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Elisabeth Kumm reviews Frank Van Straten’s new book on the history of Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. This stunning tribute to one of the city’s most iconic theatres was recently launched at The Maj in true theatrical style.
Frank Van Straten has done it again! Australia’s answer to Mander & Mitchenson and Daniel Blum has written the definitive book on Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. At 336 pages, full colour and with more than 300 images, this book is a glorious tribute to one of the city’s iconic theatres.
The book covers the 138 year history of the site, bringing to life in words and pictures the rich legacy and important role that The Maj has played in nurturing the cultural and social life of Melbourne.
The book was instigated by Mike Walsh, the owner of the theatre since 2000. Under Mike’s able direction, the theatre continues to be an important part of Melbourne’s East End theatre tradition. A spectacular $12 million refurbishment programme in 2002 has ensured the theatre remains vital and relevant. The foyers and auditorium are now the premier Art Deco interiors in the state, and with an enlarged proscenium, reconfigured orchestra pit, improved back of house, and the latest in communications and technology, the theatre is capable of staging shows of all types.
Divided into four main acts (chapters), plus prologue and epilogue, the book charts the history of the theatre year-by-year. From the construction of the Alexandra Theatre in 1886; the JCW years from 1900 (when the theatre was re-named Her Majesty’s); the theatre’s reconstruction in 1934 after the fire; and under Mike Walsh’s direction in 2002 to the present.
From circus and magic, to ballet and opera, comedy, drama and musicals, The Maj has seen it all. The shows are listed chronologically within the text, highlighting the principal stars and other facts about each production. All the shows are represented. There’s Florodora from 1900, JCW’s first big success at theatre; The Merry Widow in 1908 with Australian soprano Carrie Moore; the annual Christmas pantomimes; the spectacular Chu Chin Chow in the 1920s; and White-Horse Inn in the 1930s. Musicals continued to play a big role in the success of the theatre and through the 1940s and beyond hits included Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Call Me Madam and My Fair Lady. And the list goes on … Hello, Dolly!, Sweet Charity, A Chorus Line, Annie, Evita … to the hits of today … Miss Saigon, Billy Elliott and Chicago, to name a few. They are all there!
Almost every show has an accompanying illustration, usually in colour. There are stage shots, portraits, programme covers and more. Also, a stunning five double-page spreads of photos taken in 2018 by leading architectural photographer John Gollings. Many of the images are sourced from Her Majesty’s own extensive archives, while others come from private and international collections.
Extended captions accompany many of the images providing additional details. Not only the shows, but the stars. There’s everyone from Alfred Dampier, Nellie Stewart and Dorothy Brunton through to Gladys Moncrieff, the Great Franquin, Maggie Fitzgibbon, Peter Allen to name a few.
But it is not just the people on the stage that are feted. Frank also introduces us to the people behind the scenes, the directors, choreographers, musical directors, scene painters and architects.
The book includes a engaging Foreword by theatre stalwart Nancye Hayes. Mike Walsh also contributes a short introduction and epilogue. It has an extensive (and exhaustive) index and Col Bodie’s little caricatures are a delight!
Frank has produced a amazing book and one he can be truly proud off – a crowning achievement to a brilliant career dedicated to keeping Australian theatre history alive. His easy style of writing and keen sense of observation and attention to detail has helped to create a book that is a definite must for anyone who loves Melbourne and especially the theatre. Frank has been ably assisted by Jenny Zimmer (designer) and Jim Murphy (editor) who have ensured that it is a very special and remarkable book.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories
by Frank Van Straten
Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, Victoria, 2018
The book is an absolute steal at $65.00 and is available via the Her Majesty’s Theatre website (https://www.hmt.com.au/her-majestys-theatre-melbourne-the-shows-the-stars-the-stories/) or from all good bookshops.
Katie Flack has been obsessed with Pansy Montague for almost 10 years, ever since her interest was piqued when she fielded an enquiry on the research desk at the State Library of Victoria, where she works. In 2011, she received a staff fellowship through the SLV which enabled her to delve further into the life and career of this fascinating Australian artiste.
Pansy Montague was a entertainer in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, in Australia and Great Britain. She developed a music hall act which saw her strip, cover herself in while paint and with a few loose bits of strategically placed drapery, pose as classical statues. A perfect figure and an ability to stand still helped immensely. She was a professional living statue. In her heyday, she earned more than a cabinet minister and at one time performed before a crowd of 50,000 people.
