On May 25, 1816, a handsome Englishman got out of a mud-splattered replica of Napoleon’s touring coach and checked in to the Hotel d’Angleterre in Geneva, Switzerland. Many of the guests at this posh resort hotel noticed the commotion caused by the arrival of the famous poet Lord Byron, but none felt it as acutely as did Claire Clairmont. Clairmont had begun an affair with the famous poet Byron when the two were in England, and she then tracked him for 800 miles across Europe, intending to renew their relationship. With Clairmont at the hotel in Geneva were her half-sister, Mary Godwin Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the young writer and notorious freethinker who had eloped with Mary and then run away with both of William Godwin’s teenage daughters to Europe.
The next day, on the beach of Lake Léman, Claire Clairmont introduced Percy Shelley to Lord Byron, thus inaugurating one of the most celebrated bromances in literary history. With astonishing rapidity, the group, which also included John William Polidori, a doctor who was traveling with Byron, became a tight circle of intellectual exchange out of which emerged Frankenstein, along with many other great works of Romantic literature. The story of that summer is one that’s been retold many, many times, and for an equal number of reasons.
For example, in 1984, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ascendant, British playwright Howard Brenton ventured in his imagination back to that enchanted summer of love to plumb the depths of suffering that lurked beneath its prolific surface. This weekend and next, May 8-17, UCSB’s BFA theater program will present Bloody Poetry as part of its Acting Up Front program in the school’s intimate Performing Arts Theater. In order to highlight the connections between the play’s Romantic subject and the neo-conservative time in which it was written and first performed, director Jeff Mills has set this production in the late 1970s, rather than in 1816. Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Clairmont will thus express their collective rejection of social conformity through the fashions and locations of a later time — the golden era of British punk.
It’s a daring move, as Bloody Poetry, with its dense language and heady intellectual gamesmanship, already presents significant challenges to any group. Rather than costuming the actors in period finery and attempting to replicate the formidable interior of Villa Diodati, Byron’s eventual Lake Léman residence, Mills and his creative team have gone hard in the other direction, dressing the actors in leather, ripped T-shirts, and strategically placed safety pins. For the set, they’ve simply “defaced the set from [The Importance of Being] Earnest,” according to Mills. The intent is to find a visual equivalent for Brenton’s at once harsh and nonjudgmental version of this extraordinary moment in literary history. “These were the greatest utopian thinkers of the age, but the play’s about the human cost of committing to those radical ideals,” said Mills. Percy Shelley, for one, lives primarily in his own highly imaginative world, and the impact of his intense (and selfish) isolation on Mary Shelley and their children is catastrophic.
Lord Byron’s behavior is hardly an improvement, and the consequences for Clairmont and the daughter she eventually bears him are equally dire. “The Shelley circle worshipped Byron,” Mills said, “but they were also wary of him.” They had good reason. It’s his attitude that gives the play its title, as Mills notes that, “for Byron, life is bloody, and so is poetry.” It’s a very punk attitude, and anarchy, whether of the sort first espoused by Mary Shelley’s father, the political philosopher William Godwin, or the kind proclaimed by Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols almost two centuries later, never goes out of style, or stops leaving human wreckage in its wake.
Bloody Poetry is at the UCSB Performing Arts Theater on May 8 and May 12-16 at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on May 9, 16, and 17. For information and tickets, visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893-2064.