Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations
October 28, 1871 – The Saturday Review
“The Woman in White – Olympic Theatre.”
The remarkable success which has attended the production of a dramatic version of The Woman in White at the Olympic Theatre suggests that the prospects of literary, as distinguished from merely spectacular, entertainment at the English theatres are not so hopeless as sometimes appears. The play owes its interest chiefly to the character of Count Fosco, for whom the author has been fortunate in finding an excellent representative in Mr. Vining. The secret society to which the Count ultimately falls a victim is a machinery admirably adapted for affecting the imaginations of an audience who are hardly able, in the excitement of the closing scene, to reflect upon the improbability of a murder by the assassin’s dagger in a villa at St. John’s Wood. The author tells us in the story that such murders are perpetrated in London, but he discreetly removes the scene of the Count’s death to Paris. He makes the narrator of the story say that, considering the subject only as a reader of newspapers, cases recurred to his memory both in London and Paris of foreigners found stabbed in the streets whose assassins could never be found; of bodies and parts of bodies thrown into the Thames and the Seine by hands that could never be discovered; of deaths by secret violence that could only be accounted for in one way. We must say that our experience of London, either now or at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, at which the author has fixed the story, does not support his statement as to the operations of secret societies of foreigners in this country. Indeed, if he had told his readers that Count Fosco was stabbed in his villa at midnight within a call of the Metropolitan police, it would have been too great a demand upon their power of temporary belief in fiction. On the stage the assasssins are concealed behind folding-doors which open into the Count’s room. We are willing in the theatre to surrender ourselves to the illusion, but in our own study we ask whether the Brethren would be more likely to penetrate into the Count’s house than into our own. It must not be forgotten that the Count has a wife whose vigilant guardianship of her husband’s interest is a strong feature in her character. The Count also has servants, who may be supposed to make ordinary use of locks and bolts, and to entertain usual jealousy of possible depredations upon greatcoats and umbrellas. It may indeed be urged on the other side that the emissaries of the Society might be young men of manners and appearance likely to find favour with cook and housemaid. The Count’s own suspicion is aroused by an imitation from behind the folding-doors of the voices of his favorite birds. He arms himself with a pistol, opens the doors partially, advances cautiously within them, and as the doors close behind him we hear a scream, and know that the assassin’s dagger has reached his heart. All of this is very well done by Mr. Vining, and it produces a powerful effect. But if the author had ventured thus to tell the story, we should remark that Count Fosco belied his own character for astuteness by passing within the folding-doors. If he had stood his ground in the room where he received Hartwright, one of the assassins ought to have fallen by his first shot, and he might have struggled with the other until assistance came. His wife, who was close at hand, might have turned the scale in a contest between her husband and one assailant. And besides, he might have imitated English habits so far as to throw open his window and shout “Murder!” It is not pretended by the author that the devotion of these Brethren in their Order would lead them to brave the vengeance of a London mob. If half-a-dozen cases occurred within as many years in London of murders apparently perpetrated by foreigners at the bidding of some secret organization, we believe that foreigners in general would find London a warm place. But we must not be hard upon either dramatists or novelists so long as they use this machinery of secret societies with reasonable discretion. Mr. Disraeli, as we all remember, lately used it with considerable success, and we fear that his example may produce a crowd of imitators.
We have been speaking thus far only of London, where we believe that one of the greatest difficulties of assassins would be to dispose of the body of their victim while, if they allowed it to be found, the police would infer, from the mode of death, that they need only seek the murderers among foreigners. However, if a dramatist is not allowed an occasional murder, he has to work under extreme difficulty, and we are bound to admit that this murder is committed with perfect decency, and at the same time with powerful effect. We do not, indeed, exactly understand why, after the bargain has been made between the Count and Hartright, the Count is nevertheless murdered. We suppose that Hartright’s friend Pesca was able to set the Brotherhood in motion, but not to control them; and, besides the drama, good as it is, would probably fail to attract the public if it had not a sensational termination. Therefore, let the Count die, and let us acknowledge over his dead body that he was a very interesting character when alive. The scene which precedes his death will not have been forgotten by any reader of the novel. Hartright has come to extort from the Count the evidence necessary to prove that Laura is herself, and not the deceased Anne Catherick. The Count is packing for departure from England, which is no safe place for him after he has been recognized by the Brotherhood as a traitor to their Order. “I am thinking,” says he to his visitor, “whether I shall add to the disorder in this room by scattering your brains about this fireplace.” Hartright explains that he has arranged that his friend Pesca shall employ the Brotherhood to avenge his death. The Count listens to the explanation, and remarks upon it, “I don’t say that I may not scatter your brains about the fireplace yet. But I am a just man, even to my enemy, and I will acknowledge beforehand that they are cleverer brains than I thought them.” This “extraordinary mixture,” as the author calls him, “of prompt decision, farsighted cunning, and mountebank bravado, forms a character which well deserved all the study which the actor has bestowed upon it. The account purporting to be written by Fosco himself of the progress of his plot could not of course be made directly available for dramatic purposes, but it may have been useful in enabling Mr. Vining to more thoroughly understand his part. The admiration of Fosco for Miss Halcomb, which induces him to risk for her sake the success of his scheme against her sister, receives due prominence in the drama, where also the artistic sympathies of the Count are properly developed. The scene between Fosco and Miss Halcomb at the Lunatic Asylum, which is very effective, has been written for the play, as there is nothing corresponding to it in the novel. We believe that the number of sane persons who are confined in madhouses in England does not greatly exceed the number of foreigners who are murdered by the Brotherhood in the streets of London. But there are many people who will believe any marvellous story of which a lunatic asylum is made the scene. It is perhaps on this account that the resemblance between Anne Catherick and Laura, which is the basis of the whole plot, appears less improbable in the story than it really is. In the play the resemblance is ensured by the obvious expedient of allotting both parts to the same actress; and when we see that the likeness exists, we have less difficulty in believing it to be possible. We must remark, however, that the impediments to Laura’s proving that she is not Anne Catherick have to be considered from a novelist’s rather than a lawyer’s point of view. There are, for example, the accomplishments of which we hear so much. It could not possibly be pretended that Anne Catherick could play Mozart’s music on the piano, nor that she possessed such knowledge of foreign languages as would have been acquired by Laura as part of the ordinary education of a young lady. We do not think that a jury would require many days to decide the question of identity which this story raises. But although all these considerations have doubtless occurred to many readers of the novel, we are bound to say that they very slightly affect the success of the play. The author has wisely concentrated all its interest upon the character of Fosco, around whom the other characters move chiefly to exhibit his skill in handling them. It is a proof both of judgment and self-denial that the author has known what to take and what to leave in adapting his own work. The characters are all competently filled, and it is perhaps not the smallest recommendation of the play that there is not a funny man among them.
We have spoken at some length of this play because it furnishes ground for hope of improvement in the dramatic literature of the day. The manager of course anticipates a long run for this piece, and he is reasonably entitled to the fulfilment of his hopes. But we cannot omit the opportunity of declaring our hearty concurrence in what Mr. Tom Taylor has lately written in the Dark Blue as to the mischievous effect of these long runs. It must, however, be observed that modern dramatists of any reputation are tempted to write too fast, and unless the pieces which they produce can be kept for a considerable time upon the boards, the process of exhaustion of their inventive faculty must go on even more rapidly than it now does. We doubt whether more recent novels of Mr. Wilkie Collins could be dramatized with anything like the success of The Woman in White. And indeed it could hardly be given to an author to construct another character equal to Count Fosco. It may indeed be said that if the bills of the theatres were changed oftener there would be more room for new dramatists to become known. It is mentioned by Mr. Tom Taylor that a plan is under consideration for the establishment of a theatre where this and other reforms will find a place, and which shall be in a special manner a school of acting. The want of such a school is more strongly felt every year, and we should rejoice to see any prospect of it being supplied.
“The Woman in White – Olympic Theatre.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Vol. 32, No. 835, 28 Oct. 1871, pp. 560-61. British Periodicals. Accessed 12 Aug. 2015.