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The Theatre of Shelley

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Jacqueline Mulhallen

Chapter Three: Practical Technique – The Cenci

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  • 1 Moody, Illegitimate Theatre, p. 3; Richardson, A Mental Theatre, p. 100; Simpson, Closet Performan (...)

1Since 1922, when it was produced by the leading British theatrical couple of the first half of the twentieth century, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson, it has been difficult to deny that The Cenci is a performable play, yet the idea that it is a ’closet drama’ has been extraordinarily persistent. Moody’s excellent Illegitimate Theatre in London describes it so, and it is included in two recent studies of closet drama, although Alan Richardson’s claim that The Cenci ’resembles Prometheus in its thematic development’ seems a dubious reason, since thematic development does not define a genre, and Michael Simpson’s that it ’was published, complete with a preface disclaiming any such ambition [as the stage]’ appears based on a misunderstanding. Shelley does not ’disclaim’ the stage, only a ’dry exhibition’, and the author of a play would hardly mention in its preface that it had been rejected by a theatre.1

  • 2 Gaull, English Romanticism, p. 103; Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, p. 196; Nicoll, (...)
  • 3 Curran, Cenci, pp. 276, 277; Cave, ’Romantic Drama in Performance’ in The Romantic Theatre, p. 104

2Earlier critics, like Davies and Nicoll, disparaged Shelley’s dramatic skill, citing Shakespearean imitation as a reason for Shelley’s supposed failure. Curran and Bryan Shelley, however, have shown that Shelley’s echoes of Shakespeare or the Bible are intentional and work in the play’s favour. Nicoll describes The Cenci as ’defective’, while Davies says that it is ’slow to get under way, and the powerful scenes […] cannot redeem it’. His claim that the play loses interest after Count Cenci’s death shows that he believes Cenci to be the central character, which he is not; he has therefore missed the point of the play. On the other hand, Gaull believed Shelley ’brought too much talent to the stage’ while Donohue, like Ervine, thought he worked with ’intuition’.2 Curran and Cave suggested that smaller stages and Stanislavskian acting style are more compatible with Shelley’s psychological insights.3 These do allow greater concentration on characterisation, but the play loses something by not being performed with late Georgian spectacular scenery and grand costumes, with the size of stage and cast which Covent Garden was able to provide. In the banquet and trial scenes a show of grandeur and crowds of people would reveal Beatrice’s weakness, isolation and courage in the face of such power more clearly. To achieve dramatic effect, Shelley used the techniques of the theatre of his time, following Schlegel’s suggestions. He was more successful in this than was Milman in Fazio, a play popular in the nineteenth century but unperformed since.

9. ’Eliza O’Neill as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene ii’, lithograph after George Dawe (1781-1829) by F.C. Lewis.

3The Cenci is Shelley’s second mature attempt to write for the theatre. From an artistic point of view, he had ’newly been awakened’ to the importance of the drama through reading Schlegel’s lectures. In a practical sense, he may have realised that a successful play would bring financial reward and the reputation which he believed had eluded him. Shelley was later to write of his ’despair of rivalling Lord Byron’, and a successful theatre production was something Byron had not achieved. Shelley would have gained a much larger and more popular audience for that than for a publication, particularly if Eliza O’Neill played Beatrice since if she was performing the theatre could sell out. Byron certainly knew of the difference her acceptance of a role could make. A play in which she starred could potentially reach 3,000 people per night in London, enter the repertoire and reach many more in the provincial theatres.

  • 4 SPII, p. 734; PBSLII, p. 323; Macready’s Reminiscences, I, ed. by Frederick Pollock, 2 vols (Londo (...)

4A role especially written for an actor was an advantage in getting a play by an unknown writer accepted. This had happened when Baillie’s De Monfort included parts ideal for Kemble and Siddons. Kemble adapted it for the stage, providing it with superb, innovatory scenery, and Siddons asked Baillie to write her ’some more Jane De Montforts’.4

  • 5 PBSLII, p. 103.
  • 6 George Yost, Pieracci and Shelley: An Italian Ur-Cenci (Potomac: Scripta Humanistica [c. 1986]), p (...)

5Shelley had learnt from his Roman acquaintances the interest which the story of Beatrice aroused. He thought its potential popularity in England so great that he was afraid that someone else might use it before his own play came out.5 Indeed, his contemporaries, Stendhal and Merimée, were soon to do so. George Yost suggests Shelley may have known Pieracci’s Beatrice Cenci, published in Florence in 1816 but never performed. Although it caused little stir and Yost admits that ’there is a great deal of Pieracci that Shelley does not use’, he sees similarities in Beatrice denying that she knew the assassins and fearing her father after his death and the use of the name ’Cammillo’ (in Pieracci an elderly man who tries to rescue Beatrice).6 Yost also finds a similarity in Beatrice’s lines ’The beautiful blue heaven is flecked with blood!/The sunshine on the floor is black!’ (III. i. 13-14) to Pieracci’s:

  • 7 Yost, Pieracci and Shelley, pp. 137, 89.

il sole stamane alzossi nero si, ma notte
Tremenda più scende coll’ira il sangue
(The sun this morning rose so black, but a more fearful night will descend with anger and blood).7

  • 8 Cameron, The Golden Years, pp. 398-401; Curran, Cenci, pp. 41-45; Alan Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian (...)

6Whether or not Shelley knew this play, he preferred to follow what he believed to be the historical account. There were various versions of the story. Shelley said that he heard the story told in Rome and another contemporary visitor, Charlotte Eaton, gives a slightly different one from the one Shelley uses as the basis for The Cenci. This was a manuscript belonging to John Gisborne, the details of which are available in many studies.8 To adapt it for the stage, he compressed the timescale, strengthened elements of characterisation and included elements of Gothic drama – found in, say, De Monfort, Fazio and Bertram – such as the storm, the castle and the mad scene.

  • 9 PBSLII, p. 118; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 92-93.
  • 10 ’A Philosophical View of Reform’ in SCVI, pp. 1054, 1061.
  • 11 ’A Philosophical View of Reform’ in SCVI, pp. 1064, 1065.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 1051.
  • 13 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 92-93.

7Wasserman notes that in the letter accompanying The Cenci, Shelley compares the Peterloo Massacre to the French Revolution.9 The Cenci treats metaphorically the question Shelley raised overtly in A Philosophical View of Reform: whether the people have the right to offer armed resistance to an oppressive government. As he believes that ’soldiers […] would [not] massacre an unresisting multitude’, he suggests that a demonstration should ’peaceably […] risque the danger, & to expect without resistance the onset of the cavalry’, but he also says, ’the last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection’.10 Shelley would therefore have reluctantly supported the taking up of arms in the extreme case of a revolutionary war, although he feels that ’the true friend of mankind & of his country would hesitate before he recommended measures which tend to bring down so heavy a calamity as war’ and, in the event of victory, the people ’ought not to do or require’ ’retribution’.11 Beatrice’s murder of her father ultimately fails because it is an act in isolation against only one tyrant, but tyranny runs through the whole of her society. Her failure warns of the revenge exacted by the oppressors when they are the victors: ’They would calumniate, imprison, starve, ruin, and expatriate every person who wrote or acted, or thought, or might be suspected to think against them’.12 She does not oppose the Pope, yet her action is crushed by the State since, as Wasserman suggests, it is ’a revolt against all forms of despotism summed up in the idea of paternity and represented archetypally by Shelley’s interpretation of the god of organised religion’.13 Despite Shelley’s disapproval of the element of revenge in Beatrice’s motive, his sympathies are with her.

10. ’Beatrice Cenci, an etching by W.B. Scott adapted from the painting that in Shelley’s day was commonly attributed to Guido Reni’, from The Cenci, edited by Alfred Forman and H. Buxton Forman (Shelley Society Publications 1886).

8Stuart M. Sperry says:

  • 14 Stuart M. Sperry, Shelley’s Major Verse, The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard Uni (...)

the fundamental issue upon which the drama turns is […], was Beatrice wrong in planning the murder of her father, […] or was she justified in following, like Antigone, the dictates of her conscience and in adopting violent means to relieve both her family and herself from an insupportable tyranny?14

  • 15 Paul Smith, ’Restless Casuistry: Shelley’s Composition of The Cenci’, KSJ, 13 (1964), 77-85, p. 85 (...)

