The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 8. Black-ey’d Susan

Isaac Pocock, the author of The Miller and his Men, took the subjects of his melodramas, which, in his own day, were called librettos, but are practically plays, almost entirely from French or German drama and English novels. His earliest melodrama was Twenty Years Ago, produced in 1810. The Magpie or the Maid? (1816) was taken from the French, The Robber’s Wife from the German. Defoe contributed the source of Robinson Crusoe (1817); and from Scott he took the subjects of Rob Roy Macgregor; or, Auld Lang Syne (1818) and Montrose; or, The Children of the Mist (1822), besides dramatising, it is recorded, Woodstock, Peveril of the Peak, The Antiquary and Old Morlality. Edward Ball, afterwards Fitzball, one of the most prolific among the prolific authors of his day, compiled a great number of dramas and librettos for operas, nearly all of which were founded upon borrowed plots. William Thomas Moncrieff, at one time, was manager of Astley’s circus, to which he furnished at least one very successful equestrian drama, The Dandy Family; and he won fame by supplying Drury lane with a romantic melodrama called The Cataract of the Ganges; or, The Rajah’s Daughter, which gave the national theatre an opportunity of displaying upon its stage not only real horses but, apparently for the first time, a real waterfall. Moncrieff is best known by his Tom and Jerry, an adaptation for the stage of Pierce Egan’s Life in London; but he drew, also, upon the novels of Dickens for the plots of several plays. With the dramas of Douglas William Jerrold we come to work far more reasonable and not wholly unreadable. His comedies will be considered later; among his dramas, the most famous is the still enjoyable Blackey’d Susan; or, “All in the Downs,” founded upon Gay’s ballad. Helped by the acting of T. P. Cooke, this admirable piece of popular drama was received with great favour at the Surrey theatre, and has been the subject of several adaptations, burlesques and pantomimes. The dramas of John Baldwin Buckstone, most of them written for the Adelphi theatre, are the origin of the familiar term, “Adelphi melodrama.” They are extravagantly sentimental, and they are written in the turgid “literary” language with which the taste of the day demanded that the memories and tongues of the players should wrestle. But they are well constructed, frequently with borrowed plots; and are not so violent in incidents as to be ridiculous. The Bear-hunters; or, The Fatal Ravine (1829) has a quite exciting story; and both The Green Bushes; or, A Hundred Years Ago (1845) and The Flower of the Forest (1849) kept the stage till the end of the century. In the American-born William Bayle Bernard, a mind of very different calibre turned to the trade of dramatic composition. Bernard was a scholar and a sound critic, although those of his 114 plays which survive in print would scarcely lead the reader to believe it. But he relied largely upon his own invention, and had a purer standard of prose than his contemporaries, a neat wit and some notion of characterisation. His domestic drama, Marie Ducange (1837) and his “fireside story,” The Round of Wrong (1846), are among the best of his pieces. He composed also a romantic drama, The Doge of Venice (1867), and made an adaptation of the story of Rip van Winkle (1832). The Passing Cloud (1850), a drama in verse and in something that is neither verse nor prose, at least shows some independence of aim. Joseph Stirling Coyne, an industrious adapter from the French (of which he was reputed to know less than he knew about the tastes of the London audiences) and Charles William Shirley Brooks, who, in date, belongs to the last half of the century, but in spirit to the first half, also deserve mention among the authors of popular dramas.