‘A marvellous box of tricks’: On the shipwreck in Tree’s ‘The Tempest’

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The RSC Shipwreck Trilogy

The focus on journeys, isolation and wreckage in the current RSC ‘Shipwreck trilogy’ has turned my attention to Victorian productions of these plays, and their use of the shipwreck motif.

One such production immediately springs to mind: Tree’s 1904 Tempest at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The play was divided into three acts, and frameworked with two ship scenes: a shipwreck by way of prologue, and a ship sailing away from an abandoned Caliban as a visual epilogue.

Tree’s Tempest was located on a foreign island, made particularly striking by a shipwreck in the opening scene. The stage directions read: ‘There is a great crash of thunder. Ariel is seen steering the ship which, taking fire, begins to sink as the curtain falls’. The large set was designed by William Telbin, and Tree claimed that the entire scene was mounted ‘as well as modern appliances will allow’ (1904).

Tree's shipwreck scene

But one theatre critic was not taken by the opening spectacle. The journalist William Thomas Stead recalled the scene with great detail:

‘A ship, with two light towers…is discovered in distress, lying beam on to the audience. Dark waves heave and fall between the drifting hulk and the shore, but the ear misses the splash and roaring gurgle of the sea…Behind the ship the black sky is riven with livid lightning of the zig-zag sort, while the rolling thunder reduces the scene to dumb show. On deck, three or four persons, in brilliantly-coloured costumes, are seen clinging to ropes as boys hang on to a giant stride, or as washerwomen clutch their clothes-line on a windy day…We heard a confused shouting above the roar of the thunder, and once the shrill whistle of the boatswain, before the topmast crashed down….More thunder, more lightning, more waves, and now and then a splashing jet of water springing skyward as the waves strike the ship. One of the light towers is carried away. The sailors are either swept over, or go below, for the deck is clear, and then, with more uproar, the curtain falls, amid a round of applause, and the first scene is over’.

Despite the grandeur of this scene, Stead remained rather immune to the spectacle:

‘It was very clever, but it has the defect of not leaving enough room for the imagination without being absolutely realistic…The cruel choking sense of agony that makes the throat lump and the tears come, as you see the final tragedy of the ship and the storm — that is absent. It is a rare show, a marvellous box of tricks. But it is mechanic work. It is not Shakespeare’ (1904).

Mechanics, tricks and marvels may have been the legacy of this production; but for Tree, this was not criticism. In fact, Tree observed that ‘unless the Tempest be produced in such a way as to bring home to audiences the fantasies and the beauties of the play it were better not to attempt it at all’ (1904).

Tree as Caliban

While this shipwreck might seem elaborate, it drives home Tree’s reading of the play as the usurpation of Caliban’s homeland. Indeed, Tree observed that to attribute his production’s success entirely to ‘aids of scenic and other embellishments’ is to be mistaken in one’s conclusion. Perhaps, despite Stead’s apathetic response to the shipwreck, the spectacle really was more than just a box of tricks.

What are your thoughts on theatrical shipwrecks? Please leave your comments below.

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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Alysha-Chanel

    Yes, theatrical shipwrecks are a tricky one, attempting to find some middle ground between making it realistic whilst leaving room for the audience to use their own imagination. Indeed mechanics are useful but the vision is lost if used too frequently. Everything in moderation. A thought-provoking piece. 

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