Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maria Marten or, Murder in the Red Barn

Contemporary drawing of The Red Barn

If not the most popular Victorian play, then certainly a close runner, Maria Marten or, Murder in the Red Barn was inspired by a real-life murder in Polstead, Suffolk in 1827. The story had all the hallmarks of melodrama: an unsuspecting woman, an upper-class deceiver, illicit sex, murder, a hidden body, and a gruesome exposure through a series of dreams. William Corder, the murderer, who lured Maria to the Red Barn, then shot and buried her, was hanged, his body flayed, and the skin used to bind an account of the murder. Broadside ballads and stage representations were an immediate consequence of the immense public interest in the case. (Visit for one version of the song.)

1859 playbill for Murder in the Red Barn

The fictional representations of Maria and her lover fitted them to familiar characters of ingenue and heavy villain, deleting Maria's previous affair with Corder's brother and her illegitimate children (and possible child-murder). Her stepmother, only a year or so older than she, became an elderly doting mother. The maternal nightmares which led to the digging up of a decayed body were taken at face value as ghostly messages, while in real life they may have been the a subterfuge of a scorned woman. Maria's stepmother had been intriguing with William Corder and did not report any nightmares until she received word of his marriage to another woman.

Still playing in 1928

In the 20th-century, the play continued to draw theatre audiences, and at least three silent films were made of the story, one on the site of Maria's death. In 1935, Tod Slaughter filmed a suitably creepy version, well worth watching for his claustrophobic atmosphere and his effective use of melodramatic stage conventions. Especially interesting for Victorian theatre fans is the opening scene of a period theatre company presenting the characters, ending with Death himself. The play is still performed in the UK.

Tod Slaughter as William Corder (1935)


Anonymous said...

Wow! That sounds depressing! ...:(

Cath said...

I read this play in college ...I was into reading plays 19th c audiences "really" attended.

Do you have a copy of the text? We're thinking about a "true crime" reading series...

Buff Huntley said...

I don't have a copy, unfortunately. It's not on Project Gutenberg. It may be obtainable through interlibrary loans, but I've never checked on WorldCat. It must be SOMEwhere!

intelfam said...

I recall seeing the melodrama at the Minack open air theatre near Penzance Cornwall, UK in about 1965. It was an absolutely riveting performance and I can still see the villain, William Corder, complete with top hat, plum long-coat and waxed moustache, 40 odd years later. It is one of the plays I would love to see again, were it revived.