Perhaps one of the saddest losses that came with the respectability of theatre at the end of the nineteenth century was the retreat of the nautical dramas. From around 1800, the London theatres enjoyed putting on spectacles set at sea, including a kind of docudrama, The Hermione (1800), which told the story of a recent mutiny, and a series of spectacles at Sadler’s Wells Theatre: from 1804, it had a water tank that ‘covered its entire stage’ (2018:50), allowing owner Charles Dibdin to order scale models of ‘a large number of ships… with the regular tiers and number of brass cannon (which were fired and recharged in action) and exact rigging’ (2018:50-51). Apart from being an all-action spectacle, these early dramas celebrated the brilliance of the British navy, working as ‘war-time propaganda and self-aggrandizement’ for the emerging British Empire.
The sadness of the loss isn’t so much at the content – these early nautical dramas would probably embarrass a contemporary audience for its jingoism – but the ambition. Like a CGI slug-fest, the nautical drama put all the money up-front, providing a simulation of battle and life at sea that had the virtue of all the realism that theatre could provide. The result of an early form of theatre censorship – only certain venues were allowed to put on ‘proper plays’ with scripts and that – these nautical spectacles replaced the usual tricks of the playwrights (clever speeches, dramatic tension) with all-out mayhem. And like a summer movie blockbuster, their politics were conservative, giving the audience a chance to share vicariously in the excitement of a fight with the French.
Nostalgia for a scenography that included exploding cannons aside, the nautical drama rapidly – well, by the 1820s – into a more recognisable theatre, with characters and everything. Black Ey’d Susan is the one that gets mentioned the most in academic texts, and seems to represent a melodramatic genre that fixed on the ship as a handy metaphor for British society – with the working class oppressed, and the admiralty a moribund and vicious establishment. In place of the big water tank came the coup de theatre (in Black Ey’d Susan, it is the hero going up to the gallows; another play, Mutiny at the Nore, by the same author, Jerrold, has a similar finale) and the implied critique of British society is supported by a vague respect for the now emerging British Empire. The spoils of war are not being shared equally, and the higher-ups are firing into the wives of the service-men. The sailors who have made the seas safe for colonialism, however, are getting treated worse than the slaves that they occasionally rescue from other nation’s pirates.
The nautical melodrama, then, is an interestingly complex snap-shot of British attitudes towards Empire. JT Haines’ My Poll and My Partner Joe has the protagonist rescuing a bunch of slaves but when they lie down at his feet in gratitude, the play approves of their subservience. It’s clear that the Empire is a ‘Good Idea’, even if the treatment of the working class within it is problematic. Jerrold’s Mutiny gets even more conflicted: the head of the mutiny gets executed, but he has been the victim of his commander’s sadism. He might salute the king before he dangles from the noose, but Richard Parker’s death seems like a sacrifice of legitimate concerns just to keep the status quo secure.
Of course, melodrama isn’t suppose to be this complicated.