seizing of his goods, but he refuses. Having found out Job is Mary's father, he finally convinces him to accept the money and thus restore his daughter's condition. When Tom meets Frank's intended wife, Lady Caroline, he woos her for himself, then delivers Frank's letter to Mary, who swoons on learning he will see her no more because of "family circumstances". Peregrine treats Tom roughly on learning of his intention to send her to a disreputable woman during her pregnancy. When Job and Mary unite, Peregrine reveals his intention of requesting Sir Simon, as justice of the peace, to force Frank to marry her. Peregrine then confronts Frank with the same purpose. "Marry her!" exclaims Frank, "I am bound in honor to another." "Modern honor is a coercive argument," replies Peregrine, "but when you have seduced virtue, whose injuries you will not solidly repair, you must be slightly bound in old-fashioned honesty." When Mary confronts Frank, he becomes at last convinced to follow this course. "I- I am almost glad, Mary, that it has happened," he admits. "When a weight of concealment is on the mind, remorse is relieved by the very discovery which it has dreaded." For his part, Job confronts Simon, but is met by a solid wall of refusal and a threat to arrest him for abusing a justice of the peace, at which Peregrine ushers the angry Job out of the room. But Simon's wedding plan on behalf of his son is thwarted when he discovers Caroline married to Tom. He is at last forced to accept his son's marriage to a mere brazier's daughter after finding out Peregrine is his own long-lost older brother and so the entire estate now belongs to him, as well as the treasure recovered from the seas. Turning towards Frank, Job declares: "I forgive you, young man, for what has passed, but no one deserves forgiveness who refuses to make amends when he has disturbed the happiness of an Englishman's fireside."

Douglas William JerroldEdit

Douglas William Jerrold showed how a woman's appeal wreaks havoc. Portrait of the author by Daniel Macnee (1806-1882)

In addition to "The octoroon", another notable melodrama of the period is "Black-eyed Susan" (1829) by Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857).

"Black-eyed Susan"Edit

Black-eyed Susan is the flower William endeavors to pluck

Time: 1820s. Place: England.

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With William off to sea as a sailor, Doggrass has been making life hard for William's wife, Susan. Despite her being his dead brother's daughter, he hounds her for rent-money. When she cannot pay, he confiscates what he can out of house-goods. Moreover, Doggrass is in cahoots with a band of smugglers led by Captain Hatchet. To favor his design of marrying her, the captain pays the rent-money owed to Doggrass. As the smugglers prepare to work at sea, they are caught in a trap by Lieutenant Pike, disguised as a French officer, though set free again by reinforcements. Hatchet engages his subordinate, Raker, to tell a false tale of William's death by drowning, but the latter arrives in time to hear everything. He threatens to make "small biscuit of 'em" and strikes Hatchet with the flat part of his cutlass until Pike and the rest recapture the smugglers. "Today we'll pitch care overboard without putting a buoy over him, call for the fiddles, start the rum cask, tipple the grog, and pipe all hands to mischief," William joyfully cries out. But all too brief is his stay, as Captain Crosstree orders his men aboard. Before going, he spies out Susan and likes what he sees. She asks the captain to favor her husband with a leave of absence, or, if that cannot be given, permission for herself to go on board. "Go on board, that you shall!" cries the captain, "You shall go in the captain's gig, you shall live in the captain's cabin." When she resists, he seizes her. Her cries alert William, who stabs him with a cutlass. For this deed, he is court-martialed for manslaughter against a superior officer. In his defense, William declares: "I had not been gone the turning of an hour-glass when I heard Susan giving signals of distress. I out with my cutlass, made all sail, and came up to my craft. I found her battling with a pirate. I never looked at his figure-head, never stopped- would any of your honors? Long live you and your wives, say I. Would any of your honors have rowed alongside as if you had been going aboard a royal yacht?- No, you wouldn't; for the gilt epaulets on your shoulders; can't alter the heart that swells beneath you would have done as I did, and what did I? Why, I cut him down like old junk. Had he been the first lord of the admiralty, I had done it." To no avail. He is sentenced to be hanged. Near the vessel in a little boat, Doggrass strains his ears to hear the sentence, loses his balance, and drowns. They recover from his dead body a letter meant for William which he intercepted, announcing his discharge from the navy. "When William struck me, he was not the king's sailor, I was not his officer," a repentant Crosstree is glad to announce, so that the navy sets him free to return contentedly with Black-eyed Susan.