Wednesday 19 February 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: M is for Melodrama, Murder and Maria Marten

One of my first introductions to Victorian stage drama was a reworking of a late nineteenth-century melodrama which we attempted in a school drama class. The version of Maria Marten; or the Murder in the Red Barn we put on seemed somewhat dull work when compared with Andrew Sachs’s wittier and more knowing The Wages of Sin, which we also attempted.

The innocent virgin Maria is butchered in a secluded spot by the evil and conniving Corder, following on from her seduction, as the audience look on at his pantomime-like villainy. In The Wages of Sin meanwhile there were gentlemen stroking table legs, a female villain, and bullets ricocheting off chandeliers. There seemed to be no competition.

Maria Marten
 It was only years on when I learned more about Maria Marten that the play took on a new interest – not only the interest of knowing that a text is based on a real story, but the interest attendant on that story’s adaption for the stage and the corresponding elisions and deletions which involve turning people into characters.

Maria Marten, 25, was murdered by her erstwhile lover William Corder, 23, in 1827 on the night on which the pair had arranged to elope. Her remains were discovered the next year after her stepmother had a series of prophetic dreams, suggesting Maria’s fate, and Corder was captured, tried and executed. The crime spawned more than a century of adaptations and artistic responses, from an article by Charles Dickens in All The Year Round to five twentieth-century film versions.

A twentieth-century film version of the story
In many of these versions, such as the first one I encountered, Maria is transformed into a type – the virginal female victim. The real Maria had had at least three lovers and three pregnancies and for the modern tabloid press these details would make the story more salacious, but in the world of melodrama this untenable.

In melodrama, the villains and victims must be clearly indicated – the characters may be blind but an audience must not be. It’s the kind of acting which argues that people cannot act and that ultimately evil and murder will out. When I first encountered Maria Marten, I found the play clich├ęd and predictable – but now I think that it is much more interesting for being so.

What should be N in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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