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The Corsican trap: its mechanism and reception.

In 1852, Charles Kean commissioned Dion Boucicault to adapt Les Freres Corses (1) for the English stage. Boucicault took the 1850 Parisian version, adapted it into The Corsican Brothers and under the direction of Charles Kean, who also played both leads, the play opened on 24 February at Kean's Princess's Theatre (Era 29 February 1852).

The play is a revenge tale about twin brothers who share a psychic link. Split into three acts, the first two acts take place chronologically at the same time and lead to the one brother's death and his ghostly appearance to the other. The third act leads to the surviving brother's revenge. As a melodrama, the time discrepancy in the play is interesting as is the premise of the ghosts and the way the action plays out. The play should have been no better received than its French counterpart, but due to the staging of Kean's production, it was to become immensely popular.

One month after opening at the Princess, The Corsican Brothers was running in five other London Houses (Era 21 March 1852), by April it had reached the Adelphi in Edinburgh (Era 4 April 1852) and the next week it opened in the Queen's Royal Theatre in Dublin. In Kean's eight year tenancy at the Princess, it was performed two hundred and thirty six times (Wilmore 114). It was also popular with the royal family: Queen Victoria had visited the play several times and Prince Albert commissioned Edward Corbold to paint a scene of The Corsican Brothers "as performed at the Princess Theatre, and embracing portraits of all the principal performers" (Caledonian Mercury 12 April 1852). An insight into the popularity of the play can be found in the Era newspaper, ten years after Kean's first production:

The Corsican Brothers, with a freshness of invention, a well-constructed plot, and an admirably contrived ghost movement, at once seized the attention of the audience, and has not palled on the popular taste. (Era 23 February 1862)

The "admirably contrived ghost movement" referred to was the result of a device called a "glide trap", also known as "the Corsican trap". The first 1852 review said that the ghost was "astonishingly contrived" in the play:

First the head was seen, and then, as it slowly ascended higher and higher, the figure advanced, increasing in stature as it neared him, and the profound silence of the audience denoted how wrapt was their attention. Melodramatic effect was never more perfectly produced. (Era 29 February 1852)

The article remains for the most part, non committal about the worth of the rest of the play, describing the dialogue as "unexceptional". A rival newspaper, however, said that it was "artistically neat in execution--terse, if not brilliant, in dialogue" (Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper 29 February 1852).

As it turned out the cause of the play's popularity was not the script, but the trap: as the play opened about London and the rest of the country, the trap went with it, provincial theatres installing it as part of their wood stage systems. When the play was revived in the years following its initial success, such as at the New Theatre in Nottingham, the draw for the audience was the "Corsican trap and other machinery" (Era 3 December 1854) and not the play itself. What is interesting about this is not the mere contrivance of a ghost upon the stage in a melodrama, but that the device itself was seen as essential to the production, as if the play was incomplete without the machinery.

The glide trap is as much a part of The Corsican Brothers as the main characters Fabien and Louis dei Franchi are; from the first night it was staged the trap has become, as it were, part of the text of this play. This can be demonstrated in two late twentieth-century collections of Victorian plays. Michael R. Booth based his 1969 text of The Corsican Brothers on Charles Kean's promptbook from the Harvard Theatre Collection "collated with the Lord Chamberlain's copy" (Booth 30) and his version of the end of act one when the glide trap is first used is "LOUIS DEI FRANCHI has gradually appeared rising through the floor, in his shirt sleeves, with blood upon his breast" (Booth 30). In 1976 J. L. Smith, editing a similar collection of plays from the same period chose a different approach in which, he claimed, the errors of the source text were "silently amended and the meagre stage directions amplified" (Smith 144). In his version the stage direction is rather more embellished: "Louis dei Franchi appears, without his coat or waistcoat, as his brother is, but with a blood stain upon his breast; he glides across the stage, ascending gradually, through the floor at the same time" (Smith 157). The chronological gap of less than ten years is sufficient to reinstate the glide trap as part of the text of the play itself, "amplified" as part of the stage directions.

So in just the same way that the base text of a play shifts in accordance with language changes, so too do the stage directions in accordance with changes in stage language. The device has been elevated to the level of written text through the revisions of the stage directions. These revisions suggest that the device requires a type of textual clarification, but is not strictly part of the stage text. Evidence for this can be found in the remnants of such devices installed in theatres for productions running until as late as 1863 (Wilmore 114), accounts from the sumptuous 1880 revival production by Henry Irving (Stoker 161), and the recent installation of the Corsican trap into the refurbished Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man. The success of the play was due to the effect that the glide trap had on the audience; a production of The Corsican Brothers without the trap meant the chance of losing money.

Most people with an interest in nineteenth-century theatre will have heard of the Corsican trap and may know what it looks like. The glide trap is located running across the full width of the stage, visible from above as a strip of closely set wooden laths perpendicular to the stage front; this strip is called the scruto. To an audience member, sitting in the stalls of the auditorium, the actor's head would appear at the extremity of view stage right and travel across the stage until the actor was fully revealed stage left; the actor remaining physically still upon a moving platform, would have produced a gliding, traversing and ascending effect (see figure 1). These are key elements in the success of the Corsican Trap. Other existing stage devices, older and contemporary to the Corsican trap, are very often associated with a very different type of theatre than that for which the Corsican trap was designed. The Corsican Brothers was a melodrama, a type of theatre that experimented with the beginnings of naturalistic performance and staging. To use a daemon trap to create the same effect as the glide trap would be problematic. A daemon or piston trap is a counterweighted device that is often used to deliver an actor swiftly onto stage. The trap provides rapid vertical access to the stage area from the sub-stage machine room by means of a counterweight system. If the counterweight was heavily overloaded, the performer could spring from out of the trap in an acrobatic manner (Fitzgerald 57), performing spectacular stunts and tumbles. (2) The association of the daemon trap with pantomime (Wilmore 140) is too inescapable to produce the effect needed in The Corsican Brothers; the ghost could be delivered by a daemon trap but only at the risk of evoking comedie or pantomimic echoes. The slow speed of delivery is crucial in creating the uncanny effect desired with the entry of the ghost: an audience familiar with the speedy tumbling entrances associated with the daemon trap might well find a ghost rising slowly straight up from beneath the stage comical.

Crucially, the Corsican trap also allows the figure to traverse the stage, which is something that the daemon trap does not. The same problem exists with bridge traps and grave traps which were basically wider versions of daemon traps that worked on a similar ascension principle (Fitzgerald 89). The bridge trap which runs the full width of the stage could allow travel, but not without the actor walking towards his double along an un-masked stage-wide hole, thus compromising the dramatic strength of his supernatural entrance. Crossing the stage denotes travelling or gliding, a progression of movement from one thing towards something else and such a movement has its own connotations: travelling from death, from another place, from Paris, to the stage, to the drawing room, to the brother. The glide trap allows this movement to appear to be unnatural and uncanny.

There is another device that could be used to make an actor travel onto stage: flying them in from the fly-tower or above stage from the wings and moving them across stage on ropes is a very old stage effect. A device similar to the Greek aeorema (4) would have been familiar to the audience that attended the British theatre in the mid-nineteenth century, it having been used in European and British theatres throughout at least the previous three hundred years (Mohler. Web. 20 July 2010; Rosenfeld 7, 9). The device was used to represent the entrance of a god into the mortal realm of humans, but this device in its familiarity would have a similar effect to the daemon trap. The crane facilitating the descent of a god onto stage may also be able to affect a traverse of the stage, (5) but as the ghost produced in this fashion would descend from the heavens it would function as, literally, a deus ex machina rather than as a ghost. The distinction between descending and ascending is very important to an audience patron of English drama as familiar with the modern melodramas as with the classics of Shakespeare and Sophocles; classical depictions of heaven and hell reinforce this.

The Corsican trap is therefore necessarily different from the previous stage devices: it must traverse to travel towards the brother, it must rise from the underworld, and so the ghost must enter by traversing and ascending at the same time. This is something new to an audience of 1852, it is read by an audience as something novel, and it becomes familiar as an image of a ghost. Just as the deus ex machina descends and the daemon rises, the ghost glides.

In a melodrama such as The Corsican Brothers, the early literary and scenographic explorations into naturalism and realism were of paramount concern (Szondi 45-60). Stage sets were becoming more "real" and believable and the effective masking of a stage device was becoming increasingly important (Fitzgerald 8,18). The hole through which the actor rises cannot be a large gap which opens in the stage as is used for daemon, bridge and grave traps. The glide trap has to run the length of the stage, like the bridge trap, but the opening left by a trap the width of the stage is not ultimately going to be filled by the platform the actor is going to stand upon so there are two options: leave the trap open along its entirety and mask it with downstage sloats, or keep the opening covered entirely with a section of articulated wood similar to the shuttered opening of a roll-top desk called the scruto. This causes perhaps the greatest problem presented by the Corsican trap: wing space was hardly ever wide enough to accommodate the full length of scruto so it was wound onto a windlass (Wilmore 115). The methods used to produce such a device as the glide trap could not be revealed to the audience lest the entire effect was spoiled in an instant. Therefore the scruto opening must traverse the stage at the same time as the platform carrying the actor rises and in perfect synchronicity or the hapless actor would be decapitated.

Fitzgerald describes the glide trap and its workings in detail in Hie World Behind the Scenes:

[W]e see around us a bewildering miscellany of ropes and wheels; it is like the 'tween decks of a vessel. At the extreme end on the left side begins an inclined plane of two ledges or rails, starting from the ground and stretching at a gentle slope to the opposite side. A level circular stand is inserted at the bottom between the ledges, and on this the Corsican brother, or his double ... take their stand. Overhead there is an oval opening sufficient to let a figure pass through, the edges of which are lined with black bristles or brushes, which make the opening, as it were, fit close to the figure. (Fitzgerald 47)

The strip of scruto is wound around a large drum in the machine room stage right, it passes along a groove cut into the width of the stage and is wound onto another drum stage left, as the magnetic tape in a audio or video cassette is wound. The stage left drum is turned by a rope which unwinds from the drum onto a windlass under the centre of the stage; it is this same windlass that also drags the actor's platform up the rails from under stage right to stage left, at stage level. The main problem is the synchronising of the scruto with the travelling platform: David Wilmore points out that the distance travelled by the actor's platform and the distance travelled by the scruto is not the same and to overcome this challenge is problematic (Wilmore 115). It is likely that the problem was merely averted by constant vigilance and the re-setting of the device, as it seems that throughout the life of the trap, the problem was never overcome fully and the synchronised running of scruto and platform were always problematic. Sir John Martin-Harvey recounted in his autobiography that in his 1915 revival of The Corsican Brothers: "On one occasion the sliding platform through which my body--Louis' body--was rising, out ran the ascending platform upon which I stood, and I was in danger of being slowly decapitated" (Harvey 375).

Harvey's revival was to be one of the last touring revivals of The Corsican Brothers, theatres and their machinery often being left to rot in the dark in the post-Second World War years. Even so, Harvey's revival and his experience with the trap reveals an interesting phenomenon: the staging of the ghost in The Corsican Brothers resolutely sticks with the trap to provide its apparition even though the popularity of the device waned in the eyes of the critics during living's revival some forty years earlier:

We have improved in stage ghosts since 1852, and there is no reason why the Lyceum spectre should be that of the Princess's: effective then but dangerous now. And why should a ghost come up facing the audience in this stiff and stilted fashion? Is there any reason why he should not be a pathetic and pleading ghost, advancing with outstretched arms towards the brother, or introduced coming gradually along from the back of the enormous stage? Limelight and Magic Lanterns, and professors Maskelyne and Pepper, can give us better than these. (Scott 239)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

It took thirty years from Kean's initial staging for the unquestioned popularity of the device to diminish. It is no longer a ghost that is "astonishingly contrived" (Era 29 February 1852), but, presumably because it now courts tedium with its familiarity, it is seen as risibly archaic. Moreover, the Corsican trap was now seen as technically or possibly aesthetically "dangerous". Scott's review instead proposes Professor Pepper, a scientist of the Royal Academy, and Maskelyne, a stage magician of some renown, as alternatives. I suspect that in Maskelyne's case the comment may be meant as facetious: Mr John Neville Maskelyne of the Egyptian Hall was well noted for his debunking of spiritualists and exposes of seances and spirit manifestations. Maskelyne would stand before the audience in front of the curtain and announce that the performance the audience was about to witness "was entirely based upon deception, but a deception of a kind not easily detected" (Era 9 April 1873) and then would proceed to perform his act upon a well-lit stage which was as one critic, amusing in his naivety, puts it: "richly carpeted, so that the illusion cannot possibly be assisted by means of traps and operators concealed beneath" (Pall Mall Gazette 20 November 1873). This was still Maskelyne's act at the time of Scott's criticism of the Corsican trap--an act predicated upon the idea that it is all trickery and yet never revealing said tricks. The carpeted stage could of course have concealed traps and operators, rather better in fact than a bare wood stage, which leads me to believe that Maskelyne is not proposed as a serious alternative to the Corsican trap. Pepper is a different matter however.

In 1863, Mr. J. Henry Pepper, then director of The Royal Polytechnic Institute, and Mr. Henry Dircks, a Civil Engineer, submitted a patent (Rees & Wilmore 1996, 9 GB1863/326) regarding: "Optical illusions, producing--A stage phantom or 'Pepper's Ghost'" an illusion first performed in late December 1862 as part of a "Strange Lecture" containing a series of illusions and experiments using various optical apparatus to produce different effects, one of which "a remarkable illustration of Mr. Charles Dickens' idea of the 'Haunted Mann'[sic] is given during the course of the lecture and must be seen to be believed" (Era 28 December 1862). Later the effect was described as being "so real that the spectator hardly believes the professor when he states that it is mere illusion, a fact, however, which he establishes by walking clear through it" (Era 4 January 1863).

Pepper's ghost illusion is a well documented one: it is produced by an inclined transparent glass plate which reflects the image of a performer who stands below the level of the stage and leans back on a platform inclined so that it is parallel to the glass plate on the stage above. The platform on which they lean is covered in a light absorbing material suggested in the patent application to be black velvet while the main stage area is covered in contrasting green baize (Rees & Wilmore 9). The effect is created when the lights on the stage area are turned down and the lights on the ghost in the sub-stage are turned up. The reflection of the ghost appears on the glass in front of the stage area; any actors on stage can then pass "through" the ghost simply by walking around behind the reflection on the plate glass. The inclusion of a large piece of plate glass covering the front of the stage meant the performance was always limited physically and acoustically. The first few lectures to use this device in December 1862 included mute productions of Dickens' The Haunted Man and of Edward Bulwer Lytton's A Strange Story. Both of these productions were restricted in their effectiveness: Pepper would stand out front and introduce them and then would read the stories which were acted out in the stage area. As he read, the ghosts appeared on the stage behind him, apparently next to the actors performing the dumb show (Speaight 19). No lines were spoken by the actors. Only Pepper and some musicians, who were situated in front of the glass, could be heard. Despite being presented as a lecture for many years, the illusion was never used in a real theatre although there was talk of it being used in The Corsican Brothers:

Fletcher considered using it for The Corsican Brothers, but in the end the difficulties of combining the massive sheet of glass with the ordinary traffic of the stage seems to have proved too much, and nothing further came of the idea. (Speaight 21)

Its awkwardness on the stage is testament to its limitations; it could never be a viable replacement for the glide trap in a production of The Corsican Brothers. The giant pane of glass would restrict the action and reduce the ghost of the brother to a mere contrivance rather than a fully integrated and uncanny element of the production.

Scott's criticism is levelled at Irving's 1880 Corsican Brothers revival and, even though theatrically Pepper's illusion may not be viable, the desire for a new illusion is evident. There is little evidence to suggest that the glide trap was used in other plays to depict ghosts, but then there is also little evidence to suggest that it was not. The trap was placed in many of the theatres that staged the first round of productions; it was available in 1880 for Irving and lamented by Scott at the time for being "stiff and stilted" (Scott 239). The trap was also installed in the 1900 Frank Matcham refurbishment of the Gaiety Opera House in the Isle of Man as part of the stage machinery. Sir John Martin-Harvey makes no reference to touring the machinery itself before his near miss with one during his 1915 tour of The Corsican Brothers. It is likely that the theatres that Harvey toured to still had the machinery installed, or available in a form that was easily reinstated. The various names for the Corsican trap (glide trap, ghost glide) suggest that it had a use in the theatres it was installed in as a stock method of representing ghosts. Tastes may have changed and stage ghosts "improved" in the span of years between Kean's 1852 and Irving's 1880 productions, but the emerging alternatives were impractical theatrically: Maskelyne's ghosts were invisible depictions of "real" spirit manifestations; Pepper's illusion was clumsy and not effective for a large theatre. The only real option remained the one in stock: the Corsican trap.

Based on extant material evidence from the Theatre Royal in Bath, the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and the Tyne theatre and Opera House (Stokes 141), there exists in the Gaiety Theatre in Douglas on the Isle of Man the only Corsican trap in the world. Reinstated as part of the ongoing reconstruction work at the Theatre, the glide trap was installed for the centenary performance of The Corsican Brothers in 2000. The structure of the trap was recreated in part from the work of David Wilmore. The trap follows the description found in Fitzgerald (46) and the Eyer manuscript. (6) The runners are greased with tallow and it takes around six stagehands to operate and shift the actor up the incline.

In 2007, the Corsican trap reprised its role at that theatre, not in The Corsican Brothers but in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. The role it reprised was its own: the device of a ghost's gliding, and ascending entrance onto stage. The play was different, the context was different but the effect that the glide trap produces remains unique and it is read by an audience the same way. Despite its potential versatility as a stage device, the glide trap will forever be synonymous with The Corsican Brothers, and, with the exception of the excellent reconstruction in the Gaiety, its popularity and novelty waned with that of its associated play. By May of its opening year the play was already "the eternal 'Corsican Brothers'" (Daily News 6 May 1852) and readily lampooned in a burlesque: The Arcadian Brothers; or, The Spirit of Punch. From then till the end of the century, the play was much copied and mocked, but none the less held a certain popularity. It was toured by Sir Martin-Harvey in 1915 but by that time, he had already abandoned the device (Harvey 325; Booth 73) and it would be some eighty or so years before the Gaiety revived The Corsican Brothers and rejuvenated the glide trap. The trap in operation is still a pleasure to see, though it is largely a historiographical one, but it is still a distinct and unique stage device. It is easy to imagine that it once amazed audiences in the western world by behaving unlike any other stage device, producing a ghost like no other and guaranteeing the success of an otherwise unremarkable melodrama.

Works Cited

Aeschlysus. Orestia of Aeschlysus. Trans. George C. W. War. London: George Allen & Sons, 1900.

Aristotle. Aristotle's Poetics. Translator unknown. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, and Messrs. Richardson and Urquhart, 1775.

Anderson, David. "Forgotten Machinery: The Corsican Effect or Ghost Glide." Theatrephile. 1. 4. (1984): 76-77.

Booth, Michael R., ed. Dramas 1850-1900. English Plays of the Nineteenth Century 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Booth, Michael R. Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Dumas pere, Alexandre. The Corsican Brothers. 1844. Trans. Andrew Browne. London: Hespersus Print, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Percy. The World Behind the Scenes. London: Arno, 1881.

Harker, Joseph. Studio and Stage. London: Hazell, Watson & Viney, 1924.

Harvey, Sir John Martin. The Autobiography of Sir John Martin Harvey. Sampson Low, Marston & co, 1933.

