Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Access

  • The Cambridge Companion to English Melodrama
  • Online publication date: October 2018
  • pp 126-146


      • Send chapter to Kindle

        To send this chapter to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

        Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

        Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

        Available formats

        Send chapter to Dropbox

        To send content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

        Available formats

        Send chapter to Google Drive

        To send content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

        Available formats
Export citation

9 Stagecraft, Spectacle, and Sensation

Hayley Jayne Bradley

Over the scene, over the scene
Cast a strong lime-light of blue or of green,
Over the scene, over the scene,
Cast a light coloured and strong.
Thither march, march, march
Your characters, whether
Alone or together,
Let them march, march, march
To a doom that seems hopelessly wrong.
Then, on to the scene, on to the scene,
Bring your hero by some means to make all serene;
Then sing, ho! For the scene, ho! For the scene,
That keeps a piece running so long!1

Fun’s take on the sensation scene derisively, albeit humorously, signals the perceived constituents of spectacle: the trajectory of action towards a climactic episode; the emphasis on ‘the scene’ as the ultimate priority – and, in later verses, the outlay of money and risk of debt in order to create it; the relegation of ‘the play’, and perceived sacrifice of literary merit and intellect, in favour of ‘the scene’; and the capability of ‘the scene’ to secure a long run, for a sensation drama would succeed if the spectacle were ‘sensational, stirring and strong’. These remarks in Fun show contemporary discourse around the sensation scene and its place within popular culture as a topic of interest and contemplation.2

Striking, impressive, and large-scale, spectacle – a feat of nineteenth-century stagecraft – offered an audience a visual feast and, although Aristotle considered it ‘the least artistic’ component for drama, in the mid to late 1800s it became an art form unto itself, demonstrating skill and craftsmanship from conceptualization to execution.3 For Augustus Harris, whose own autumn dramas for Drury Lane would play a defining role in the genre, ‘spectacular theatre must be … the trysting-place of all the arts’, combining perseverance, pluck, and cooperation in order to create this ‘labour of love’.4 Not merely the outcome of large expense and little else (as many critics argued), nor the creation of a single brain, spectacle was the ‘result of the efforts of an army of workers – talented, trained, and proficient in their respective arts’.5 As such, the sensation scene was the product of a judicious selection of subject, story-plotting, scenery variations, the even distribution of sequences (action, humour, display), and finally the music. All the while, its creators needed to remain mindful of the need to appeal to ‘passing fancy and fashion’, as well as the ‘educated and refined classes’ of the audience, in tandem with ‘the more humble and unsophisticated patrons’.6

For Michael Booth, spectacle in melodrama functioned to ‘imitate social and urban life on a size and scale appropriate to the magnitude of human emotion and the conflict between good and evil at the heart of its being, and to express in striking visual terms the sensationalism inherent in its nature’.7 More recently, Bernard Beckerman has proposed that while ‘spectacle is often realised mainly in visual terms, the visual terms do not alone make the spectacle’, concluding that spectacle exists ‘between extraordinary actuality and fascinating illusion’.8 The mimetic quality of spectacle and the drive for realism in presenting modern life on stage, I would argue, combines in the sensation scene with a temporal proximity to reality – specifically focusing on topical issues and disasters – which ultimately sought to effect a physical response in the audience. What Baz Kershaw has described as the ‘WOW! Factor’ – i.e., ‘excessive reactions’ – was in part based on spectacles’ ability to touch on ‘highly sensitive spots in the changing nature of the human psyche by dealing directly with extremities of power: gods, monarchy, regicide, terrorism, catastrophe, apocalypse now’.9 But also, the capacity of spectacles to bring static illustrations of real scenes to life, often ‘founded on a fatal incident’, with immediacy and contiguity.10

If spectacle was a perfect stage picture, then the sensation scene united the pictorial element with mechanical ingenuity to create a theatrical scene which would excite, thrill, and enthral audiences, and was ultimately designed to ‘make the audience sit up and gasp’.11 Combining melodrama and realism, from the early 1860s through to the 1910s, sensation drama went from an emerging style to a dominant form – continuing as a still popular, residual genre well into the new century. Initially exploding into popularity, sensation dramas thrived and endured; and while many, such as George Moore, George Bernard Shaw, and Max Beerbohm, worried that it would usurp the stage, others – Dion Boucicault and Cecil Raleigh – capitalized on the public demand, constantly striving to outdo their competitors, as well as their own previous efforts, and to continually offer novelty.

More than pleasure in the visual, the sensation scene contained ‘something apart from acting which relying on scenic aid’ intended to illicit a more complete sensory experience by ‘causing that kind of emotion amongst spectators which has become accepted as “Sensation”’.12 As Amy E. Hughes has observed, ‘audiences actively sought the bodily sensations – the thrills and chills’ of sensation drama so that, I would argue, rather than merely passively witnessing spectacle, the audience left the theatre ‘feeling’ they had experienced it.13

In March 1882, The Times remarked on ‘the introduction of a new word into theatrical vocabulary’ – the sensation scene, so called because ‘the interest of the audience is violently concentrated on one particular scene, which thus stands in strong relief to the rest of the action’.14 The Times attributed this new phrase to Boucicault’s recent drama, wherein the ‘the famous header’ in the water cave was ‘so conspicuous an incident’ as to warrant the phrase.15 Premiering in 1861, The Colleen Bawn’s sensation scene ‘went on from first to last in the midst of an intense and almost painful silence’ wherein the ‘excitement of the spectators was protracted to the utmost pitch of intensity’.16

In order to save his foster brother from ruin, Danny Mann takes Eily O’Connor to a water cave to abandon her to the lake of Killarney. As Eily struggles, Danny is accidentally shot by Myles (who has mistaken him for an otter), tumbles from the rocks into the water, and is washed downstream to crawl home, confess murder to Father Tom (believing Eily dead), and die from his injuries. Meanwhile Myles – searching for the wounded otter – discovers and saves Eily from a watery grave, returning her home in the nick of time to stop her husband, Hardress Corrigan, now believing himself a widower, from marrying Ann Chute. Such was the design of the water cave that audiences ‘almost fancied’ they were ‘looking at real rocks and real water’, lending the sensation scene ‘all the appearance of reality’.17 With one play, Boucicault had established the term ‘sensation scene’, but it was to be a phrase and a genre that would be beloved and decried in almost equal measure.

While Boucicault has been widely acknowledged as the premiere ‘sensation playwright’, he himself challenged the usage and meaning of the ‘sensational’.18 In a letter to the editor of The Times in 1882, Boucicault, while acknowledging his role in bringing the term ‘sensation’ into use, ‘beg[s] pardon for it’ as a ‘bad word’.19 In his opinion, the term ‘sensation’ depreciated the drama by implying that the value of the play relied on ‘one trick effect’ and that this was the prime feature of the drama, as well as the only stimulus: whereas he is swift to point out that the water cave scene was in fact an ‘after-thought’. If, however, ‘a drama having sustaining power in its plot and in its development of character is to be called “sensation” because its scenic realisation is made as perfect as possible’, then Boucicault credits Charles Kean’s 1857 Macbeth (for the appearance of Banquo’s ghost) and William Macready’s 1838 The Tempest (for the shipwreck) as earlier examples of sensation scenes.20

Boucicault’s exchange with The Times raises several central issues: firstly, the paradox that those involved in the play wanted the production to be recognized for all its components and not only for the sensation scene; however, by its very nature as ‘the symbol of the piece’, this scene would invite the greatest discussion. Secondly, it raised the issue of construction, and the concomitant division of sensation dramas into two classes: those in which the sensation scene comes first, and the plot is only a thin thread to enable the sensation scene; and those in which the drama comes first, and the sensation scene is a vital component to its development. Determining the category to which each sensation drama belonged – and, crucially, the relative probability or improbability of the sensation scene – was often the discourse of the press. While both classes could be deemed ‘manufactured melodrama’, motives and logic separate the two and were often scrutinized in order to distinguish so-called good melodrama from bad. In the case of The Colleen Bawn, Danny’s reason for taking Eily to the water cave is as clear as the water itself – to drown her and see his family profit from her death (a tenable rationale). Plausible motives such as Danny’s, in combination with originality, actuality, and humanity, along with a relevant and credible sensation scene, formed the essential components for ‘good’ spectacular melodrama (though Max Beerbohm would argue to the contrary). Public demand for such plays induced ‘furious competition amongst their concoctors’ and the pressure not only to invent but also to innovate, to make imaginative use of scientific and technological advancements in order to deliver utmost realism, resulted in a range of situations, spanning sea, land, and air.21

A visual and visceral encounter – ranging from hot air balloons to shipwrecks, horse races to train engines, cave-ins to earthquakes, with heroines, heroes, and villains dangling from mountain precipices, lying across railway lines, and clinging to revolving mill sails – sensation scenes were the dramatic and emotional climax of the drama, both the subject of speculation pre-opening night and the topic of discussion thereafter: the anticipation and suspense began long before the curtain rose. During a time when ‘most of those who go to theatre lead humdrum lives … [audiences] like to be startled’, sensation scenes shocked, surprised, and stunned spectators with their hairbreadth escapes, perilous near misses, feats of engineering (the heroine’s rescue was now as much the job of the stage carpenter as it was of the hero), and more particularly, their ability to offer more than illusion – to offer realism.22 While The Era divided ‘sensations’ into those mainly appealing to the eye or to the mind, a more subtle, sophisticated spectrum of spectacle is needed in order to acknowledge sensation scenes that appealed to eye and mind, as well as affecting bodily sensations. In order to do so, I propose four broad categories for the ‘situation’ and manner of stagecraft within the sensation scene – courtroom/trial, equine business, nature, and the machine – the latter two of which form my focus in this brief chapter. This is not to say that each category is exclusive: areas of overlap proliferate and, indeed, as the century wore on, most sensation dramas sought to combine these elements and to present multiple spectacles – even one per act, rather than one per play. Nevertheless, these categories are useful as a means of charting how sensation scenes drew from the incidents and anxieties of contemporary life to become full of actualities, using the stage as a mimic world.

While the courtroom/trial scene has been the most documented of the four categories, it also stands apart from the other three in terms of the kind of ‘sensation’ felt by the audience: even when the character’s life (and indeed soul) may be at risk, the trial scene lacks the sense of immediate physical danger of the others. A trial, as in Boucicault’s Janet Pride (1855) and The Trial of Effie Deans (1864), offers the dramatic tension and peril of a sensation scene, and may even incorporate spectacle, as in Leopold Davis Lewis’s The Bells (1871). But sensation scenes involving nature, the machine, or the horse involve a heightened dynamism, as they pit ‘man’ in direct physical conflict with these forces – in a contest of power and often a struggle for survival. As with the courtroom situation, however, all sensation scenes serve as a mechanism for justice and plot development.

Nature’ includes natural disasters, as these sensation scenes feature the forces of nature at their most deadly: earthquakes, floods (and all varieties of ‘water’ scenes), fires, cave-ins, quarries – as in Peep O’Day (1862) and avalanches. More than pictorial representations of these events, the sensation scene sought to recreate them, producing actuality through illusion, using the vivid realism of the scenery and mounting. In 1883, W. G. Wills and Henry Herman’s Claudian opened at the Lyceum, three years before the theatre would be completely equipped with electricity, and subsequently set the bar for the onstage earthquake. In Act 2, as Claudian’s palace crumbled about him, the ‘audience remained spell-bound’, terror-stricken at the sight of such destruction and awed by a ‘realism unequalled in the records of scenic art’.23 However, the earthquake in Claudian took place against a painted backdrop of antiquity, and thus was still far removed, by time and location, from the everyday life of the playgoer – whereas in Paul Merritt and Augustus Harris’s Pleasure (1887) at Drury Lane, the contemporaneity of the earthquake scene, set on the French Riviera, was all the closer to home.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, an earthquake was a sight that London audiences would likely have seen illustrated in newspapers but not witnessed firsthand; the staged version was as close as they would get to viewing such an event. As Joslin McKinney has noted, ‘the unruliness of sceneographic spectacle is found in the way it makes a direct appeal to the body of the individual spectator and at the same time communicated images and ideas that spectators hold in common’.24 The earthquake was one such ‘common’ image, offering a highly topical choice of sensation scene: between 1860 and 1911 there were high-profile earthquakes throughout Europe, the USA, and in outreaches of the British Empire, from Australia and New Zealand to India. In the build-up to the earthquake scene, audiences were already astounded by the ‘Battle of Flowers’ at Nice, a scene which was ‘truthful … life-like’ and afforded ‘many thousands of English eyes that can never have a chance of gazing upon the original’ an opportunity to experience the sight of it.25 However, the height of sensation was still to come, with an earthquake ‘more impressive’ than Claudian: for where the Lyceum’s earthquake was a ‘purely imaginative affair’, Drury Lane’s ‘was the clever imitation of a recent and terrible reality’.26

Jack Lovel, the gullible undergrad – once penniless, now titled and wealthy, but still the dupe of other’s machinations – turns against his lover Jessie Newland, believing her to be unfaithful. He asks for heaven’s judgement on his actions in disowning her and their unborn child:


Bah! Too late! And yet I could almost believe in her innocence – no, I am a fool! It’s my old love for her that rises in my heart and pleads for her. She has asked for justice – she has got it – and if I am wronging her, may heaven punish me as I deserve.


– All darkness


what’s that? Is this indeed the answer of Heaven? Is she really innocent? Am I indeed guilty?


– Earthquake – fall of House, Jack buried beneath debris.

Heaven’s punishment is swift: with ‘a tremendous clap of thunder … the walls of the room begin to totter, the ceiling falls in, and Jack lies buried beneath the earthquake’ (5:1). Jack is later rescued from the rubble and all ends happily, with misunderstandings resolved and a marriage in Act 7, but in depicting such a ‘catastrophe’ as the ‘convulsion of nature’ in a ‘modern and civilised city’, Merritt and Harris staged a recent earthquake.27 Only seven months earlier, the Mediterranean coast of southern France had been rocked by a 6.0 earthquake, killing more than 2,000 people and laying waste to properties along the Riviera (Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.1 An illustration of the 1887 earthquake in Nice – moments before a tidal wave also struck the promenade. ‘The Earthquake at Nice: Panic of the Carnival Pleasure- Seekers’, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 5 March 1887, Issue 1344

Escalating the thrill of the sensation, then, was a temporal proximity to the situation itself – something the audience knew to be real and recent in the world outside the theatre, brought to life on the stage. Similarly, in 1911 The Hope (with its multiple sensation scenes, including a ball in Delhi and a Derby Race at Epsom) featured an earthquake in which the audience sat ‘petrified with fear, clutching each other in darkness like early Christian martyrs just before the hour of the lions’ supper (Figure 9.2). The whole theatre seem[ed] one great bead of perspiration’.28

Figure 9.2 The publicity postcard for Dance’s touring production showing how the sensation scene (from advertising through to performance) sought to directly echo actual events.

(Postcard for The Hope, author’s own collection)

In 1905, 1907, and 1908, earthquakes had taken lives across Italy, the worst of which, in Messina, killed between 75,000 and 200,000 people and damaged 91 per cent of the structures in the town.29 Only a few months before The Hope premiered, a further earthquake hit Vernia (creating a fissure 24 feet by 33 miles long), and one month into the run, another struck Caponia. The topical nature of the sensation scene, set in Massiglia, made for a ‘frightfully thrilling’ situation in which the ‘tottering house burst into flame’, and a ‘whole city came down in the midst of thundering noises, clouds of steam and dust and a red sea of fire’.30 The earthquake forces a confession from Olive (as in Pleasure, mighty nature brings all to a head), and as the walls are falling in around them, she names the guilty party (Hector Grant), while the innocence of the hero (Lord Harold Norchester) is revealed:


I can’t bear it – I’ll speak! Father – Brenda! Forgive me! The man’s name – in the face of death – it was – Sir Hector Grant.

But melodrama heroes ‘do not die when all the world and an earthquake are against them’, so Harold guides the group to the roof, proclaiming it ‘our only chance!’ (3:2).31 After this, the horse race – in which real horses galloped towards the audience – was regarded as a disappointment, eclipsed by the tangible fear evoked by the earlier ‘sensation’.

While fire formed one component of the earthquake situation, it featured in several other sensation dramas as a solo effect – among them, The Streets of London (1864), The Red Scarf (1869), Mabel’s Life; or A Bitter Bargain (1872), and The World (1880) – and particularly as an act of arson, favoured by Boucicault in The Octoroon (1859) and The Poor of New York (1864). Similarly, an ongoing fascination with water (in affinity with nautical melodrama) spawned sensation scenes with rivers; bridges; shipwrecks, including ‘headers’ and falls, as in After Dark (1868); locks, as in Queen’s Evidence (1876) and The White Heather (1897); and even frozen water, as in The Orange Girl (1864); an iceberg in The Sea of Ice (1865); and floods, as in The Flood Tide (1903). Audience enthusiasm for a sensation scene featuring a ship was a nineteenth-century constant – pre-and post-Harris’s The Armada (1888) – and ships sailing the water, sinking below it, and sunk at the bottom peppered the period, in Formosa (1869), The Scuttled Ship (1877), A Sailor and His Lass (1883), The White Heather (1897), and The Best of Luck (1916).

While some productions used lights and mirrors to suggest water, as in Louis N. Parker and G. R. Sims’s The Great Day (1919), many were keen to advertise their use of real water. In Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight (1867), the heroine, Laura Courtland, is ‘hurled headforemost into the real water’ in Act 2, where ‘at imminent peril of drowning’ she sinks out of sight four times before she is rescued by her sweetheart Ray.32 Though the effect cost £200, it was outdone in the subsequent act when Laura rescues Snorkey from the path of an oncoming locomotive. In W. B. Donne’s Ashore and Afloat (1864) the use of real water was deployed to escalate the tension in an already frightening disaster scene. Ruth, stranded down a mine by the villain, searches through the darkness for the hero, Newton – worried ‘lest every step may bring [her] nearer to what [she] is dread to meet – his lifeless body!’ – but water bursts into the mine, leaving her ‘without a chance of life’ (3:1). As the water continues to rise, she finds Newton and together they ascend the rope. Here again, the sensation scene bore close affinity to recent history; in 1862, the Hartley Colliery disaster resulted in the deaths of 204 men, many of whom died of suffocation. There are two direct echoes between the real events and Donne’s depiction: a falling beam and asphyxiation. Ruth’s own words must have offered a haunting reminder of recent events: ‘I can hardly breathe … the earth creates a living grave’ (3:1). To the audience, a time lapse of barely two years must have felt like only a moment, as the ‘sensation’ of the scene itself sought to directly connect to living memory and bring to dramatic motion the illustrations many present would have viewed in the press.

Ashore and Afloat was not the only drama to depict the dangers of a working mine – Lost in London (1867) and Dead Man’s Point (1871) would make similar use of mines as a part of the action and continued to echo current disasters as they were performed over the years: Barnsley in 1866, Pelsall in 1872, Haydock in 1878, Cornwall in 1883, Rhonda in 1885, Thornhill in 1893, and Westhoughton in 1910.

From below-ground disasters to above-ground alpine passes: Boucicault’s Pauvrette; or, Under the Snow (1858), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Genevieve; or, The Missing Witness (1874), and Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton’s Hearts are Trumps (1899) and The Marriages of Mayfair (1908) all featured avalanches for their sensation scenes, most often with the villain falling to his death. The use of hydraulic and electric bridges was key to most sensation scenes: raised and tilted they could create the illusion of a mountain slope, locks, sinking ships, avalanches, and earthquakes. Having seen the successful stage adaptations of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Mary Elizabeth Braddon penned her four-act play Genevieve in 1874, only a year after the obliteration of an entire Swiss town, Oberfest, by an avalanche – an event she would utilize for her sensation scene, which takes place on ‘The Devil’s Bridge’, suspended midway between flies and stage to suggest alpine height:

The villain draws his successful rival by a subterfuge, and there he throws him headlong from a dizzy height into a chasm which seems only measured by the extent of the stage, and as this sensation was crowned by another, which embraced a real falling avalanche, smothering a chalet which contained the only living witness of the foul deed, and the rescue from the chasm of the favoured lover, the enthusiasm of the audience rose to even a higher pitch.33

By the time of Raleigh and Hamilton’s Hearts are Trumps in 1899, a succession of avalanches had struck the United States, Canada, and Iceland. In the early months of the same year, lives were lost in avalanches in Aspen and multiple incidents in Switzerland – including the death of Welsh climber Owen Glynne Jones on Dent Blanche. What audiences read about in the newspapers, the sensation scene staged, and the dialogue often explicitly acknowledged this origin of the dramatist’s inspiration:


I was only reading about an accident.


In Switzerland? Yes – it’s their accident season. Always the same story – somebody goes where they oughtn’t to go – without a guide – and with a fatal result – really, the insurance companies ought to make tourists pay double.

While The Graphic featured images of the avalanches, and magic lantern slides depicted static moments of the events, British audiences could themselves bear witness to a ‘stupendous … thundering, crashing, smashing, snow-showering avalanche’ at Drury Lane.34 After a build-up of four spectacular scenes (‘The Hall at Oak Dene’; ‘The Botanical Gardens’; ‘The Royal Academy’, wherein actual paintings from the recent exhibition were reproduced for the set; and ‘The “Frivolity” Music Hall’, which was regarded as ‘dividing honours’ with the avalanche scene), the heroine Dora is led by Kolnitz to a pass in Switzerland, where he plans to push her over the precipice and claim her life insurance policy of £10,000. As Dora ‘slides inch by inch towards the dreadful chasm … the ladies in the theatre utter little screams’.35 His plans are foiled by his repentant co-conspirator, who cuts the rope, thus saving Dora and sacrificing his own life. As the avalanche approaches, Dora is further saved from its path by her heroic fiancé, Rev. John Thorold, and they escape just as the wave of snow sweeps Kolnitz over the apex.

A similar escape is featured in Raleigh and Hamilton’s The Marriages of Mayfair, when the villain Jim Callender attempts to flee from justice. On a stage of 80 feet by 80 feet, the production combined avalanche and equestrian business in an effort to elevate the sensation to new heights: an unsuccessful leap across the precipice on horseback (after a swift offstage swap of the actor for an acrobat) results in the villain’s death, and, on more than one occasion – such was the risk to rider and animal – the horse was itself accidentally killed during the spectacle.

While sensation scenes continued to feature horses throughout the period, the population witnessed their gradual replacement by motor cars. Technology was transforming everyday life, and public unease about machines – trains, cars, and submarines, as well as hot air balloons (as in The Ruling Passion [1882] and The Great Ruby [1899]), zeppelins (as in Raleigh and Hamilton’s Sealed Orders [1913]), and even the fire engine and humble omnibus (no longer horse-drawn, but first electric and later motor-powered) – offered a topical and abundant source for sensation scenes as well as the very means to create the spectacles, which used the same machinery that the public felt was invading their lives. One of the machines to constantly appear on the London stage, in ever-advancing form, was the boat, ship, yacht, steamer, and, eventually, the submarine. While some plays continued to feature the historical form of the Spanish galleon (The Armada and The Best of Luck), others looked to maintain utmost contemporaneity.

Means of sea travel for passengers and for naval personnel, ships were vulnerable to a range of hazards and dangers; boiler explosions, storms, sandbanks, collisions, typhoons, even rocks led to fatalities on the Anglo-Saxon (1863), London (1866), HMS Captain (1870), RMS Atlantic and Northfleet (1873), HMS Juno (1880), Kapunda (1887), Utopia (1891), and the HMS Victoria (1893). In 1860, Tom Taylor’s The Overland Route focused on the homebound journey of the Simoon Steamer, which runs aground on rocks, leaving her passengers shipwrecked on Mazzaffa Reef. The ‘visible terrors consequent on the ship’s foundering’ left The Times in no doubt of the ‘air of thorough reality’ that the scene presented.36 In 1907, The Sins of Society was influenced by two maritime disasters: the HMS Birkenhead in 1845 and the Princess Alice disaster (1878), the latter occurring when, during the return leg of a ‘moonlight’ pleasure cruise from London Bridge to Gravesend, the SS Princess Alice collided with the SS Bywell Castle, split in two, and, within four minutes, had sunk beneath the Thames. Newspaper coverage was extensive, and in the days and weeks after the event, the bodies of those onboard continued to rise to the top of the Thames. Rather than out at sea or in a region of the empire, this disaster had struck the city; and when the HMS Beachy Head, in The Sins of Society, sank on stage, it must have evoked a powerful sensation – born of memory – and a realism all too close to contemporary reality.

Ships also provided a dramatic setting for action, as in A Chain of Events (1852), The Scuttled Ship (1877), Harbour Lights (1885), and A Million of Money (1890); with passenger steamers out at sea in Sealed Orders (1913), submarines in A Fight for Millions (1904), and sunken yachts in The Price of Peace (1899) and The White Heather – the latter of which realistically depicted an underwater battle by the use of an aquarium with real fish and magic lanterns:

The diver slowly descends. The boat above him is raised into the flies, giving the effect of remaining static, producing a ‘panning down’ effect for the audience. Finally, the attendant boat disappears. The diver reaches the sea bed and the stage presents a complete underwater scene.37

While an underwater battle was an uncommon sight for the audience, motorized vehicles were an increasingly everyday sight. In particular, the motor car, as symbolic of modernity, represented a threat to the status quo, a threat to horse culture, and a threat to life – for both passengers and pedestrians. Like the train, the motor car was a product of an increasingly industrialized world. Unlike sensation scenes inspired by the forces of nature, spectacles featuring an engine-powered vehicle (either train or car) put machine and man at the core of the scene, and a character’s relationship with the vehicle was often the cause of disaster.

Why was it, as The Graphic wondered, ‘that people will not only pay money to see an imitation on the stage of realistic objects of which they can see the originals every day for nothing, but will behold the imitation with feelings of excitement that are altogether wanting in the presence of the bona fide article’?38 The reasons were twofold: first, audiences were startled by the feat of imitation itself (what Richard Altick terms the ‘shock of actuality’); and second, they paid to see the ‘situation’, brushes with death between man and machine – something they could read about daily but were thrilled to ‘see’ happen in the theatre.39 Part of their excitement was the result of this blurred boundary; audiences accepted the realism of the imitation and were aware of its illusion, but they were also aware of the potential for machinery to fail in real life.

In the 1890s motor cars were becoming an increasing presence on British roads and so too were reports of car-related accidents in the press. International motor-car races, especially in Europe, were reported alongside questions of ‘Was it worth it?’ when drivers and pedestrians were killed by collisions, engine explosions, and ‘dangerous driving’. In part as a PR bid, the newly founded Motor Car Club proposed a race from London to Brighton in 1896 to ‘give the public a practical demonstration of the capabilities and characteristics of the new vehicle and under normal circumstances of road traffic’.40 The race set a new record (under four hours, at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour) and established a growing trend for races around the UK. By 1901, motor-car races were listed as the ‘Talk of London’ (Figure 9.3), with ‘motor-car fever fast spreading in this country’; yet the same article reported multiple deaths because of the ‘reckless juggernaut’.41 Clearly the public’s relationship to the motor car was a problematic one – simultaneously regarded as symbol of the modern world and an overpowering, uncontrollable force ready to crush those in its path.

Figure 9.3 A ‘juggernaut’ out of control, veering off road during the Paris to Berlin race. ‘The Talk of London’, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 6 July 1901, Issue: 2093

In September 1901, The Great Millionaire drew directly from current events: earlier in the year, a British car ‘came to grief’ at Sedan during a race from Paris to Berlin; in the play, a motor-car race ends in tragedy when Isaac Grant attempts to throttle Digby Grant, plunging them both off the moonlit road and down a precipice, resulting in the villain’s death (Figure 9.4).

Figure 9.4 A sensational plunge over the precipice.

(Postcard for The Great Millionaire, author’s own collection)

As with the horse race in The Derby Winner (1894), the two motor cars raced downstage towards the audience, filling ‘the theatre with the smell of petroleum’ and leaving the audience in ‘no doubt about the reality of the motor cars’ – which had cost over £700.42 The sensation scene was judged unconvincing, however, mainly because the scene played against a cinematograph projecting a moving landscape.43

Eight years later a motor car would again feature on the stage at Drury Lane, but this time in direct competition with a train, and, interestingly, in a sensation scene which positioned the car as the saviour of the horse – rescuing a colt known as ‘the Whip’ from its imminent destruction by the express train (though the motor car also crashes in the play). Raleigh and Hamilton’s The Whip (1909) subtly examines the race of technologies and the increasing speed at which the contemporary world was revolutionizing daily lives. As with George Spencer’s Rail, River, and Road (1868), The Whip brought together multiple components of previous sensation scenes, incorporating nature, machine, and horse, and featuring as the main spectacle ‘the agent and icon of modernisation’: the railway.44

The ‘railway rescue drama’ was a consistent sensation scene throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, then translating its popularity to early silent film. While some dramas featured the train station (another symbol of modernity, where people of all classes mix) as a backdrop to action, as in The Flood Tide, or the railway carriage for ‘incidents’ on a train, as in The Great World of London (1898), most often characters were rescued from the path of an oncoming train – as in Under the Gaslight, The Scamps of London (1843), The Odds (1870), and After Dark. In The Whip, a horse rather than a human is saved from death on the tracks. Such scenes ‘surpassed those of ordinary experience … but the events portrayed nevertheless correlated, even if only loosely, with certain qualities of corporeality, peril and vulnerability associated with working class life’.45

Between the 1860s and 1900s railways accidents were regular occurrences, and while some incidents were the result of human error (an intoxicated or distracted driver or signalman) they were most often the result of mechanical failure: fractured wheels, boiler explosions, speed, signal error, faulty tracks, and even bridge collapse (Figure 9.5). In December 1866, the first underground accident took place on the London metropolitan line, killing three people, and less than two years later Boucicault’s ‘new drama of London life’ After Dark saw Old Tom rescue Chumley from the oncoming train (also on the metropolitan line).

Figure 9.5 A typical illustration of a train collision – Wennington, near Lancaster, 1880. ‘The Two Recent Fatal Railway Disasters’, Illustrated London News, 21 August 1880, p. 184

In 1880 alone there were thirteen severe railway accidents, one of which involved the death of a young child who was riding the engine of a mineral train when it derailed outside of Skinningrove, Cleveland. This scenario was utilized to escalate the drama of Pluck’s (1882) sensation scene when, after the first train crash at Hazlebury junction, the hero, Jack, rescues Ellen from the wreckage (Figure 9.6):


My child, my child is in the carriage.


Here’s the down train coming, and it must smash into us. Stand aside, everyone, for your lives!

Ellen (screams):

My child – my child! For God’s sake, save my child!
(During all this, people are being carried out of carriages)


Too late, it is certain death!(Business. Increasing noise of train approaching and blowing whistle. The train enters and dashes into the other one as Jack rushed from the carriage, and throws the child into Ellen’s arms).
(Second crash) Grand Tableaux!

Figure 9.6 Collision at Hazlebury Junction – an illustration of the sensation scene from Pluck. ‘Pluck’, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 2 September 1882

In this instance, as with all sensation scenes, melodrama offered the audience a far happier ending than real life – using stagecraft to deliver the thrills and feelings of a temporal and physical proximity to actual catastrophes and disasters without the peril. During this ‘reign of terror’, ‘no atrocity was too shocking, no calamity too appalling for representation’, allowing sensation dramas to create a ‘paroxysm of sensation’ which ‘disorganised [an audience’s] condition histrionically’.46 Rather than merely ‘noxious trash … filled with villains, suffering virtue and machinery’, sensation scenes functioned, as David Mayer argues, ‘as an essential social and cultural instrument’ addressing – directly or indirectly – ‘matters of daily concern’, matters that kept ‘a piece running so long’.47


1. ‘The Sensation Scene’, Fun (9 May 1863): 73.

2. ‘From Fun’, Manchester Times (23 February 1867)

3. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Hill & Wang, 1961), 64.

4. Augustus Harris, ‘Spectacle’, Magazine of Art (1899): 199.

7. Michael Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850–1910 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 6.

8. Bernard Beckerman, ‘Spectacle in Theatre’, Theatre Survey, 25 (1984): 113.

9. Baz Kershaw, ‘Curiosity or Contempt: On Spectacle, the Human and Activism’, Theatre Journal, 55 (2003): 592.

10. ‘A Cup of Tea with Mr Cecil Raleigh’, The Sketch (13 September 1899): 322.

11. ‘Green Room Gossip’, Daily Mail (25 July 1900): 6.

12. ‘Sensation Drama at the Theatre’, Hull Packet (23 November 1877), n.p.

13. Amy Hughes, Spectacles of Reform: Theatre and Activism in Nineteenth Century America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2014), 15.

14. ‘Lyceum Theatre’, The Times (12 March 1882), 10.

15. Ibid.

16. ‘Queen’s Theatre’, The Caledonian Mercury (28 June 1861)

17. Ibid.

18. Lynn M. Voskuil, ‘Feeling Public: Sensation Theater, Commodity Culture and the Victorian Public Sphere’, Victorian Studies, 44 (2002): 245.

19. ‘To the Editor of The Times: Sensation Dramas’, The Times (14 March 1882): 10.

20. Ibid.

21. ‘Melodrama Ancient and Modern’, The Era (20 July 1895), n.p.; ‘Dramatic Improbabilities’, The Era (30 October 1880)

22. ‘Sensation Scenes’, The Era (5 September 1885)

23. ‘The Lyceum’, The Era (22 December 1883)

24. Joslin McKinney, ‘Sceneography, Spectacle and the Body of the Spectator’, Performance Research (2013): 74.

25. ‘Pleasure at Drury Lane’, Sunday Times (4 September 1887): 5.

26. Ibid.

27. ‘Reopening of Drury Lane Theatre’, Daily News (5 September 1887)

28. Tatler review, quoted in Brian Dobbs, Drury Lane Theatre: Three Centuries of the Theatre Royal (London: Cassell, 1972), 171.

29. A bioscope show at the Palace Theatre, organized by Alfred Butt, displayed pictures of ‘buildings still burning and survivors wearily picking their way through the ruins’. Sunday Times (10 January 1909): 7.

30. ‘The Hope’, Sunday Times (17 September 1911): 4.

31. Ibid.

32. Poster for the English adaptation of Under the Gaslight, in Michael Booth, Hiss the Villain (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964), 273.

33. ‘Advertisements and Notices’, The Era (12 April 1874)

34. ‘Hearts are Trumps’, The Era (23 September 1899)

35. ‘Things Theatrical’, The Sporting Times (23 September 1899): 2.

36. ‘Haymarket Theatre’, The Times (24 February 1860): 6.

37. Dennis Castle, Sensation Smith of Drury Lane (London: Charles Skilton Ltd, 1984), 104.

38. ‘Theatres’, The Graphic (18 November 1882)

39. Richard D. Altick, Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 145.

40. ‘Motor Car Race’, Financial Times (8 October 1896): 4.

41. ‘Talk of London’, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (6 July 1901): 1.

42. ‘Drury Lane Theatre’, The Times (20 September 1901): 4.

43. Ibid.

44. Nicholas Daly, Literature, Technology and Modernity: 1860–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 216.

45. Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 53.

46. ‘The Beautiful in Dramatic Art’, The Era (22 June 1879)

47. ‘The Age of Sensational Things’, Glasgow Herald (10 January 1865); David Mayer, ‘Encountering Melodrama’, in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, ed. Kerry Powell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 145.