9Paul Smith’s view is that Beatrice’s guilt ’is left as a moral paradox, shifting between condemnation and justification’, that Shelley implies ’that Beatrice should have endured’ but ’perhaps was aware of the highly questionable outcome of this attempt’. Shelley, in the Preface, says that ’no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance’. These characteristics are shown in Lucretia, who takes beatings on herself to protect her step-children (II. i. 1-16) and who attempts to convert Cenci from his crimes (IV. i. 15-23, 34-37), but her actions fail and she conspires in the murder. However, she later regrets her action whereas ’Beatrice never poisons or corrupts her soul with submission or self-contempt’.15

  • 16 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 101; Charlotte Ann Eaton, Rome in the Nineteenth Centur (...)
  • 17 Nicoll, p. 196; PBSLII, pp. 102.

10The one certainty about a hypothetical 1819 performance of The Cenci is that the audience would not have read Shelley’s preface but would have decided their opinion by discussing the depiction of the character they saw on stage The tendency of such a discussion is indicated by some contemporary reactions. Shelley describes the response of Italian acquaintances and Eaton’s report, written after seeing Beatrice’s ’portrait’ and hearing a version of her story less sympathetic than that which Shelley used, is strongly in Beatrice’s favour, although she felt that Cenci deserved to lose his life ’from any hand but hers’.16 Despite Nicoll’s argument that ’the play is puzzling in the theatre without a fuller understanding of Shelley’s art’, Shelley’s intentions are revealed more vividly in performance than in examination of the text. He said of O’Neill, the actor of his choice, ’God forbid that I shd. see her play it – it wd. tear my nerves to pieces’, which indicates that he thought her performance would be fine enough to arouse strong feelings in the audience. This the actor playing Beatrice must do in order for the moral and political questions raised in The Cenci to provoke discussion and sympathy.17

  • 18 PBSLII, pp. 103, 178.
  • 19 Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, II, p. 337.
  • 20 Wyndham, Covent Garden, I, p. 293.
  • 21 Macready, Reminiscences, I, pp. 125, 176.
  • 22 OSA, p. 337.
  • 23 PBSLII, p. 8; Wolfe, II, p. 352.

11Shelley particularly asked Peacock to take The Cenci to Covent Garden rather than Drury Lane, but the usual custom was to offer a play to the other house if one turned it down, and Peacock appears to have done this.18 Covent Garden had an excellent record of performing new plays. Boaden said of its manager, Thomas Harris, ’His judicious adoption of light comedy, with such writers as O’Keeffe, Holcroft, Reynolds, and afterwards Morton, brought him great profit’.19 Harris paid his writers well and what is more he paid his actors. After putting up with years of unpaid salaries from Sheridan, John Kemble took himself and a number of the Drury Lane company, including Siddons, over to Covent Garden.20 By 1819, Harris’s son, Henry, had taken over the management, assisted by Reynolds and Fawcett. His remark on Sheil’s The Apostate that ’an altered play never had the attraction of an original one and the dramatist who could write such a scene […] ought to make the whole play his own’ showed him to be knowledgeable about drama and on the lookout for new work.21 There is no reason to believe him insincere when ’he expressed his desire that the author would write another tragedy on some other subject, which he would gladly accept’ as he knew the Examiner of Plays would not have allowed a licence for The Cenci.22 Peacock emphasised Harris’s admiration for ’the author’s powers, and great hopes of his success’. Despite Shelley’s teasing accusation that Peacock thought he had ’no dramatic talent’, his friend believed that Shelley ’would have accomplished something worthy of the best days of theatrical literature’ had he lived, and also believed that this was Shelley’s intention because of the ’unwearied devotion’ with which he studied the great dramatists.23

  • 24 Barcus, The Critical Heritage, pp. 186, 174.
  • 25 PBSLII, p. 178.

12Neither Shelley nor Harris, therefore, regarded The Cenci as a closet play, and they would have judged it by its performance qualities according to the contemporary meaning of the term. Two reviews from April and May 1820 indicate that, subject matter apart, it would have had critical success. The Theatrical Inquisitor and Monthly Mirror thought that ’as a first dramatic effort The Cenci is unparalleled for the beauty of every attribute with which drama can be endowed. It has few errors but such as time will amend, and many beauties that time can neither strengthen nor abate’, while The Edinburgh Monthly Review thought Shelley’s ’genius […] rich to overflowing in all the nobler requisites for tragic excellence, and […] he might easily and triumphantly overtop all that has been written during the last century for the English stage’.24 Shelley himself believed The Cenci ’singularly fitted for the stage’25 but this has never been accepted; it is supposed that he did not know enough about the theatre to make an accurate judgment.

  • 26 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 396; Jocelyn Denford, programme notes, Damned Poets Theatre Company (...)
  • 27 Curran, Cenci, pp. 185, 237, 215.

13The Cenci is the only play of Shelley’s to have been regularly and successfully performed, yet it has not been performed by a major English theatre company since 1959. Cameron observes that ’a play starting its career without staging in its author’s lifetime is at a disadvantage ever after’ but the disadvantage in the case of The Cenci is not, as he suggests, that Shelley was unable to make alterations. It requires very little alteration for the stage.26 The real disadvantages were that, firstly, during its 100-year wait for performance, the play had acquired the stigma of ’closet drama’ and, secondly, that the theatre had changed so that it no longer attracted the large cross-section of the population whom Shelley wrote for. Nonetheless, great actors such as Thorndike, Alda Borelli and Eleanora Duse have either seized the opportunity of playing Beatrice, or desired to, and it has attracted great designers. Curran says that whether the play is a great acting drama is ’an impossible question to answer’, but that the significant question is rather what attracts ’theatrical minds’ to it. The many ’theatrical minds’ cited in his masterly stage history offered him his conclusion that ’the play is still dramatic’ thereby answering his first question.27 It is the director who must ask, ’Is The Cenci a great acting drama?’ If the answer is no, there is little point in staging it professionally.

  • 28 Ibid., pp. 262; 188-193.

14Curran explains that the criticism of E.S. Bates, followed by N.I. White, was based on the reviews of the first English performance (1886), an amateur one for an uncritical audience, the Shelley Society. The prevailing idea from these early reviews – which has not been corrected – is that The Cenci is too long, since that performance ran for four hours. This was not Shelley’s fault: material, including a prologue, was added and, since Alma Murray, who played Beatrice, became ’visibly tired’, the director, an actor without directorial experience, clearly failed to pace the performance. What is more, the scenery was borrowed and had to be returned between the acts.28 This gave the stage hands extra work and no time to rehearse the scene changes which, in 1886, were far more complicated than those of 1819. Instead of the swift drawing back of a set of wings to reveal another scene, there was the heavy elaborate Victorian box set which forced Henry Irving and other managers to cut Shakespeare drastically to allow time for scene changes. The Cenci takes 2 hours, 10 minutes to read aloud in its entirety.

  • 29 Curran, Cenci, pp. 232, 233n., p. 224; Sheridan Morley, Sybil Thorndike (London: Weidenfeld & Nico (...)
  • 30 States, ’Addendum’, pp. 638-641; Kessel and States, ’The Cenci as a Stage Play’, p. 148.

15The Cenci’s first professional performance in English came in 1922 from a company without great financial resources, but led by Casson and Thorndike. Thorndike was already an established actor of 20 years’ experience who had played Medea and Antigone. Interestingly, she had also recently played Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, a Siddons role. Sir John Gielgud called her ’unequal in her playing of tragedy’ and Bernard Shaw chose her for Saint Joan after seeing her Beatrice. Maurice Baring said it was clear that ’we had lost in [Shelley] a great dramatist, but that we had found in Miss Thorndike a tragic actress’. The play had such excellent audiences and reviews that they revived it in 1926. In 1947, Casson, now Sir Lewis, directed it for The Third Programme with Thorndike, now Dame Sybil, playing Lucretia and Rosalie Crutchley Beatrice. Both Dame Sybil, who called it a ’really great play’, and Sir Lewis were emphatic about its dramatic quality.29 Because of their unquestionable pre-eminence in their profession and long association with the play, their views are the most reliable on record. It is inappropriate to give equal validity to the responses of those taking part in an amateur or university production, the contradictory nature of which is shown by a description of the same audience as ’interested but not enthusiastic’ but having ’bated breath’. University productions may include talented performers and imaginative staging – such as that at Mt Holyoke College (29 November and 1 December 1949), which had an allfemale cast, specially composed music, and projected ’a distant view of the Castle Sant’Angelo Prison’ and ’mountainous landscape beyond the Castle of Petrella’. They will not, however, attract major reviewers or have a budget to gain a wider audience, and those taking part may attribute failure to the play when the responsibility lies elsewhere. Criticisms such as ’lacked the humanity which could have made it valuable’ and ’stirred very little interest’ may arise from poor direction and publicity rather than from the play itself.30

  • 31 Curran, Cenci, p. 252.

16Curran supports his opinion that The Cenci is more suitable for the modern theatre than for the 1819/20 Covent Garden by citing a 1959 Old Vic production for which the director used ’every artifice [he] could command’.31 In 1959, this included techniques of lighting and sound unknown in Shelley’s day. Stage design and the internal design of the theatre itself had undergone such transformation that the environment of both performers and audience was utterly different. The suggestion in the reviews quoted that the performers were ’melodramatic’ implies that the actors adopted an approximation to an imagined Victorian style belonging neither to themselves nor to the actors of Shelley’s day. The Cenci has been performed successfully in the small venues which Cave suggests are more suitable for the drama of the Romantic poets. Rather than that its techniques were unsuitable in 1819, however, this indicates the continuing relevance of the play and its ease of adaptation to a smaller venue.

Fazio

  • 32 E.S. Bates, qtd in Curran, Cenci, p. 262; Donohue, Dramatic Character, pp. 162-170; Nicoll, p. 167 (...)

17Milman’s Fazio is an example of a play which was a success at Covent Garden in 1818 and which has been often compared with The Cenci, but its stageworthiness, accounted for by its great roles, has never been dismissed in the way that The Cenci’s has.32 Fazio’s route to Covent Garden shows two important factors which have hitherto been overlooked in its discussion: adaptation to the requirements of the stage and the role of the minor and provincial theatres.

  • 33 Bernard, Retrospections, I, p. 34; Dibdin, Reminiscences, II, pp. 134-135.

18Fazio was turned down after discussion by the Drury Lane committee. Fortunately for Milman, Thomas Dibdin – writer, performer and the experienced manager of both Drury Lane and the Surrey Theatres – adapted it for the Surrey as The Italian Wife. A version was performed at the Theatre Royal, Bath, the theatre considered the best outside London, where it was noticed by the Covent Garden management.33 The Italian story, the kind which the Jacobeans adapted for the stage, has dramatic potential. Fazio, who is married to Bianca with two children, appropriates a fortune after the murder of his miserly neighbour, Bartolo, by two ruffians, and claims that he has become rich by alchemy. He now has entry to the court where he rekindles an old passion for Aldabella, with whom he commits adultery. Bianca, in jealousy, tells the officials that Fazio murdered Bartolo, and he is condemned to death. Now mad with grief and remorse, Bianca attempts to save her husband, but Fazio has admitted the theft of Bartolo’s gold which bears the same sentence, and he is executed. Bianca accuses Aldabella of alienating Fazio’s affection and dies asking that her children are brought up poor.

  • 34 Henry Hart Milman, ’Advertisement’ in Fazio: A Tragedy (Oxford: Samuel Collingwood, 1815), p. iii.
  • 35 Dougald MacMillan, Catalogue of the Larpent Plays in the Huntingdon Library 1737-1824 (San Marino, (...)

19Fazio gets moving quickly, revealing the plot and main characters within twelve speeches. Bianca is a complex part requiring the expression of intense love, jealousy, madness and remorseful grief and she has been given strong and consistent motivation for her actions; the motivation for Aldabella, on the other hand, is lacking. There are difficulties with the character of Fazio, whose naïveté, perhaps self-deception, about the ’goodness’ of Aldabella sits uncomfortably with his cynicism about money and government. A close reading from the point of view of performance, however, reveals that Fazio would need many alterations before it could work on stage. The speeches are long and often repetitive with inappropriate flowery lines in mock Jacobean language. There are characters with little or nothing to do, three of which are merely one-dimensional cyphers. Milman wrote three consecutive scenes in the first act where Fazio enters, makes a speech and exits. If played as written, this would raise a laugh from the audience when the atmosphere should be one of suspense. Unsurprisingly, an examination of the changes made by both the minor theatre and Covent Garden reveals that Fazio was not performed at either theatre as Milman published it. Although he claimed to ’totally disdain[s] the alterations made at Bath, and in London’34 but accepted the Covent Garden version, the versions were not dissimilar and both cut Milman’s play heavily. The Larpent manuscripts were submitted with stage alterations, and I have therefore used these texts, referring also to Milman’s original publication.35 I am assuming that the Larpent version of The Italian Wife is by Dibdin.

20Dibdin would not have found the need for alteration to be a barrier since, if he wished to present it at the Surrey, he was obliged to adapt it into something he could describe as a burletta. To allow Fazio to pass as one, and to make a theatrical impact, Dibdin added a ballet, marches and appropriate music to suit the mood: ’solemn’ (The Italian Wife manuscript, p. 31), ’bacchanalian’ (p. 19) ’pathetic’ and ’violent agitation’ (p. 15). The scenery had variety, from the ’magnificent apartment’ with ’every appearance of a ball prolonged to morning’ (p. 34) and the ’poor room’ with the alchemy instruments where Fazio first appears (p. 1). Dibdin’s version allows the actor to perform rather than narrate. He cut speeches in which a character describes his emotions, substituting a stage direction such as ’Enters disturbed’ (p. 11). The first scene is a mime depicting the robbers’ attack on Bartolo. This would arouse the interest of the audience and add dramatic irony when Bartolo tells Fazio about it with his dying breath (p. 1). Dibdin also gave Aldabella a motivation, absent in the Covent Garden version, for seducing Fazio:

Rich and renown’d he must be in my train
Or Florence will turn rebel to my beauty. (p. 15)

21Like Dibdin, Covent Garden cut Fazio heavily. Their deletions and retentions were not always more sympathetic than those made by the Surrey. In the original Fazio (III. ii, p. 69), Bianca refuses to pause before she denounces her husband in case she changes her mind, which is an attempt at deeper characterisation, however crude. Dibdin kept this speech (The Italian Wife, p. 37), which Covent Garden did not, but cut a speech, which Covent Garden kept (Fazio, IV. ii, pp.114-115), in which she tells Fazio that she has murdered her children, a cruel lie at a time when she should have the audience’s sympathy and an unnecessary plot complication so late in the play. Both theatres were concerned to cut repetitive speeches, lines of ’mere poetry’ descriptive to no dramatic purpose such as ’Like sunflowers on the golden light they love’ (Fazio, IV. ii, p. 100) and unnecessary scene changes, for example, that between IV. iv and V. i. Both merged Fazio’s three consecutive solo scenes into one, cut the redundant character of Dandolo and a long, anachronistic, irrelevant song about Italian independence (Fazio, pp. 36-39). In short, Fazio was inferior to The Cenci not only in poetic and dramatic power but also in technical competence. It needed and received considerable re-working by theatre managements.

  • 36 PBSLII, p. 8.
  • 37 Mary Shelley, ’Note on The Cenci’, OSA, p. 337.
  • 38 PBSLII, p. 290.
  • 39 Donohue, Dramatic Character, pp. 171, 176.

22Shelley wrote The Cenci with the intention of writing not an ’ideal’ drama, such as Prometheus Unbound, but the best of its kind, with ’better morality than Fazio’.36 It is ironic that Shelley’s own subject was considered ’so objectionable’ that the theatre ’could not even submit the part to Miss O’Neill for perusal’.37 Shelley, as his admiration for Calderón shows, could appreciate a play which had a different moral system from his own but he considered Fazio ’miserable trash’.38 Fazio’s moral system is unclear. Donohue says, ’the boldest fact emerging from a comparison of Shelley’s and Milman’s plays is their common casuistical treatment of a virtuous human being seduced into committing a vicious act’. This suggests that the heroines are alike in virtue, although he remarks that, unlike Bianca, Beatrice ’possesses a commanding intellect’.39 Yet Shelley’s Beatrice is also extraordinarily selfless and courageous, while Milman’s Bianca is an ordinary woman who acts out of jealousy. Fazio is greedy and either naïve or self-deceiving about his desire for Aldabella. The Duke, the upholder of law, refuses to lift the sentence of death despite learning that Bartolo was dead when Fazio took his gold, sends Aldabella to a convent and agrees to Bianca’s request that her children be brought up poor. This unequal and unjust system is not criticised by Milman, thus suggesting authorial approval of the Duke’s actions and of the State. In The Cenci, on the other hand, Shelley criticises a system in which the State first denies Beatrice protection, then justice and then condemns her for killing a murderer which the State’s own laws demanded should be executed.

  • 40 Schlegel, pp. 36-37; SPII, pp. 731, 733.
  • 41 MWSJ, p. 662.
  • 42 PBSLII, p. 102.

23The ’popular’ elements which led to the success of Fazio, such as the Renaissance setting, the beautiful distressed heroine, the vehemently expressed passions and illicit sex, can also be found in The Cenci. Perhaps in accordance with Schlegel’s ideas of the theatrical, however, Shelley avoided ’mere poetry’, and ’endeavoured […] to represent the characters as they probably were’.40 It is noticeable that, in The Cenci, Shelley makes none of Milman’s mistakes and he uses spectacular effects reminiscent of The Italian Wife in, for example, the Banquet Scene. Although there is no record of it, Shelley, who had already read Fazio, did have the opportunity to see The Italian Wife while he was staying with Hunt in December 1816.41 When Fazio was performed at Covent Garden, Shelley saw the actor whom he said that The Cenci ’might even seem to have been written for’ – O’Neill. 42

The actors

  • 43 MWSLI, p.127; Wolfe, II, p. 330.
  • 44 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 171; PBSLII, pp. 102-103.

24Mary Shelley believed that, without O’Neill, the play ’could [not] be brought out with effect anywhere’ and this was perhaps Shelley’s own view. He had watched her ’with absorbed attention’43 and would have recognised that she shared Beatrice’s thick blonde hair and blue eyes (as described in the Relazione) and the wistful expression in what was thought to be Beatrice’s portrait. Shelley’s remarks that ’the chief male character I confess I should be very unwilling that any one but Kean shd. play – that is impossible’ and that The Cenci, ’in all respects’ was ’fitted only for Covent Garden,’ indicates that it was more important to him for O’Neill to play Beatrice than for Kean to play Cenci, not, pace Donohue, that he was unaware that Kean and O’Neill worked at different theatres. As Shelley himself said, Beatrice is the ’principal character’, on stage almost throughout the play.44 The part is more complex than that of Cenci, who behaves with consistent villainy.

  • 45 Jones, Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, pp. 24, 35, 73.
  • 46 MWSJ, p. 157; Hazlitt, III, p. 123; Crabb Robinson, p. 79.
  • 47 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 167; Jones, Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, p. 48; Genest, VIII, pp. 602, (...)

25At the time Shelley saw her, O’Neill had performed most of the tragic parts popular with Georgian audiences: Belvidera in Venice Preserv’d, Isabella in The Fatal Marriage and Monimia in The Orphan.45 The Shelleys saw her in The Jealous Wife in January 1817, but comedy was not her strength. Hazlitt said her ’Lady Teazle […] appears […] to be a complete failure’ though Crabb Robinson, who usually compared her unfavourably to Siddons, said she ’acted with spirit’.46 Her attempt to play characters above her age, Constance in King John, Lady Randolph in Douglas, Volumnia in Coriolanus and Mrs. Haller in The Stranger,47 indicates that she needed the challenge of playing a stronger, more mature, tragic role.

  • 48 SPII, p. 735.

26Shelley described Beatrice as ’one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another: her nature was simple and profound.’48 Her admiring biographer, Charles Inigo Jones, describes O’Neill’s appearance of ’gentleness’ (p. 33) but she could also appear ’dignified and firm’ (p. 37) with a ’countenance full of intelligence and sensibility’ (p. 11). Her acting was marked by ’chaste simplicity, ingenuous modesty’ (p. 14). She had a strong, well-modulated voice which would have been used to advantage in the long speeches (p. 89), but she could also give it a choked hysterical manner and when she portrayed ’indignation contempt and abhorrence’ it ’brought forth successive bursts of applause’ (p. 56).

  • 49 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 95.

27The famous Victorian actor, William Macready, described seeing O’Neill as Juliet ’when, with altered tones and eager glance, she inquired […] the name of Romeo of the Nurse, and bade her go and learn it, the revolution in her whole being was evident, anticipating the worse’.49 This ’point’, as the way of delivering a particular speech was termed, was also mentioned by an anonymous contributor to Blackwood’s:

  • 50 Qtd in Downer, ’The Painted Stage’, p. 529.

She turned round and stood as if lost in unutterable thought, with her eyes fixed upon the spot where Romeo had lately passed away from her sight; as if her fancy reproduced his form in that very place; […] Her ”rapt soul was sitting in her eyes” – her whole body spoke – then, with a deep, impatient sigh, she turned away […]’50

28Hazlitt said:

  • 51 Hazlitt, III, p. 30.

In the silent expression of feeling, we have seldom witnessed any thing finer than her acting […] her listening to the Friar’s story of the poison, and her change of manner towards the Nurse, when she advises her to marry Paris.51

  • 52 Downer, ’The Painted Stage’, p. 529.

29The ability to show her feelings and the change which they silently undergo would be effective in the Banquet Scene (I. iii. 99-140), in which Beatrice first pleads with the assembled guests to help her, then realises that they are too afraid of her father to do so. When Beatrice enters with her hair ’undone’ (III. i. 6), its unkempt and tousled style reflecting the disorder in her mind, it would have given O’Neill an opportunity to use her long hair to dramatic advantage, as she did in The Stranger, ’when she sunk upon the floor, and, clasping her knees, let her head fall upon them, so that her ”wild-reverted tresses” hung as a veil before her’.52 The very last words of the play concern Beatrice’s hair, its re-ordering symbolising her firm resignation (V. iv. 160-164).

  • 53 Hunt’s Dramatic Criticism, p. 88.
  • 54 PBSLII, p. 102.
  • 55 Bryan Shelley, Shelley and Scripture, p. 83; Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, II, p. 320; Jones, Memoirs of M (...)

30Although O’Neill cried easily on stage,53 Beatrice never sheds tears but expresses anger and indignation. Like the traditional tragic heroines, Beatrice has been disappointed in love (I. ii. 20-22) and goes mad (III. i. 1-64) but her strength of mind overcomes both love and madness (I. ii. 24-26, III. i. 64). Shelley was probably justified in believing that ’Beatrice is precisely fitted for Miss O Neil’.54 Had she performed it, the Christ-like imagery ’overtly identified’ with Beatrice would have helped her to take the audience with her, i.e. to keep the sympathy of the audience despite the equivocal attitude they might have towards her actions. Siddons did so in such parts as Elvira in Pizzarro, since, as Boaden remarked, ’all characters in her hands receive additional purity’.55 O’Neill would have had the opportunity to extend her range and to express deep emotion with a young heroine who had the strength of the older tragic characters she had begun to portray. Beatrice’s first appearance establishes this strength by direct, brief and to-the-point statements, such as ’Pervert not truth’ (I. ii. 1), ’You are a priest./Speak to me not of love’ (I. ii. 8-9) and ’Had you a dispensation I have not’ (I. ii. 14). O’Neill’s warmth in performance would have allowed the audience to recognise Beatrice’s courage in the Banquet Scene and her unswerving devotion to her brother and stepmother throughout the play, acknowledged when Bernardo describes Beatrice as ’pure innocence’ and ’light of life’ (V. iv. 130, 134).

  • 56 McWhir, ’The Light and the Knife’, p. 157; Richardson, A Mental Theatre, p. 112; Carlson, In the T (...)
  • 57 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 124.
  • 58 Curran, Cenci, p. 274; Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian Experience, p. 89.

31Beatrice is, however, often described as a character who shares her father’s evil, who becomes her father by committing his murder and then denying it. Ronald Lemoncelli, for example, believes that even incestuous rape ’is not enough to account for her later acts’.56 Wasserman suggests Beatrice’s claims to innocence should be taken as ’resolute statements’ not ’hardened lies or even as casuistry much less as self deception, for they are spoken with the sincerity of conviction and truth’.57 Yet there is an ambiguity, since Beatrice decides on the murder and the murderers’ culpability is brought out in the theatre by the references to Macbeth in IV. iii and IV. iv. as Alan Weinberg points out.58

  • 59 PBSLII, p. 108.
  • 60 Macbeth, A Tragedy, in Five Acts by William Shakspeare, printed from the acting copy (London: John (...)

32There are similarities between Macbeth and the Relazione. Shelley clearly intended the audience to notice these Shakespearean references, particularly as the arrival of the Papal legate immediately after the murder (IV. iv) is not in his source but corresponds to the arrival of Macduff and Lennox in Macbeth. Shelley knew Macbeth, a favourite play from boyhood, far too well for the similarities to be accidental; he quoted from it in a letter to Hunt about The Cenci as he was writing it.59 As Macbeth was so popular in the Georgian theatre, the audience would have readily seen the parallels: the fear common to Lucretia and Lady Macbeth that the victim might wake before the deed was done (IV. ii. 4); the resemblance of the victim to the would-be murderer’s father (IV. iii. 21); the laugh in the sleep and the blessing (a curse in The Cenci, IV. iii. 19); the readiness of Lady Macbeth and Beatrice to commit the murder themselves (IV. iii. 31-33); and the pretence that the murderers have just woken when the visitors arrive (IV. iii. 62). Lucretia’s faint (IV. iv. 170) is reminiscent of the fainting of Lady Macbeth, but Shelley relied on his audience knowing this from having read Macbeth, since it was not performed in the theatre.60 Olimpio’s description of Cenci’s ’stern and reverent brow’ (IV. iii. 10) is a reminder of Duncan but one which would also accentuate the difference between the two victims.

33While both couples are guilty of murder, the Macbeths kill an innocent man for his crown but Beatrice and Lucretia rid themselves of a tyrant as evil as Macbeth becomes.

34Shelley is careful not to allow us to see Beatrice decide to murder her father. She does not have a soliloquy in which she considers it, but ’retires’ upstage (III. i. 179); the audience would have seen and heard the double image of the dialogue between Orsino and Lucretia while Beatrice prays (III. i. 219) and meditates. To hear Beatrice arguing whether the murder of Cenci is justifiable might have lost her sympathy, and, moreover, since two sides are presented, a discussion between two characters is more likely than a soliloquy to provoke debate. Beatrice never has a soliloquy in the play; the audience is therefore never admitted into her intimate thoughts.

35Revenge is only one of Beatrice’s motives. She is in danger of repeated assault from her father, from which she has no reason to believe that the law will defend her, and this conflicts with what she sees as her Christian duty to keep her body as God’s temple (III. i. 128-129). Furthermore, she is:

reserved, day after day,
To load with crimes an overburdened soul,
And be – what ye can dream not. (III. i. 216-218)

  • 61 SPP, p. 451.

36Beatrice is not an ideal heroine; Shelley wrote her as a psychologically believable character as he imagined the historical Beatrice to have been. To give her the endurance and forgiveness of an ideal – and a god - such as Prometheus would not have been appropriate. A different attitude towards the guilt involved in a similar situation is given to the Christian slaves in Hellas (675-681).61

  • 62 SPII, p. 845; Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism, p. 193; Richardson, ’The Harmatia of Imagina (...)
  • 63 Shelley read Henry VIII in 1818, Sejanus in 1817. MWSJ, pp. 656, 673.

37In the trial scene (V. ii), she has been compared to Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil and censured for the ’power of her performance’ and her ’unheroic denial in court of patricide’.62 Yet her words ’Who stands here/As my accuser? Ha! wilt thou be he/Who art my judge?’ (V. ii. 173- 175) also resemble the words of two innocent defendants. Henry VIII was a play frequently performed at Covent Garden and Queen Katherine was a favourite role for Siddons. Katherine says, ’You are mine enemy; and make my challenge/You shall not be my judge’ (Henry VIII, II. iv. 75-76). Jonson’s Silius asks, ’Is he my accuser?/And must he be my judge?’ (Sejanus, His Fall, II. i. 200-201).63 In The Cenci, too, as the audience would have realised, it is an unfair trial, ’a wicked farce’ (V. ii. 39), a reminder of the Inquisition since Marzio has been and will be tortured until he says what the judges want to hear.

  • 64 Johnson, Shelley-Leigh Hunt, pp. 51-52.

38Beatrice’s physical advance towards him across the stage and ’aweinspiring gaze’ are also threatening. When she actually admits, ’thy hand did […] rescue her’ (V. ii. 143), in a context which justifies them both, Marzio says, ’A keener pain has wrung a higher truth/From my last breath’ (V. ii. 165-166). The First Judge demanded the ’whole truth’ (V. ii. 4), but the judges never hear it, as Beatrice’s circumstances are not taken into account. Hunt believed that Marzio, already a dead man in judicial terms, was ennobled by this attempt to save the lives of the Cenci family; this may have been Shelley’s view.64 But another, even higher truth, is present in this scene. Beatrice has committed murder, but she has been ’thwarted from her nature’, the courageous virtue which reappears in the final scene. What critics have described as duplicity is in fact a representation of a character with both virtuous and murderous qualities sincerely felt and bound together by Beatrice’s strength of mind and conviction that she is right, the presentation of which requires an exceptional actor.

  • 65 Donohue, Dramatic Character, p. 177; States, ’Addendum’, pp. 639, 640.

39Donohue’s claim that ’production records of The Cenci indicate that sympathy for Beatrice is lost somewhere toward the end of the drama’ is supported by the director, Theodore J. Ritter, for whom Beatrice is ’lying in her teeth’, but Kathleen M. Lynch, who co-directed the Mount Holyoke production, found that ’a young actress can make this ”weakness” very moving’.65 His opinion does not appear to be borne out by the research of Curran or Cameron or my own experience. It may be so where the actor is unable to reach the quality of performance Shelley expected from O’Neill.

Other actors

  • 66 Ervine, p. 87.
  • 67 MWSJ, p. 211, 211n.; Gisborne & Williams, p. 39.

40Ervine praised ’Shelley’s skill in casting a play’, his realisation of ’how excellent Kean would be in the part of Count Cenci’.66 The Gisbornes, who were qualified to judge, as ’Mr. G’s M.S.’ contained the source of The Cenci, considered Kean ideal for the part.67

  • 68 SCII, p. 517; MWSJ, p. 222.

41Like Richard III, Cenci is a villain who involves the audience in his crimes. As already noted, Shelley had read Richard III aloud in August 1818 and he had seen G.F. Cooke as Richard and Kean as Shylock.68 Macready, an admirer of both his predecessors, compared them as Richard:

  • 69 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 94.

There was a solidity of deportment and manner, and at the same time a sort of unctuous enjoyment of his successful craft, in the soliloquizing stage villany of Cooke, which gave powerful and rich effect to the sneers and overbearing retorts of Cibber’s hero, and certain points (as the peculiar mode of delivering a passage is technically phrased) traditional from Garrick were made with consummate skill, significance and power. Kean’s conception was decidedly more Shakespearean. He hurried you along in his resolute course with a spirit that brooked no delay. […] he was only inferior to Cooke when he attempted points upon the same ground.69

42A description of Macready’s ’most famous point in Werner’ in 1831 shows that his style was based on the performances of these actors:

  • 70 Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, p. 195.

Carried away by the passion of the scene, he rushed down to Charles Kemble Mason who played Gabor, and demanded ’Are you a father?’ Then he whispered ’Say No’ whereupon Gabor shouted ’No!’ and Macready, in a burst of paternal emotion, rejoined: ’Ah, then you cannot feel for misery like mine’ and the pit rose at him.70

  • 71 D – G – (George Daniel) ’Remarks on Virginius’ in James Sheridan Knowles, Virginius: A Tragedy (Lo (...)
  • 72 PBSLII, p. 103; Curran, Cenci, p. 186, 186n.

43The attempt of the young Macready to copy Kean was noted by George Daniel.71 Although Shelley considered Kean the best actor for the role, he recognised that Cenci could be played by an imitator when he said that he ’must be contented with an inferior actor’; as an admirer of Kean, Macready himself would have agreed with this assessment. It is said that he volunteered to come out of retirement to play Cenci, which is all the more likely if he thought that the role might have been written for him. 72

  • 73 Hazlitt, III, p. 9.

44Cenci begins his first scene at a disadvantage since Camillo, with his message from the Pope, is in the position of authority. Shelley’s dialogue skilfully shifts the positions until Cenci finishes by threatening Camillo, who is shown to be a hypocrite and liar. Hazlitt remarked that Kean depicted sarcastic resentment well.73 There are opportunities for expressing this:

For you give out that you have half reformed me, Therefore strong vanity will keep you silent (I. i. 73-74)

45And

No doubt Pope Clement
And his most charitable nephews, pray
That the Apostle Peter and the saints
Will grant for their sake that I long enjoy
Strength, wealth, and pride, and lust, and length of days (I. i. 27-31)

46The ability to rapidly change mood was described by Hazlitt as Kean’s forte. In this scene, Cenci changes to black humour. He has imposed the ultimate restraint on Camillo’s conversation by threatening him with death; the ironic lines, ’And so we will converse with less restraint’ (I. i. 60) and ’I think they never saw him more’ (I. i. 65) give opportunities for a chuckle, perhaps ’fiendish’ as was Cooke’s in Richard III. Cenci’s soliloquies have the frankness of Richard’s, shocking but also forcing a laugh from the audience in their audacity, for example, when Cenci hopes that his sons’ deaths will end the need for supporting them (I. i. 129-134). The stage direction ’looking around him suspiciously’ on the line ’I think they cannot hear me at this door’ (I. i. 137) allows the actor’s body language to reveal what he plans towards Beatrice and his fear of discovery. As ’this door’ must lead to Lucretia’s apartments, it cannot be the proscenium door through which Camillo exited, so he would have had to cross the stage to the opposite door. A quick, darting move such as Kean, a popular Harlequin, excelled at, would have created a double effect; a glance at the stage box above the door would bring the audience sitting in that desirable position into intimate contact and complicity with Cenci.

47In the Banquet Scene, Cenci again exhibits swift changes of mood. Initially conventional and reassuring (I. iii. 1-33), he changes to glee at the shock and alarm his horrifying news causes (I. iii. 44-50) and takes obvious enjoyment in pledging the Devil with his sons’ blood (I. iii. 77-90). Taking command of the scene with the powerful threat to ’Think […] of their own throats’ (I. iii. 130-131) when the assembled Nobles suggest seizing him, he changes to menacing fury. In the second act Cenci also has the opportunity for a grand exit (II. i. 192). The word ’walk’ allows the actor to physicalise Cenci’s evil by moving towards the proscenium door in a sinister way and enables him to deliver the final ’Would that it were done!’ as he reaches the door, in a manner effective for gaining applause, or as contemporary critics described it, ’a claptrap’.

48The fact that Cenci does not appear in Act III shows Shelley’s awareness not only of the demands the part places on the actor, but also the demands such a fanatical character places on the audience. As a result, the part can be played with more subtlety, relying on the audience’s grasp of the character for the monomaniacal intensity. This is particularly important, given that in his final scene (IV. i), the actor must express a range of emotions from anticipation, extreme anger, satisfied shock upon hearing he is to die, belief that he is God’s scourge and a combination of feelings towards Beatrice which include extreme hatred and tremendous sexual thrill, all before finally appearing overcome by the drug. He has most of the long speeches in this scene, including his curse of Beatrice. The part requires a bravura performance from a compelling actor not afraid of revelling in its wickedness or playing to the gallery. Macready would have been well suited to it, despite his youth.

11. ’Charles Kemble as Giraldi Fazio’ by Thomas Sully, 1833. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. John Ford.

  • 74 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 83.

49Kemble, who played the weak but attractive Fazio in Florentine costume and hat, had also played gentlemanly villains such as Don Felix,74 and his charm and good looks would have made him a suitable Orsino who could have inspired the alternation between trust and distrust which Beatrice and Giacomo feel for him. The minor parts, all of which are necessary to the action, are sufficiently well drawn for an actor to make believable. Shelley’s economy in having a cast of twelve, some of whom could double, allows the play to be staged today when, generally, casts are small.

The staging

  • 75 Rosenfeld, Georgian Scene Painters, p. 87; The Dramatick Works of Nicholas Rowe (Facsimile: London (...)

50Shelley’s stage directions provide suggestions for the scenery which show his awareness of the way in which these effects can emphasise and complement the action. In some cases, as with ’an apartment in the Cenci palace’ or ’in the Vatican’, a stock scene, though rich and palatial, would suffice, but ’A magnificent Hall in the Cenci Palace. A Banquet.’( I. iii) makes clear that Shelley requires a spectacular scene, something similar to the ’Italian hall’ by Charles Pugh (1806-1826).75 A grand entrance with music would be expected, since Cenci has invited princes, cardinals and everyone of consequence in Rome. Beatrice’s reference to ’festival array’ (I. ii. 59) suggests fine costumes, accurately designed as in Fazio. The richness of the spectacle would have delighted the audience while emphasising the power and grandeur of Cenci’s connections and Beatrice’s isolation when she is refused help. Similarly, the ’Garden’ (I. ii) suggests a wooing scene and a betrayal, such as in The Fair Penitent (IV. i). The ’mean Apartment in Giacomo’s House’ (III. ii) confirms his poverty, contrasting with the preceding palatial setting, his father’s abode.

  • 76 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 99.
  • 77 Rosenfeld, Georgian Scene Painters, pp. 38, 46.

51Donohue says the Gothic drama had a ’convention of a stronghold, almost always a castle, within which the villain could exercise his unfettered power […] a sort of objectified landscape descriptive of the villain’s own mind and by extension, of the audience’s fearful sense of the human origins of evil.76 The setting of the Castle of Petrella is directly in line with this. Scene IV. i takes place in Cenci’s ’Apartment in the Castle’, while the next scene is set ’Before the Castle of Petrella’ where Lucretia and Beatrice appear ’above on the ramparts’ (IV. ii). The shutters would have parted to reveal it, closing again at the end of the scene to return to the apartment (IV. iii). It need not have been an edifice such as Capon constructed for Baillie’s De Monfort, although Shelley’s setting suggests a similar design with a back scene painted with mountain scenery by moonlight (IV. iv. 84); only a front was needed with steps behind for Beatrice and Lucretia to descend to Olimpio and Marzio, who appear ’below’ on the forestage. ’The Cell of a Prison’ (V. iii) is also in the style of Gothic drama. Beatrice ’discovered asleep on a Couch’ is an image reminiscent of A Sicilian Romance in which ’a cave with an iron door fastened with a chain [was] thrown open to discover a woman sleeping on a stone’.77

  • 78 See Chapter 1; Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 100.
  • 79 MWSJ, p. 230; Robert Lloyd in Composer of the Week, trans. 0900-1000 BBC Radio 3, Tuesday 5 August (...)

52Curran has criticised Shelley’s use of ’thunder and the sound of a storm’ – the lamp and the striking bell – as ’melodramatic paraphernalia’ (III. ii. 2, III. ii. 25, III. ii. 9-14, 40). However clichéd these techniques may appear in modern theatre, when stage and auditorium are equally lit atmosphere must be created by means other than lighting, and the storm is a strong theatrical image. The striking bell was part of the tradition of The Castle Spectre.78 Shelley had recently seen Rossini’s Otello in which the murder takes place in a storm and in which Desdemona’s Willow song is particularly poignant; Kimbell describes it as ’a beautiful example of genuinely expressive variation writing’. Had Shelley seen Othello in England he could not have heard the Willow song (Othello, IV. iii, 41-58) since the scene was cut in performance, but music was used to create atmosphere in all plays and Henry Bishop, resident composer at Covent Garden in 1819, had used recurring themes and motives associated with characters and moods.79 The dramatic advantage of Beatrice’s song of false friendship (V. iii. 130- 145) would have been clear.

53Certain speeches in The Cenci have an incantatory quality which, so delivered, would send a shiver down the spines of the audience. In I. iii. 173-178, Cenci believes the wine, transformed into the blood of his dead sons, a perversion of the Christian sacrament, will act as an aphrodisiac, the charm which will make Beatrice ’meek and tame’. Beatrice’s three messages in IV. i are like phrases from an old ballad, an effect enhanced by the medieval setting and Cenci’s curse:

’Go tell my father that I see the gulf
Of Hell between us two, which he may pass,
I will not’. (ll. 98-100)

She said ’I cannot come;
Go tell my father that I see a torrent
Of his own blood raging between us.’ (ll. 111-113)

She bids thee curse;
And if thy curses, as they cannot do,
Could kill her soul – (ll. 167-169)

  • 80 Johnson, Shelley-Leigh Hunt, p. 49; qtd in Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 411; urran, Cenci, p. 274

54A stage effect often used in plays contemporary with The Cenci, such as Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows or Morton’s Speed the Plough, was the tableau. Following Lucretia’s line ’My dear, dear children!’ (II. i. 104) it is probable that the three would have formed a tableau of mutual comfort with Lucretia holding the two young people to her, a physical demonstration of the love between them which provides Beatrice with the strong motivation she needs to believe she can endure all her father’s cruelties. This tableau might have been repeated at V. iii. 116-120, when Beatrice, now the strong, comforting one, invites her brother to sit near her and Lucretia to put her head on her lap. During Beatrice’s final speech, also the final speech of the play, Shelley enables the actors to show their emotions physically by tying each others’ girdles and binding up each others’ hair – actions of familiarity and intimacy which actors do for each other every working day, reflected in the lines ’How often/Have we done this for one another’ (V. iv. 163-164). They would have thus formed a tableau, perhaps echoing the two earlier tableaux by Giacomo joining them before the guards lead them away. Hunt thought this an ending which would not work on the stage, but W.J. Turner described it as ’the moment when its meaning flowers with a complete and extraordinary beauty’, with Casson arguing, ’The great final scene transforms natural speech patterns into pure music’.80

  • 81 Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 7-79.

55It is reported that Marzio has committed suicide by holding his breath until he died (V. ii. 182-184), a physical impossibility, as Shelley, who had some medical training, must have known. The startling dramatic effect may have been prompted by Dibdin’s The Cabinet (p. 85), where Peter, threatened with torture to reveal a secret, says, ’it would only give me lockjaw’.81

Censorship

  • 82 Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, pp. 196-197.
  • 83 Yost, Pieracci and Shelley, p. 2; SPII, pp. 868-869; Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian xperience, note 2 (...)
  • 84 Jewett, Fatal Autonomy, p. 140n.; Horace Walpole, ’Postscript to The Mysterious Mother’ in Baines (...)

56Robertson Davies found it a major weakness in the play that ’Shelley is nervous about his theme, perhaps from instincts of delicacy excessive in a playwright. If we are to be shaken by a horror, the horror must not be kept quite so much behind the arras.’82 Shelley followed his source in suggesting that Beatrice’s extra motivation to murder was roused by her horror of incest, but it could not be directly mentioned in a play. Gaull believes that it was not a problem because ’audiences of the period had become acclimated through Gothic melodrama and even found [it] especially appealing.’83 Certainly, in The Castle Spectre, Osmond attempts to force his niece Angela to marry him, but this incestuous element is not focused upon and never carried out. Jewett, following Gaull, describes ’Walpole’s The Mad Mother’ (actually The Mysterious Mother) as a ’stage drama’ but, precisely because of the incest, Walpole never expected it to be performed publicly, although Worrall has discovered that, in fact, in 1821 Dibdin produced it at the Surrey.84 This appears to offer the possibility that a minor theatre could have performed The Cenci, but these too had to be wary of losing their magistrate’s licences.

  • 85 PBSLII, p. 102; OSA, p. 336n.; Curran, Cenci, p. 223.

57It is quite clear that fear of censorship prevented The Cenci from being accepted at the patent theatres since, despite attempts to counter the ban by theatre companies and the Shelley Society alike, it was not lifted until 1920. Shelley was therefore neither over-cautious nor over-optimistic; he hoped that ’the peculiar delicacy with which I have treated’ the subject would enable the play to be ’admitted on the stage’. Mary Shelley pointed out that ’He had never mentioned expressly Cenci’s worst crime. Everyone knew what it must be’.85 His method had a precedent on the stage in Arthur Murphy’s The Grecian Daughter. Boaden refers to Murphy’s way of both revealing and concealing:

One great difficulty his fable imposed on him – preventing, mean, the kind of sustenance which Euphrasia bore
unperceived to her father from becoming ludicrous – it could never be shewn in action – yet it must be known – it must be described and the language must be so cautious as to throw a transparent veil over what it declares. He prepared the incident even in his first act

Euphr: Yes, Phocion, go; Go with my child, torn from this matron breast – This breast that still should yield its nurture to him.’

He has thus, by a happy line, invested her with the unquestioned
power to relieve him; that relief is thus exhibited by Philotas: –

’On the bare earth
Evander lies; and as his languid pow’rs
Imbibe with eager thirst the kind refreshment
Euphrasia views him with the tend’rst glance,
Even as a MOTHER doating on her child.’

  • 86 Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, I, pp. 310-331; see Chapter 2 for the possibility of Shelley’s having seen T (...)

I shall, at least, imitate the discretion of the poet, and leave the reader to surmise the terms, which, had they been different, would have ruined the pathos of the scene, and perhaps excited laughter.86

58In writing about the rape of Beatrice in The Cenci, Shelley uses a method similar to Murphy’s, revealing what has happened through imagery and the reaction of the other characters but without stating it overtly. Shelley’s audience was familiar with The Grecian Daughter and would have understood this technique.

  • 87 McWhir, ’The Light and the Knife’, p. 158; Michael Worton, ’Speech and Silence in The Cenci’ in Es (...)
  • 88 SPII, p. 730.

59The disadvantage is turned to dramatic benefit by Beatrice being, as others have noted, psychologically unable to utter the words.87 Lucretia’s repeated questioning, six times altogether, is not, as Curran suggests, inability to understand. It is clear she knows what has happened since she says, ’Whate’er you may have suffered, you have done/No evil’ (III. i. 121- 122), close to Shelley’s own view that ’no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another’.88 When she says, ’Oh my lost child,/Hide not in proud impenetrable grief/Thy sufferings from my fear’ (III. i. 104-106), it is to get Beatrice, who can ’feign no image in my mind/Of that which has transformed me’ (III. i. 107-108), to speak. Lucretia succeeds sufficiently for Beatrice to be able to tell Orsino that her father has done her a ’wrong so great and strange’ (III. i. 139) and to express anger and sarcasm (III. i. 144). Beatrice’s statement that her accusation will not be believed (III. i. 163-164) is confirmed by Orsino’s saying ’the strange and execrable deeds alleged’ in the petition have ’turned the Pope’s displeasure/Upon the accusers from the criminal’ (II. ii. 63-66).

  • 89 SPII, p. 734; Curran, Cenci, pp. 49, 262.

60Whether or not consciously in accordance with Schlegel’s suggestions, Shelley created scenes in The Cenci which ’excite interest […] and sympathy’ and ’rivet the attention’, with ’nothing beyond what the multitude are contented to believe that they can understand’. His contemporaries would, of course, have found less difficulty with the language than today’s audience. Shelley wished to use natural language without introducing ’mere poetry’, and, compared to that of Milman, Tobin or Baillie, his is very much ’the familiar language of men’ while including some concessions to Elizabethanisms which his audience would have expected in a period drama. His verse, as Curran has noted, is very close to speech, therefore easy to learn and to deliver in a natural and modern style. As Dame Sybil told Curran, the speeches are not too long.89 Neither is the play.

  • 90 Curran, Cenci, p. 208.

61Shelley was working from a consciousness of the contemporary theatre, writing first-class parts for leading performers and good supporting parts and showing understanding of the use of stage effects and scenery. He also tried to avoid censorship problems whilst still putting across his own political views; The Cenci was not the only play to fall foul of the censorship issues and a play unperformed for that reason is not inherently unstageable. Its impact in 1819 cannot be judged by modern performance, as a director will alter the play to suit personal interpretation, the company’s strengths, the number of actors or the performance space, and the audience will know at least some of its history. It was, however, received enthusiastically by the audience closest to that of 1819 in composition, at the Korsch Theatre, Moscow, in 1920.90 The philosophical dilemma The Cenci poses continues to be relevant to modern society. It deserves to be more frequently performed in the professional theatre and it is largely because of its reputation as a ’closet’ play that it has not been.

  • 91 PBSLII, pp. 181, 108, 112, 119, 189; Wolfe, II, p. 198.

62Shelley was to say that ’The very Theatre rejected it with expressions of the greatest insolence’, but this negative view may have been ’the effect of criticism upon the nerves’, a result of disappointment at its rejection. While he was writing The Cenci, he described it as ’a work of a more popular kind; and, if anything of mine could deserve attention, of higher claims’ and ’in some degree worthy of’ its dedication to Hunt; he had ’some hopes, and some friends here persuade me that they are not unfounded’. It was not until these hopes were disappointed that he said ’I dont think very much of it’. 91 Almost as soon as he had sent it off, on 9 October 1819, he began researching into the period of the English Revolution. This was eventually to result in an attempt to write a more ambitious play, one which might have had a timescale of approximately thirty years and as many characters. Like The Cenci, it concerned the right to resist a tyrant. This was Charles the First.

Notes

1 Moody, Illegitimate Theatre, p. 3; Richardson, A Mental Theatre, p. 100; Simpson, Closet Performances, p. 377.

2 Gaull, English Romanticism, p. 103; Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, p. 196; Nicoll, pp. 196-197; Curran, Cenci, pp. 39-40, 177; Bryan Shelley, Shelley and Scripture: The Interpreting Angel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 83-86; Ervine, ’Shelley as Dramatist’, p. 96; Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 172.

3 Curran, Cenci, pp. 276, 277; Cave, ’Romantic Drama in Performance’ in The Romantic Theatre, p. 104.

4 SPII, p. 734; PBSLII, p. 323; Macready’s Reminiscences, I, ed. by Frederick Pollock, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1875), p. 86; BLJV, p. 261; Donkin, Getting into the Act, p. 166.

5 PBSLII, p. 103.

6 George Yost, Pieracci and Shelley: An Italian Ur-Cenci (Potomac: Scripta Humanistica [c. 1986]), pp. 2, 3.

7 Yost, Pieracci and Shelley, pp. 137, 89.

8 Cameron, The Golden Years, pp. 398-401; Curran, Cenci, pp. 41-45; Alan Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian Experience (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 72-77; SPII, pp. 865-873.

9 PBSLII, p. 118; Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 92-93.

10 ’A Philosophical View of Reform’ in SCVI, pp. 1054, 1061.

11 ’A Philosophical View of Reform’ in SCVI, pp. 1064, 1065.

12 Ibid., p. 1051.

13 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, pp. 92-93.

14 Stuart M. Sperry, Shelley’s Major Verse, The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 130.

15 Paul Smith, ’Restless Casuistry: Shelley’s Composition of The Cenci’, KSJ, 13 (1964), 77-85, p. 85; SPII, p. 730.

16 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 101; Charlotte Ann Eaton, Rome in the Nineteenth Century, 3 vols (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1820), III, p. 18. It is not Beatrice’s portrait, nor is it by Guido Reni, SPII, pp. 728-729, 873-874.

17 Nicoll, p. 196; PBSLII, pp. 102.

18 PBSLII, pp. 103, 178.

19 Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, II, p. 337.

20 Wyndham, Covent Garden, I, p. 293.

21 Macready, Reminiscences, I, pp. 125, 176.

22 OSA, p. 337.

23 PBSLII, p. 8; Wolfe, II, p. 352.

24 Barcus, The Critical Heritage, pp. 186, 174.

25 PBSLII, p. 178.

26 Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 396; Jocelyn Denford, programme notes, Damned Poets Theatre Company production of The Cenci at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, August 1992.

27 Curran, Cenci, pp. 185, 237, 215.

28 Ibid., pp. 262; 188-193.

29 Curran, Cenci, pp. 232, 233n., p. 224; Sheridan Morley, Sybil Thorndike (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), pp. 67, 147, 68, 84, 168.

30 States, ’Addendum’, pp. 638-641; Kessel and States, ’The Cenci as a Stage Play’, p. 148.

31 Curran, Cenci, p. 252.

32 E.S. Bates, qtd in Curran, Cenci, p. 262; Donohue, Dramatic Character, pp. 162-170; Nicoll, p. 167 for his praise of Milman’s Fazio, while see pp. 196-197 for The Cenci; Booth, English Melodrama, p. 47, for comments on the Romantic poets including Shelley; Booth, Prefaces to English Nineteenth-Century Theatre, pp. 18-19 for comments on Fazio.

33 Bernard, Retrospections, I, p. 34; Dibdin, Reminiscences, II, pp. 134-135.

34 Henry Hart Milman, ’Advertisement’ in Fazio: A Tragedy (Oxford: Samuel Collingwood, 1815), p. iii.

35 Dougald MacMillan, Catalogue of the Larpent Plays in the Huntingdon Library 1737-1824 (San Marino, 1939), p. viii. The manuscript of The Italian Wife does not differentiate acts and scenes clearly, therefore page numbers only are used.

36 PBSLII, p. 8.

37 Mary Shelley, ’Note on The Cenci’, OSA, p. 337.

38 PBSLII, p. 290.

39 Donohue, Dramatic Character, pp. 171, 176.

40 Schlegel, pp. 36-37; SPII, pp. 731, 733.

41 MWSJ, p. 662.

42 PBSLII, p. 102.

43 MWSLI, p.127; Wolfe, II, p. 330.

44 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 171; PBSLII, pp. 102-103.

45 Jones, Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, pp. 24, 35, 73.

46 MWSJ, p. 157; Hazlitt, III, p. 123; Crabb Robinson, p. 79.

47 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 167; Jones, Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, p. 48; Genest, VIII, pp. 602, 613.

48 SPII, p. 735.

49 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 95.

50 Qtd in Downer, ’The Painted Stage’, p. 529.

51 Hazlitt, III, p. 30.

52 Downer, ’The Painted Stage’, p. 529.

53 Hunt’s Dramatic Criticism, p. 88.

54 PBSLII, p. 102.

55 Bryan Shelley, Shelley and Scripture, p. 83; Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, II, p. 320; Jones, Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, p. 48.

56 McWhir, ’The Light and the Knife’, p. 157; Richardson, A Mental Theatre, p. 112; Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism, p. 194; Lemoncelli, ’Cenci’, p. 105.

57 Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 124.

58 Curran, Cenci, p. 274; Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian Experience, p. 89.

59 PBSLII, p. 108.

60 Macbeth, A Tragedy, in Five Acts by William Shakspeare, printed from the acting copy (London: John Cumberland, [n.d.]).

61 SPP, p. 451.

62 SPII, p. 845; Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism, p. 193; Richardson, ’The Harmatia of Imagination’, p. 237.

63 Shelley read Henry VIII in 1818, Sejanus in 1817. MWSJ, pp. 656, 673.

64 Johnson, Shelley-Leigh Hunt, pp. 51-52.

65 Donohue, Dramatic Character, p. 177; States, ’Addendum’, pp. 639, 640.

66 Ervine, p. 87.

67 MWSJ, p. 211, 211n.; Gisborne & Williams, p. 39.

68 SCII, p. 517; MWSJ, p. 222.

69 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 94.

70 Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, p. 195.

71 D – G – (George Daniel) ’Remarks on Virginius’ in James Sheridan Knowles, Virginius: A Tragedy (London: John Cumberland, [n.d.]).

72 PBSLII, p. 103; Curran, Cenci, p. 186, 186n.

73 Hazlitt, III, p. 9.

74 Macready, Reminiscences, I, p. 83.

75 Rosenfeld, Georgian Scene Painters, p. 87; The Dramatick Works of Nicholas Rowe (Facsimile: London, T. Jauncy, 1720; Farnborough, Hants: Gregg International Publishers, 1971).

76 Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 99.

77 Rosenfeld, Georgian Scene Painters, pp. 38, 46.

78 See Chapter 1; Donohue, Theatre in the Age of Kean, p. 100.

79 MWSJ, p. 230; Robert Lloyd in Composer of the Week, trans. 0900-1000 BBC Radio 3, Tuesday 5 August 2003; Kimbell, Italian Opera, pp. 458-459; William Shakespeare, Othello (London: John Cumberland, [n.d.]); Carr, ’Theatre Music 1800-1834’ in Music in Britain, pp. 291, 302.

80 Johnson, Shelley-Leigh Hunt, p. 49; qtd in Cameron, The Golden Years, p. 411; urran, Cenci, p. 274.

81 Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 7-79.

82 Davies, ’Playwrights and Plays’ in The Revels, pp. 196-197.

83 Yost, Pieracci and Shelley, p. 2; SPII, pp. 868-869; Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian xperience, note 22; Gaull, English Romanticism, p. 103.

84 Jewett, Fatal Autonomy, p. 140n.; Horace Walpole, ’Postscript to The Mysterious Mother’ in Baines and Burns, p. 65; David Worrall, ’Never Performed Until Now (The Guardian 3 Feb 2001), or, Oops! Losing the Surrey Theatre, 1821: Performances of Horace Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother’ paper given at ’Staging the Page Conference’, Swansea University, April 2008.

85 PBSLII, p. 102; OSA, p. 336n.; Curran, Cenci, p. 223.

86 Boaden, Mrs. Siddons, I, pp. 310-331; see Chapter 2 for the possibility of Shelley’s having seen The Grecian Daughter.

87 McWhir, ’The Light and the Knife’, p. 158; Michael Worton, ’Speech and Silence in The Cenci’ in Essays on Shelley, ed. by Miriam Allott (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1982), p. 109; Curran, Cenci, p. 269.

88 SPII, p. 730.

89 SPII, p. 734; Curran, Cenci, pp. 49, 262.

90 Curran, Cenci, p. 208.

91 PBSLII, pp. 181, 108, 112, 119, 189; Wolfe, II, p. 198.

Table des illustrations

Légende 9. ’Eliza O’Neill as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene ii’, lithograph after George Dawe (1781-1829) by F.C. Lewis.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/764/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 18k
Légende 10. ’Beatrice Cenci, an etching by W.B. Scott adapted from the painting that in Shelley’s day was commonly attributed to Guido Reni’, from The Cenci, edited by Alfred Forman and H. Buxton Forman (Shelley Society Publications 1886).
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/764/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 135k
Légende 11. ’Charles Kemble as Giraldi Fazio’ by Thomas Sully, 1833. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. John Ford.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/764/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k