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The Theatre of Shelley

Jacqueline Mulhallen


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1While Shelley’s plays have some unchanging aspects, such as the consistent theme of opposition to tyranny, there is also a process of significant development in his dramatic writing. By considering each play individually and in thematic order it has been possible to reveal more clearly the influences on his writing, such as the theatrical practice of his time and the dramatic theory in the work of Schlegel and others. On the other hand, this should not obscure the development of Shelley’s dramatic technique or his capabilities as a dramatist, since he never developed his full potential.

2The stories and the structures of Shelley’s plays were derived from other playwrights. Using structures which had proved successful in the past was a method of learning the craft, and one which Shelley might have dropped as he became more experienced and gained confidence in his ability. On the other hand, Shelley may not have wished to invent his own story, or perhaps he felt that he did not have the ability to do so. As it is not necessary for a play to have an original story, he may have continued to base his stories on legend or historical events. Shelley did not select trivial themes for his dramas. Each one deals, in its own way, with the downfall of tyranny.

3Shelley’s greatness as a poet gives his drama a strength which his contemporaries could not match since both actors and audiences would appreciate the strength of his verse. He created complex and memorable characters such as Beatrice Cenci and the King, the Queen or Archy from Charles the First. Shelley was able to give minor characters individuality, so that roles such as the Old Man in Charles the First or Orsino in The Cenci would also be interesting to perform. He does not appear to have been gifted in writing witty repartee of the kind occurring in the comedies of manners popular on the English stage, but there are witty rejoinders and exchanges in Swellfoot the Tyrant and Charles the First. Shelley’s awareness of and his readiness to make use of modern and popular theatrical forms, such as the ’improvise’ of Sgricci, the ballets of Viganò and the melodrama, burlesque and costume drama of the Georgian stage added freshness while the thorough research on which he based all his plays ensured their solidity. This research is evident from Tasso onwards. Although already familiar with the poet’s work, he prepared himself by reading biographies and visiting the places connected with Tasso’s life. Similar attention to research is evident in Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, and Charles the First whilst Hellas and Swellfoot the Tyrant show a familiarity with current affairs and with his theme and style which enabled the dramas to be written quickly.

4The development of Shelley’s technique is shown in a greater flexibility in use of dialogue, using interruption and a more colloquial style, in suggesting more complicated scenic effects and the use of a greater numbers of actors on stage. The use of set speeches is more prevalent in The Cenci, written in 1819, than it is in Swellfoot (1820) or Charles the First (1822). The Cenci concentrates on dialogue between two main characters, even in the trial and banquet scenes, whereas in Charles the First there are several characters involved in each scene. He experiments in each play with different requirements for appropriate scenery: simple in Hellas but with spectacular effects in Prometheus Unbound and Charles the First. Each of his plays contain songs. Shelley’s dramatic writing, therefore, shows a continuous development of styles, experimenting with dialogue, music, dance and staging techniques.

5None of the plays are extant which Shelley and his sister Hellen say that he wrote in 1810. Any discussion of his development as a dramatist must therefore begin with a work of his maturity, the scenes for a historical drama, Tasso (1818), but the surprising sophistication of these scenes, despite their fragmentary nature, suggests that he had learnt from earlier attempts. They show an awareness of dramatic tension, character, and technical effects, and his choice of subject allowed him to include poetry and songs, in accord with both Schlegel’s theories and those Shelley himself was to express in A Defence of Poetry. I have suggested that he did not finish this promising drama because the theme was to be tyrannical oppression and he found Tasso’s flattery of his oppressor inconsistent with the defiant hero he required. He went on to write Prometheus Unbound, which he was to refuse to end with a reconciliation of oppressor and oppressed according to what was known of Aeschylus’ tragedy. Even as Shelley was researching Tasso, he had absorbed ideas about the drama from Schlegel and had been inspired by the art of Viganò. I believe that his creative impulse had been strongly stimulated by both the story of Prometheus and the ballets he had just seen. The attractiveness of writing in a new style was too urgent to allow him to carry on any further work on Tasso, given his change of mind about the appropriateness of his hero to his theme. If Shelley had initially thought of Prometheus Unbound as a drama which could be performed, he discarded a comparatively conventional drama in form and content for one that is unique and consistent with ideas about the drama which he had expressed in A Defence of Poetry.

