Staging The Mysterious Mother — Misty Gale Anderson
As part of Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library “Walpolooza,” a year-long celebration of Horace Walpole’s work and influence in 2018, I had the pleasure to direct The Mysterious Mother, his gothic, campy, double-incest tragedy deemed “too dreadful” for the stage. Those unfamiliar with the plot can read a summary here. The elaborate staged reading was a year in preparation but with less than three days to work together in person. We evoked the hypertheatricality the play helped to usher onto the late-eighteenth-century gothic stage with the help of a digital set designed by Alice Trent. Fog rolled, thunder rumbled, and crows cawed across a shadowy gothic castle and a monastery garden, all projected on to the signature Louis Kahn poured concrete walls in the Yale Center for British Art’s lecture hall.
Against these digital animations and 26 sound cues, we used simple blocking to help the actors to navigate the space while on book. Side stairs allowed the actors to enter solemnly to the final strains of “Ubi Caritas,” and we used the arc created by a fixed overhead spot to establish the playing area as well as darkened corners to hide eavesdropping characters. The rich costumes, rented from various theatre companies in the area, were nearly fully realized versions of Lady Diana Beauclerk’s drawings, bringing grandeur and gorgeousness to the production. The fundamental horror of the Countess’s sexual transgressions; her psychological tormenters Friars Benedict and Martin, determined to extract her confession and allegiance to the Roman Catholic church; and Georgina Lock’s portrayal of Countess’s majestic strength engaged audiences in the deeply disturbing, powerful portrayal of emotional chaos, sexual guilt, and secular defiance. At the same time, as in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), tragedy and camp walk hand in hand in this play, and we ran the risk of laughter while trying to portray the gothic horror at its center. The young men strutted, Adeliza melted, and the priests walked labyrinthine monastery paths while gleefully rubbing their hands together in a pantomime of villainy. It is was both fitting and an additional gift from the universe that of the rented costumes, Florian’s (Gilberto Saenz’s), had originally been made for a young Nathan Lane.
This Collection gathers accounts of actors and scholars who participated in the event, as well as video of the staged reading and the mini-conference.
This Collection is curated by Misty Gale Anderson. Click Join Us if you would like to contribute additional pieces on The Mysterious Mother to this Collection.
April 27, 2019
Was this, as Walpole feared, “a tragedy that can never appear on any stage?” Reader, we did it.
April 26, 2019
The full program for the staged reading and the mini-conference on The Mysterious Mother can be found below (hover over bottom portion of page to get arrows to scroll through the PDF).
April 25, 2019
The mini-conference on The Mysterious Mother presented by The Lewis Walpole Library and the Yale Center for British Art began with a staged reading on May 2, 2018. Watch the complete staged reading here.
April 21, 2019
Having been the one who abridged Walpole’s five-act semi-Shakespearian play down to a c.45-50 minute running time for this staged reading, I was amazed at the underlying economy of Walpole’s dramatic writing.
April 20, 2019
Like many in Walpole’s own day, my appreciation of The Mysterious Mother prior to the staged reading at the Yale Center for British Art in May 2018 was largely textual, and, as a reader of the play, I have long admired Walpole’s blank verse, his deft use of dialogue, the intricate network of metaphor, imagery, and allusion that he weaves from the opening lines of the Prologue onward.
April 19, 2019
Playing Friars Benedict and Martin was something of a “too close to home” sort of experience for us—Charlie is a Roman Catholic layperson and a scholar of religion and theatre, and Justin is a priest in the Anglican tradition and a theologian. Conspiracy in religious garb (and cowls!) fuels The Mysterious Mother’s Oedipal engine, with mastermind Benedict and his sycophant-sidekick Martin using the age-old tools of guilt, shame, and doubt to manipulate the Countess of Narbonne and her family in grotesque and shocking ways that make for extraordinarily fun parts to play.
April 18, 2019
As soon as I was invited to play the Countess, I felt the adrenaline rush I usually feel before going on stage. What a role for a woman of a certain age!
April 17, 2019
Being involved in a workshop staging of Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother was both a joy and a wonderful provocation to think deeply about eighteenth-century theatrical texts and their creative and pedagogical potential today.
April 16, 2019
This plot summary of The Mysterious Mother attempts to preserve the flow of information as it is revealed to the viewer. The gothic tragedy opens as Edmund, Count of Narbonne, returns to his ancestral home from the crusades with his friend and fellow soldier Florian.
April 15, 2019
The digital scenery for the staged reading of The Mysterious Mother was designed by Alice Trent and projected onto the concrete walls of auditorium in the Yale Center for British Art.
April 14, 2019
Session I of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Reading The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Jill Campbell, Professor of English, Yale University. Session I can be viewed in its entirety below. The session featured the following papers…
April 13, 2019
Session II of The Mysterious Monther mini-conference on May 3, 2018, held at the Yale Center for British Art, was titled “Staging The Mysterious Mother” and was chaired by Misty Anderson, James R. Cox Professor of English at the University of Tennessee. Session II can be viewed in its entirety below. The session featured the following papers…