Opening up the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’ on the Victorian Stage

In Basil, his novel of contemporary life, Wilkie Collins’s eponymous protagonist talks of the “ghastly heart-tragedies … which are acted and re-acted, scene by scene, and year by year, in the secret theatre of home; tragedies which are ever shadowed by the slow falling of the black curtain that drops lower and lower every day – that drops, to hide all at last, from the hand of death” (75-76). With his dramatisation of The Woman in White in 1871, eleven years after publication of the novel, Collins reveals the secrets of one home in the public space of the open stage. What is intriguing is the extent to which, unlike earlier unauthorised adaptors, Collins changed the structure of the plot, abandoning the quasi-forensic approach, and inevitably losing the unusual multiple first-person narrative.1

As Collins himself points out in the “explanatory remarks” that were published on the playbill, he has produced “a work which shall appeal to the audience purely on its own merits as a play”. He goes on to say that “he has refrained from making the interest of his drama dependent on mechanical contrivances”, relying instead on creating interest through incident, character and “the collision of human emotion rising naturally from those two sources”. In other words, he has not written a “sensation” drama. In an excellent article, “Sensation Drama? Wilkie Collins’s Stage Adaptation of The Woman in White”, Janice Norwood investigates the extent to which Collins has succeeded in this “negative” aim. She concludes that the play is indeed not a traditional “sensation drama” and that, positively, it points “the way forward to the more psychological dramas of the final quarter of the nineteenth century” (229). My work overlaps to a considerable extent with hers, but I take a slightly different approach and arrive at a somewhat different reading of the play. I shall be arguing that although Collins makes no attempt to write a “sensation”2 play in the usually accepted sense, he does in fact write dialogue that is more melodramatic than naturalistic, and that he uses the resources of the stage to recreate theatrically the sort of sensationalism for which his novel was renowned, building up to a sensation scene in the more general sense, whose dramatic effect is achieved not through theatrical resources alone, but because of its placing as the climax of the theme of identity.

Sensationalism in the novel

In her study of Collins’s work, Lyn Pykett compares the sensation novel with domestic melodrama, commenting that both forms tend “to displace social and political anxieties into emotional dramas focused on the family” (The Sensation Novel, 11). But whereas the domestic melodrama presents “an idealised family … as the only sure refuge from threatening social upheaval”, in the sensation novel – and The Woman in White is an obvious example – “the family is merely an illusory sanctuary, and is all too often the source of threatening upheaval” (11-12). At the same time, Pykett and others have drawn attention to the sensation novel’s formal roots in melodrama. Thus, The Woman in White contains such stereotypical characters as Sir Percival, the villain, and Laura, the pure, vulnerable heroine; and there are also melodramatic features such as the use of tableaux; the heightened style of writing, whether narration or speech; the careful attention to and importance of setting. In addition, although the novel is set mainly in the private spaces of home, there are two theatrical scenes, one literally placed in the theatre when Pesca sees Count Fosco at a London playhouse, and the other the metaphorically theatrical presentation of the “resurrected” Laura to the tenants at Limmeridge House. Besides this, there are a number of scenes that would seem to be tailor-made for theatrical presentation – especially Walter’s first meeting on Hampstead Heath with the woman in white, and Laura’s appearance to Walter by her gravestone – but which Collins leaves out of the dramatisation. Most notably he eschews the opportunity of Sir Percival’s death in the fire at the vestry, which is a typically theatrical “sensation” scene.

The plot of The Woman in White, as has often been observed, revolves round the question of identity and its climactic point is the sensational switching of identities between two vulnerable women.3 Starting with the first and fundamental mystery of the identity of the woman in white, the novel explores the way identity is conceptualised either as a matter of physical appearance, voice and patterns of behaviour; or as a social construct built from a person’s relationships and role in society; or as a matter of legal definition. One way of envisaging the novel, in fact, is as a complex web of themes to do with identity: for instance, the identities of Anne and Laura are intertwined and exchanged as they vie for the role of “woman in white”; Walter’s anxiety about his effeminised position at Limmeridge is contrasted with Sir Percival’s aggressive assertion of masculinity; Marian’s “masculinity” is contrasted with Mr Fairlie’s effeminacy; Walter and Marian’s detective work to uncover Anne’s identity is mirrored by Sir Percival’s attempt to hide his. And in the background, like a malevolent magus, Count Fosco, the master of disguise, manipulates identities for purposes of his own, which, however much they complicate it, are tangential to the domestic drama that is being enacted at Blackwater Park.

Theatrical sensationalism

Discussing sensationalism from a different perspective, that of reader response, D. A. Miller argues that sensation fiction is one of the first instances of modern literature “to address itself primarily to the sympathetic nervous system, where it grounds its characteristic adrenalin effects: accelerated heart rate and respiration, increased blood pressure, the pallor resulting from vasoconstriction, and so on” (Miller 95). In order to arouse the reader in this way, to “mobilise the sympathetic nervous system”, he goes on, it is necessary to represent nervousness in the novel. Miller addresses himself to sensation fiction, but his remarks about the genre’s characteristic feature of arousing the reader’s nervous system apply equally well to sensationalism on the stage, where nervousness can be represented more directly than on the page. G. H. Lewes was one theatre critic in the nineteenth century who was particularly interested in the question of audience reaction, and the relationship between actors and audience. The actor, he felt, needed to involve the audience and provoke them into thinking about how they might behave in the circumstances being represented on stage. Sensation theatre, therefore, had its place, since it provoked audience involvement and discernment.4 Sensationalism on the stage, it is clear, does not depend only on the acting out of the text, but can draw on a variety of visual and aural effects: scenery, lighting, sound effects and, at this period, incidental music, to stimulate the audience.

To take the more specific meaning of the term first: “sensation” drama, popular in the period that has come to be known as the “sensational sixties” was a particular type of melodrama that featured a “sensation” scene, which Tom Gunning defines as a scene “whose spectacular appearance and technical virtuosity was devised precisely to thrill the audience”. Such scenes, where a character was placed in danger of fire, swirling water, an oncoming train, or some other such extreme situation, and which required “an explosive, even chaotic, measure of excitement and motion, a rather large scale and, to guarantee its impression, an attention to verisimilitude” (Gunning 51-52) were the invention of Dion Boucicault. Plays such as The Colleen Bawn, After Dark, The OctoroonThe Streets of London drew audiences in large numbers to the Adelphi theatre in particular. “Nervousness”, to use Miller’s term, was represented via these life-threatening situations, but part of the thrill lay in seeing theatrical settings that mirrored the impressive architecture and new technology of the modern world; this was a world where danger and threat were part of everyday life. However, the attraction of seeing modern life represented on stage could take another form in the smaller theatres, better suited to the production of domestic scenes, where, as I shall be arguing in relation to The Woman in White, nervousness was also part of the dramatic texture. As in the sensation novel, so in the sensation play, in the more general sense, excitement and tension were created by lifting the curtain on the tragedies of “the secret theatre of home”. In what follows I intend to place Collins’s dramatic work in the context of contemporary London theatre, before looking more closely at The Woman in White by tracing a sequence of scenes which pertain especially to the question of identity, showing how the play, with the resources of scenery, lighting and music, as well as acting, works on the audience’s nervous system in a way analogous to the effect of the novel with its limitation to verbal communication. I shall be using the term “sensational”, therefore, in its wider sense.

Collins and the London theatre

By the time that Collins got round to adapting The Woman in White for production at the Olympic Theatre in Wych Street, just off the Strand, he already had considerable theatrical experience. Two plays, the melodramatic collaboration with Dickens, The Lighthouse and The Frozen Deep, which had first been given amateur performances at Tavistock House, were put on at the Olympic in 1857 and 1866 respectively. The Red Vial, too, was staged there (unsuccessfully) in 1858, though it was never published. The success of The Woman in White in 1871 was followed up with another Collins adaptation, The New Magdalen, in 1873, which proved to be even more successful, and finally The Moonstone in 1877. Although the Olympic was closely associated with both Collins and Dickens, it was not the only theatre to present plays by Collins. No ThoroughfareBlack and White and Rank and Riches were produced at the Adelphi (in 1867, 1869 and 1883 respectively), and one play, Man and Wife, was produced in 1873 at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre off Tottenham Court Road (not to be confused with the present Prince of Wales near Leicester Square). In what follows I shall look in a little more detail at dramatisations by Collins that were put on at the Adelphi and the Prince of Wales’s to show how important was the choice of theatre, and how, even in the most intimate performance space, Collins characteristically adopted the rhetoric of melodrama and the grammar of sensationalism.

In the 1870s the London theatrical scene was extremely varied, with melodramas, “sensation” drama, domestic dramas, comedies, burlesques and pantomimes being produced as well as opera, ballet and music hall. In 1871, for instance, the year of the production of Collins’s The Woman in White, as well as plays by T. W. Robertson and Tom Taylor, there was a first production of one of the most famous melodramas, Leopold Lewis’s The Bells at the Lyceum (with Irving, of course, in the main role); a version of Congreve’s Love for Love at the Gaiety; a comedy by W. S. Gilbert, The Palace of Truth, based on the Pygmalion myth, at the Haymarket; and as usual pantomimes at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and an operatic extravaganza at the Gaiety – all opening on 26 December (Tanich 262-230). Theatres throughout the nineteenth century tended to specialise in different types of production, with the more spectacular plays being put on, naturally enough, in those theatres with the size and the technical resources to stage “sensation” scenes. The Adelphi, which had been rebuilt in 1858 on a large scale, was noted for its spectacular productions, including several of Dion Boucicault’s “sensation” dramas. It was an obvious choice for No Thoroughfare, which was based on a short story by Collins and Dickens that was adapted for the stage mostly by Collins. As was usual, the “sensation” scene, in which the drugged Vendale falls from a precipice, comes in Act IV. Although the plays showing at that theatre were characterised by sensationalism and spectacle, that does not mean that they were divorced from the serious issues of the day. Black and White, for instance, deals with the intricate problems of racial discrimination in Trinidad before the passing of the Emancipation Act. But the size of the theatre demanded productions on a large scale and a style of acting to match; this was not the place for intimate drama and the exploration of psychological complexities.

It was around this time that critics such as G. H. Lewes and Hazlitt were discussing the question of naturalism in the theatre, and it is not coincidental that this was also the time when the old system of stock companies was gradually giving way to the long-run company, and consequently that styles of acting were changing. The stock company had been composed of actors who specialised in different types, each actor having his or her “line of business”; they knew what was demanded of them in a company where there was little rehearsal time and plays did not have long runs. These actors adopted a conventional style of acting that focused on outward appearances, using stylised gestures and favouring individual expression rather than ensemble work. However, during the 1850s and 1860s as the melodrama of the stock companies was transformed into “sensation” drama (at least in the big West End theatres), there was a gradual change in acting style. Although the larger theatres required larger gestures, greater volume and projection, still the complicated naturalistic sets and characters of increased psychological subtlety required more naturalistic acting and greater attention to relationships than had obtained in the melodramas of the 1830s and 1840s.5

Naturalistic dialogue and settings were matters of great concern to the actor-managers, Squire and Lady Bancroft, and T. W. Robertson who was resident playwright at The Prince of Wales’s Theatre until his death in 1871. When Lady Bancroft, or Marie Wilton as she was then known, took over the management of the theatre in 1865, it was nick-named “The Dusthole”, and had a reputation for lurid melodramas (Jackson 110). But under the Bancrofts (Marie Wilton married Squire Bancroft in 1867) it was transformed into a home for drawing-room comedy and domestic drama of the kind written by Robertson, drawing its audiences from the fashionable middle class. This theatre was smaller than the Olympic, and a great deal smaller than the Adelphi, and great care was taken over the settings and costumes to make them realistic, recognizable to the predominantly middle-class audience which patronised the theatre, and could see itself reflected in the characters on stage. Only one of Collins’s plays was put on here, and it is interesting to see how that play differs from those produced at the Olympic. Man and Wife was initially conceived as a drama (Pykett, Wilkie Collins, 94), but first appeared in public as a serialised fiction in Cassell’s Magazineduring 1870. The play was published privately by Collins himself, also in 1870, but only received its licence and performance at the Prince of Wales in 1873. As the play, like the novel, has a serious moral purpose, protesting against “the present scandalous condition of the Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom” and the “rage for muscular exercises” (Collins, Man and Wife, xiii) it is not immediately obvious why it should have been deemed suitable for audiences more accustomed to lighter fare, but the nineteenth-century theatre was not a place of hard and fast boundaries. Robertson’s plays did often address some serious social issue; the differences lie rather in style of dialogue and of production than in content. An examination of the copy of Collins’s play in the Lord Chamberlain’s collection gives evidence of some of these differences since it appears to be a prompt copy, in which Collins’s original is considerably amended for performance.

The first scene, set in the garden of a country house, with arrangements being made for a game of croquet gives every impression of being the start of a light comedy, with a gracious setting, genteel characters, witty dialogue, and the start of a romantic intrigue. However by the end of the first act the serious concerns have been voiced by Sir Patrick Lundie in two fairly long speeches, and the act ends in a typically melodramatic way, as Lady Lundie denounces Blanche’s erstwhile companion, Anne Silvester:

Lady L (indignantly) I forbid you to mention that woman’s name again. Miss Silvester has left the house!

(Blanche starts back with a cry of dismay. Sir Patrick supports her, and looks in astonishment at Lady Lundie. The curtain falls.) (Act I)

As the play proceeds it is obvious that Collins’s original drama was in fact too melodramatic in style for the Bancrofts. The first act is cut fairly lightly, but the thick black ink excises long stretches of dialogue later in the text. An obvious reason for cutting is simply to shorten the playing time, but the cuts here also show a concern to tighten up the dialogue, cutting out repetition and making it more naturalistic, more suitable for delivery in the smaller space of the Prince of Wales’s, and allowing the action to flow better.

Some other cuts and indeed radical reorganisation and re-writing of the text are necessitated by changes that are made to Collins’s original settings. The setting for Act II, for example, had been envisaged by Collins as a split set, showing two rooms in the inn where Anne has fled in the hopes of being united with Geoffrey Delamayn, the smaller one representing the waiter’s pantry with bells “which must be made to ring” and the “general furniture of a pantry”. But the small performing space of the Prince of Wales’s theatre would have meant a cluttered stage, and the hand-written alterations sensibly condense the set to one large room. This means that Collins’s favourite device of overlapping conversations in different areas of the stage, as for instance in the Prologue to The Woman in White, has to be modified. The overall effect of the changes is to contribute to a mode of drama that belongs to the drawing room rather than to sensationalism. Similarly the change of setting for Act IV from a “flat” scene representing a picture gallery that was supposed to continue off stage in both directions, to a “closed” scene, with windows and doors at either side, suggests a stage picture more representative of the sort of rooms which the audience would have inhabited.

The play was a success and it seems to have been a mutually satisfying collaboration. The Bancrofts considered producing The Moonstone and got as far as suggesting the casting, but the plan fell through since both they and Collins considered that the play was too melodramatic for the Prince of Wales’s theatre, and it was eventually produced (though without great success) at the Olympic. Collins’s characteristic style, as we noted at the outset, is melodramatic, and he tended to envisage his fictions in theatrical ways, but his writing is not formulaic and his actual stage works lend themselves to production in different ways, ranging from melodramatic “sensationalism” to “drawing room” domestic drama. Collaboration with the Bancrofts led to a dramatisation of Man and Wife that fitted in with the Prince of Wales’s reputation for more naturalistic productions. Collins’s dramatisation of The Woman in White, I shall be claiming, is further along the continuum towards sensationalism.

The Olympic theatre, made fashionable in the 1830s by Madame Vestris with her carefully produced burlesques and extravaganzas, had had a chequered history, but following the success of Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man, which ran for 406 nights in 1863, it became known in the 1860s and 1870s for “exciting drama well acted without the crude and melodramatic incidents met with in the drama of the Adelphi” (Sherson103). Sherson’s evaluation indicates, I think, the low esteem that melodrama was held in during most of the twentieth century until the recuperative criticism of the last quarter of the century, but the point remains that the resources and size of the Olympic encouraged productions where the excitement derived from human predicaments rather than the technical resources: it was simply not possible to stage such “sensation” scenes as had given the Adelphi its reputation.6 But, on the other hand, the theatre had become associated with more exciting drama than the usual “cup and saucer” fare on offer at the Prince of Wales’s. It was at the Olympic that adaptations of novels by all the main sensation novelists – Mary Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood, Charles Reade and Dickens, as well as Collins – were produced until well into the 1870s, and it was here that Collins’s own version of his sensation novel had considerable success, running for twenty weeks, and contributing significantly to his earnings in 1871.7

The Woman in White on stage

The success of The Woman in White as it appeared in All the Year Round ensured that there was a rush to adapt it for the stage; serialisation was concluded in July 1860, and J. R. Ware’s adaptation was put on at the Surrey, a popular theatre south of the river, in August 1860. Janice Norwood gives details of this and other versions that appeared in Norwich, at Sadler’s Wells in London, in Cambridge, in Berlin, the Netherlands and Australia before Collins wrote his own dramatisation. Another production appeared in Leicester in 1870 that is frequently referred to by writers on Collins, though there is disagreement as to whether it is a pre-London run of Collins’s own adaptation or a revival of Ware’s version.8 Collins was annoyed that the Surrey had mounted their production, a rather crude melodrama, without any reference to him, but there was little he could do about it. Contemporary critics commented on the shortcomings of the adaptation, but praised the acting; the Era was particularly impressed by the “natural” acting of the actors playing Mr Fairlie, Walter Hartright and Marian (Era, 4 November, 1860). The play was a success with the public, though this seems to have been a consequence of the popularity of the serialisation as much as anything. As the critic for the Times remarked, people “only want to see the personages they have read about clothed with a visible form” (quoted in Knight 282).

Given the proliferation of adaptations and the widespread knowledge of the book and consequently of the plot’s secrets, it is not surprising that Collins waited before writing his own dramatisation, and that when he did write he chose to adopt a totally different structure for the play, in which the emphasis is on plotting, rather than on the uncovering of secrets. There is a smooth forward trajectory, the action taking place over six months, each act being precisely placed chronologically as well as geographically. It is important that the action is said to take place in 1862, that is, well before the Married Women’s Property Act that acknowledged the right of a wife to her own property. The production of the play in 1871, so soon after the passing of the Act in 1870, must surely have reminded the audience of the necessity of that piece of legislation. Back-dating the play to 1862 is also important for the wider context in which the Italians, Count Fosco and Professor Pesca are placed as agents involved in the movement for Italian independence, since unification, the first stage of which took place in 1861, was completed in 1870 when Rome was annexed and made the capital of the new nation. Certainly critics at the time appreciated the extent to which Collins revised his work, and commended his awareness of the needs of the theatre. The reviewer for the Times (Oct 12), for instance, says: “He has firmly grasped the rarely appreciated truth, that situations which appear dramatic to a reader, are not necessarily dramatic when brought to the ordeal of the footlights” (Opinions of the Press, 2).

Collins chose to open the play in a way that is radically different from the novel. The curtain rises on a split set, showing in one half the inside of the vestry of Old Welmingham Church, and on the other side, part of the churchyard; it is both a way of exciting the audience visually with a complex set, and an economical way of introducing characters to the audience, but not to each other. The Prologue plunges in medias res, with what A. D. Hutter terms Sir Percival’s banal utterance: “What is the crazy fool doing there?” (223). Anne, “the crazy fool”, is thus implicated from the beginning, as Sir Percival goes about the business of falsifying the parish register, but the focus of the scene is not on the mystery of her identity, but on Sir Percival’s predicament. As the scene proceeds, the naming necessary to dramatic exposition is immediately associated with identity in a more than conventional sense, and in effect, the Prologue, showing us a scene that is only reported in the novel, reveals those secrets, the uncovering of which marks the trajectory of the novel. We learn that Marian and Anne may be half-sisters, that Sir Percival wants to marry Laura to alleviate his poverty, that Pesca is a member of the Italian Brotherhood that wants Fosco’s death, and we witness Sir Percival tearing out a leaf from the parish register in order to obscure his illegitimacy. Thus it is established that the issue of identity will, as in the novel, be central, but instead of making the identity of Anne Catherick the starting point of the novel, the play establishes the centrality of Sir Percival’s attempt to make himself legitimate. Furthermore, Count Fosco, who in the novel is introduced obliquely in the discussion of the Fairlie estate and in person only after the return of Sir Percival and Laura from their honeymoon, is given a dramatic introduction by Professor Pesca in the Prologue, and makes his first appearance in Act I, which takes place at Limmeridge Park before Laura’s marriage. This has consequences for the balance of the play that I shall return to at the end of this article.

The Prologue ends with Sir Percival tearing out the page of the parish register, overseen by Anne Catherick who has a particularly dramatic place on stage in an arched opening above a door at the back of the stage. When Sir Percival realises that she has seen him, his reaction, as described in the stage directions, is extreme: he first looks up with “a cry of rage and horror”, then stands for a moment, “panic-stricken”. Then, “wild and giddy”, he exclaims: “The blood is in my head! – the place whirls round with me!” Much depends on the quality of acting here, and this is not the sort of exclamation that present-day audiences normally tolerate, but it is typical of the way that sensationalism depicts “nervousness” and might arouse it in an audience to the extent that it has identified with the character. It is a dramatic moment, when enmity and a fear of each other are established as the nexus between Anne and the baronet at this moment of his felonious quest for legitimacy.

A second sensational scene comes in Act 1, set in the summer-house at Limmeridge, just after Walter has heard of Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival, and has as a matter of honour taken leave of her. What follows is Walter’s first meeting with “the woman in white”. Collins attempts to preserve something of the effect that is created in the novel, where Anne appears to the drawing master as he is wondering about the young ladies he is to meet at Limmeridge, by prefacing her appearance with a soliloquy for Walter:

Wal. (alone. The glow of the sunset grows gradually deeper whilst he speaks). I saw it in her eyes; I heard it in her voice; I felt it, when my lips touched her hand – Laura loves me! Oh, my lost angel! Your life wasted as well as mine! You, too, sacrificed to the merciless idol-worship of rank and wealth! Who is this man who is privileged to force his title and his money between us? Has he earned his title by great deeds? Has he gained his money by means which have benefited his country as well as himself? No! out of his own little world, Sir Percival Glyde is as obscure as I am. He is to win her; and I am to lose her – and what makes the difference between us? An accident of birth! Are all the rights in this world to be for ever on the side of the few? Has nature no claim? Has love no privilege? Oh, life! what have you left to offer me? Oh, death ! should I feel terror of you, if you came to me now?

I have quoted this speech because it is a good example of Collins’s use of melodramatic rhetoric to raise the emotional temperature. This is not naturalistic speech (and would, I fancy, have been severely cut by the Bancrofts!); the soliloquy functions, rather, as an operatic aria does, when the action is halted and a character reflects on what is happening and on their own state of mind. The atmosphere is intensified further by the lighting effect of the deepening glow of the sunset, and possibly also by a musical underlay, though there is no music cue in the script. At the end of the speech he drops into a chair and hides his face in his hands, so that when Anne appears, “dressed all in white…in the red glow of the sunset at the open window”, and lays her hand on his shoulder, the actor can appear startled. It is not such a sensational meeting as the one in the novel, but it gives dramatic focus to Walter’s immediate recognition of her likeness to Laura, a likeness, which of course an audience, seeing the same actress (Ada Dyas) playing both parts, will perceive as immediately as does Walter. As in the previous scene, the actor has to describe as well as act his sensations:

Wal. (starting up). Who are you?

Anne. A friendless woman.

Wal. (staggered by her likeness to Laura Fairlie) . “Am I dreaming? Am I mad?”

