Sky’s Penny Dreadful and the Victorian Theatre

Posted by Sarah A. Winter on January 21, 2015 in Blog, Sarah Winter tagged with , , , , ,

(Some plot spoilers!)

The launch of Sky’s Penny Dreadful in 2014 was greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. Bringing together famous characters from canonical Gothic texts such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), along with referencing some penny dreadful tales, the writers conveyed original aspects of the narratives, and also added experimental twists by intrepidly weaving in new characters and amendments to the texts’ plots. The concoction of explicit scenes and language, mixed with gory horror, reverberates the aim of original penny bloods to shock and appal. Indeed, in a similar manner to nineteenth-century readers of penny bloods and dreadfuls, viewers eagerly awaited the next episodic instalment, and the enthusiasm has continued into the build-up towards the second series, due to be aired later this year.

This article will focus on a specific aspect of Penny Dreadful’s first season – the explorative, imaginative, and sometimes overreaching depiction of Victorian theatre. The beginning of the series informs viewers of the precise setting of London in 1891, and the murky scenes permeated with fog, along with cramped bustling streets, certainly ooze the capital’s stifling oppression. The bleak settings of deprived areas sharply contrast with more affluent metropolitan locations, such as the grand home of Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives. The theatre builds a bridge between these two spheres of London, as various classes visit the same playhouse in the fourth episode, when we see a full portrayal of a Victorian sensational play (with the plot of a werewolf hounding the stock passive heroine).[1] Before the curtain rises on the drama, there is an important allusion to London’s vibrant theatre world in the preceding episode, when the eccentric thespian Vincent Brand discovers Frankenstein’s Creature, who is desolately wandering the capital after his creator’s rejection. Taking pity upon the isolated individual, he buys him dinner, where Brand nostalgically reminisces over lost theatrical traditions, and how he has suffered the catastrophe of ‘the denigration of one’s art’.[2] He confides that Shakespeare ‘was my stock in trade – when there was a value placed upon the ineffable and the exalted’.[3] Momentarily circumventing the theatrical modes which have displaced Shakespeare, the actor senses the Creature’s anguish, and offers him a job in the theatre.

We are immediately transported to the playhouse in the next scene, which advertises a large illuminated sign ‘Grand Guignol’, and a small, barely perceptible title beneath displaying ‘Britannia’. An interesting conflict between fact and fiction instantly emerges here. The Britannia was an authentic Victorian theatre, which opened in Hoxton in 1841.[4] As an East-End playhouse, the plush interior depicted in Penny Dreadful contrasts with the real Britannia’s more modest setting. In addition, Hoxton’s Britannia saw some famous faces both in the audience and on-stage. Charles Dickens visited the theatre, and recorded his thoughts in Household Words. The playhouse also hosted the first staging of the Sweeney Todd narrative, in George Dibdin Pitt’s melodramatic adaptation, The String of Pearls, or The Fiend of Fleet Street (1847). The ‘demon barber’ is alluded to in Penny Dreadful’s Britannia, but through the lens of the ‘Grand Guignol’, as advertised on the building’s exterior. The use of this particular theatrical term raises a further anachronism. The Grand Guignol’s ‘theatre of horror’, which focused upon extreme violence and terror, originated in France within the very late closing years of the 1890s, and arrived in London’s West End in the early twentieth century, with a particularly successful period between 1920-22.[5] Hence Penny Dreadful’s setting of 1891 significantly predates London’s Grand Guignol, and the genre’s provenance.

Penny Dreadful - exterior of Grand Guignol, Britannia

Fig. 1: Vincent Brand and the Creature talking outside of the theatre (Episode 3).

However, to the series’ credit, the portrayal of the Victorians’ sheer love for the theatre, the sensational thrills experienced in playhouses, and the deployment of stage technology for embellishing impact, are all delivered with atmospheric effect. It was a historical inaccuracy to label and present dramas as Grand Guignol in the series. Yet in a more general depiction, the Victorians’ widespread appreciation of sensationalism and terrors in theatre is vibrantly illustrated. Penny Dreadful also encapsulates instances of theatregoers’ diversity, as conveyed in the scene when the working-class couple, Ethan and Brona, are terrified in the stalls by salacious scenes enhanced with flashes of light, smoke and sound effects; whilst above them, the bourgeois Vanessa Ives smiles seductively at Dorian Gray in their opposite box seats. Also, the inclusion of the Creature as, in Brand’s words, a ‘stage rat’[6] for maintaining the stagecraft’s mechanical operations, links to how Frankenstein was a sensational success in nineteenth-century theatre, suggesting an allusive twist on the novel’s stage life.

Penny Dreadful - The Transformed Beast

Fig. 2: Depiction of a Victorian drama filled with shocks and thrills, titled in the episode as The Transformed Beast (Episode 4).

The above thrills, spectacular stage effects, and aims to terrify the audience, form the backdrop to Brand’s perception of theatre’s fall from grace, which indicates that along with the ahistorical locating of the Grand Guignol, a further paradox in Penny Dreadful’s theatrical representation lies in the fin de siècle temporal setting. Brand’s elegiac perspective that Shakespeare has been encroached upon by sensationalist plays, embellished with the stage technologies depicted in the fourth episode, situates the setting more closely with the early to mid-nineteenth century, when older theatrical traditions were threatened by rising popular trends, which were largely encompassed by melodrama. Yet on the other hand, the city’s vivacious theatre world, advances in stagecraft, and audiences’ faithful patronage of the playhouse industry, are still effervescently reconstructed. It will be intriguing to see if the theatre makes a dramatic return in the second series.


[1] ‘Demimonde’ (episode 4), Penny Dreadful, created by John Logan (Showtime/Sky, 2014) [on DVD].

[2] ‘Resurrection’ (episode 3), Penny Dreadful.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow, Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840-1880 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001), p. 73.

[5] Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007), p. 88.

[6] ‘Resurrection’ (episode 3), Penny Dreadful.

Tiny URL for this post: