From 1836 until his death, Bulwer wrote a series of historical five-act dramas, seven in all if one includes Darnley, published nine years after his death; his two contemporary comedies, Money(1840 and Not So Bad As We Seem; or, Many Sides to a Character(1851), anticipate the wit and sophistication of Shaw and Wilde. What prompted Bulwer to write for the stage in his own right rather than through adapters as Charles Dickens ultimately did was probably the theatrical piracies of his early novels, notably the Newgate novel Eugene Aram(1831). Before he actually wrote the novel, Bulwer had begun a dramatic sketch of his own novel, completing just two acts, which were published in the New Monthly Magazineprior to the novel's publication. Despite a warm popular reception, the critics, notably William Maginn (whom Bulwer had satirized in Paul Clifford), John Gibson Lockhart, and the Fraser's circle were hostile. Convinced he could beat the pirates at their own game, Bulwer decided to translate the idiom of the French Romantic drama to the London stage. If the five-act costume pieces The Duchess de la Vallière(1836), The Lady of Lyons (1838), and Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy (1839) lack Victor Hugo's poetic fire, they nevertheless capture the spirit of the senior Dumasí period pieces. Kaplan argues that one reason for the success of these plays was the editorial work of John Forster, who helped prepare what were essentially "closet dramas" for the real stage.

The success of The Lady of Lyons is harder to understand than that of Richelieu. The fate of snobbish Deschappelles, married off to the gardener's son whom her rejected suitors disguise as the Prince of Como, would seem entirely satisfactory but for his gratuitous refusal to claim her until he has achieved whirlwind promotion as a Napoleonic colonel. In Macready the play must have had a most unlikely hero, and its success is perhaps best attributed to its appeal (discreetly dressed in period costume) to the radical sentiments of the decade of the Reform Bill. [Rowell 51]

While most English playwrights of the 1830s and 1840s were badly remunerated (the average in the minor theatres was £20, that in the patent theatres £50), Bulwer was treated in a princely fashion by William Charles Macready, manager of Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839, and of Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843.

The Select Committee proceedings [investigating the state of theatre in the metropolis] of 1832 contain many complaints from playwrights of managers depriving them in various ways of a part or of the whole of fees legitimately earned. Macready testified that the amount a publisher would now offer for the copyright of a play had drastically declined from a high point thirty years before: '100 l. was a low price for a play then, but now frequently 10 l. is offered, and sometimes even that is considered a hazard.' In contrast . . . , the only dramatist to do at all well during the 1830s and 1840s was Bulwer-Lytton. Macready gave him £600 for Richelieu at Covent Garden in 1839 (after he had refused to accept any payment for The Lady of Lyons, and Webster £200 more for the rights to represent Richelieuin London (at the Haymarket) for three years. Bulwer-Lytton also received from Webster £600 for The Sea-Captain (1839) and £600 for Money (1840). Except for The Sea-Captainthese were all great successes. No other author could command either Bulwer-Lytton's literary prestige or his fees. [Booth 48]

Richelieu; or, The Conspiracy, staged at Covent Garden in 1839 with Macready himself in the eponymous role, was faster paced and more tightly plotted than either his first play, The Duchess de la ValliËre(Jan.,1837, at Covent Garden) or his second, The Lady of Lyons (Feb., 1838, at Covent Garden). Each of these is constructed around a powerful central character (a proud woman, a socially responsible youth, and a capricious but omniscient sage respectively). The Prospero-like manipulativeness and cunning deception of the protagonist made the male lead ofRichelieu irresistible to many of the nineteenth-century British theatre's male stars, especially Sir Henry Irving, who mounted four revivals.

For years a provincial repertory piece, W. T. Moncrieff's adaptation of Eugene Aram, first staged at the Surrey in 1832, was revised by H. G. Wills at the instigation of Irving, who staged the resulting play at the Lyceum in 1873. In contrast to his historical melodramas, Bulwer entered the 1840s with a comedy in a contemporary setting, Money. At the Haymarket eager audiences relished its ingenious plotting, crisp dialogue, and sharply developed characterization. This elegant Comedy of Manners in nineteenth-century dress had an all-star revival at Drury Lane in May, 1911, to celebrate the London visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II for the coronation of King George V.

References

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Booth, Michael R. "I. The Social and literary context." The Revels History of Drama in English, eds. Clifford Leech and T. W. Craik. London: Methuen, 1975.

"Bulwer-Lytton." http://lang.nagoya-u.ac.ip/~matsuoka/Bulwer-Lytton.html

Campbell, James L. Sr. Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Christensen, Allan C. Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Fiction of New Regions. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976.

Dahl, Curtis. "Bulwer-Lytton." Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research, ed. George H. Ford. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978. Pp. 28-33.

Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. "Bulwer-Lytton, Edward George Earle Lytton, First Lord Lytton (1803-1873)." Victorian Britain An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York: Garland, 1988. Page 103.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Ley, J. W. T. The Dickens Circle. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1918.

"Lytton (of Knebworth), Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron." Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/7/0,5716,50757+1,00.html


Victorian Overview

Last updated 20 December 2000