As well as opera, Walter Scott’s novels inspired numerous plays in his own time. Scott had strong links to Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal, and often encouraged dramatic adaptations of his work.
The connection between drama and song may not be immediately obvious, but in Scott’s era, only licensed play-houses could stage serious drama. Non-licensed theatres could show musical events and spectacles such as live animal performances, but could not perform shows without music. So, most stage adaptations of Scott’s works contained music as well as pantomime-style entertainment, to enable them to be shown widely.
These productions were popular with the public. Even the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, one of the few theatres with a licence enabling it to stage drama without music, showed the musical adaptations of Scott’s novels.
Ivanhoe, or, The Knight Templar: adapted from the novel of that name
Samuel Beazley (1786-1851) was an English architect, novelist and playwright. First shown in 1820 at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, his ‘musical drama’ adaptation of Ivanhoe was described in a review as ‘moderately successful’ when it was revived in 1837.
The plays introduced Scott’s fiction to a wider audience, but often departed from the novels. Scott’s Rob Roy ends on a note of uncertainty about how the Highlander Rob and his family fit into modern society. But in the dramatist Isaac Pocock’s theatrical version, first staged in 1818, the final song presents the Highlanders as having become agents of a new British Empire. The later nineteenth-century repurposing of Scott’s image in support of Empire relied less on Scott’s original writing than it did on adaptations of his work.
O my luve’s like a red, red rose
Performed by Davy Steele
Adaptations of Scott’s work continued into the twentieth century, in particular in the form of illustrated editions and comics. The American ‘Classic Comics’ series published several of Scott’s novels in comic form, and encouraged their young readers to find the books in their local libraries.