Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bitten by "The Gold-Bug," cont'd

It's hard for some to believe that the single most successful of Poe's prose works during his lifetime was not a horror story. In fact, the most-read story and the one which earned him the most money was an adventure tale called "The Gold-Bug." In the story, which is set in South Carolina, a seemingly mad loner named Legrand discovers a gold scarab which he believes is the key to buried treasure. Legrand breaks a secret cryptogram to discover gold coins and jewelry left years behind by the pirate Captain Kidd (upon seeing the treasure chest open, the narrator remarks: "As the rays of the lanterns fell within the pit, there flashed upwards a glow and a glare, from a confused heap of gold and of jewels that absolutely dazzled our eyes." A couple paragraphs later is an extensive description of all that they found.).

Audiences ate up "The Gold-Bug" when it was first published in 1843, bringing Poe's name into the homes of many more Americans than ever before. In fact, the story proved so popular that a stage production was adapted shortly after publication. This dramatic presentation of the story opened on August 8, 1843, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia; this performance is the earliest adaptation of Poe's works into another medium. As one newspaper noted, the play was part of a "Farewell Benefit" for playwright Silas S. Steele, who was about to depart for England. The benefit started with a performance of Steele's drama Clandare and it would "conclude with an entire new piece, entitled THE GOLD BUG, Or, The Pirate's Treasure." The African servant Jupiter was performed by "Coal White" (a stage name, possibly a white man in black face).

The play, however, did not fare as well as the original story. John Du Solle of the Spirit of the Times noted: "Mr. Steele had a good house at his benefit on Tuesday night, and the performances were generally good. The Gold Bug, however, dragged, and was rather tedious. The frame work was well enough, but wanted filling up."

I can't imagine "The Gold-Bug" would easily translate into a stage play. One of the aspects of the story which makes it so novel is the secret message which Legrand decodes. A reader can play along and try to decipher the message himself; a 19th-century theatre isn't likely to replicate that experience. I haven't read any speculation as far as Poe's financial benefit from the play. I would speculate he earned nothing at all from it, other than some recognition. The original publication of "The Gold-Bug," however, earned him a hefty $100.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This does not surprise me at all, actually. I find "The Gold Bug" maintains its status as a thrilling adventure story and it keeps my interest no matter how many times I reread it.