Rarely-performed and stunningly poetic, Byron’s fantasia on guilt and redemption is an extravagant Romantic ghost story about the mysterious death of a long lost love.
A Faustian noble living in the Bernese Alps, Manfred has been tortured by guilt since the death of his most beloved, Astarte. With the aid of his mastery of language and magical spells, Manfred looks for help in the spirit world to free him from his torment. Once the spirits are roused, though, all kinds of temptations will taunt him.
The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.
THURSDAY, April 20, 7:30 pm
NOTE: This event will be held at the
SHEEN CENTER, 18 Bleecker Street
In partnership with NYU
directed by Michael Barakiva
featuring Jacqueline Antaramian, Michelle Beck, Paul Bernardo, Gisela Chípe, Autumn Dornfeld, Jason Butler Harner, Abby Royle, Michael Rudko, CJ Wilson, Mia Vallet, Jennifer Van Dyck, and more
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
A British poet, dramatist, politician, cosmopolitan, exile, soldier and war hero, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788 - 1824) was one of the most famous persons and personalities of his day. According to his self-fashioned myth, Byron “awoke one morning and found [himself] famous,” following the 1812 publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poem that introduced the infamous Byronic hero to the reading public. In 1816, amid facing potential charges of sexual impropriety and widespread rumors that he committed incest with his half-sister, Augusta, Byron fled England and spent his few remaining years of life in exile in Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. During the summer of 1816, while Byron resided on the shores of Lake Geneva along with both Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron was inspired to write Manfred – around the same time that an evening of telling ghost stories had inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. The following June, Byron managed to publish Manfred back in England and began composing his masterpiece, the mock epic, Don Juan. In 1820-1821, while living in Pisa and Ravenna, Byron became increasingly interested in writing plays, authoring six of them in the short time span: Marino Faliero (1821), The Two Foscari (1821), Sardanapalus (1821), Cain (1821), Heaven and Earth (1821), and Werner (1821). Hoping to partake first-hand of a revolutionary, counter-imperial cause, Byron debated for some time whether to relocate to Venezuela (to support the Spanish-American revolt against Spain) or to Greece (to support the resistance movement against the Ottoman Turks). An avid philhellene, Byron ultimately joined the Greek army, and, after catching a fever, died in Missolonghi, Greece on April 18, 1824. To this day, Byron is considered a hero in Greece and one of the most prominent British authors of the Romantic period (c. 1780 – 1830).
ABOUT THE PLAY
Manfred is a dramatic poem that contains several gothic and supernatural elements and echoes Byron’s scandalous life story. Set in Alpine Switzerland, the narrative centers around the cosmic drama of the self-tormented, defiant, and sympathetic title character. Manfred is the archetypal Byronic hero: an eloquent nobleman who is cut off from human society and is plagued by a self-proclaimed dark secret that involves the mysterious death of his forbidden lover, Astarte. While his guilt and suffering make Manfred long for some form of oblivion, causing him to implore the aid of otherworldly forces that he has the power to summon, these ultimately bring him no comfort. By the play’s conclusion, after these many unsuccessful attempts, Manfred discovers his own form of emancipation. Over the centuries, Manfred has been an inspiration to many writers and philosophers, including Alexandre Dumas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Thomas Pynchon, and Susanna Clarke. The play lays the foundation for a long line of Byronic heroes, to which Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Rochester from Jane Eyre, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, Pechorin from A Hero of our Time, Michael Corleone from The Godfather, Eric Draven from The Crow, and Bruce Wayne from Batman all belong.
This performance commemorates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Manfred. Once the first edition was made available in June 1817, all 6,000 copies sold out almost instantaneously to a readership fascinated by Byron’s life. Like most dramas of the Romantic age, Manfred has rarely been performed. Byron himself cautioned that his “dramatic poem” was not intended for the stage but rather belonged to a category of metaphysical drama or what he called “mental theatre.” An adaptation of the play at Covent Garden took place on October 29, 1834 and was set to music by Sir Henry Bishop; Henry Gaskell Denvil played the title role. It was revived on October 14, 1863 at Drury Lane with Samuel Phelps in the lead role. In 1848, Manfred was adapted fully to music by the German composer, Robert Schumann, and opened to much success at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1852. About three decades later, the Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, turned the play into a symphony. More recently, the BBC produced the play as a radio drama in 1988. The broadcasting network revived the dramatic reading in January 2017, and it starred Joseph Millson as the title character. This performance of Byron’s play marks the fifth time in the past six years that Red Bull Theater and the Department of English at New York University have staged a Romantic drama for the NYC community. Previous collaborations have included Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus (2012), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (2013), Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort (2014), and Frances Burney’s The Woman Hater (2015).
Jerome McGann, Department of English, University of Virginia
Omar F. Miranda, Department of English, New York University