Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, who is an expert in Victorian popular fiction.
In 1891 the famous Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson published a short story titled The Bottle Imp in his Island Nights’ Entertainments. Based allegedly upon an old German folktale, The Bottle Imp was the tale of a Mephistophelian demon who lives in a bottle and
Whoever possesses one of these little devils … can command from it as much gold as he desires … but what are the conditions? For, from the time of Dr Faustus to the present day, these gentlemen always make their conditions…
The condition, of course, just like that which Mephistopheles imposed on Dr Faustus, was the keeper’s immortal soul! However, there is a get out clause: If the bottle’s owner manages to sell it on to someone else for less than he paid for it, then his soul will not be dragged to hell.
Stevenson’s story was a great success—it appeared in the New York Herald and Black and White magazine in the same year and it was made into a silent film in 1917.
But where did Stevenson get the idea for his strange story?
Professors Weigh In
Stevenson died in 1894. In the meantime, the study of English literature as an academic subject grew in popularity both in the United Kingdom and in the United States (King’s College, London had had one professor of English literature as early as 1859, but it was not until the end of the century that other universities adopted it as a distinct subject).
By 1910, some academics were turning their attention to Stevenson’s works and in that year a transatlantic investigation into Stevenson’s literary ‘influences’ began in the columns of an academic journal titled Modern Language Notes. Joseph Warren Beach, a professor at the University of Minnesota, managed to find an obscure and long-forgotten play titled The Bottle Imp, written by Richard Brinsley Peake, and first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, London in 1828.
Brinsley Peake’s play was a melodrama lasting about 45mins, a run time which was about average for the less serious plays featured on the nineteenth century.
The genre of melodrama emerged on the Parisian stage after the French Revolution of 1789. It was viewed by contemporaries as a complete rejection of the ultra-rationalism and neoclassicism which had ruled the French culture prior to the Revolution. In melodrama—unlike the neoclassical plays of the Ancien Regime—human experience and individuals’ emotions were emphasised over intellectualism.
By 1802, melodrama had arrived on the British stage. British melodrama plays featured clear (some might say ‘simplistic’) binary conflicts between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, oppressor versus oppressed, and rich versus poor. Supernatural events, violent duels, ladies fainting, attempted rapes, and highs and lows of emotion were the order of the day; with many of the antagonists being members of the aristocracy, it is little wonder that in England’s class-ridden society such plays were popular with the working classes. The lower admission price of many of these plays no doubt played a part in attracting these audiences as well.
Brinsley Peake’s Bottle Imp
Brinsley Peake’s Bottle Imp is set in Venice at some point during the early modern period which can be ascertained, not from any details in the text of the play, but from the illustration of the production which accompanied the John Dicks’s Standard Plays edition published in the 1870s.
A man named Albert arrives in the city, with his servant Willibald, seeking a good time:
Enjoyment is my theme—enjoyment I will have!
But Albert has spent all of his money. How lucky, then, that he is accosted in the street by a man named Nicola who invites him to a party.
Nicola dazzles Albert with his wealth and women at his banquet. Nicola then leaves Albert in the good hands of several women while he retires to his study. Proceeding to his cabinet, he takes out a small bottle and begins pondering its contents:
What is the result of all my midnight study? … avarice first prompted the hellish lucubrations, love of unbounded pleasure, of uncircumscribed luxury, riveted the fatal chain which now I drag in misery … Fiend! Fiend! Though through thee I possess the mastery of the means to procure wealth … the possession of thee has embittered each moment of my existence.
In addition to being a lecher, we find out that Nicola is also a rapist and a parricide. Nicola is perhaps the true villain of the tale while Albert is ‘nice but dim’, being a bit impressionable and conscious of the fact that, although he is an upper class man, is actually quite poor.
Nicola returns to the party to find that Albert has gambled away his funds. Now is the perfect time for Nicola to make a sale and free himself from damnation and Albert accepts. In an instant Albert finds himself possessed of wealth beyond his wildest dreams. Nicola leaves quickly and gifts him his mansion.
Some weeks later, Albert awakes in his mansion hungover and cursing himself for having risked his immortal soul for wealth. Albert’s hangover is so bad, in fact, that he fears he might die. He begins praying to God for salvation when all of a sudden he hears a deep, ominous voice. It is the Bottle Imp:
Bot. Albert, Albert, thou prayest in vain.
Prepare thee, now for eternal pain,
No herb that grows the pangs of death can heal,
I joy—for thou art mine, I feel.
Then ensues some dazzling special effects:
(Music—blue fire—a column of smoke arises from the bottle, which smoke gradually assumes the form of a large demon).
