Wilkie Collins: The Lighthouse

Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone in 1868, arguably the first great novel of the detective fiction genre, which provided the blueprint – establishing the conventions, if you like – of the police procedural:fair play, concealing nothing significant from the reader that is known to the detective, etc. The Lighthouse is his two act play, written a little over a dozen years earlier in 1855, and itself based on his own short story Gabriel’s Morning, which he wrote in response to seeing the Eddystone lighthouse while in Cornwall. The story revolves around the reactions of three lighthouse keepers, trapped in the lighthouse for weeks by bad weather which has delayed the arrival of their supply vessel, to the involvement of one of their number in a crime some years previously which he reveals inadvertantly as his mind wanders in the delerium brought on by their desparate starvation.

The play was first performed by Charles Dickens and his friends in an amateur production at Dickens’s home, Tavistock House. The cast was Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Augustus Egg (the famous painter and regular companion of Dickens and Collins on their hiking -and other less salubrious – expeditions), Mark Lemon (founding editor of Punch satirical magazine), Georgine Hogarth (Dickens’s sister-in-law), Naomi Dickens (Charles’s eldest daughter) and John Foster, with Dickens’s son Charlie responsible for special effects such as the noises off for the storm. Although technically an amateur company, thriugh Dickens’s connections they drew on west end theatre expertise to support the production. The painted backdrop (part of which is reproduced above) measuring some 3 metres by 4 metres was by leading marine artist Clarkson Frederick Stanfield.

The play was performed on two nights, opening on 18th June 1855, plus a dress rehearsal in front of the family, and the 25 seats were over-subscribed. It is not clear precisely who was in the audience on these two nights but regular attendees at such amateur theatricals put on by Dickens included Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Cavendish – Duke of Devonshire, novelist Anthony Trollope and reformer Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. Reviews were favourable with Dickens and Lemon singled out for particular praise for their “display of passion”. Wilkie himself was thought to be somewhat less convincing.

The staged reading of the play on Saturday 14th October by the Speakeasy Players, preceded by an introduction by Jak Stringer, was the first public performance of the play for 146 years. The modern audience greeted this Victorian melodrama with enthusiasm, joining in with applause, laughter and gasps of horror at appropriate points. The dramatic climax of the first act, when the name of the ship foundering on the lighthouse rock is revealed to be the same as the victim of the crime all those years previously brought a genuine shiver down my spine.

Of course the world of theatrical drama has moved on from Wilkie’s gothic Victorian melodrama but this re-staging showed that there was a core of gripping psychological truth which he conveyed a century and a half ago that retains its power to grip an audience willing to enter into the spirit of its original production.

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