“Much Too Terrible for Representation”: Matthew Lewis’s The Captive

Posted by Deborah Russell on April 15, 2013 in Deborah Russell, Guest Blog tagged with

Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk (1796), was never one to shy away from sensationalism. When the Covent Garden Theatre staged his monodrama The Captive on 22 March 1803, however, even Lewis agreed that he had gone too far. Despite the fact that theatre manager Thomas Harris was willing to stage it again, Lewis withdrew the piece. His letters describe the problem: “when it was about half over a Man fell into convulsions in the Boxes; Presently after a Woman fainted away in the Pit; and when the curtain dropped, two or three more of the spectators went into hysterics, and there was such screaming and squalling, that really you could hardly hear the hissing […] it really is not my wish (whatever others may think) to throw half of London into convulsions nightly”. Or, as he wrote to his mother: “It proved much too terrible for representation […] the subject was so uniformly distressing to the feelings, that at last I felt my own a little painful; and as to Mrs. Litchfield [the actress], she almost fainted away” (letters quoted in Margaret Bacon Wilson’s The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis [1839]).

Lewis might be suspected of talking up the impact of his work, but contemporary reviews corroborate his account of the audience response. The Morning Chronicle, for example, commented acidly that “If it was Mr Lewis’s intent to terrify, his success is complete; but if he had any wish to please, we fear he will again have to complain of the bad taste of the audience, and the prejudice of criticism. He can only boast of having thrown several women into fits.” A sense remained that the monodrama was extreme even for Lewis: the New Monthly Magazine, publishing The Captive in March 1836, praises his work in general for its “scarcely surpassed” power of exciting terror, but notes that “In the present instance […] he has somewhat overstepped the legitimate boundary of his own dominions, and trenched upon the territories of horror.”

Laura Allison heroically remaining upright and conscious under the pressure of performing in a later production of The Captive. © Trustees of the British Museum

The piece had obviously touched a nerve: what was it, then, that was so uniquely “distressing” about this work? The Captive depicts a woman imprisoned in a private madhouse on the orders of her husband; as a monodrama, she is the only character who speaks. Begging for her freedom, she insists repeatedly on her sanity – until she breaks under the horrors of her situation and succumbs to madness for real. From this point the text descends into dumbshow: the woman’s father and brothers come to rescue her; they cannot restore her sanity; she finally regains lucidity when her child is returned to her; the curtain falls.

At first glance this doesn’t seem worse than the rape, murder, and rotting infant corpses found in The Monk. There’s even a happy ending! What sets The Captive apart, though, is its immediacy. The claustrophobic focus of the monodrama turned the theatre itself into a kind of panopticon, and it was difficult to give the subject matter the safely distancing labels of ‘foreign’ or ‘fantasy’. After all, women had been, and were being, unjustly imprisoned in this way in England; concerns about real-life cases of this sort had been part of the impetus behind the 1774 Madhouses Act.

The political force of such a scene is obvious in Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel The Wrongs of Woman (1798), which may well have inspired Lewis’s piece (its heroine, Maria, is also unjustly imprisoned in a madhouse on her husband’s orders). This radical, feminist text plays with its readers’ expectations about the Gothic to highlight the oppression of women. Take the insistence in many other Gothic works that Gothic disorder is located on the continent: in Eliza Parsons’s 1793 novel The Castle of Wolfenbach, for example, the heroine is assured that she is safe when she travels to England because there “are no lettres de cachet, [and] the laws will protect you from injury […] in England no violence can be offered to you in any shape”. Wollstonecraft deliberately destroys that sense of certainty; at least the lettres de cachet of the French ancien régime had to be signed by the king before arbitrary imprisonment could take place. Her novel draws attention to the fact that in Britain, the word and money of a husband could produce the same effect. Perhaps this political reality is one of the things that so shocked Covent Garden theatregoers in 1803. After all, Lewis’s first biographer noted in 1839 that his audience reacted as they did because their “nerves were unable to withstand the dreadful truth and horror of the scene”.

Melancholy & Raving Madness, carvings by Caius Gabriel Cibber positioned over the entrance of the new Bethlem Hospital. © Wellcome Library

What Lewis actually does with that scene, though, is a matter of debate. Jeffrey Cox has described the monodrama as “feminist theatre”, but Jack DeRochi sees it as manipulating a sensationalised spectacle of feminine victimhood, ultimately forming a “masculine Gothic ideology”.  And Lewis’s politics are rarely straightforward, as D.L. Macdonald points out in his Critical Biography. In The Captive, he does not hesitate to use Wollstonecraft’s politically resonant language of domestic tyranny (“A tyrant husband forged the tale, / Which chained me in this dreary cell”) and there’s even an insistence that even the most privileged of British women are unsafe: “I – I, the child of rank and wealth! – / Am I the wretch who clanks this chain, / Bereft of freedom […]?” On the other hand, changes to the basic details of his source text (such as the introduction of a benevolent patriarchy in the form of the Captive’s rescuing father and brothers) diminish the political force of the situation.

I find the idea that Lewis had a feminist moment intriguing, especially since this afterpiece suggests connections between gendered oppression and wider political disorder. The effect of the Captive’s incarceration, after all, is that she is quite literally silenced. The monodrama opens with her plea that the gaoler “stay, and hear my woe!”, and a belief in the efficacy of communication: “My language shall be calm, though sad: / But yet I’ll firmly, truly swear / I am not mad! (then kissing his hand) I am not mad!” Her efforts to speak her truth, however, are met with a lack of sympathy – or, indeed, any response other than continued persecution. Her eventual (real) madness is figured as the goal of such treatment, and is equated with the inability to speak. Thus after the following exclamation, the text ends and the drama continues as a dumb-show: “’Tis done! ’Tis done! (with a loud shriek) / I’m mad! I’m mad! (she dashes herself in frenzy upon the ground.)” And when she is freed and the restoration of her child also returns her reason, this is signalled by the reappearance of speech, the note on which the monodrama ends: “My child!” This connection between freedom, reason, and speech seems to me to be extraordinarily politically resonant in the context of responses to the French Revolution. I’d be interested to hear whether you agree.

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