The Gothic Imagination: Bloody Poetry
Editor's Note: Bloody Poetry is part of The Gothic Imagination series on Radio 4 which includes new drama adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. You can hear Bloody Poetry on Saturday 20 October at 2.30pm and for seven days on the Radio Player. PM
Getting the opportunity to direct Bloody Poetry as part of The Gothic Imagination season was a real gift. It's a play that I've admired since first coming across it in the 1980s and this was a great chance to explore Howard Brenton's versions of Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley.
The play opens in 1816 when the three writers spent the summer together by Lake Geneva. Byron was a fugitive escaping the opprobrium caused by his affair with his half-sister Augusta, and Shelley had abandoned his wife and run away with his lover Mary Godwin - and other lover, Claire Clairmont. Both poets were outraging English society with both their writing and their lifestyles and their meeting was the start of a passionate but complicated set of friendships.
Champions of free love, revolution and, for Shelley, atheism, they were to write some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry in the English language but neither of them was any good at domesticity and stability - as both Mary and Claire were to find out to their cost.
But Mary also was a writer and for her this summer was to inspire one of the most famous, long-lasting and frequently reinvented modern myths. One stormy night, the friends told each other ghost stories and Mary started to create the tale of Frankenstein.
Shelley got so excited or spooked by the evening that he seemed to have a kind of fit. This key scene in the play is quite long so we decided to record it with a hand-held boom mic to follow the action so that the actors could lounge, or writhe, at will (see the photo below).
It's striking how young all the characters are (they range from 18 - 28 in the first scene) and this combination of youth with radical (or subversive) thinking and its implicit threat to the status quo brings to mind the energy of more recent youth movements such as the punks. So we tried to capture that sort of energy in the performances.
The young cast of Bloody Poetry during the recording of the drama.
The examples of Shelley's poetry in the play are driven by a strong sense of rhythm and rhyme so even if some of the contemporary references escape modern-day readers or listeners, the pace and tempo are not too far from performance poetry or even rap.
And perhaps these parallels come over even more clearly on radio where the listener engages with the words and the characters' emotions and is not distracted by the period costume, while the actors don't have to worry about ruffles or bonnets! It enhances Brenton's memorable achievement with the play which is to have made these iconic figures of English Literature, celebrities of their day, into real and believable people, with whom we sympathise despite their sometimes dreadful behaviour.
In the moment of its creation, of course, none of them could know the full significance of the Frankenstein myth and how it would long outlive all of them. But it was interesting to us that, shortly before recording, Byron's own copy of the first edition of Frankenstein, inscribed, 'To Lord Byron from the author', was rediscovered in a library and put up for auction. Originally published in a run of only 500 copies, this one was expected to go for half a million pounds.
Bloody Poetry was directed and produced by Alison Hindell.
- Bloody Poetry on BBC Radio 4
- Find more programmes from The Gothic Imagination series on Radio 4
- Find out about three original gothic dramas by Lucy Catherine, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Nancy Harris on Radio 4 Extra.
- Follow The Gothic Imagination series of programmes on Radio 4 on Twitter using #R4Gothic