Rivals on the Rocks: a scientific saga of the eighteenth-century stage
Edgar, I come ‚Äď one chord alone about my breaking heart
Detains me from thee ‚Äď now it yields ‚Äď it bursts ‚Äď ‚Äėtis done ‚Äď ‚Äėtis past ‚Äď thy Helga
Reaching for the dramatic heights of Lear‚Äôs ‚ÄúBreak heart, prithee break‚ÄĚ, Mackenzie‚Äôs offering was instead doused with scorn. Gales of laughter and mockery greeted the opening night and its run on the Edinburgh stage in the January of 1812 was embarrassingly brief.
The Rival Minstrels‚Äô failure, however, had as much to do with a scientific scandal of the time as it did with Mackenzie‚Äôs arguably lacklustre creative ability. When he wasn‚Äôt moonlighting as a tragic playwright, Mackenzie‚Äôs interests lay in geology, and 1811 saw him fresh off the boat from a research trip to Iceland. The hot topic of the day was rock formation: Mackenzie favoured a volcanic theory, but a rival group known as ‚ÄėNeptunists‚Äô fancied a more water-based solution to the question. Mackenzie attacked the Neptunists‚Äô ideas in a publication entitled Travels in Iceland: an academic chemical burn which would sink his play‚Äôs hopes for success.
Sir Walter Scott, who had provided a prologue and epilogue for The Rival Minstrels and was deeply regretting it, wrote an embarrassed letter to a friend about the play‚Äôs poor reception, revealing that it was sediment, not sentiment, which had undermined Mackenzie‚Äôs work. The offended Neptunists, determined to avenge Mackenzie‚Äôs heated roast of their chemical theory, had shown up in full force to rain on his theatrical parade and swayed the opinion of audience and critics alike.
Icelandic sagas‚Äô involvement with geological themes didn‚Äôt sink beneath the literary waves with Mackenzie‚Äôs failed enterprise: in his Journey to the Centre of the Earth Jules Verne made a saga manuscript the key to finding the volcanic tunnels which would lead his characters to (you guessed it) the centre of the earth. Unfortunately for Mackenzie, however, it‚Äôs fair to say that in this particular Icelandic venture it was the chemical rivals and not the poets who held the stage and won the day.