By Nell Darby

Pen & Sword History. 180 pages. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-47388-2-430

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Actors and actresses have always attracted the attention of the public. And they’ve also often established a reputation for unconventional behaviour. The insecurities of theatrical life, and the transitory nature of success, haven’t made for the conventions of the nine-to-five, home-in-the-evening-to-mow-the-lawn-and-play-with-the-kids routine. And, in a way, people expect their actors and actresses to behave oddly (even badly) at times, though they also like to reserve the right to take a moral stance and condemn them when they do. A male actor may be able to get away with being a hard-drinking womaniser, and even be sneakingly admired because of it, but a female one is more likely to be looked on with a frown if she transgresses certain expectations of her behaviour. The public, in or out of a theatre, can be notoriously fickle and sometimes heartless.

Actors and their antics have often been viewed humorously. Think of Alfred Jingle, the amiable but unreliable strolling player in The Pickwick Papers. Or, in a more-modern setting, the bohemian lives of the characters in Douglas Hayes’ The Comedy Man. But the precariousness of bohemianism often led to tragedy. The public, fed lurid details by the popular press, could then adopt a lofty view and point to the failure to conform to its assumed proprieties as the cause of an actor’s downfall. What was it Macaulay said about there being “no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”?

Darby makes the point that the expansion of the press in Victorian Britain meant that there were more pages that could be filled with gossip. The development of the railway system guaranteed that newspapers and other publications could be distributed more quickly and on a wider basis. It was no longer necessary to live in a large city to know what was happening around the country generally, and even around the world. News of high jinks in New York could be read by someone in old York in England within days of them taking place.

There had, of course, been a great degree of interest in, and a fair amount of salacious commentary about, the lives of actors, especially of the female variety, in the Regency period. The Prince Regent and other members of the aristocracy bestowed their favours on various practitioners of the acting profession. But the emphasis tended to be on London. Now, as more and more people learned to read, and music-halls and theatres sprang up in most towns and cities, the taste for gossip about male and female actors became a national pastime. Celebrity culture isn’t anything new, nor is the demand for news about those seen as representing it.

It was inevitable that the very nature of theatrical life, with its practitioners leading, “complex, erratic, peripatetic lives”, and its very existence depending on whether or not sufficient customers might be enticed into a theatre, could lead to criminality of various kinds. Theatre managers were not always to be trusted, and even if they meant well in terms of paying actors and behind-the-scenes staff, they might find that insufficient takings at the box-office left them unable to do so. And there was, for a time, something of a plague of rogues practising a form of blackmail by threatening to disrupt performances unless they were paid off in advance. A few brave actors were hardy enough to point them out and get them evicted from theatres, but plays could be wrecked by heckling that went beyond what might be anticipated, as in a music hall, from a lively audience that wouldn’t tolerate a dull performance.

In the 18th century, many actors had been looked on as little more than rogues and vagabonds, and a 1737 law made them subject to the Vagrancy Acts, which controlled how and when and where they could perform. This was particularly applied to travelling actors, the “strolling players” referred to earlier when I mentioned Mr Jingle. They seemed to have an especially poor reputation, perhaps partly derived from stories of naïve locals being duped by quicker-witted actors, young women being seduced by men who might seem exotic compared to the farmboys and ferrymen they were used to. and landlords being conned into providing bed-and-board that was never paid for.

Darby suggests that what the various Acts that were passed were essentially about was an attempt to control the prostitution that was claimed to be centred on theatres, and which was automatically associated with the performers: “From the attitude that female actresses were little more than prostitutes or loose women developed the Victorian conceit that theatres, and their environs, were hotbeds of iniquity, where prostitutes gathered”. There may well have been some truth in this assertion. The “promenade” at the rear of a theatre, where men and women mixed before a show, and during the interval, did, in some cases, attract ladies of easy virtue and those who wanted to pick them up. It’s located at a later date than the Victorian era, but a lesser-known Arnold Bennett novel, The Pretty Lady, opens in such a setting, and leaves the reader in no doubt about what the lady, and the men who accost her, are doing there.

The assertion that “female actresses were little more than prostitutes” was sometimes given a degree of credibility, as when Grace Otway was involved in a highly-publicised divorce case and her husband said she had slept with men for money. She, in turn, stated that he had encouraged her to do so, and had lived on her earnings from acting and what she claimed was “forced prostitution”. Her husband was granted a divorce on the grounds of her adultery, but the scandal doesn’t seem to have affected her career. Darby says that, in 1899, she appeared with Herbert Beerbohm at Her Majesty’s Theatre in a play called Carnac Sahib.  It’s interesting to note that she had also made a successful second marriage to a highly-respectable man within a few months of her divorce.   

Actors could be sensitive about responses to their performances, as when Owen Dove accused Henry Sampson, editor of The Referee, a weekly sports newspaper which, like others of its kind, also published reviews of plays, of libelling him. The Referee had featured a negative review of Dove’s acting abilities in a play called Hush! Not a Word, and Dove claimed that it placed too much emphasis on a disability he suffered from, and had affected his affected his availability for other roles. He won his case, as did an actor/manager who took offence when a review in a publication called The Bat, advised him to return to his former profession as a waiter.

I think it’s worth noting at this point that Darby isn’t concerned to look closely at the quality of the plays she mentions. Many of them, like Hush! Not a Word and The Great Pink Pearl, quickly sank from sight, though historians of Victorian theatre might occasionally refer to them. A few others, such as Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn did survive for a time, and Tod Slaughter even starred in a 1930s film version of it, playing the wicked squire with a great deal of gusto. I have a tattered old copy of the play with a splendid introduction by Montagu Slater in which he discusses the popularity of melodramas like Maria Marten.

Disputes among actors were not unusual, and among the charms of Darby’s essentially anecdotal book are the odd characters that crop up. We’re not dealing with the major stars of Victorian theatre, but instead with those now-forgotten (though they may have had a degree of fame or notoriety in their day) men and women who toured the provinces, appearing for a few nights here and there. Henry Beaumont, a comedian performing in Derby, complained that Professor Abel, described as “a star of Victorian provincial theatre, who usually appeared on stage with his performing dogs”, had assaulted him. The problem seemed to revolve around the use of a “sword knot” in a play with which both Beaumont and Abel were involved. Abel appears to have had a reputation for aggressive behaviour, having previously been accused of threatening the manager of the Theatre Royal in Preston.  An actor who should have been a witness to the altercation between Beaumont and Abel could not be called because “he was drunk at the Shakespeare public house, when he should have been prompting”.

Drink may have been the cause of more than one disagreement. When the actress Clare Rousby, proprietor of the London Queen’s Theatre, claimed to have been injured by Daniel Edward Bandmann during a dispute about the way his play, Madeline Morel, was being interpreted in rehearsal, witnesses were called to testify to her being a “regular drinker” and prone to accidents when under the influence of alcohol. Cases like this could have an effect on reputations, and Rousby’s was “tarnished”. She moved to Germany, where she contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty. Darby records that Bandmann later became a rancher on Montana, and “died of the effects of indigestion in 1905”.

As Darby makes clear, “court cases involving theatrical people were a form of theatre in themselves”, and some actors, no doubt struggling to get by in a profession largely built around uncertainty in terms of employment and earnings, found themselves in the dock accused of theft. Rex Russell, a “celebrated” character actor of the 1890s, was convicted of “obtaining money by false pretences”, and sentenced to a term of “hard labour”.

Jessie Vyner, a 19 year-old attractive actress, stole money belonging to another actress in the same lodgings, and was fined with an alternative of prison, though Darby doesn’t say which option she chose. And in a case involving the theft of a ring from a jeweller’s shop in Orchard Street, Preston, 16 year-old actress, Amy Coates, was looked on leniently because of her youth and fined only twenty shillings. Having grown up in Preston, and often walked down on Orchard Street, my mind worked overtime when imagining the scene of Amy’s arrest. What also intrigues me is what happened to people like Jessie Vyner and Amy Coates? Did they go on to have careers in the theatre, or at some point simply disappear from view?

Murder was a much more-serious crime than the minor thefts referred to above, and cases from abroad were reported in the British press. A particularly sad one involved “a well-known English actor named Arthur Dacre”, who shot his wife, the “actress Amy Roselle”, and then cut his own throat. They had been touring theatres in Australia, though seemingly without much success, and presumably had little money or hopes of earning any. Notes were left which suggested they may have made a suicide pact.

The actor, William Terriss, arrived at the Adelphi Theatre in London one night in December, 1897. He was due to appear in a play called Secret Service, but before he could enter the stage door another man rushed up and stabbed him. The murderer turned out to be a minor actor by the name of Richard Arthur Prince. He was said to have had a grudge against Terriss relating to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, but this may not have been the real reason for his actions. He was eventually judged to be insane and sent to Broadmoor, where he died in 1936. This case attracted a great deal of attention from the press and public, no doubt because it involved actors.

Life on the Victorian Stage (and, really, it’s as much about life off it)  is an entertaining book, mostly based on court cases that, in one way or another, involved actors and actresses, theatre managers, and the general world they inhabited. Darby doesn’t claim to have written a history of the theatre in terms of the plays produced, the styles of acting that were employed, and any contributions that may have been made towards the development of a dramatic tradition. It’s largely a humdrum world of shabby provincial theatres, grubby lodgings, and routine performances of mediocre plays,   that is highlighted. Not many of the names of the plays and people have survived. And most of the theatres have long since been used for other purposes or demolished. Nell Darby re-creates a world it is now difficult to imagine ever existed. But people still like to know what actors and actresses get up to when they’re on or off stage, or participating in a TV programme or a film.  Gossip goes on.