  • 1 SPII, pp. 456, 462.

6Whilst Prometheus Unbound (1819) demanded a style harmonious with Athenian drama and legend, Shelley’s own times demanded one which took it further in terms of philosophy and dramatic technique. It is notable that Shelley requested information about Aeschylus’ drama before beginning his own play. He had researched modern science and modern moral and political views which he added to that framework, drawing upon Schlegel’s theories and his own observations of the ballets of Viganò. He thus attempted something completely original as a dramatist. If my supposition that Shelley saw a Vigano ballet in October 1819 and went to see Otello in January 1820 is correct, then Viganò’s ballets both preceded and complemented his work on Prometheus.1 I consider that the stage directions, the gestures, the dances and song which Shelley included in Prometheus were inspired by Viganò and his company and the designs of Sanquirico and Pregliasco and technical expertise of the La Scala stagehands. Certainly, awareness of the importance of silence, gesture and movement can be seen in Shelley’s later work, and the idea of developing in modern form a reply to or reflection upon an Athenian drama was one he was to use again. He took the opportunity to work on a grand scale, to develop the dramatic techniques of characterisation, contrast and suspense, but, although he had written a performable play in Prometheus Unbound, it was not one which could have been staged at the time.

7Despite developing this original style of dramatic writing, Shelley returned to the conventional five act tragedy of the London stage for The Cenci (1819) in which he once again dramatised the problem of tyranny and oppression. As in Tasso, he took a subject from Italian history, and, once again, the story had been well researched: Shelley was familiar with other versions, had discussed it with acquaintances, had visited the Colonna Palace and owned a copy of what was believed to be Beatrice’s portrait. He developed character to a greater extent than he had done in Prometheus. His use of stage technique was in accordance with contemporary theatre practice; he wrote competently for the resources of the Covent Garden stage and its actors. He was able to write both grand scenes, such as the trial and the banquet, and intimate scenes such as those between Beatrice and Orsino. He tried to avoid the constraints of censorship and used English dramatic techniques from Shakespeare to ’Monk’ Lewis to develop a theatrical metaphor in sympathy with the tragedies then performed at the London theatres. It was not until it was performed in the following century that The Cenci was shown to be effective in performance, but while it was not accepted for censorship reasons, the Covent Garden manager recognised its quality and offered the opportunity to submit a second script. Shelley continued to have ideas for plays, as the sketch for the Bonaparte scene shows. He now had two styles at his command. In writing Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820), he blended Athenian Old Comedy with burlesque, pantomime and commedia dell’arte; he probably saw these modern elements as being directly descended from the ancient. The fact that it was very quickly written suggests that his confidence in his ability as a dramatist had increased and that the form was becoming easier for him. Whether or not it was ever performed, Swellfoot is a performable play and made use of contemporary techniques such as trapdoors and processions as well as the dancing choruses of Aristophanes. His familiarity with Aristophanes’ comedy enables him to use that structure and combine it with popular burlesque with complete assurance. The animal elements which appear to derive from the commedia dell’arte enable him to reveal the ruling class as vermin, while the pigs are changed, pantomime fashion, into symbols of virtue. The mock processions produce a comic result, yet, in his initial parody of Oedipus, they have a pathos derived from the awareness of the underlying historical reality which shows that Swellfoot has a similar serious intent to the comedies of Aristophanes. The dialogue for Swellfoot shows progress in a readiness to use interruption and a greater naturalism, and the dialogue is modern and colloquial so that the poetical passages heighten the humour by contrast.

8In Hellas (1821), Shelley returned to Aeschylus, remaining faithful to the structure of The Persians but this time refreshing the form with the dramatic techniques of the contemporary London stage, the chorus of dancing girls and the scenery of a popular melodrama rather than the style of Italian ballet or opera used in Prometheus Unbound. Shelley had also seen the popularity of Sgricci’s performance which may have given him confidence to bring the Athenian drama up to date. He developed the characters but limited the stage effects to the gradual change of light and the appearance of the phantom of Mahomet. The careful structure of reflecting chorus and dialogue enhances the simplicity of the staging, with its gradually setting sun, allowing Mahmud’s changing state of mind to symbolise the end of empire. The youth, physical energy and defiance of the dancing Chorus are in sharp and constant contrast. The reports of battles by messengers reflect the unreliability of the newspaper reports, and also add an immediacy. Hellas, Prometheus Unbound and Swellfoot the Tyrant were not sidelines or diversions, but an exploration of the adaptation of classical forms to modern practice which enabled Shelley to gain greater confidence with his dramatic technique. They were, and are, performable.

9All the techniques Shelley developed re-appear to serious purpose in Charles the First (1822). His recognition of the importance of visual effect and of humorous situation in Swellfoot, use of spectacular scenery, music and dance in the lyric dramas and characterisation in The Cenci enabled him to conceive Charles the First on a grand scale. He had trained himself to create a drama in which the scenery was to provide a metaphorical theatrical commentary and in which characters were brought to life with a few lines of characteristic language. The fragment suggests that everything Shelley had been learning would have been put to good effect had he been able to finish the drama. I believe that he had overcome some of the difficulties of creating a coherent plot and selecting characters out of the history of the chaotic years of civil war and revolution. He had thoroughly researched this period and the scenes he wrote show that he had mastered character, exposition and dialogue. The spectacular opening scene, a masterpiece of theatrical style, emerged out of the two processions of oppressors and oppressed in Swellfoot the Tyrant. It both symbolises the gulf between ruler and ruled and allows a mass of difficult historical information to be given in a naturalistic and vivid way. The intricate court scene, with its group dialogues, shows that Shelley had also acquired the technique of coping with a large cast on stage. The Westminster scene is building up to a climax of interrupted action, that is, an event which the audience expects but which does not take place. The anticipation of the audience is that the characters will board the ship and the drama lies in their being unexpectedly prevented. The complex characterisation of Charles and the well-defined lesser characters show that Shelley was far from being unable to write about real people. He takes the figure of Archy, no more than a slight reference in his sources, and develops him into a pivotal figure, suggesting a semi-fantastical character from Shakespeare and Calderón. Among these realistically drawn portraits, 240 The Theatre of Shelley Archy would provide music and satirical humour in a way that allows the songs and wit to comment upon rather than interrupt the action. Edward Williams believed Shelley, perhaps in response to Schlegel, was writing a Shakespearean drama. The full title, The Historical Tragedy of Charles the First, and the unfinished scenes certainly seem to indicate that this was the case, but it was not to be a mere Shakespearean imitation.

10His final play, Fragments of an Unfinished Drama (1822), a magical fantasy with music, was intended for private performance. It shows his interest in yet another dramatic genre and one which was very popular on the contemporary stage. Once again the combination of poetry, song and spectacular effect was used, but the reference this time was to Hindu rather than ancient Greek mythology, showing that Shelley had sufficient dramatic knowledge at his disposal to adapt to another tradition. Writing for specific talents, the intimacy of the situation allowed an underlying humorous comment in the casting. The fact that he also gave his story an Indian setting when some of his intended performers had an Indian background suggests that he might have used their memories, stories and local knowledge to create incidents in the play. This indicates a further advance in his dramatic techniques and his choice of style and method shows that he is conversant with the fashion of London theatre which enjoyed such musical fantasies as Oberon.

11Study of the manuscript of Hellas, for example, reveals that Shelley carefully edited his dramas, discarding material which did not accord with his plan, and it would appear that he generally based his work on thorough research. His method, then, seems to have been to research, having a rough mental plan, even if no written plan has survived, to write and to subsequently thoroughly edit the text. His achievement in dramatic writing was in the versatility of style, including verse drama appropriate for performance at the patent theatres and a more innovatory style which drew on international and classical sources. Had he lived to continue this dramatic practice, I believe it would have influenced the British theatre, perhaps sufficiently to maintain the tradition of verse drama and to prevent the divorce of music and dance from dialogue.

12Although revivals of Jacobean and Restoration drama previously thought unperformable took place in the 20th century, the professional theatre took little notice of the drama of the late Georgian period though exceptions were made for the comedies of Sheridan and O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats. As a result, the late nineteenth century belief lingers that the plays were not worth reviving. The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey, however, set a trend by producing Arthur Murphy’s All in the Wrong in 1991 and following it with other Georgian plays including Holcroft’s The Road to Ruin (2003) and Baillie’s De Monfort (2008). The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, a restored Georgian theatre, has produced Douglas Jerrold’s Black Ey’d Susan (2007). Inchbald’s Wives as They Were, Maids as They Are (2008) and Holcroft’s He’s Much to Blame (2009). There have been recent productions of Schiller, for example, Maria Stuart at the National Theatre (1995) and the Donmar Warehouse (2005) and the Sheffield Crucible production of Don Carlos (2004). It is to be hoped that other companies follow in giving audiences the opportunity to experience the drama of this era, including Shelley’s.

  • 2 See Donald H. Reiman, ’Shelley’s Reputation Before 1960: A Sketch’, SPP, pp. 539-349.

13The Cenci, of course, is the most famous play from the period and was revived in the twentieth century, though the last large-scale production was 1959, a time when Shelley’s reputation as a poet was at its nadir.2 Now that he is again recognised as the great poet he is, there should be a prospect of his dramatic talent also being honoured by further productions of this play.

14Two of Shelley’s other completed plays, Hellas and Swellfoot the Tyrant, have not to my knowledge been performed on stage. They are both short, but they present more problems than The Cenci in being less wellknown and less conventional in style. The BBC radio production with Paul Daneman showed Hellas to be dramatically effective and it could be more so on stage with a similarly compelling actor as Mahmud and good singers and dancers. Swellfoot is more likely to be performed than it would have been fifty years ago since there is a greater availability of young actors trained in physical theatre and early twenty-first century audiences are more familiar with the historical background and, indeed, the prints. It could be coupled with a farce from the same period, another Shelley play, or even a play by Dario Fo whose style would not be incongruous and could even be considered a modern equivalent. However, both Hellas and Swellfoot present economic difficulties because of their large casts.

  • 3 Cox, ’The Dramatist’, p. 83.

15There have been productions of Prometheus Unbound, one of which is discussed by Cox.3 Much of Shelley’s scientific discussion is out-dated, however, and if few would have understood it in 1820, even fewer would now. Nevertheless, it may be possible to include a modern equivalent of the scientific data with the help of researchers. It would be a major project for a company to interpret Shelley’s mythological vision on stage, but one achievable given the multicultural nature of British theatre and its high skills of dancing and singing, and with a company having a sensitivity to Shelley’s original stage directions and a willingness to re-create them in a modern idiom.

16Among the uncompleted dramas, clearly Tasso and the Fragments of an Unfinished Drama would not be possible to perform as there is not enough available to tell a story. But the first act of Charles the First very clearly sets the scene of what was wrong with Charles’s rule and what was making his subjects wish to rebel. It could not be staged in the style of the late Georgian Covent Garden unless a Georgian theatre were used, though there are modern equivalent ways of achieving its stage effects. While a group of fine actors would show the quality of this piece, even with doubling the cast would be very large. Nevertheless, if what there is of this play were shown, its quality would be as much of a revelation to audiences and critics as was The Cenci when the Cassons performed in 1922. The shortness of the fragment, however, would require it to be performed with another piece. A double bill with Swellfoot might be an appropriate choice, since both plays, though in contrasting styles, deal with the misrule of a king and the rebellion of the subjects.

17With the publication of The Unfamiliar Shelley just as I was completing this study, it is clear that Shelley’s drama is beginning to be accepted by scholars, and that interest in Shelley’s work in all areas is increasing. I therefore believe that the theatre will not continue to ignore his drama, and the desire to investigate it more will be prompted by the coming publication of full and accessible texts from which performance texts can be made.


1 SPII, pp. 456, 462.

2 See Donald H. Reiman, ’Shelley’s Reputation Before 1960: A Sketch’, SPP, pp. 539-349.

3 Cox, ’The Dramatist’, p. 83.


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