The Imp begins taunting Albert:
Thou mayest be the envy of the world during the day, but night must come, and at night thou must always expect my cheering presence!
When the Demon disappears Albert has had enough and summons Will. Will is commanded to go to the marketplace and sell the bottle any way he can and the bottle soon finds its way into the hands of an old pedlar.
Melodrama meets Farce
Melodrama on the early nineteenth-century English stage had always contained healthy doses of humour to balance out its emotional highs and lows. As one playwright once remarked:
Melodrama blows up, irony deflates.
The Second Act of the The Bottle Imp may said to be completely farcical because a series of comical events occurs in quick succession (indeed, the play becomes so ridiculous that I think the rest of this article can be written while my tongue is firmly in my cheek, so to speak, as it does not warrant a serious analysis).
Nicola returns to the stage, now dressed as a pauper as he has lost all of his wealth. As he is begging for alms, members of the fearsome Inquisition arrest him on a charge of necromancy.
Albert, who has within a few moments lost all of his wealth, also appears in the marketplace enlists in the army. As a soldier, he approaches a pedlar (yes, the same pedlar whom we met a few moments previously) and buys a box of things from him. The box, of course, contains the bottle with imp—Poor Albert!
Albert needs to now get rid of the box, so he takes up gambling. Albert purposely makes bad bets so as to lose the box and the bottle ends up in the possession of a random soldier. Having lost the bottle in a bet he’s gleeful and thinks his troubles are over.
Alas—they are not!
Albert is then arrested for insubordination because gambling is illegal while you’re in the army. He is sentenced to death by firing squad and the soldiers take their aim and are about to fire on him when….
Marcela and her Father Arrive!
We have not previously met Marcela and her father. But it turns out that Marcela is Albert’s lover from his fictitious and obscure home town in Germany.
Albert had been a bit of a naughty boy. He got Marcela pregnant out of wedlock and, instead of being a man and making an honest woman of her, he absconded to Venice. Well, Marcela’s father was determined to make Albert marry his daughter so their child would not be born illegitimate, and they tracked him down to Venice. They arrive at the marketplace at the moment that Albert is to be shot.
Marcela is, still, bafflingly, in love with the man who abandoned her while pregnant and intercedes with the officer on Albert’s behalf.
It just so happens (because, of course) that the officer who is execute Albert’s sentence of death is Marcela’s sister. Despite his initial reservations about Albert’s character (he did get his sister pregnant, after all), he agrees to commute the sentence to imprisonment.
Marcela confesses her love for Albert but while she is speaking he sees that she is holding a box (yes, it is the box) which she bought from a pedlar. Albert quickly thrusts a coin into Marcela’s hand so as to save her soul. Unfortunately for Albert, his possession of the box once again means that he faces the terrible prospect of his immortal soul being dragged to hell when he dies.
The Return of Nicola
What is Albert to do? Well, salvation comes from an unlikely place.
For some reason the Inquisition cannot place Nicola in the city gaol. So the Inquisitor asks Marcela’s brother to watch over him as well as Albert. Nicola, under sentence of death, asks Albert if he can buy back the bottle with the imp.
Albert gleefully gives the bottle away for free and Nicola thinks he will escape from the Inquisition and live a long life in wealth and luxury again.
Alas—‘tis not so!
Once Albert hands the bottle over to Nicola the bottle breaks and the demon appears again and proclaims
Thy hour is come, Nicola! Ha! Ha! Ha! … Thou art mine!
There is then a dazzling array of special effects as Nicola, just like Faust in the more famous German folktale, is carried off to hell:
Shower of fire. Music. [Imp] seizes him by the hair of his head, and sinks with him; at the same moment…an immense crowd illuminated by fire.
The punishment is just; Nicola is really the play’s true villain. Albert was a bit dim but, apart from an ‘indiscretion’ (as the Victorians might say) with Marcela, he was never a bad person. Nicola is a rapist and parricide, however, and received his just desserts. His crime was expiated. Divine justice was served.
 Richard Brinsley Peake, The Bottle Imp (London: J. Dicks, n.d.), 2.
 Alan Bacon, ‘English Literature Becomes a University Subject: King’s College, London as Pioneer’, Victorian Studies, 29: 4 (1986), 591.
 Joseph Warren Beach, ‘The Sources of Stevenson’s Bottle Imp’, Modern Language Notes, 25: 1 (1910), 13.
 See James Redmond, ed. Themes in Drama, 14: Melodrama (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
 Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976), 5.
 Brinsley Peake, The Bottle Imp, p. 1.
 Ibid., p. 2.
 Ibid., p. 8.
 Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 79.
 Peake, Bottle Imp, p. 11.