Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Mary Barton Adapted for Theatrical Stages in London & Their Audience



The range of Victorian theatre was as wide as that of Victorian society, for it was the principal medium of entertainment available to literate and illiterate alike.’1 Two social classes are represented in the novel Mary Barton, the working-class which could be seen as the illiterate audience (unless they were self-educated) and the middle-class as the literate which showed their difference in the Victorian society. When Mary Barton was adapted for the Victorian stage, two adaptions stood out, the Victoria theatre’s adaptation in 1851 and the Lyceum’ version in1866.  The novel’s representation of how the two classes were separate became emphasised in these adaptions because of how the audiences being of one specific class in each theatre.                                                                                                                 

As People immigrated to the cities, it became immensely popular for the people to seek the theatrical experience. This created a higher need for theatres and as a natural consequence the result to this high need where rebuilding, expansions and refurbishments. There could also be another reason for how the theatres became so wanted and it was probably because of the fact that the most important figure in the country; the Queen Victoria was encouraging the people to appreciate the theatrical plays by showing her own love for entertainment. It is stated in the book Theatre in the Victorian Age; ‘Victoria was, then, as representative an audience of one as she could be, and she stood at the apex of that vaster audience, her people’. So her choices of entertainment could have had an influence on the people in the cities, regardless of their class.

Research for this blog was gathered by visiting the V&A museum. It portrayed a visual timeline of the Victorian theatre’s high points like puppeteers, costumes, music and small models of how the theatres were. Though the idea of walking through time is exciting because of the nostalgic feelings one can receive from looking at old items, it did not display  so much of how the audience perceived these items in real life and the theatre’s way of creating a response to the economic, social and cultural parts of the society. That is why the rest of the research showed itself more promising, because it being based on books found in the Roehampton University’s library; Victorian theatre, Theatre in the Victorian Age and an journal called The Gaskell Journal, which turned out to have a relevant article by Andrew Maunder on the subject of how the audience perceived adaptions differently depending on what was categorised as appropriate or interesting for their social class. 
The theatres were supposed to create a response to the economically, socially and culturally parts of the society into their display of a play or melodrama. The article “Mary Barton goes to London: Elizabeth Gaskell, Stage Adaption and Working Class Audience.”  Shows how the theatres did this by emphasising how those elements affected each social class. It was firstly adapted for the working-class audiences in the Victoria theatre by John Courtney as a melodrama, their cultural experience meant that most of them had not read Gaskell’s novel. Therefore the use of a melodramatic play was not only a way to avoid the theatrical patents which had been introduced in to the society through the Licencing Act in 1737.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     It meant that theatres like The Victorian could not create theatrical plays without consent from the Lord Chamberlain, they would rather adapt the fictional novels into what could have been categorised as a simpler ‘play’. A melodrama was not considered a proper ‘play’, because of its use of music and by using this form they eluded some of the controlling patent specified by the government.

 The Victoria theatre version of the novel emphasised the political difference in the novel’s representation of middle class as wealthy and ignorant people, which also showed how this aspect was removed in the Lyceum’s version. The Victoria’s focus was on the audiences own ‘personal experience’3, just by stepping outside the theatre there were ‘men desperate for work, whose families face being sucked down by forces of poverty rampant in the city’3. This was a part of the social society; someone had to be at the bottom, which is who John Barton talked for in this play.

The play begins with John Barton being in London on the Union march. His distance and the loss of her mother leave room for the melodrama to depicted Mary as a sort of independent heroine. Though this feministic view of Mary is important as to how heroine’s where often used in a way to show how those who are depicted as less than the man, now showed the opposite. She became a bit hidden by the focus on the political aspect of a relationship between a middle-class employer and his workers, ‘there is one that crosses our purpose – who poisons the minds of those to whom we appeal, who learn to scorn & derision our wrongs & sufferings, who even this day has added fuel to that fire that burns between the master and the man’ (pp. 511-2)3/4. The ‘brutal economic system’ through Barton’s side of the dialogue becomes true as a ‘testimony’ that shows the starvation and struggle in the society. The frustration in his dialogue is directed to the audience as much as to the character on stage, he is the voice of working-class. Therefore this adaption sort of forgets the romantic relationship of Jem and Mary by altering the focus on the political experiences of the characters in the play that represent issues in the experience of the audience and society.

Earlier in this semester we had a lecture about Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton. In one of the slides it said; ‘The novel is concerned with how writing and image is re-interpreted and re-read according to different points of view’ which is sort of what is happening in these stage adaptions of Gaskell’s novel in this era. This emphasizes the idea that one person could write something that only one individual group or person could understand and when spectated by an outsider completely misunderstood. That might also be the reason for why they had different adaptions in this period.

The second theatre that is introduced in the Maunder’s article is the Lyceum Theatre, which had the same issue with the need of an approval from the Lord Chamberlain. The Lyceum theatre addressed its adaptation to a middle-class audience. That might be why ‘[t]he Lyceum’s licensee, Charles Fechter, worried that the story of Northern workers would be too alien for his metropolitan audience.’3 By creating an adaption where the play became more concerned with the murder plot than the working-class’s struggles, Dion Boucicault’s version of Mary Barton left out important elements from the original text. That is why the main difference between the Victoria theatre and the Lyceum theatre’s version is how the adaptions directly display or not display political problems in the Victorian society.  Political problems in the Victorian period had a high connection with the problematic lifestyle of the working-class within the novel. By not focusing on bad economy, lack of work, starvation and frustration that lead Gaskell’s character John Barton to the idea of committing murder in her novel, Boucicault alters the ‘play’ into a thriller about some sort of revenge for the employer’s choice of refusing to marry Jane (new name of Mary Mary).The political aspects of the working-class, such as Chartism and their march to London disappeared along with the names of the characters in this version of the play also, which makes the adaptation more concerned with the romantic relationship between Jane Learoy (Mary Barton) and Jem.  By not using the political desire which in the novel leads to the murder of young Carson seemed to depict John Barton as mad. Mary’s feminism and heroism is gone and she becomes a conventional character who as so many other women of the society was culturally supressed.

‘The range of Victorian theatre[s]’ in the Victorian society was wide, yes, but it did not mean that the ‘principal medium of entertainment’ meant the same to those who were literate or not.  Through the two adaptions of the Victoria and Lyceum it has been shown that the culture made the political differences in the social classes a part of the ‘plays’. This supports the idea that each theatre made adaptions of fictional novels for a specific audience. So yes, in a way every one could enjoy the theatrical experience, which was apparently popular in this period.


1.      Jackson. R. Victorian theatre (part I theatres for audiences [p. 9]). A & C Black. 1989. Print.
2.      Booth. M.R. Theatre in the Victorian Age (chapter 1, p.3). Cambridge University Press.1991. Print.
3.      “Mary Barton goes to London: Elizabeth Gaskell, Stage Adaption and Working Class Audience.” The Gaskell Journal. 25 ed. 2011. Print.
4.      Courtney. J. Mary Barton; or, A Tale of Manchester Life (1850) British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Collection of Plays Add. Mss 43028 p.475.
5.      Mary Barton Lecture PowerPoint. Nicki Humble & Louise Lee. Moodle. 2013

Web sources and pictures;
V&A Museum; Exhibition of Theatre and Performance.
Mentions the Royal Victoria Theatre and Mary Barton

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