Contemporary reviews indicate that the audience, who had just witnessed the actress playing Laura, shared Walter’s amazement. Not content with playing one character in two dresses, the critic of The Daily Telegraph, comments, Miss Dyas portrays two distinct women, and the “effect upon the audience was startling” (Opinions 12). Miss Dyas, as Anne, had to convey both mental and physical frailty. In a third scene of heightened emotional reaction, also in Act 1, Anne encounters Count Fosco for the first time shortly after the meeting with Walter I have just described. Startled at finding the Count instead of Walter in the room she “utters a fatal cry of alarm”, and as her agitation grows, she “puts her hand to her heart, with a cry of pain”. Again, a display of nervousness is associated with a moment in the action which furthers the theme of identity, for Anne’s quasi heart attack reveals to the Count her cardiac weakness which will aid him in the plot of switched identities.

In Act II the mise en scène is crucial in two scenes, tableaux really, that establish the significance of the resemblance between Laura and Anne. Collins demands a set of some complexity that was singled out for comment by the reviewer of the The Standard:

The presentation of the mansion at Blackwater Park by moonlight is a veritable marvel of stage mechanism and scenic construction. The dining-room and library, with the lawn in front, and the bed-rooms above that have real floors upon which the people are seen walking about, must be seen to be believed. (Opinions 12-13).

Spectacular and realistic sets were characteristic of “sensation” drama, as I have already noted, but the critic of The Orchestra endorses Collins’s own comments by maintaining that this play “is made as no peg to hang extensive pictorial display upon, but is a good drama itself, in which scenery is an effective auxiliary, nothing more” (Opinions 15). This set, even more than the others, puts the house, the domestic space, on view; the audience can see the whole façade, but can also see into the rooms. As with the split stage in the Prologue (and again in Act IV), this is a stage equivalent of the novel’s multiple perspective, and allows for the audience to witness the considerable amount of spying that goes on.

The crux of Act II is Fosco’s conception of the scheme for exchanging the identities of Laura and Anne. In the first tableau Laura, who is dressed “entirely in white”, lies on a sofa under the verandah, the moonlight falling on her face and bosom. The Count’s words, as he surveys the “charming picture” that the sleeping Laura provides, emphasise the question of identity: “How shall we describe her, Miss Halcombe?…The Sleeping Beauty of the old story. Titania, the fairy queen of your illustrious Shakespeare. The guardian angel of the house, dreaming good dreams of heaven. The dear, the interesting, the beautiful Lady Glyde”. Stage directions indicate that his words are said against music: “The orchestra marks the situation, which has its purpose later in the act, by low music played while Fosco and Marian speak…”. Until the work of David Mayer the significance and extent of incidental theatre music had been largely disregarded.9 His argument that drama would have been staged with some sort of orchestral accompaniment is certainly borne out in this instance. The playbills specify a band, under the direction of Mr Richardson, whose “Fosco Galop” was performed as part of the overture.10 But the band would also have played to cover scene changes, and probably at other moments of heightened tension or emotion. This is the only point in the script, however, when music is actually mentioned; it is clear that Collins wants to ensure that this pivotal moment is emphasised. At the end of the act the tableau is repeated, with the same music, and the light falling in the same way, only this time falling on Anne, whom Fosco has placed on the sofa after she has fainted. The repeated stage picture allows the audience to share in the Count’s reaction. He exclaims on the likeness and when Sir Percival joins him he reveals his plan: “We bury Anne Catherick as Lady Glyde – we destroy your wife’s identity for ever – and the thirty thousand and the ten are yours and mine!” The Act ends with Fosco “in a fever of excitement” snatching the cloak off Anne and pointing to her “with a gesture of triumph”, as the orchestra “resumes the air”. Sir Percival “stands petrified” – and the curtain falls. The significance of this moment is underlined by the concluding tableau, allowing the audience to enjoy that sympathetic mobilisation of the nervous system that Sir Percival’s “nervousness”, Count Fosco’s excitement and the mise en scène should have aroused.

The scenes I have described track the mounting excitement of a plot that relies on confused identities, leading up to the scene of Marian’s recognition of Laura in the asylum, which in the play as in the novel, marks the turning point of the drama. In fact, I think that this scene is even more crucial in the drama, for there is no triumphant scene of recognition, such as the one described in the novel, where Laura is presented before the tenants and given her rightful, though new place (as Walter’s wife) at Limmeridge. In the play, Laura’s denial by the tenantry happens offstage in the interval that is imagined to lapse between Acts III and IV, and the rest of the play concerns the need for legal corroboration of Laura’s true identity and Walter’s efforts to get the required proof from Count Fosco. The scene at the asylum, therefore, carries great emotional weight. I would suggest, in fact, that, wittingly or unwittingly, Collins is following Aristotle’s recommendation for anagnorisis (recognition or discovery) as a structural device which ideally coincides with the peripeteia, and this is followed by the dénouement of Act IV. In Collins’s play the anagnorisis is literal, rather than, say, a moment of psychological awakening, and I would argue that it is, in the general sense, a sensation scene. It is certainly not a “sensation” scene as the term was understood by Victorian theatre critics. There is no spectacular scenery or technical effects, it is not on a large scale, and there is very little action, or indeed words. Instead, the effect of the scene relies primarily on the way it has been prepared for and on the acting of the two women, who must create on stage the sensations that in the novel can only be conveyed verbally. Even though there is no specific indication of music at this point, I would suggest that it is just that sort of moment where a musical underlay would be expected to intensify the emotion of the scene. Laura must show the result of her confinement as a lunatic, and Marian the result of illness and worry; stage directions indicate the different emotions they experience as they gradually come to trust the evidence of their senses. In his book on Plays, Acting, and Music, written in 1903, Arthur Symons says that the “test of the capacity for acting begins where words end”, and, discussing Miss Julia Neilson’s performance in The Heel of Achilles, he talks of the necessity for the actress to let “horrors sweep over the face and the body like drenching waves” (85-6). This scene from The Woman in White requires both actresses to register changing emotions as they sweep over the face and body:

Marian…stands with eyes fixed in agony

Laura…uncertain whether it is Marian, or a phantom of her own imagination. Dreaming of her last night. Dreaming of her now. Oh me! Mad! Mad!…

Marian (breathless: her voice choked with emotion) Laura?

(An answering smile appears on Laura’s face. A cry of rapture bursts from Marian. They rush into each other’s arms.)


The performances of Mrs Charles Viner as Marian and Miss Ada Dyas as Laura were much praised; the critic of the Echo, for instance, commented on the way Mrs Viner conveyed “suppressed passion, wild excitement, and almost frantic joy” in this scene (Opinions 14). Some indication of the way she acted this scene is apparent in the review from the Daily Telegraph:

…in the situation which closes the third act Mrs Viner rose to the occasion, and won all the house. The paralysed look of the poor sick woman, when, expecting to see and question Anne, she looks on Laura, the stagger as if she had been shot, the trembling clutch of the hands, and the wild shriek, will not be forgotten when we recall this admirable performance (Opinions 12).

It seems from this brief description that Mrs Viner’s manner of acting was rather more exaggerated than the naturalistic acting that audiences today have become used, but it is clearly one that was appreciated by the audiences of the Olympic, used to a more melodramatic style.

This is the climax of a series of scenes through which the theme of identity, its theft and restoration, has been worked out, encounters in which have been enacted those sensations that can be shown so much more literally on the stage than in a novel. It is not, however, the end of the play. After Walter’s confrontation with Fosco, Act IV concludes with a wordless scene in which two assassins stab the Count and stand over his body in a solemn ritual. As they disappear his body is left lying in moonlight, there is a moment or two’s silence, then a knock on the door, and his wife is heard saying: “Count! May I come in?”. Act IV aroused divergent opinions; one critic thought it “bald and ineffective” (Opinions 9), another thought the “plot simply falls in, collapsing like a house of cards” (Opinions 9), while a third thought that Act IV was “the most interesting, the best of the lot” (Opinions 9). One twentieth-century critic, A. D. Hutter, is very dismissive because Fosco is actually killed onstage, leaving no room for the ambiguity of the novel.11 It is in the ending that Collins’s novel is least theatrical, as he ties up loose ends and allows the birth of a son to put the seal on the happy-family conclusion typical of a nineteenth-century novel. It is not surprising that Collins should have chosen to end the play with Fosco’s death, for the Count has been a more central character, more involved in the domestic drama than he is in the novel, where it is only at the end that he is allowed a first-person narrative. But his disposal does, I think, become problematic. His flamboyant onstage presence seems to demand that his final exit is managed with some panache, and the compression of time and space that is required for the drama mean that it would be difficult to arrange for his death (whether real or faked) outside of the bounds needed for the reconciliation of the Laura/Anne identity plot. Having him assassinated as part of a very subsidiary political plot, in full view of the audience, may well be consistent with a play that aims for sensation, but it sits uneasily in a play where the focus has been on domestic problems and where any violence has been verbal rather than physical; there is here, I would suggest, a shift to a different mode of sensationalism. Madame Fosco’s offstage presence at the end and her pathetic call to her husband remind us of the domestic context and the effect that his death will have on her, but it is difficult to imagine how this second brief shift in register, and the change of focus to a minor character could be effective in bringing the play to a close.

It is interesting that none of the recent spate of productions of The Woman in White has been one of Collins’s own adaptation. I think there are good reasons for this. It has been the argument of this article that Collins’s version was written with a particular theatre in mind, and further, that it is too much a product of nineteenth-century sensationalism to be acceptable to audiences used to naturalism on stage. On the other hand, Collins has written a drama of greater subtlety than was usually to be found within the conventions of either domestic melodrama or “sensation” drama, as it has been traditionally understood. Unlike earlier adaptors, he succeeded in producing a play that, notwithstanding reservations about the final act, clearly appealed to audiences of the time purely on its own merits, entertaining, thrilling and chilling them, as he had done eleven years earlier with the novel.

Works Cited

Bancroft, Mr and Mrs. On and Off the Stage. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1888.

Booth, Michael R. Victorian Spectacular Theatre. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Bratton, Jacky. New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Collins, Wilkie. Basil. 1852. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

_______. Man and Wife. 1870. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1990, reprinted 1993.

_______. Man and WifeA Dramatic Story in Four Acts. Published by the author, 1870, licensed February1873. Add. 53118F, British Library.

________. The Woman in White. 1859-60. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

________. The Woman in White: A Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts. Published by the Author, 1871. Accessed via

Dickens, Charles and Collins, Wilkie. No Thoroughfare: A Drama in Five Acts. London: Published at the Offices of All the Year Round, 1867. Accessed via

Era , 4 November 1860.

Glasstone, Victor. Victorian and Edwardian Theatres. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Gunning, Tom. “The Horror of Opacity: The Melodrama of Sensation in the Plays of André de Lorde.” InMelodrama: Stage, Picture and Screen. Ed. Jacky Bratton, T. Cook and C. Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1994. 50-61.

Hutter, A. D. “Fosco Lives!” Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins. Ed. Maria K. Backman and Don Richard Cox. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003. 195-238.

Jackson, Russell. Victorian Theatre: The Theatre in its Time. Franklin, New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1989.

Knight, William G. A Major London “Minor”: The Surrey Theatre. London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1997.

Lewis, Paul. “The Woman in White at the Olympic Theatre”. Wilkie Collins Society Newsletter Supplement. Summer 2009.

Mander, Raymond and Joe Mitchenson. The Lost Theatres of London. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968.

Mayer, David. “Nineteenth Century Theatre Music.” Theatre Notebook XXX No.3 (1976): 115-122.

Miller, D.A. “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.” The Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Ed. Jeremy Hawthorn, London: Edward Arnold, 1986. 95-124.

Janice Norwood. “Sensation Drama? Collins’s Stage Adaptation of The Woman in White.” Wilkie Collins: Interdisciplinary Essays. Ed. Andrew Mangham. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Pedlar, Valerie. “Drawing a Blank: The Construction of Identity in The Woman in White.” The Ninteenth-Century Novel: Identities. Ed. Dennis Walder. London: Routledge, 2001, 69-94.

________. “The Mystery of The Woman in White In Leicester.” Wilkie Collins Society Newsletter Supplement. Spring 2006.

Pisani, Michael. “Music for the Theatre: Style and Function in Incidental Music”. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre. Ed. Kerry Powell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 70-92.

Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novelfrom “The Woman in White” to “The Moonstone. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 1994.

_______. Wilkie Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Presentation Copy. Opinions of the Press. Olympic Theatre. “Woman in White.” Dramatised by Wilkie Collins. Reprinted by The Wilkie Collins Society, 2010.

Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century. London: Bodley Head, 1925.

Symons, Arthur. Plays, Acting, and Music. London: Duckworth and Co., 1903.

Tanich, Robert. London Stage in the Nineteenth Century. Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 2010.

Taylor, George. Players and Performances in Taylor, Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre the Victorian Theatre. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Voskuil, Lynn M. Acting Naturally: Victorian Theatricality and Authenticity. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Watt-Smith, Tiffany. “Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15:1 (April 2010): 101-118. Accessed via

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  1. This was lamented by at least one critic: “It is naturally to be regretted that all that was so charming in the novel cannot find its way on to the stage; and the peculiar quaintness in continuing the story by different personal narratives is, of course, lost in the play” (The Standard, Oct 11, 1871, quoted in Opinions of the Press, 3). []
  2. Throughout this article I shall use inverted commas to denote “sensation” drama in the narrower sense of a play that includes a spectacular “sensation” scene. []
  3. See Valerie Pedlar, “Drawing a Blank: The Construction of Identity in The Woman in White” and Lyn Pykett, The Sensation Novel. []
  4. Lewes’s theatre criticism is discussed in Lynn M.Voskuil, Acting Naturally. For a sophisticated discussion of the self-conscious emotional spectatorship shared by theatre audiences and Darwin see Tiffany Watt-Smith, “Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872”. []
  5. For this discussion of acting styles I am indebted to George Taylor, Players and Performances in the Victorian Theatre. []
  6. The proscenium opening of the Olympic at this period was 27 feet wide and 29 feet high compared with the Adelphi’s 35 feet by 38 feet (Victor Glasstone, Victorian and Edwardian Theatres). []
  7. Paul Lewis gives a comprehensive account of the money Collins made from this production in a Wilkie Collins Society Newsletter Supplement 2009. []
  8. See Valerie Pedlar, Wilkie Collins Society Newsletter Supplement 2006. []
  9. See Mayer, “Nineteenth Century Theatre Music”, and Michael Pisani, “Music for the Theatre”. []
  10. It is more likely that Richardson’s piece was written as a spin-off after publication of the novel, rather than being specially composed for the play. []
  11. Hutter’s suggestion is that Fosco fakes his own death. []

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