Who’s Who in the Victorian Theater

This is all based on Michael Booth’s book Theatre in the Victorian Age. His second chapter is on management, and his fourth chapter is on actors–but most of the people he profiles are the same in both chapters, since famous actors often became managers (called, appropriately enough, “actor-managers”). Booth seems to have an immense amount of respect for these people, since they had incredibly demanding jobs. From his description, it seems like 16-hour days were typical for both actors and actor-managers.

A note on the term “actor-manager”: Not all managers were actors, but if an actor became a manager, s/he was also the star of all the plays that his/her particular theater produced. So, particular theaters were strongly associated with particular actor-managers, especially in the West End.

William Charles Macready: Actor-manager of Covent Garden (1837-39) and Drury Lane (1841-43), both of which were the West End theaters that had patents to produce the “legitimate” drama before the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. He wanted to advance the interests of the legitimate drama (farce, tragedy, comedy) in Covent Garden and Drury Lane because he thought that the previous managers had been disasters, and had relied too much on spectacle. He, on the other hand, “paid a great deal of attention to scenic harmony and scenic ‘illustration’ of a text” (Booth 42). He anticipated the 20th century director in many ways, by rehearsing actors and technical staff very carefully and patiently and by coordinating all aspects of the production. He was a big fan of Shakespeare, and hated melodrama and other popular forms of drama. His managerial stints were brief, but he set the standard for everyone who followed him.

Madame Lucia Vestris: The first notable female manager of the nineteenth century. Theater management was one of the few professions in which women could compete on relatively equal levels with men, and even exert economic control over men (by hiring male actors). She was a comedienne, singer and dancer, and reopened the Olympic in 1831. The Olympic was a minor theater, and in 1831 it had no right to play the legitimate drama. However, Madame Vestris refused to perform melodrama, which was the standard form of the minor theaters. Instead, she “resolved to make the illegitimate repertory which she selected–musical pieces, little comedies, extravaganzas, farces and burlesques–as entertaining and fashionable as possible” (Booth 45). Through some redecoration, a shorter playbill, and careful rehearsal, she succeeded in attracting some fashionable audiences, although her management wasn’t particularly a huge financial success.

From 1839 to 1842, she and her new husband, the comedian Charles James Mathews, managed Covent Garden and started producing legitimate drama. They produced Love’s Labour’s Lost for the first time since the 17th century, and put on an important production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which most people deemed unstageable. They succeeded tremendously with Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance.

From 1847 to 1855, Vestris and Mathews managed the Lyceum. This was after the Theatre Regulation Act, so they could produce anything they liked, but nonetheless, they didn’t succeed. They didn’t have a very good repertory, except for some spectacle extravaganzas by J.R. Planche. They depended mostly on adaptations of French plays. However, overall, their legacy showed that smaller theaters like the Olympic could succeed, and that attention to detail and careful rehearsal paid off.

Samuel Phelps: He was an actor under Macready, and he went on to manage Sadler’s Wells from 1844 to 1862. Sadler’s Wells was in Islington, a district in north-east London, so it was remote from the West End–which was a significant risk during this period. The risk paid off, since he built up a loyal local audience. Booth writes that it was “the nineteenth century’s single endeavour to decentralise London theatre and produce a legitimate repertory outside the West End” (46). Phelps went back to the West End to act, though, and after his management, “the concentration of theatrical forces in the West End strengthened and the area outside the centre was given over to the old working-class theatres and the new suburban playhouses–both of them, by the end of the century, merely staging posts for shows touring out of the West End” (46). He produced lots of Shakespeare, in addition to other 16th, 17th, and 18th-century plays that had previously lain dormant. He also tried to produce good work by contemporary dramatists. Like Macready, he insisted on careful rehearsals, but unlike Macready, he ran his company more as an ensemble (although he was still the star), and was not as jealous of potential rivals for the spotlight.

Charles Kean: Macready’s personal enemy. Like Macready, however, Kean comported himself like a gentleman, which did a lot to boost the credibility of the acting profession. His father, Edmund Kean, had been an actor who had lived a wild life, so Charles was interested in repairing the damage his father had done to the image of the actor. He managed the Princess’s Theatre from 1850-1859. Also like Macready, Kean went into his career to revive public interest in the stage and to elevate its status to more genteel levels. He produced a lot of Shakespeare (again, like Macready and Phelps). While Macready “had seen the value of spectacle as a means of historical illustration in Shakespeare and as a pictorial expansion of the text,” Kean saw it “as theatrically attractive in its own right and as a way of recreating Shakespeare’s historical settings as fully as possible” (47). Booth says that Kean’s team of scene-painters was “perhaps the strongest assembled by any nineteenth-century manager” (47). His basis for producing Shakespeare “lay in his own pictorial, archaeological and educational theory” (47), which led to his being made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries during the run of Richard II in 1857. Many Victorians agreed with Kean that Shakespeare was both a historian and an educator, and the “best way to teach history was to do it from the stage by reanimating the actual historical past of the plays” (48).

He also produced two very popular Boucicault plays (adapted from the French): The Corsican Brothers (1852) (Queen Victoria saw this play 8 times) and Louis XI (1855). The Corsican Brothers established a “short-lived school of so-called ‘gentlemanly melodrama’ on the stage” (48). Despite his success in acting and production, Kean’s enterprise was not a financial success. He thought it was because of the limited capacity of the Princess’s, but he spent a lot on his theater and productions, so that could have factored in, too.

Charles Calvert: Managed the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester from 1864 to 1877. He tried to replicate Kean’s minute archaeology in his productions of Shakespeare–he even went to Venice to prepare for an 1871 staging of The Merchant of Venice and brought back a gondola.

Edward Saker: Managed the Alexandria in Liverpool. Also followed Kean’s archaeological methods in his productions of Shakespeare. Along with Calvert, Saker was responsible for raising the level of production quality in the provincial theaters. Where previously, provincial theaters had been known for training future celebrity actors, they were now establishing a reputation for quality production value.

Marie Wilton and Squire Bancroft: Marie Wilton had been typecast as a boy in burlesques, so when she got tired of that, she went into management. When she was still single, Wilton began managing a small, run-down theater named Queen’s. She redecorated it and renamed it to the Prince of Wales’s and deliberately excluded lower-class popular audiences. I guess this was the Victorian theater equivalent of gentrification. She did this by changing her repertory and by raising the prices of the stall seats by 600%. Ouch.

In 1867 she married Squire Bancroft, an actor in her company, and then he took over most of the managerial responsibility. At this point, they replaced their burlesques and comediettas with the works of Tom Robertson. His plays were incredibly popular and he made the Bancrofts a lot of money. According to Booth, “[n]ever was a Victorian management more dependent upon the work of one writer” (53). Between the decorations at the Prince of Wales’s, the relative intimacy of the theater’s size, and the drawing-room themes of Robertson’s plays, one reviewer noted in 1870 that the actors are “‘almost at arm’s length of an audience who sit, as in a drawing-room, to hear drawing-room pleasantries, interchanged by drawing-room personages'” (qtd. in Booth 53). And, in a great quote for my project, Henry James (ick), who “liked neither the Bancrofts’ style nor their principal dramatist, remarked of their ‘little theater’ that ‘the pieces produced there dealt mainly with little things–presupposing a great many chairs and tables, carpets, curtains, and knick-knacks, and an audience placed close to the stage. They might, for the most part, have been written by a cleverish visitor at a country house, and acted in the drawing-room by his fellow inmates'” (qtd. in Booth 53).

In 1880 the Bancrofts moved to the Haymarket theater and did so well that they were able to retire in 1885, after 20 years of theater management. They retired wealthy, but this was mainly because they had consistently raised the prices of their less expensive seats at both theaters they had managed, which of course, led to much debate.

Henry Irving: Managed the Lyceum from 1878 to 1899. He was possibly the brightest of all the star actors in the actor-management system, and was knighted for his efforts in 1895. The Lyceum’s success depended largely on his ability to star in almost every play in its repertory. The repertory was mostly romantic and historical melodrama and Shakespeare. His famous co-star was Ellen Terry, who I think was also knighted, in 1925. Apparently, Shaw wanted his plays to be in Irving’s repertory, but Irving refused to venture into Shaw’s or Ibsen’s “problem play” territory. Thanks in part to Irving, the Lyceum was the “first English company to be acclaimed internationally” (54). Like the Bancrofts, Irving “generally operated a long-run system, which meant that he usually had a lot of time to prepare and rehearse a new production” (54). In addition to Queen Victoria, Irving rubbed shoulders with all the VIPs of his day at numerous state dinners. But, he eventually worked himself to death and died on tour in 1905, after a disastrous fire in 1898 destroyed a lot of the theater’s stock and scenery, and he ended up having to turn over his managerial responsibilities to a syndicate.


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