August 8, 2012

Poe on stage: rather tedious

Edgar Allan Poe and his work have become a mainstay of popular culture; his writings and his life story have been the inspiration for countless films, TV episodes, radio broadcasts, stage performances, and music (with varying degrees of success). Among the earliest, however, was one he may have witnessed in his own lifetime.

"The Gold-Bug" was both the most popular of Poe's works as well as the most lucrative for the author himself. The story follows the seemingly insane William Legrand in a search for buried treasure left behind on a South Carolina island by the pirate Captain Kidd. In his quest for the lost pirate gold, he solves a series of riddles, the first of which was in the form of a golden-colored scarab beetle. The initial publication of this innovative story in June 1843 earned Poe an impressive $100 award. was widely reprinted after its initial publication. It is believed to be Poe's widest-circulated work during his lifetime.

More surprisingly, it was the first of Poe's works adapted for the stage. On August 8, 1843, "The Gold-Bug" premiered at Philadelphia's American Theatre. Written by and starring Silas B. Steele, the play was not as successful as the fictitious hero Legrand. A review in the local newspaper The Spirit of the Times by its editor John Du Solle 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."

In truth, "The Gold-Bug" could not be easily replicated on stage. The most novel aspect of the story was its riddles, with which readers could play along, including the famous cryptogram in the form of a substitution cypher. To solve it, one might need a paper and pencil (as well as some thoughtful time) which, presumably, the American Theatre did not provide that day.


  1. Just a slight correction. The writer of this play was Silas Sexton (S, not B) Steele (c. 1812-84), who was a rather successful Philadelphian "dramatist" of over 80 plays by 1860 (also a songwriter/ librettist). He had given up acting before 1843, so he didn't "star" in any roles. Black man Jupiter was played, ironically, by a Mr. White. Poe's piece was not the prime performance of that benefit evening. Steele later wrote the lyrics to "The Rose of Alabama." A musical from 1896, performed at the NY Casino, also bore the title "The Gold Bug", but had nothing to do with Poe's story.

    From Holland.

  2. Thanks for correcting that typo! I'm not sure where I read that he performed in the play as well but, to be honest, I wasn't there...

    1. Rob, you had it right the first time in your Poe Calendar Blog (2009).
      There were only four characters in The Gold Bug, none of them played by Steele himself. J.H. 'Coal' White was "the best negro dandy on the boards," read: a black minstrel.
      S.S. Steele also didn't feature as an actor in the play preceding The Gold Bug, "Clandare." The actor at the time, J. Proctor, appropriated Clandare as "a new melodrama" in 1858, performed as an Indian show in New York City, without much success it seems.

      From Holland.