This is a continuation of the series involving ‘neglected’ plays.
MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915) was a popular Victorian novelist, her most acclaimed and successful work being the ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Initially published in serial form, the novel proved so popular that it was almost immediately adapted for the stage. There were a number of adaption, however, the most lasting and performed one was by the comedian Colin Henry Hazelwood (1823-1875); an irony in itself.
It was subsequently produced many times throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century – and then – disappeared from popular view. It was further adapted for ‘silent film’ in 1912, 1915, and 1920, Sadly, the 1915 version starring ‘the vamp’ Theda Bara, the most notorious and popular femme fatale of the early silent film era, has been lost. Perhaps the last big success it had in the theatre was in 1930 when Tyrone Guthrie directed it with Dame Flora Robson as Lady Audley.
There are a number of fascinating things about Lady Audley’s Secret, not least its theatrical history and influence but also a rather fine connection to Australian history. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s elder brother, Edward Braddon (1829-1904), immigrated to Australia in 1845 and eventually became Premier of Tasmania from 1894-99, and was a Member of the First Australian Parliament. The suburb of Brandon in the Australian Capital Territory, and the Tasmanian electorate of Braddon are named after Sir Edward Braddon. However, our story lays with his sister and the ‘sensation’ of Lady Audley’s Secret.
Sensation fiction in novels and plays was the most popular genre in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. The three novels that best represent this are Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60), Ellen Woods’ East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) also fall into this genre. Many of the sensation novels of this time were subsequently adapted for the theatre and later film, even musicals.
The definition of this genre is that the story involves the uncovering of a secret, and is a deliberate mixture of romance and realism often involving murder, adultery, greed, forgery, blackmail, corruption, revenge, and madness. They are works of sheer melodrama. This is not something that can easily be dismissed as not matter how sensational the secret and action may be, invariably they are set within a relatively domestic world. The question of personal and social identity rises to the front, questioning individual and the world’s morals, ethics and actions. Invariably a kind of moral universe eventually exerts itself, with good triumphing over evil. One of the best essays on sensation fiction is John Ruskin’s Fiction – Fair and Foul.
Furthermore, sensation drama, in theatre, film and television has been relatively and consistently present from the 1860s to today. Wonderful examples include Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film of the same name, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (1935). Adding to these personal favourites, which are also now somewhat ‘neglected’ plays, is Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement (1940), which Charles Vidor turned into a film in 1941 with ida Lupino.
As with all the works cited in this series of ‘neglected’ plays, if you are seeking new acting scenes in which to work on you will find some pretty fabulous ones in these plays. The fact that we still love sensation drama can be seen in popular crime detective dramas, as well as in the modern musical versions The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Woman in White.
Very often this type of drama is based on a real-life event, adding to the complexity of the ‘identity’ issue, almost as if we need the incident to be dramatised in order to understand it. This is exemplified by Rope, which was inspired by the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Lady Audley’s Secret, which was inspired by the life of child murderer Constance Kent (1844-1944). Issues of gender and class division and madness played a significant role in the Constance Kent case, as they do in Lady Audley’s Secret. This is exemplified by the last lines spoken by Lady Audley in the play – ‘Aye – Aye (laughs wildly) Mad, mad, that is the word. I feel it here (Places her hands over her temples)’.
Is Lady Audley mad? Or is she simply a cold-blooded psychopath? Or is she a type of proto-feminist character, a lowly female member of the Working Class, battling for upward social mobility against domineering men? She has been seen as all of these in subsequent analysis and re-inventions of the novel, play, and story. She certainly prefigures the ‘woman-with-a-past’ characters in the subsequent ‘problem plays’ in the late 19th Century, exemplified by Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) [see previous article].
However, she also belongs to the much older theatrical heritage of the femme fatale character in drama, which stretches as far back to ancient times with Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Medea and Phaedra. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Alexander Dumas’s Lady deWinter in The Three Musketeers , and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are femme fatales, and modern times the femme fatale has been wonderfully portrayed a number of times by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liasons (1988). Aspects of Lady Audley can also be seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in Tay Garnett’s terrific The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I’d even add Ann Downs in Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer Prize winning play The Shrike (1952), and Shirley Stoller’s Martha Beck in Leonard Kastle’s ‘cult classic’ The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which Francois Truffaut called his ‘favourite American film’ (check it out), and, of course, Sharon Stone’s stunning Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
One distinguishing characteristic of these characters, as well as Lady Audley, is that invariably they are ‘blondes’, or ‘redheads’. I have no idea why ‘blonde’ and ‘red-headed women have been associated with the femme fatale, but it stands as a rather curious essentially masculine construction and projection. Not only do you get the beautiful ‘Blonde Venus’ there is also the ‘Blonde Vampire’.
I’m actually not too sure where the femme fatale sits today. She and sensation drama is certainly still present, exemplified by the upcoming revival in London of the musical version of The Woman in White. It would seem that she primarily belongs in the world of gothic fantasy and horror, exemplified by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria Sutherland in the Twilight film series.
However, the modern femme fatale may not be the personification of pure evil that she once was, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Feminism has largely had an influence in diluting and reducing the evil power and nature of the modern femme fatale. This is highly apparent in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) in which the classic evil witch, although wonderfully played by Angelina Jollie, is given a relatively predictable ‘back story’ that makes her subsequent actions ‘understandable’ due to be the victim of male domination. This romanticised reduction concerns me a little, as it does with male villains, such as the vampire, as it seems to suggest that real evil, real evil people, male and female, don’t really exists, and that everyone and all evil actions are relatively ‘understandable’ – they are actually ‘nice’ people underneath all this. Rubbish. Real evil, real evil people, male and female, do exits, and their actions rather than being ‘understandable’ are repugnant, destructive, and – well – evil – and should be denounced. The potential danger of hypocrisy, and the gullibility of accepting ‘wolves in sheep clothing’ is remarkably pronounced; not all people are ‘understandable’ or ‘nice’.
However, the above characters cited above are not really those that sit within the genre of sensation drama. As previously stated, and in reference to Lady Audley, sensation drama and the femme fatale really exists within a relatively domestic setting and not in the world of fantasy. This makes the modern femme fatale figure particularly dangerous. I am, however, hard put to find modern examples; although arguably Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in the US TV series House of Cards (2013-2017) falls into the femme fatale archetype. As does Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman’s continuing popular play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963). Furthermore, whilst Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may remain the most ever-present femme fatale I doubt very much if we will ever see again Ann Downs in Leonard Kastle’s The Shrike, or Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret. Nonetheless, you can always read and see these works, and the femme fatale remains, in various forms, a vital archetype in modern and classical drama – long may she reign.