Hunter, Jack W. "Some Research Problems in a Study of the Corsican Brothers." OSU Film No.P.156 (1963): 6-22.

Leacroft, H, and R. Leacroft. Theatre and Playhouse: An Illustrated Survey of Theatre Building from Ancient Greece to the Present Day. London: Methuen, 1984.

Mohler, Frank. The Development of Scenic Spectacle. 1999. Web. Accessed 20 July 2010.

Pollux, Jullius. Extracts concerning the Greek theatre and masks, translated from the Greek of Julius Pollux. In Aristotle's Poetics. Translator unknown. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, and Messrs. Richardson and Urquhart, 1775.

Rees, T. A. L., & D. Wilmore, ed. British Theatrical Patents 1801-1900. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1996.

Reid, F. Designing for the Theatre. London: A&C Black, 1995.

Rosenfeld, Sybil. A Short History of Scene Design in Great Britain. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973.

Scott, Clement. The Theatre: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts. Volume 2. London: Charles Dickens & Evans, 1880.

Smith, J. L. ed. Victorian Melodramas. Seven English, French and American Melodramas. London: Dent, 1976.

Speaight, George. "Professor Pepper's Ghost." Theatre Notebook. 43.1 (1989): 16-24.

Stokes, M. Saving the Gaiety. Douglas: Lily Publications, 2006.

Stoker, Bram. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. London: Heinmann, 1907.

Szondi, Peter. The Theory of the Modern Drama. Ed. and Trans. Michael Hays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Wilmore, D. "Restoring the Stage Machinery". Saving the Gaiety. Ed. M. Stokes. Douglas: Lily Publications, 2006.

Wilmore, D. "The Development of Stage Machinery in the Nineteenth Century British Theatre: A study of Physical and Documentary Evidence." Volume 1. University of Hull, 1989.

Belfast News-letter. [Belfast] Saturday 23 May 1863.

Caledonian Mercury. [Edinburgh] 12 April 1852.

Daily News. [London] 6 May 1852.

Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany. [Edinburgh] vol 88, November 1821.

Era. [London] 29 February 1852, 21 March 1852, 4 April 1852, 28 December 1862, 3 December 1854, 23 February 1862, 4 January 1863, 9 April 1873.

Graphic. [London] Saturday 7 April 1900.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper. [London] 29 February 1852.

Notes

(1) Les Freres Corses is a fairly straightforward supernatural tale by Alexandre Dumas pere which was first turned into a stage drama for the Paris Theatre by E.P Baste and Count X.A. de Mountepin and obtained some small popularity as a straightforward melodrama in 1850 at the Theatre Historique. There is a paucity of information regarding the audience reception of this play in Paris, most of the main newspapers were in hiatus after the 1848 revolution. In subsequent years, it is the English version that is remembered as successful by Parisian journalists and not the French. The story of the play concerns twin brothers, Fabien and Louis Dei Franchi, who share a psychic bond. When one is killed in a duel in Paris, the other arrives from Paris to avenge his brother's death.

(2) Two such performers were the Conquests, a father and son team who would spring from one trap and disappear into another, before springing out again. Miscalculations often proved injurious, Conquest Senior claimed to have broken most of the bones in his body but also to have "made a fortune out of ... [his] ... jumping" (Fitzgerald 58).

(3) Mr. Conquest alone worked for more than twenty-four years, and pantomime has its roots in the commedia dell'arte dating to the mid-sixteenth century.

(4) Described in Pollux's Onomasticon. The only extant English translation of Pollux's Onomasticon (simply a dictionary of Attic terms) appears in the appendix of a 1775 edition of Aristotle's Poetics.

(5) Like the flying machines described in the Palantina Biblioteca manuscripts and recreated in Mohler.

(6) "H.R. Eyre was manager of the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, from 1887 until it closed in 1890" (Anderson 76).

Geraint D'Arcy is a theatre technician at the University of Glamorgan in Cardiff. He has recently been awarded a PhD for his thesis "Towards an Aesthetics of Theatre Technology." His research explores new ways of critically examining historical and modern theatre technologies.
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