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STAGE ADAPTATIONS

by Catherine Haill, V & A


Piracy was rife on the high seas of the early 19th century stage, a theatrical practice as well as a favourite topic for melodrama. It was common practice to dramatise works without the original authors' permission, often without credit in the playbills. Proven literary hits such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Lady Audley's Secret and East Lynne guaranteed full houses, and successful novels, poems and songs were considered fair game for adaptation, along with fairy tales, myths and legends. Some theatres even copied plays from rival establishments, using scripts scribbled by penmen during performances. Other plays were translations, especially from French, and many French plays in the early days of the Pavilion Theatre came hotfoot to Whitechapel from the Porte St. Martin Theatre, Paris.

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Authors had no copyright protection from unauthorised dramatisation in the early 19th century. The Copyright Act of 1710 limited the rights of printing a work to its author and `his assigns', but did not address stage piracy, which happened fast. Plays were staged speedily - many

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were never printed, and theatres including the Britannia employed copyists to write the actors' parts from the original manuscript. Playwrights gained a `use' right on each public performance in 1833, a right extended to composers in 1842, but plays were often produced without informing them. As late as 1872 George Augustus Sala described the playwright as `a mysterious individual in spectacles' who:

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.......eagerly scrutinises the pile of country play-bills, in the hope of discovering among them some theatre at which one of his plays has lately been performed, and on which he can be `down' for half a crown an act for each representation.'

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An evening at the theatre in the early 19th century comprised two or three plays, sometimes interspersed with song, dance, or acrobatics. The programme changed almost nightly, and the managers' appetite for dramatic fodder was correspondingly voracious. Most were more interested in the quantity of scripts rather than the quality. A host of prolific plundering playwrights rose to the challenge, including Edward Fitzball (who adapted novels by such authors as Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper) Mrs. Henry Denvil, the multi-tasking actress wife of the Pavilion's manager and a regular source of their scripts in the 1840s and 1850s, and Colin Hazlewood, house dramatist at the Britannia in the 1860s and 1870s.

Novels were occasionally dramatised by their authors including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but usually by others with little regard for nuances of text. Adaptations butchered plots mercilessly, concentrated on moments of high drama, and went down famously in the East End where a large proportion of the audience was illiterate and could not have read the originals. Even the literate East Ender was unlikely to have read them; libraries charged subscriptions, and novels were published in three volumes to maximise profit. Some novels were initially serialised in magazines, and Dickens' Oliver Twist, serialised monthly from February 1837 to April 1839, was staged at the Pavilion Theatre in May 1838, even before its serialisation finished.

Dickens, who frequently suffered from unauthorised dramatisation, satirised the contemporary practice of staging un-attributed translations in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, serialised in 1838 and 1839. The theatre manager Mr Crummles presented Nicholas with a French play:

`There! Just turn that into English, and put your name on the title-page. Damn me,' said Mr Crummles, angrily, `if I haven't often said that I wouldn't have a man or woman in my company that wasn't master of the language, so that they might learn it from the original, and play it in English, and save all this trouble and expense.'


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Subject Terms: Stage adaptations,
Keyword Terms: Adapted,Adaptations,Translated,

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