As previously mentioned censorship was not a Victorian invention, though we tend to focus on their prudery, it can be seen a lot in the theatre and gothic tales of the late 18th century where the subject of the precise threat to our poor nightgown clad heroine is rarely explicitly stated. We may infer that the villain’s nefarious intentions towards this figure of purity are not simply to chase her about the stage and bring on a fit of the vapours.

Theatre in the late 18th century and into the 19th century was spectacle. For instance there was a very loose adaption of Frankenstein written for the theatre in which the creature falls into a volcano at the end, on stage. As there was no concept of copyright at the time Mary Shelley couldn’t object to the mysterious appearance of volcanoes in her tale. Later on the miraculous transformation of one actor into Mr Hyde on stage led to him being confused not only with the character but with Jack the Ripper. There was also Grand Guignol theatre where anything went as long as it was bloody and made the audience squeal, but no sex please.

The preferred heroine was a pure example of chaste femininity, everything a woman should aspire to in those days, who was invariably rescued by a dashing hero from the hands of our villain. We could therefore infer that the villain is the sexual impulses of a certain type of man while the hero is the respectable gentleman. Hero, heroine, villain, nicely clean cut with plenty of spectacle along the way to keep people interested.

It wasn’t simply the clear cut characters that people went to view, due to a lack of copyright, as previously mentioned, people could go and see stage adaptations of novels. Perhaps the earliest form of ‘Well, I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the adaptation’. Quite often these adaptions would have nothing to do with the original plot of the novel they were based on, as you might’ve guessed from Frankenstein’s volcano. However, as long as they didn’t violate the censorship rules then The Chamberlain did nothing to prevent them putting on the play, so while these plays made money the writers of the novels they were based on got nothing.

By modern standards these plays would seem over-the-top and hammy with all their fainting spells and straightforward evil villains but the themes represented are still used today. Heroine gets in trouble, hero saves the day, they live happily ever after, Booker would argue is a classic example of the overcoming the monster plot. (See Taking the Plot) It’s simply that nowadays when we mean sex we put sex in.


For more writing advice see my archive page.

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