Although it has been nearly two hundred years since they lived and wrote, Romantic writers Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley continue to haunt the theatre in the twenty-first century. However, it is not only their plays, poems, and novels that have been adapted for the modern stage. Beginning in the twentieth century, renewed interest in the Shelleys’ lives led to the composition of numerous biographical plays based on Mary and Percy’s personal and creative partnership. But while these nineteenth-century writers enjoyed particular moments of such interest in the 1980s, the early twenty-first century has seen this interest flourish like never before. Consequently, the turn of the twenty-first century coincided with an unprecedented increase in the number and variety of plays about the Shelleys’ lives, writing, and literary legacies. As a testament to this recent resurgence, more than twenty theatrical adaptations of the Shelleys have been created and staged in the last twenty years.
But although these plays continue to feature both Shelleys, most contemporary biographical plays about the couple now privilege Mary as their focal figure and prioritize her life, writing, and perspective. In this way, these plays represent a creative corollary of a broader cultural shift in interest from Percy to Mary as a biographical subject, which was first initiated in the 1980s through the recovery efforts of Mary Shelley scholars. Consequently, while Percy was the favored biographical subject for more than a century after his death, Mary Shelley has since emerged as a Romantic celebrity and her life story is now being reimagined and retold on the contemporary stage.
With this theatrical history and active cultural interest as my point of departure, this project explores this efflorescence through a focused consideration of the Shelleys’ representations through contemporary biographical plays. To that end, I investigate the “Shelleyan project” through its representation in contemporary biographical plays—what I call Romantic Biodramas. This dissertation is therefore devoted to the critical examination of the Shelleys’ personal and authorial entanglement, as it has been theatrically imagined in the last twenty years: from 1997 to 2017. I am documenting and examining how theatrical practitioners are relating to the Shelleys, adapting their lives and writing, and practically representing them onstage for contemporary theatre audiences. Most significantly, I have not limited my research to reading the scripts for meaning. Instead, I go beyond the texts themselves to recreate material conditions of production, recover the stories surrounding these plays-in-performance, and actively contribute to the archive of existing performances.
To complete my study of these plays and recompose their performance histories, I rely on close reading of play texts and secondary sources, such as reviews, playbills, prompt books or practitioner interviews. Furthermore, my dramaturgical approach entails situating each play by looking at its unique conditions of production, such as geographical location, company mandate, or performance venue, as well as formal, generic, and stylistic elements. My exemplary performance case studies include three plays-in-production: Rose Scollard’s Caves of Fancy (1997) and Darrah Teitel’s The Apology (2011 and 2013). Additionally, my research into Romantic Biodrama also involved a creative approach to the subject through a Performance-as-Research (PaR) component of the project: the writing and staging of a new Romantic Biodrama. Accordingly, my fourth performance case study chronicles the process of bringing Justified Sinners (2017) to life. Finally, I include the full performance text for Justified Sinners, as well as key paratextual resources from its premiere production, to preserve and re-create the unique conditions of production surrounding this Romantic Biodrama.
Following Percy Shelley’s death in 1822, his memory eclipsed the life and writing of his wife and collaborator: Mary Shelley. Although Mary worked tirelessly to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, her own reputation was not secured until the mid-twentieth century, beginning with the work of Shelleyan scholars and her first generation of champions. During this period, dramatists began writing biographical plays about Mary and Percy Shelley, what I term “Romantic Biodramas,” that instead focused on the life and writing of Mary, rather than Percy. Accordingly, in the twenty-first century, Romantic Biodramas continue to reflect and contribute to this broader trend in Shelleyan studies by instead centralizing Mary in the new Shelley Circle.
In Caves of Fancy, playwright Rose Scollard creates a kind of theatrical séance where both the characters within the play and the audience themselves take part in a dramatized resurrection. As the drama begins, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay attempt to call forth the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft by using a magic word: “imagination.” But instead of bringing back Wollstonecraft, the sisters inadvertently evoke Frankenstein’s Creature. The Creature remains throughout the play as a shape-shifting figure who embodies familiar figures, while also portending tragedy for the young women. Although Caves of Fancy is an imaginative departure from traditional historical realism into decidedly more fanciful territory, the play also critically examines the lives and writing of its subjects.
In January 2011, The Apology first debuted as a one-act play in the Next Stage Theatre Festival, a winter fringe festival held annually in Toronto. It began as a one-act play about the Shelley circle that reimagines the events of the “haunted summer” of 1816 as a highly-political teenage sex romp. This first version of the play is loosely based around Mary, Percy, Claire, and Byron’s time in Lake Geneva during the so-termed “haunted summer” of 1816. However, rather than chronicle the specific events surrounding this infamous meetup, Teitel employs the premise of a Romantic sojourn to the continent as a forum for the core group and their attempts at writing, discussions of sociopolitical issues, or explicit engagements with one another.
Two years later, Teitel had added a second act to the play that relocated the action to the twenty-first century to show the contemporary implications of the group’s progressive lifestyle. Resultantly, in March 2013, The Apology debuted again and this time it was part of ATP’s Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays, which is sponsored by the Calgary-based energy company Enbridge, Inc. Although the play had appeared onstage in Toronto only two years earlier, its 2013 staging was similarly touted as the play’s “premiere” production. Because the play was given two distinct premiere productions, with different performance contexts, budgets, geographical settings, viewership, personnel, and even versions of the script, it presents a unique opportunity as a comparative case study by drawing attention to the importance of these factors in the staging of Romantic Biodrama.
Beginning two years after Percy’s passing, Justified Sinners opens in 1824 as Mary Shelley is about to publish her edition of Percy’s Posthumous Poems. By re-reading Percy’s words, Mary resurrects his haunting presence in her mind and imagines what she would say to him, if given one last chance. As the play unfolds, it reveals the complex relationship between these two Romantic writers, lovers, and co-collaborators and shows how their distinctly modern marriage was not as perfect as all the poetry might suggest. Justified Sinners uses the lives and writing of the Shelleys as a jumping off point to explore themes of Romantic love, the often-difficult dynamics of artistic collaboration, the power of words, and the potential human costs of living a creative life. And although the resulting play takes the form of an imagined conversation between the Shelleys, I created a play text that was born out of both Mary and Percy’s own writings: their poetry, prose, letters, or journals.
I began my research with an interest in determining how the Shelleys’ relationship had been conceived through contemporary theatre. What I did not anticipate at the time was that Mary had overwhelmingly emerged as the prominent figure of Romantic Biodrama. I arrived at this conclusion through my dramaturgical analysis of these plays in performance, which allowed me to account for the writing and staging processes associated with each premiere production. By detailing the journey of each play from page to stage, I documented the development of four Romantic Biodramas (1997-2017) from their initial conception to their performance. Furthermore, through practitioner interviews, I gained privileged insight into each play and production that offers valuable context. Finally, in the process of documenting and analyzing my archive of recoverable materials associated with each play, this study became a recovery project designed to collect and preserve the stories behind four Romantic Biodramas.