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Popular Fiction in Performance: Gaskell, Collins and Stevenson on Stage

Wynne, Catherine


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Dr Catherine Wynne
Reader in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Visual Culture


Ken Gelder


‘In dramatising a novel, there are many advantages but many difficulties’, notes Bram Stoker, the theatre critic for Dublin’s Evening Mail, after viewing Wilkie Collins’s adaptation of The Woman in White (1860) at Dublin’s Theatre Royal in April 1872. One of these difficulties, Stoker suggests, is that the ‘same knowledge which the audience is supposed to have of the characters and the plot of the novel tends to make them hypercritical, and to look for the reproduction of every minute incident’. Collins himself thought that ‘with the set of characters which had become famous in his novel, and with the general plot of that novel, a play of absorbing interest might be written, but that it would be necessary to modify many of the details of the story’ (Wynne 2012, p. 29). This chapter takes its cue from Stoker’s 1872 observations by exploring the stage adaptations of three popular and ‘melodramatic’ Victorian novels. I shall first examine three adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel Mary Barton (1848), a tearjerker written from personal loss and designed to generate sympathy for the lower classes through the portrayal of industrial misery. The most famous of these is Dion Boucicault’s The Long Strike (first performed in 1866, a year after Gaskell’s death), although John Courtney’s adaptation for the Royal Victoria Theatre, Lambeth in 1851 and William Thompson Townsend’s adaptation for the Grecian Theatre in October 1861 are arguably more interesting. As outlined by Stoker, Wilkie Collins adapted his own sensation novel for the stage in 1871; but I shall next examine J.M. Ware’s adaptation for the Surrey Theatre in 1860, which rivals Collins’s later adaptation in its sensational detail. The American actor Richard Mansfield transported his sensational production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) to Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888, resulting in a furore that drew the actor into the hysteria surrounding the Ripper murders. This chapter will conclude with an examination of Irving’s son H.B. Irving’s 1910 adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde at the Queens Theatre. Through an exploration of the processes of adaptation and the stage performances of these generically different popular novels, I consider how each dramatic rendering manipulates the original text and how the varied ‘translations’ of these novels from page to stage extend our understanding of the function and operation of Victorian melodrama. These productions also reveal the varied workings of gender and class politics and provide an insight into the power structures of Victorian literary and theatrical culture.


Wynne, C. (2016). Popular Fiction in Performance: Gaskell, Collins and Stevenson on Stage. In K. Gelder (Ed.), New directions in popular fiction: Genre, distribution, reproduction (327-348). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Online Publication Date Nov 23, 2016
Publication Date 2016
Deposit Date May 17, 2019
Journal New Directions in Popular Fiction
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Pages 327-348
Book Title New directions in popular fiction: Genre, distribution, reproduction
ISBN 9781137523457; 9781137523464
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Publisher URL