Manfred by Lord Byron

by Paul Mathers


Contrasting our previous entry, we have a play written with excellence by one of the finest poets who ever lived.  On the other hand, I kept picturing how a grad school creative writing panel would rip the plot to shreds.

I used to have insomnia back when I was a young man still living at my parent’s house.  I remember after laying in bed, tossing and turning for hours, I would get up and go into the front room.  There was a weekly publication inserted into the Sunday section of the Orange County Register which was a booklet of everything scheduled to be broadcast on television for the next week.  In the back, in sort of an appendix, were listings of every film to be broadcast on every network and a brief, one sentence long description of the film.  And I found that if I would sit and read these one sentence descriptions, it would sometimes help me sleep.  I assume it would sort of prime my mind for dreaming and take my thoughts out of the spirals I had constructed over the course of the day.  Often the films would be familiar, but described so generically that you wouldn’t immediately think of the film you were familiar with

“A man escapes from prison with two friends to seek treasure. Stars George Clooney, John Tuturro…”

“Three friends down on their luck decide to start a paranormal pest control business. Stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd…”

“A jealous composer hounds his rival to an early grave. Stars F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce…”

An odd side-effect is that I now do this in my head when I read or see something.

“A man, mad for vengeance, bakes a pie for a couple made from, amongst other ingredients, the woman’s sons.”

Some of my favorites were the sentence writer’s attempts at describing abstract or surreal films.  How would you encapsulate Mulholland Drive in this manner?  And, indeed, how would you encapsulate Byron’s Manfred?

“Dissatisfied with the lack of comfort provided by the spirits and religious leaders that he has conjured up, a man decides to die instead.”

“Despairing over his lost love, a man climbs mountains, consults witches, moves in with a chamois hunter, and argues with a local clergyman.”

Some experiences are not meant to be distilled.

The Byronic Hero is a type: generally brooding, often intellectual but with raging emotions, consumed with a passion for liberty.  The word Romantic springs to mind as a form of shorthand, but there is an even better shorthand in the phrase itself.  Lord Byron is the archetype, Manfred is the Adam of Byronic Heroes.

This is a play I would love to produce and would also love to see.  It is a work that demands great spectacle, but is also a language driven piece.  There is so much meat in this piece for a theater company to play with (one of my more disturbing mixed metaphors!)  The actors have a full range of human emotions to plumb (grief, separation, fear, stopping suicides, rising from the dead), while those on the technical side of the production have spirits to manifest, huge scenery changes from towers to mountains to cottages to a gloomy Gothic study, a Sin-Monster from the Id to raise, and so forth.

In the end, my favorite pieces in this volume were by Shelley, Byron, and Sheridan.

And now on to the Devil’s bargain, after this musical interlude.  It may not surprise you to learn that Manfred was also a favorite of Robert Schumann’s: