(The folding doors unclose, and the oratory is seen illuminated. In its centre, stands a tall female figure, her white and flowing garments spotted with blood; her veil is thrown back, and discovers a pale and melancholy countenance; her eyes are lifted upwards, her arms extended towards heaven, and a large wound appears on her bosom. Angela sinks upon her knees, with her eyes riveted upon the figure, which, for some moments, remains motionless. At length, the spectre advaances slowly to a soft and plaintive strain; she stops opposite Reginald's picture, and gazes upon it in silence. She then turns, approaches Angela, seems to invoke a blessing upon her, points to the picture, and retires to the oratory. The music ceases, Angela rises with a wild look, and follows the vision, extending her arms towards it. The spectre waves her hand, as bidding her farewell. Instantly the organ's swell is heard; a full chorus of female voices chants, "Jubilate!" a blaze of light flashes through the oratory, and the folding doors close with a loud noise.)
From this . . . it may be possible to judge the extent to which Gothic machinery had grown by 1797. Lewis' boldness in his treatment of the supernatural, for instance, is far beyond that of James Boaden three years earlier [in Fontainville Forest]. Boaden, it will be remembered, took the greatest pains to prepare his phantom, and then permitted only a fleeting glimpse of it gliding across a darkened corner of the stage; Lewis brought his specter twice upon the stage, in illuminated scenes, and involved it in such action that it could not have avoided being conspicuous. Similar excesses are apparent in the "Monk's" treatment of other properties.
With The Castle Spectre Gothic drama assumed a popular position not below that of the Gothic novel. Besides having a very long and eminently successful first run, this concoction went through seven printed editions in 1798 and eleven by 1803. Still popular in 1829, it was turned into a prose romance by Sarah Wilkinson--perhaps the only Gothic play involved in a reversal of the usual novel-dramatic adaptation relationship. Its fame came to equal and perhaps to surpass that of The Monk; in the fourth edition of that novel (1798) was the advertisement "by M.G. Lewis, Esq. M.P. Author of The Castle Spectre." Though the novel had been written first, the publisher used the play to recommend it.
Upon reading The Castle Spectre one is hard put to account for its popularity. The language is trite; the characters are well-worn stock figures; the plot is incredibly contrived and crowded with irrelevancies. No one was more aware of its unoriginality than the author, who candidly cited three works to which the play was particularly indebted--The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Die Ra<ü>ber. Of his characters he says in a postscript to the printed play: "To originality of character I make no pretence. Persecuted heroines and conscience-stung villains certainly have made their courtesies and bows to a British audience long before the appearance of 'The Castle Spectre;' the Friar and Alice are copies, but very faint ones, from Juliet's Nurse, and Sheridan's Father Paul, and Percy is a mighty pretty-behaved young gentleman with nearly no character at all." He facetiously claims unintentional originality for the Fool, in most plays a sharp and witty knave but in his dull and flat, "as in the course of the performance Mr. Bannister discovered to his very great sorrow."
The Castle Spectre, however, is an excellent vehicle for presenting a series of striking scenes of suspense or spectacle--the sudden appearance of the ghost in an atmosphere prepared by forebodings, the ironclad figure in the armory raising its truncheon in a threatening gesture and advancing slowly toward the horrified earl, Percy's intricately managed escape beneath the very noses of his guards. Moreover, shortcomings which glare out at the reader were easily remedied in performance. The drama was cut for acting to a little over one half its published length; Kemble and Mrs. Jordan were by all accounts superb in the leading roles; and new costumes, scenery, and decorations were supplied for opening night.
But the principal reason for its success was the appearance of the ghost in Act IV. Managers, actors, and friends had urged Lewis to forego the apparition, but he had persisted and his judgement did not err. . . . The figure of the Bleeding Nun, popularized in The Monk, is here again exploited, this time as a benign instead of an evil apparition. That she accomplishes nothing for the plot, and from that point of view might be better omitted, mattered not a whit to Lewis or to the public. Many contemporary accounts testify to the moving power of the scene: the effect was "stronger than any thing of the sort that has hitherto been attempted" [True Briton, 16 December 1797]. Years later James Boaden wrote, "I yet bring before me, with delight, the waving form of Mrs. Powell, advancing from the suddenly illuminated chapel, and beding over Angela (Mrs. Jordan) in maternal benediction; during which slow and solemn action, the band played a few bars" of "unearthly music" [The Life of Mrs. Jordan]. The music was the chaconne of Jommelli, chosen by Michael Kelly, who records that the scene "rivetted the audience" [Reminiscences of Michael Kelly]. This scene, presumably, led a newspaper critic of one of the early performances to testify that there was "literally a magic" in The Castle Spectre which recalled every solemn remembrance of the spectator and appealed directly to the heart [Morning Herald, 16 December 1797].
The quiet opening tableau gave way to dramatic revelations: Angela learnt not only of her mother's murder but also that her father lived in the dungeons beneath the castle. Osmond entered the apartment adventitiously brandishing the dagger with which Evelina had been slain sixteen years earlier. Overcome by the weight of his guilt Osmond fell into the arms of his servants who carried him away. Having raised the key of the scene Lewis brought it to completion with his splendid set piece. A gentle lullaby sung to a guitar accompaniment marked the beginning of a transformation. As a bell started to toll, backlighting illuminated panels of stained glass (possibly coloured silks) set in doors in the back wall. These swung open and an illuminated oratory came into view. One wonders whether part of the back-scene also opened in order to give an unimpeded vista into the chapel. In a Covent Garden prompt book for a revival of the play in 1825 the note occurs "Doors open and flats off": two centre sections of the back-scene seem to have been removed. The lighting focused the attention of the audience on to a tall, female figure in the oratory. . . . To accompany the apparition Michael Kelly, the musical director for the production, selected a chaconne or slow dance by Niccolo Jommelli. Boaden described the mime:
. . . the figure began slowly to advance; it was the spirit of Angela's mother, Mrs. Powell, in all her beauty, with long sweeping envelopments of muslin attached to the wrist . . . Mrs. Jordan cowered down motionless with terror, and Mrs. Powell bent over her prostrate duty, in maternal benediction: in a few minutes she entered the oratory again, the doors closed, and darkness once more enveloped the heroine and the scene. [Memoirs of Mrs. Jordan]
The scene, theatrically effective, spoke more eloquently than Lewis' dialogue: ". . . it cannot be denied," stated the European Magazine, that the silence and the gestures of the ghost operate very forcibly on the audience" [33 (1798) 42]. In provincial theatres the scene was sometimes contrived by the use of a transparency, a saving on both space and cost. In spite of the praise given to the overall effect of the scene, the Spectre's lack of speech prompted some spectators to compare her with Lord Burleigh, the silent, thinking actor of The Critic, an unjust stricture, for Lewis was bent on creating atmosphere as much as dialogue in this and later plays. . . .
The strong impact of the play caused audiences to suspend judgement on it. Young's enthusiasm for the piece was typical of many:
The long run which this play had the first season, the numerous times it has been performed since, the many editions it has gone through, and the power it still retains over the feelings of the audience, prove its merit beyond all praises which have, and can be, bestowed upon it. [Memoirs of Mrs. Crouch]
On reflection theatre-goers realized that, spectacular as much of the play had been, weaknesses were there. The Spectre came in for much criticism: she was a "sham ghost," extraneous to the plot. Certainly she had atmospheric value, she "made night hideous," but on the other hand she was employed too obviously as a claptrap [Monthly Mirror, 4 (1797) 356 and (1798) 113]. Lord Byron summed up these opinions:
Let Spectre-mongering Lewis aim, at most
To course the Galleries, or to raise a ghost. ["English Bards and Scottish Reviewers"]
Samuel Taylor Coleridge took an optimistic view of the piece, praising Lewis's management of the situations, in spite of the fact that many were borrowed and "absolutely pantomimical." Even the patchwork nature of the plagiarism could be excused, for Lewis sewed the pieces "into an excellent whole" [Letter 225 in The Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge].