skip to content

Sterne and Sterneana : Tristram Shandy a sentimental, Shandean bagatelle, in two acts

MacNally, Leonard 1752-1820

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>From the eighteenth century to the present day, readers of Tristram Shandy have often remarked on the theatricality of Sterne's style. But MacNally's adaptation was the first sustained attempt to make a play of the novel. Born in Dublin, MacNally was trained in the law and was called to the bar in London in May 1783, just a few weeks after his stage adaptation premiered at Covent Garden, on 24 April. By this time, he'd already published one 'Shandean Bagatelle' - his Sentimental Excursions to Windsor, and Other Places (1781) - and had also achieved some success as a playwright, specifically in the form of the afterpiece: a shorter play, usually comedic and almost always musical, that would follow the five-act mainpiece on a theatre's nightly programme. Indeed, rather than being named on the title page here, MacNally is announced as 'the Author of Retaliation', a farce of 1781 that had already staged ten times.</p><p>MacNally had somehow to fashion a two-act play out of Sterne’s self-consciously meandering, nine-volume novel. As the prologue puts it, the playwright’s task was to ‘Retain [Sterne’s] jokes, keep pity on the trot, / Leave out digressions, and connect by plot’. The first act brings together a variety of the novel’s incidents: the story of Le Fevre (sic), the toppling of Dr Slop by Obadiah, Toby’s and Trim’s reminiscences about battle and military life, and the crushing of Tristram’s nose. This medley is punctuated by brief discussions of Toby’s wooing of the Widow Wadman, which prepare the way for the second act. There, the courtship plot – including such favourite scenes as the confusion over the ‘location’ of Toby’s wound and mirrored by the romance of Trim and Susannah (not Bridget, as in the novel) – provides the sole dramatic focus. The result is performance as anthology, with verbatim material spliced with paraphrases and brief Sternean riffs. The piece was even given a familiar look, with the actors dressed to match the characters as imagined in William Hogarth’s two frontispieces for Sterne’s novel.</p><p>There was a clear public appetite for staged Sterneana at this time. Premiering just days after Thomas Sheridan wrapped up his twice-weekly ‘Rhetorical Prelections’ at Hickford’s Great Room, which included his reading of the Le Fever story, MacNally’s play was a notable success. It was staged seven times in just three weeks, and a further five times the following season. It was also performed in Hull and York. By and large, it won favour with the critics as well as the audience. ‘The characters, the sentiments, and wit of Sterne, are strictly preserved,’ wrote the Morning Chronicle (28 April 1783), ‘…where [MacNally] has not borrowed from Sterne, yet his ideas and flashes are so truly in the Shandean manner, that it is not possible to distinguish the stile and manner’.</p><p>More than one newspaper review did, however, complain of the afterpiece’s excessive length. MacNally and Harris evidently listened, for when Tristram Shandy began its second run at Covent Garden in September 1783 it appeared in an altered and truncated form. It is this revised version of the play that the present volume, published in October 1783, offers the reader. Comparison of this printed text with the manuscript of the afterpiece submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office prior to its premiere (now in the Huntington Library) shows that two scenes were cut entirely: a kitchen confrontation between Slop and Susannah and a lengthy discussion of geography involving Toby and Widow Wadman (the very two scenes that the Public Advertiser had recommended for ‘the pruning pen’). The printed text further differs from the manuscript in offering a more streamlined second act that builds towards the comic discovery of Trim and Susannah’s rendezvous behind the Dutch drawbridge (adapting vol. 3, ch. 24). The final, published version of MacNally’s Tristram Shandy thus showcases both the difficulties of adapting Sterne and also the process of change that a play might undergo even after a successful first performance.</p><p>David Francis Taylor</p><p><b>References:</b></p><p>Leonard MacNally, ‘Tristram Shandy, A Farce in Two Acts’, Larpent MS 621, Huntington Library, CA.</p><p>M-C. Newbould, Adaptations of Laurence Sterne’s Fiction: Sterneana, 1760-1840 (London: Routledge, 2013).</p><p>Warren L. Oakley, A Culture of Mimicry: Laurence Sterne, His Readers and the Art of Bodysnatching (Leeds: Maney Publishing for the MHRA, 2010).</p></p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , and information about sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: