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'I almost dread to tell you': gothic melodrama and the aesthetic of silence in Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery.

On 25 April 1801, William Sotheby's Gothic tragedy Julian and Agnes opened at Drury Lane with an impressive cast: Sarah Siddons played Agnes, Countess of Tortona, John Philip Kemble was Julian, and William Barrymore--the original Osmond in Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Castle Spectre (1797)--appeared in the role of the Confessor. Yet even these giants of the contemporary stage could not counteract the powers of adverse fortune, and, on the first night, an unlucky incident interrupted the smooth flow of the action on stage. As Thomas Campbell recorded in his Life of Mrs Siddons (1834):
   In the course of its performance, Mrs. Siddons, as the heroine, had
   to make her exit from the scene with an infant in her arms. Having
   to retire precipitately, she inadvertently struck the baby's head
   violently against a door-post. Happily the little thing was made of
   wood, so that her doll's accident only produced a general laugh, in
   which the actress herself joined heartily. (1)

If the picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds' tragic muse laughing deserves commentary in itself, this anecdote even more emphatically highlights the transition from the emotional intensity of the tortured bodies and tormented minds of the Gothic to the sheer inanity of an unexpectedly ludicrous gesture. Obviously occasioned by a miscalculation on Siddons's part, this accident is perhaps one of the most enjoyable deflations of the aspirations to Gothic sublimity in the annals of the Romantic-period stage. In addition, it specifically points up the insecure balance on which the tonal, structural and generic economy of the Gothic play rests, in other words--its constitutive inclination to incorporate different formal and modal features (from comedy and tragedy, for instance), whether by mistake (as in this case), by accident or by design.

In addition, as this anecdote makes plain, an especially striking feature of stage Gothic, both as dramatic writing and in its theatrical realizations, is its wavering between spectacular manifestations that invite us to employ the label 'Gothic drama' or 'theatre', on the one hand, and its concurrent fragmentation and dispersal into different forms of stage entertainment, on the other. As Jeffrey Cox reminds us, 'the Gothic drama proper' must be located 'in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century [...] when it rose and fell as a major force on the London stage'. (2) Nonetheless, at the same time, there is a wealth of 'improper' manifestations of Gothic on stage that cannot be generically located with similar precision and that ground the many different possible approaches to, and definitions of, Gothic drama in current criticism. (3) In this respect, Jane Moody usefully observes that the 1790s in particular 'stand out as a decade during which, within a single play, dramatic genres seemed to intercut and clash against each other in unexpected and sometimes shocking ways'.4 And shocking they were indeed, as is demonstrated by the unease with which the The St James's Chronicle reviewed The Castle Spectre, dubbing it 'a drama of a mingled nature, Operatic, Comical and Tragical', or the fact that the theatre chronicler John Genest took notice of Francis North, the fourth Earl of Guilford's The Kentish Barons (staged in 1790) by defining it disapprovingly as a 'jumble of Tragedy, Comedy and Opera'.5

The issue of generic commingling and hybridization, part of that readjustment which invested the British stage at the end of the eighteenth century, was a staple feature of those forms of entertainment that gradually came to be known as melodramas. This denomination was only tentatively employed in the late eighteenth century, but came to be used with increasing consistency in the new century, especially after the production of the first officially named melo-drame, Thomas Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery, a translation/adaptation of a French original by Guilbert de Pixerecourt (Coelina, ou l'enfant du mystere), first staged on 13 November 1802 at Covent Garden. In his account of the English theatre, Genest aptly described Holcroft's work as the first of those 'Melo-drames, with which the stage was afterwards inundated'. (6)

As an interweaving of different generic and tonal modes, Romantic-period melodrama capitalised on explicitness and hyperbole, as well as on the materialization of ethics and sentiment through their incarnation and 'ostension'. Referring to what is perhaps the most basic of all theatrical devices, the latter term 'involves the showing of objects and events [...] to the audience, rather than describing, explaining or defining them'. (7) In other words, ostension designates the fundamental function of theatre as that of a plain and unmediated act of presentation. Aptly, as Peter Brooks suggests in his classic study, melodrama is dominated by 'The desire to express all', since, in it, 'Nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid', and characters 'utter the unspeakable' through 'totally expressive gestures and statements'. (8) Yet, apart from 'uttering the unspeakable', the peculiarity of melodrama also lies in that it promotes the obverse of this revelation, as Brooks makes clear when he remarks that 'the total expressivity assigned to gesture is related to the ineffability of what is to be expressed'. (9) Melodrama thus thrives on emotional surplus and the monumentalisation of physically translated sentiments, but simultaneously signifies through absence, silence, dematerialisation and dissolution. And it is this feature of melodrama in particular that offers an insight into one of the distinctive (and potentially defining) traits of the Gothic on stage--that combination of the hyperbolic and the unspoken which qualifies it as a dramaturgy and a theatre of silence, and one that is specifically deployed in three central areas of writing and performance. (10)

In the first place, at the level of rhetorical organisation, Gothic plays present a distinctively 'staccato' use of language that often takes the form of interrupted sentences and thus results in effects of syntactical unevenness. In addition, they present a frequent recourse to ellipsis or reticence, aposiopesis (unfinished sentences, suspension dots) and praeteritio (false silence). Secondly, at the level of characterisation and themes, Gothic plays often feature instances of aphasia and lack of communication. And thirdly, at the level of performance and acting styles, in line with Romantic-period theatre more generally, they tend to employ tableaux and pantomimical action in which voice is suspended and physical codes replace verbal language. Witness, for example, the moment in Act IV of Joanna Baillie's De Monfort (1798, first performed at Drury Lane on 29 April 1800), when the tormented protagonist shouts 'Come, madness! come unto me senseless death!' and then literally 'Runs furiously, and, dashing his head against the wall, falls upon the floor'. (11) Jointly, these various modes of staging the unsaid and the unspeakable cut across the various features typical of Gothic drama and theatre --their 'atmospherics', affective devices, linguistic and ideological components and delineate a crucially distinctive set of characteristics of stage Gothic.

Moreover, these modes of silence signify successfully because they are essentially transparent for the audience. They produce their theatrical and spectacular effects precisely because the audience possesses information about the action and the characters, even though, since it has not been explicitly revealed on stage, such information remains unspoken. When a character tells another 'I almost dread to tell you' and this reticence is reinforced by aposiopesis, the spectator in fact is already aware of the intolerably disturbing secret that is not being revealed. As a result, the mechanisms of expressiveness and silence seen above work through, yet also contribute to constructing, the specific spectatorial attitude required by this type of drama, one that is predicated upon the balance between knowing and not knowing generated by silence. These devices for the ostension of the unsaid delineate an audience reacting to the staged text through an act of decoding that is visibly suspended yet, in fact, has already taken place.

Although such mechanisms may be seen at work across the spectrum of Gothic dramaturgy and theatre, this tendency to dematerialisation and dissolution into silence is at its most spectacularly and dramatically crucial in Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery. According to the usually acerbic Genest this popular play was 'a very interesting piece' acted 'about 37 times', and it proved so successful that, in the preface to the second 1802 edition (significantly published with two etchings illustrating as many scenes), the author remarks with satisfaction that 'the applause bestowed by the Public on the following Piece' has been 'uncommon'. (12) The figure largely responsible for this success was Charles Farley (1771-1859), one of the great actors of the Romantic period, who appeared in the role of Francisco. A singer, chroreographer, dancer and playwright, he was one of Covent Garden's regulars and among the outstanding performers of melodramas in London's theatreland, and indeed the mastermind behind the staging of Holcroft's play. (13) His 'spectacular' acting skills were given ample commentary in a profile published by The British Stage in 1818, which specifically remarks that, 'in certain characters, in which noise and extravagant gesture are the sole requisites, he is so much more noisy, and so much more extravagant in his action than any other actor, that his claims to preeminence in this line are universally recognised'.14 Even more explicitly, this piece presents Farley as 'the principal accoucheur or bringer-forth of the innumerable melo-drames which are yearly produced at the classical Covent Garden Theatre, and the success of which he thus in a double manner promotes, both by his delectable performances before the curtain, and his judicious hints upon the subject of "scenery, machinery, dresses, and decorations," behind it'. (15)

If the character of the fiendish miller-bandit Grindoff from Isaac Pocock's The Miller and His Men (Covent Garden, 21 October 1813, acted 50 times) (16) was one of his most successful and best-loved roles, that of Francisco in A Tale of Mystery was also one of Farley's most widely praised performances, and was vividly captured by Samuel de Wilde in a theatrical portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803.

Aptly played by a multi-talented promoter of spectacular theatre, Francisco is the mainstay and pivot in Holcroft's Gothic melodramatic architecture precisely because he cannot speak. (17) The unfortunate man has been given shelter by the virtuous Bonamo, his son Stephano and his niece (the orphan heiress Selina), after he has been attacked by some banditti in the mountains. As events unfold, it becomes clear that the powerful Count Romaldi, who wants Selina to marry his son, is in fact Francisco's brother who, many years before, had tried to kill him in order to enjoy the graces of his bride-to-be and future sister-in-law. The villain had ordered his henchmen to kidnap Francisco and sell him to the Algerian pirates who then cut his tongue off so that he could not reveal what had happened. In the present, Romaldi is trying to marry his niece to his son and thus lay claim to his brother's wealth. In stark contrast with this typically intricate plotline, Francisco's inability to speak is the central textual and performative trope in the play, one that gave Farley much scope for his pantomimical abilities and his own elaboration of what Jane Moody terms 'the hyperbolic conventions of melodramatic acting'.18 Francisco is the crucial figure and trope in the play, in that he embodies the mystery of the title--a mystery which is one of those characteristically convoluted Gothic stories of intra-familial lust, hatred and greed, and yet is far from constituting the central enigma of the play as the conclusion reveals.

Since silence and the unspoken effectively sustain the plot from the outset, the mechanisms of suppression are already fully visible in Act I when Selina addresses her lover (and cousin) Stephano with the suspended revelation: 'I almost dread to tell you' (p. 3). In actual fact, her reticence merely lasts a few instants as she immediately exclaims 'Count Romaldi is coming', to which the young man replies 'Romaldi!' (Ibid.). Albeit potentially ridiculous in its alternation of silences and disclosures, this exchange importantly delineates a dramatic context in which saying amounts to not saying or, at least, not saying everything. For, even though Selina tells Stephano that the dreaded Romaldi is about to arrive, her words do not dispel the enigmatic aura surrounding this disturbing character, because, according to the rhetorical and performative codes of the unsaid, no amount of revelation can ever completely clear up mysteries. And this resistance to exposure emerges time and again in the play until the conclusion, where the audience, who during the entire play has known more than the characters, know if not less, and is not given the clues that would enable it to be one step ahead of the dramatis personae.

Francisco's first appearance on stage, the first ostension of his muteness, is predicated on a striking contrast between the maximum of display and disclosure typical of melodrama, and an equally characteristic suppression of language. Here, the suspicious Bonamo begins his questioning of the unfortunate man by telling him 'There is pen, ink, and paper: when you cannot answer by signs, write; but be strict to the truth', to which the poor man answers by pointing 'to heaven and his heart' (p. 8). In keeping with the staging conventions of melodrama, this dignified gesture is emphasized by appropriate music that was specially composed for the play by Thomas Busby, a respected figure in the London musical world whose name became associated with melodramatic accompaniments, such as that for Matthew Gregory Lewis's Rugantino, or the Bravo of Venice (Covent Garden, 18 October 1805), incidentally his only score of this kind to have survived. Similarly, the dialogue that follows Bonamo's injunction is also an intersection of language (further enhanced by the servant Fiametta's translations), mime and music, resulting in an increasingly tense approximation to the core of Francisco's secret that, however, never gives way to a fully satisfactory revelation:

Bona. Who are you?

(Francisco writes; and Stephano, standing behind him, takes up the paper and reads the answers.)

Fran. 'A noble Roman!'

Bona. Your family?--

Fran. (gives a sudden sign of Forbear! and writes) 'Must not be known.'

Bona. Why?

Fran. 'It is disgraced.'

Bona. By you?

Fran. (gesticulates.)

Fiam. (interpreting.) No, no, no!

Bona. Who made you dumb?

Fran. 'The Algerines.'

Bona. How came you in their power?

Fran. 'By treachery.'

Bona. Do you know the traitors?

Fran. (gesticulates.)

Fiam. (eagerly.) He does! he does!

Bona. Who are they?

Fran. 'The same who stabbed me among the rocks.' (A general expression of horror).

Bona. Name them.

Fran. (gesticulates violently, denoting painful recollection; then writes.) 'Never!'

Bona. Are they known by me?

Fiam. (interpreting) They are! They are!

Bona. Are they rich?

Fran. 'Rich and powerful.'

Bona. Astonishing! Your refusal to name them gives strange suspicions. I must know more: tell me all, or quit my house.

(Music to express pain and disorder.) (pp. 8-9)

With its effective alternation of curiosity and anguish, this passage emphasises feeling by making it hyperbolically present through music, mime and heightened acting. And if, on the one hand, this interrogation scene is peculiarly forensic, on the other, the fact that language is evidently elliptical, delivered in 'staccato' portions and interrupted or punctuated by the musical score hampers Bonamo's investigative process through the devices of suppression typical of the rhetoric of the unsaid. Silence looms large over, and conditions the results of, his attempt at uncovering the truth. (19)

The play expands this initial presentation of the conflict between the desire for knowledge and the opposing pull of the unsaid through further instances of the evasion of direct communication and revelation. In Act I, as Francisco prepares to leave Bonamo's house, he sits down to write a letter of farewell--a central moment in the play and the episode chosen by De Wilde to portray Farley as Francisco that should provide some sort of justification for his mysterious departure, but is in fact left unfinished as Romaldi and his henchman arrive in order to murder the poor man (p. 21). Later, when Romaldi is invited to leave ('the moment you appeared, terror was spread through my house', says Bonamo, p. 22), the villain utters a mysterious threat predicting dire consequences if Bonamo refuses to call off Selina's and Stephano's wedding the following day. In keeping with the rhetorical conventions of the unspoken, this threat is an elliptical 'To-morrow, before ten o'clock, send your written consent; or dread what shall be done' (p. 23). Moreover, Act I makes clear that Count Romaldi's identity is assumed and that his is a false name, although his real identity is not revealed. Finally, the entire first Act presents a consistently iterated use of interrupted or syncopated language, as in 'Rom. That--that is fortunate' (p. 13), and an especially emphatic recourse to aposiopesis as in 'Rom. [Alarmed.] Did he name -?' (Ibid.) or 'Rom. Let us retire and concert--/ Mal. Then, at midnight--/ Rom. When he sleeps -' (pp. 18-19). Since such elliptical utterances are regularly interwoven with pantomimical sections and the musical accompaniment, the economical deployment of spoken language that is constitutive of illegitimate theatre combines with the deep-seated tendency of Gothic dramaturgy to evoke a context dominated by a constantly impending silence.

Thus, the first act of Holcroft's play sets out the rules of the agon between disclosure and its obverse that is the core of its unsettling Gothic spectacle. And this accumulation and gradual intensification of techniques aimed at delaying revelation and dissolving communication into silence reaches its climax in the enigmatic conclusions. There, as we shall see, words are engulfed in a complex section of pantomimical action which, apart from two brief interventions by Francisco and Selina, extends right up to the fall of the curtain.

Although phenomenally popular with audiences, A Tale of Mystery was not universally praised by reviewers and, for instance, received short shrift from the Critical Review in a dismissively concise notice. (20) This response, however, was far from being generally representative. Indeed, the 'Theatrical Journal' section of The European Magazine, and London Review highlighted the spectacularity of the mise en scene, focusing on its 'pleasing mixture of novelty and interest, comprising incident, dialogue, music, dancing, and pantomime' that has received 'unanimous applause'. (21) The reviewer particularly singled out for praise Thomas Busby's music as 'admirably expressive of the various passing scenes' and in keeping with the 'finely picturesque' backdrops, as well as stressing the importance of dancing interludes and hornpipe tunes which 'gave a pleasing relief to the sombre hue of the rest of the piece'. (22) In a similar vein, the November issue of The Monthly Mirror focused on the composite nature of the spectacle in an attempt to illustrate the new category of the 'melodrame'. (23) It particularly praised the accuracy and technical proficiency of the decor ('The scenery is rich and romantic'), and especially the fact that 'The last scene in particular has a most striking effect; the trees are represented in actual motion from the storm'. (24)

Even more relevantly, The Monthly Mirror focused on the impact and function of mystery in the play, the presence of the unsaid and its dramaturgic representation, as well as the forensic overtones of the plot:
   The interest continues without interruption to the end. The mystery
   indeed is so far developed on the appearance of Romaldi, that we
   know the author of Francisco's misfortunes; but we are unacquainted
   with the motives which induced him to persecute, betray, and
   mutilate his unhappy brother. Nay, this discovery rather increases
   the mystery of the tale in representation, for we are the more
   anxious to learn the particulars of an event, the consequences of
   which have been so fatal to Francisco, and to watch the various
   circumstances which gradually lead to the detection and punishment
   of a wretch whose crime is so enormous that even its miserable
   victim refuses to name it. (25)

The reviewer examines the mechanisms at work in the play's treatment of mystery and its postponement of disclosure and simultaneously emphasizes the crucial function of the audience in the construction of the play's effects. Moreover, he goes on to observe that Francisco's refusal to name his brother's crime borders on the incredible, yet may also stem from a sense of pride:
   That a sense of family honour will prevail in great extremities,
   appears from the conduct of Francisco, the unhappy Tyrolese, now
   under sentence of death for firing a pistol at a tradesman in
   Lombard-street, who, if we may trust the newspapers, refused to
   mention the name of a brother who lives in high respectability in
   this city, and whose interference might possibly have been the
   means of saving him. (26)

With this unexpected reference to contemporary real-life events, the reviewer accentuates further the play's status as an enigmatic cultural document which loudly manifests emotion and promises revelation, yet in reality promotes ever-thickening mystery and the impossibility of a full exposure of facts. As The Monthly Mirror commentator confronts the question of the motives for Francisco's action, he directs readers from the mystery on stage to a mystery in a contemporary London courtroom. Indeed, in order to throw some light on one of several knots that remain unexplained and unexpressed in the text, the reviewer links it to an extra-textual enigma by connecting the mute Francisco to a real-life Francisco, alive in London in 1802 and one of the 'stars' of the Old Bailey reports in contemporary newspapers. Importantly, also this Francisco refuses to speak, thus denying reporters and a keenly curious public access to the whole truth. As a result, the fictional forensic situation of Bonamo's interrogation of Francisco opens up to the dimension of a real courtroom drama through an intersection between the stage and the outside world that is one of the defining features of illegitimate theatre. (27)

The mysterious crime of this Tyrolese 'Francisco' dated from 16 October, while the court hearing at the Old Bailey took place on 2 November (the play's opening night was on 13 November), and the following day The Times duly reported the court proceedings in an article entitled 'Firing a Pistol in Lombard-Street' which begins: 'A man, supposed to be a Tyrolese, and known only by the name of Francisco, was indicted for wilfully and maliciously firing a postol, loaded with powder and a leaden ball, at Richard Maryan, he being in his dwelling-house'. (28) The narrative that follows throws us back to a dark autumn evening in the City of London, when the mysterious defendant enters the tradesman's dimly-lit shop in order to rob him. The newspaper's account pointedly records events from the latter's point of view: 'He saw the Prisoner advance towards him [...] The Prisoner drew a pistol from his right breast, pointed it at the witness's body, and cried, "Your money"' (Ibid.). When a neighbour intervenes, 'Francisco' points his pistol at him and, as the shopkeeper steps forward to protect his friend, 'the pistol went off and missed him, but his face was much burnt' (Ibid.). The mysterious foreigner then runs away, but is soon surrounded by a crowd of people whom he threatens with his firearm until he is overpowered and secured.

After the depositions of several witnesses for the defence, it is the supposed Tyrolese's turn to speak. Interestingly, he wants to be tried by a jury composed 'solely by Englishmen', even though he cannot speak nor understand the language and needs the help of an interpreter 'who told the Prisoner in the French language what the Witnesses said' (Ibid.). Since 'Francisco' is effectively deprived of the power of speech, he is a mute just like the fictional Francisco, who has to rely on writing and Fiametta's translating skills to make himself understood. In his mediated and translated speech, the Tyrolese confesses his inability to communicate 'his wretched condition to anybody' on the grounds of his ignorance of the language, his being 'ashamed to beg' and his despair that drove him to try and 'put an end to his existence' (Ibid.), for which reason he had originally bought the pistol. His narrative therefore turns out to be a gloomy tale of immigration and extreme inner-city poverty: 'He had not eaten a morsel of food for two or three days' and 'had no lodging, and was obliged to shelter himself from the inclemency of the weather, within the walls of unfinished houses about the metropolis' (Ibid.). Even more importantly, he seems to harbour a secret, and certain aspects of his past and identity remain shrouded in mystery. He is described as 'twenty-seven years old', 'slender and of a middle stature', wearing 'an old shabby great coat', and yet 'in this mean and wretched attire there appeared some dignity in his countenance' (Ibid.). The reporter also focuses on his 'Roman face, with black hair, and large black eye-brows' (Ibid.), features which mark him out as foreign but also increase the impression of dignity of his overall appearance. Instead of providing further clues to revealing the identity of this desperate foreigner, his physical details actually intensify his enigmatic aura and suggest the possibility of a concealed identity, something that was not unusual at a time when figures such as the 'lady in the haystack' and Princess Caraboo regularly fired the public imagination. (29)

On the whole, the Times report throws up an intricate set of issues: the geographical provenance of the man in the reference to the Tyrol which, like Savoy in the play, is a frontier territory associated with outlaws and banditti; the question of naming and identity, further emphasised by the absence of a surname; the presence or absence of foreigners in the jury, compounded by the problem of mutual linguistic in/comprehension and the intervention of an interpreter; or the discourse and practice of social policing and, more specifically, the question of madness and its regulation, as 'Francisco' assures the court that, when he attacked the defendant, 'he was in a state of mental derangement' and, after being apprehended, he was made to wear 'a strait waistcoat' (Ibid.). From a textual perspective, moreover, the article throws into relief such issues as the stylistics of suspense in proto-crime writing and the narrative incidence of shifting points of view, while thematically it displays the atmospheres and incidents typical of urban Gothic d la Caleb Williams, the topos of secret identity, the (implicit) theme of the dignified (or even privileged) past existence of some unfortunate who has come down in the world, the forensic situation and the (typically Romantic) theme of derangement and potential suicide.

In this perspective, the comparison drawn by the Monthly Mirror reviewer between Holcroft's play and the courtroom case is far from being merely based on the coincidence of the name. Both are 'tales of mystery' of a kind, and both function through comparable structural devices. In point of fact, the article features the very crescendo of intensity and pathos tending to a final and potentially complete disclosure typical of melodrama. In addition, the pathos and suspense setting the pace for the gradual unfolding of the mystery are compounded by the fact that 'Francisco' does not actually tell his own story. It is his Counsel that reads a document (in English) containing his 'address' (Ibid.). Like the fictional Francisco's letter, the defendant's document promises to be a full declaration, an apparently complete revelation. Yet, as with Francisco's letter, it is not so at all, and instead functions as another vehicle for the unspoken. To be sure, the narrative in the article is also based on suspense and lack of closure, and thus does not throw any satisfactory light on the man's past and identity, the eventual verdict of death or his impassive reaction to it. It does not deliver the final truth about 'Francisco' and, by this token, it eludes the last step in the forensic protocol, the complete and unimpeded communication of truth. Finally, as the Monthly Mirror indicates, there is the added enigma of the mysterious personage whose identity 'Francisco' seems to be stubbornly protecting by adopting an attitude of muteness that will send him straight to the gallows.

If the courtroom scene at the Old Bailey intriguingly mirrors the web of mysteries in Holcroft's play, it also points to a contemporary fascination with the stage of justice and its parallels with the theatrical stage. As Elaine Hadley usefully remarks, many melodramas of the period 'include courtroom scenes [...] with characters fulfilling the roles of witnesses, examiners, and judges'. (30) Once again, this feature may be read as another manifestation of the tendency of melodrama to appropriate and import offstage reality into its dramatic and theatrical texture. But, whereas Hadley suggests that such scenes, usually found in the conclusion of these plays, ensure that a 'secret self' is revealed and becomes 'a public reputation--visible, audible, and susceptible to communal judgment', in actual fact both Holcroft's play and the tale of 'Francisco' defer and indeed deny any satisfactory disclosure of mystery. (31) Instead, A Tale of Mystery and its courtroom parallel emphasize the seemingly self-renewing suppression of communication and potentially endless proliferation of silence. In the play, in particular, suspense is an effect of a broader attempt continuously to deflect revelation and delay disclosure. If, as Jane Moody correctly observes, 'Pantomime and melodrama invested that which is seen and made visible with a moral power which far outweighed that of words', at the same time melodrama--and Gothic melodrama in particular functions through the multiplication of the inexpressible, the unrevealed. (32) And, in the paradigmatic instance of Holcroft's work, the stage value of silence and suppression that 'resists spectators' desire for moral judgments' becomes fully visible in the conclusion. (33)

Pursued by archers who embody the forces and processes of social policing, Romaldi finds shelter with the good miller Michelli who, nevertheless, is a friend of Francisco and soon grows suspicious of the mysterious fugitive whose right hand bears a scar similar to that which identifies the criminal wanted by justice. When Francisco and Selina (who has been discovered to be the poor mute's daughter) arrive on the scene looking for their brother/uncle, Romaldi has already escaped for fear of being apprehended. What follows is a long section of mimed action, in which the villain threatens Francisco with a pistol, while the mute 'opens his breast for him to shoot if he pleases' and 'Selina falls between them' to stop her uncle from killing her father. As a stage direction interestingly stresses, 'The whole scene passes in a mysterious and rapid manner (p. 49). Thus, if on the one hand the scene maximizes the declarative and clarifying nature of the pantomimical gestures, on the other, by intensifying the tempo of the action, it seeks to prevent or at least complicate the audience's full understanding of it.

The frantic action on stage continues as Romaldi throws his pistol down, looks desperately for an escape but is stopped by an archer. The villain defeats his opponent but is again 'met by several Archers' (p. 50). Francisco and Selina interpose their bodies several times, until Romaldi slips and falls 'and Francisco intervenes to guard his body (Ibid?). The mounting tension, increasingly hyperbolic gestures and intense musical accompaniment eventually reach a point of suspension when the archers surround Romaldi and appear 'prepared to shoot, and strike with their sabres' (Ibid). The last words in the play, aptly not part of a dialogue but rather free-standing invocations, are reserved to Francisco and Selina:
   Sel. Oh, forbear! Let my father's virtues plead for my uncle's
   errors! Bon. We all will entreat for mercy; since of mercy we all
   have need: for his sake, and for our own, may it be freely granted!
   (pp. 50-1)

Thereafter, 'The Curtain falls to slow and solemn music (p. 51). Ending with a tableau in stark contrast with the franticness of the previous moments, the final scene does not offer any solution to the interlocked succession of mysteries that sustains Holcroft's play. Indeed, the frozen action of the tableau is another device aiming to that suspension of comprehension which dominates the play and, I would like to argue, constitutes the core of its Gothic textuality. (34) Set in the inhospitable mountains, away from the social contexts of the previous sections, the final scene is completely unconnected with earlier parts of the play. Bonamo and his household have disappeared, and so has the virtuous miller Michelli. The marriage plot is forgotten and both Stephano and the figure of Romaldi's son have vanished from sight. The conclusion solely retains the central triangle of Selina (l'enfant du mystere in Pixerecourt's original), her father and uncle, surrounded by the representatives of power and order, in a state of extreme suspension. Selina and Franisco implore for mercy, yet the effect of their invocation is neither visible nor predictable.

As Holcroft's text continues to invest in the unsaid right up to its conclusion and the extreme consequences of its plot, it is possible to suggest that the Gothicness of this play does not merely reside in its themes, appurtenances, atmospherics or dramatis personae. More effectively, it lies in its linguistic and rhetorical effects, its structural devices of deferral and intensification, as well as its rejection of closure and disclosure. Seen through the lens of melodrama as one of its main realisations, Gothic on stage emerges as the mise en scene of something that cannot be revealed, a theatre of reticence that investigates the unspeakable and the unspoken. It is the unsettling effect of not knowing and thus being thrown into the chaotically mutable universe that sustains this Gothic play from beginning to end. And this tension between the text's inbuilt drive to revelation (its placing the audience in a 'knowing' situation) and concurrent resistance to it may be seen to characterize, in a variety of different forms, other manifestations of stage Gothic.

In point of fact, the unspoken as a theme and an aesthetic code accompanies the emergence and development of stage Gothic from its inception, since the presence of an unspoken, unknowable mystery lies at the heart of Horace Walpole's The Mysterious Mother (1768), which revolves around the Countess of Narbonne's suppressed secret. The same holds true for Lewis's Castle Spectre with its silenced female ghost and her attempts at communicating with the persecuted heroine Angela; Joanna Baillie's De Monfort and its protagonist's speechless torment; Isaac Pocock's Miller and his Men and William Dimond's The Foundling of the Forest (1809) with its central, enigmatic figure of an 'Unknown Female'; or John Howard Payne's 1823 Clari, the Maid of Milan where the revelation of Clari's past is continuously deferred, yet also constantly emphasized, by the teasing reprise of the girl's song, the enormously popular 'Home Sweet Home'. In different ways and for varying purposes, these plays establish complex dramatic and theatrical designs interweaving knowledge and revelation, on the one hand, and resistance to exposure, on the other. In this perspective, they all potentially lend themselves to an examination of the rhetorical and performative codes of absence, silence, dematerialization and dissolution seen at work in Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery.

In his pioneering 1947 study of Gothic drama, Bertrand Evans drew attention to the year 1800 as marking 'perhaps the most confused period in the history of the English stage', a turbulent, transitional year in which 'New impulses were coming and going in every direction', and that consequently make it difficult to track the course of Gothic dramaturgy. (35) In particular, he observes that 'a new source of confusion had arisen with the importation of the melodrama from France', and once again Holcroft's 1802 A Tale of Mystery plays a central role in Evans's attempt to adjust his historiographic and generic narrative to this rapidly mutating panorama. (36) Moreover, as this critic furthers complicates his account by discussing the debts of Pixerecourt's melodrames towards English Gothic fiction, the intersection between melodrama and stage Gothic emerges as an especially challenging turning point, yet also one that unavoidably demands critical interpretation. Nevertheless, from the perspectives opened up by Thomas Holcroft's Tale of Mystery, this intersection does not so much confuse the fairly straightforward developmental narrative of Gothic on stage, but rather sheds some useful light on one of its constitutive features and the grounds for its resilience and persistence.

Illuminating staged Gothic from the point when it becomes visibly and indissolubly enmeshed with melodrama, A Tale of Mystery and its continuously deferred revelation and ostension of the unsaid amount to a macroscopic investment in an aesthetic of silence that is central to a definition of Gothic on stage, its dramatic and theatrical mechanisms, its diffusion and re-emergence within a variety of hybrid forms. This specific relevance of Holcroft's text is further emphasized by its parallel with the real-life tale of the Tyrolese 'Francisco' which deepens the play's affective potential by making the text and its performances resonate with broader cultural suggestions. Through the lens of Holcroft's text, Gothic on stage appears to be predicated on an endlessly productive oscillation between silence and expression that also constitutes one of its most effective means of endurance and propagation in Romantic-period drama and theatre. 10.7227/GS.14.1.9

Diego Saglia Universita di Parma, Italia

Address for Correspondence

Prof. Diego Saglia, Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere, Universita degli Studi di Parma, Viale S. Michele 9, Parma 43100 Italy. Email:


(1) Thomas Campbell, Life of Mrs Siddons, 2 vols (London, Effingham Wilson, 1834), II, pp. 260-1. See also Mary Russell Mitford's own account of this incident in her letter to Elizabeth Barrett of 2 March 1842, in The Life of Mary Russell Mitford, Related in a Selection of Her Letters to Her Friends, ed. A. G. L'Estrange, 3 vols (London, Richard Bentley, 1870), III, pp. 139-40.

(2) Jeffrey N. Cox, 'English Gothic Theatre', in Jerrold E. Hogle (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002) p. 125.

(3) See, among others, Jeffrey Cox's definition of Gothic drama as 'the dramatic form for the revolutionary years of the 1790s' with another peak at 'the fall of Napoleon', in the introduction to Seven Gothic Dramas 1789-1825 (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1992), pp. 5, 8; Paula Backscheider's insistence on the thematic and ideological features of Gothic drama, which 'reached its creative and popular peak at a time when a number of political orders were being renegotiated and being complicated by almost unprecedented national an international crises', in Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 149; and the stress on effects, atmospherics and audience response in Paul Ranger, 'Terror and Pity Reign in Every Breast': Gothic Drama in the London Patent Theatres, 1750-1820 (London, The Society for Theatre Research, 1991) and Francesca Saggini, in her essay '"A Stage of Tears and Terror": il teatro (gotico) inglese di fine Settecento', in Diego Saglia and Giovanna Silvani (ed.), Il teatro della paura: scenarigotici del romanticismo europeo (Rome, Bulzoni, 2005), pp. 61-76.

(4) 'The Theatrical Revolution, 1776-1843', in Peter Thomson (gen. ed.), The Cambridge History of British Theatre, 3 vols, vol. II: 1660 to 1895, ed. Joseph Donohue (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 210.

(5) See Paul Ranger, 'Terror and Pity Reign in Every Breast', p. 1, and John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage, 10 vols (Bath, H. E. Carrington, 1832), VII, p. 38.

(6) Ibid., VII, p. 579. For a valuable introduction to Holcroft, melodrama and A Tale of Mystery (also in relation to its French original), see Diane Long Hoeveler, 'The Temple of Morality: Thomas Holcroft and the Swerve of Melodrama', European Romantic Review 14 (2003), pp. 49-63.

(7) Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London, Methuen, 1980), p. 26.

(8) Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1995 [1976]), p. 4.

(9) Ibid., p. 11. As Jane Moody also observes in Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), we are specifically dealing with a 'displacement of language' affected by 'skeletal thinness and scarcity' that converges into the subgenre's distinctive investment in 'corporeal dramaturgy' (p. 87).

(10) On the intersections between Gothic and the melodrama, see Bertrand Evans, Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1947), pp. 162-76, Michael R. Booth, English Melodrama (London, H. Jenkins, 1965), pp. 68-9, Paula Backscheider, Spectacular Politics, p. 174, and, for an interpretation that tends to separate them, Hoeveler, 'Temple of Morality', p. 54.

(11) Joanna Baillie, Plays on the Passions, ed. Peter Duthie (Peterborough, Broadview, 2001), p. 371.

(12) John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage, VII, pp. 578, 579. Thomas Holcroft, A Tale of Mystery, a melo-drame; as performed at the Theatre-Royal Covent-Garden, second edition, with etchings after designs by Tresham (London, 1802), n. p. (all further references, by page number, are in brackets after the text).

(13) The Monthly Mirror, 14 (November 1802), p. 342.

(14) The British Stage, and Literary Cabinet, 2 (July 1818), p. 145. On 'melodramatic acting', see Michael R. Booth, English Melodrama, pp. 190-210.

(15) The British Stage, and Literary Cabinet, 2 (July 1818), p. 145.

(16) John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage, VIII, p. 416.

(17) On the dumbshow, the popularity of mute characters on the Romantic-period stage and the seminal importnce of Holcroft's Francisco, see Michael R. Booth, Melodrama, pp. 69-72.

(18) Illegitimate Theatre in London, p. 80.

(19) Elaine Hadley remarks that 'In contrast to pantomime [...] the physcal gestures of melodrama are granted the expressiveness and clear intention of voice and therefore are nearly as communicative and interpretable as vocal languge' (Melodramatic Tactics; Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 72). However, this suggestion and the observation that melodrama 'attempts to turn all gesture into rational discourse' (p. 73) may not be applied to Holcroft's play and, more generally, a stage Gothic characterized by the ultimate impossibility of expression and revelation.

(20) 36 (December 1802), p. 477.

(21) 42 (November 1802), p. 378.

(22) Ibid.

(23) 14 (November 1802), p. 338.

(24) Ibid., p. 342.

(25) Ibid., p. 341.

(26) Ibid., p. 342.

(27) See Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics, pp. 30-33, and Jane Moody, Illegitimate Theatre in London, pp. 80-1.

(28) The Times (3 November 1802), p. 3. All further references are indicated in brackets in the text.

(29) For the 'lady in the haystack', see Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 54-55. On Princess Caraboo, see Jennifer Raison and Michael Goldie, The Servant Girl Princess: Caraboo (Moreton-in-Marsh, Windrush Press, 1994).

(30) Melodramatic Tactics, p. 75.

(31) Ibid.

(32) Illegitimate Theatre in London, p. 88.

(33) Ibid., p. 91.

(34) On the Romantic-period use of the theatrical tableau, see K. G. Holmstrom, Monodrama, Attitudes, Tableaux Vivants: Studies on Some Trends of Theatrical Fashion 1770-1815 (Uppsala, Stockholm, Almqvist & Wiksell, 1967) and, more recently, Greg Kucich, 'Joanna Baillie and the Re-Staging of History and Gender', in Thomas C. Crochunis (ed.), Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays (London and New York, Routledge, 2004), pp. 108-29.

(35) Evans, Gothic Drama, p. 162.

(36) Ibid.
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Date:May 1, 2012
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