Katie spoke to a small gathering at the SLV on Wednesday, 5 September, presenting her findings so far and showing a selection of Pansy ephemera from both the State Library’s and her own collections.
By admission, Katie calls herself a “passionate potterer”, but with a librarian’s tenacity and a need to find out more, she has uncovered almost all there is to know about Pansy Montague. Theatre historians such as Anita Callaway, have touched on Pansy’s Australian career, but Katie could now be said to be the “world expert” on the topic.
Like many performers, Pansy’s origins are still somewhat hazy (so hazy in fact that even her living relatives do not know when she was born and what happened to her). Was she the illegitimate daughter of Colonel Montague or the child of Irish-born Australian immigrants, Charles and Jane Manley?
Pansy grew up in Melbourne and made her stage debut in 1898, performing initially in popular dramas and in pantomimes, rising quickly from chorus girl to leading lady. What talent she had as an actress was enhanced by her “natural advantages” and “chubby charms”. By the early 1900s, she craved something more – and with the assistance of Alec Laing (aka Cruikshank, a lightening sketch artist) she developed a new line of entertainment – living statues. Styled as the “Modern Milo”, her first outing was at the Melbourne Opera House in June 1905.
Imitating classical statues was not entirely new, the tradition can be traced back to the seventeenth century, and in recent times, pose plastique performers such as the Faust Family and Mlle Lotty had presented similar turns in Melbourne. Whereas other acts had used coloured projections to enhance their routines, Pansy posed on a plinth in a brightly lit garden setting before which various people would pass, from policemen to canoodling couples.
Her act was a huge hit and she performed sell-out shows throughout Australia and New Zealand. But London was calling. Having adopted the sobriquet “La Milo”, she made her London debut the following year at the Pavilion Music Hall, where once again she proved a sensation. By this time, her repertoire comprised some 20 different poses based on classical statues such as La Milo, Electra, Sapho, and Diana. Much of her knowledge and detail came from studying statues in the National Gallery of Victoria. To encourage repeat visitations to the theatre, her act changed regularly and she introduced new novelties. When for example, Velasquez’ painting of Venus went on display in London for the first time, she copied the pose and introduced it into her act.
For three years, from 1906-1909, Pansy was big business. She reached a career high in August 1907 when she participated in the Coventry pageant dressed as Lady Godiva, wearing nothing but fleshlings and a long blond wig. Witnessed by over 50,000 people, she paraded six miles through the streets of Coventry on horseback.
Throughout her career she had to contend with issues of public morality, but by the time of the Lady Godiva episode, the voices had got a little louder, championed by the Bishop of London. Soon acts such as hers were being looked upon as indecent and music halls were being discouraged from including them on their bills.
Around this time she met Ferdinand (Fred) Eggena - and the two were “married” in Birmingham in December 1908, but Fred proved to be a confidence trickster and the marriage was a sham. Pansy also became embroiled in one of his schemes to obtain expensive jewels under false pretences. Eventually Eggena was caught and the case went to trial, but fortunately for Pansy she was deemed a “mere tool in the transaction” and was not charged. The incident did not help her career. With the war clouds gathering, London was cooling and by 1914, she was in America. But her act was no longer a novelty, and there were other younger people doing similar things. She decided on a complete change and by 1921 had opened the La Milo Beauty Salon in New York.
From this point on, Pansy proves harder to track down. By 1924 she is back in Australia, touring throughout county NSW and QLD in pantomimes, and in 1929 she is mentioned in relation to a special event to mark the closure of the Sydney Tivoli, but after that the trail grows cold. Pansy disappears.
No doubt one day Katie will find out what happened to Pansy – and when she does, let’s hope she shares it with us. A fascinating figure (in more ways that one), Pansy Montague was an Australian original and a leading exponent of the art of “living statues” that deserves to be rediscovered and placed once more upon a plinth for today’s audiences to admire.
*Anita Callaway, Visual Ephemera: Theatrical art in nineteenth century Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, pp. 67-72.
Irish-born English actor Phil Day was born in Cork in 1844, the only son of the Rev. Samuel Phillips Day (1818-1885) and his wife Julia Maria Day. Named after his father, he was the second eldest in a family of five children. By the time of the 1861 census, the Day family had relocated to London and were living in Kentish Town.
Day’s father, the eponymous Samuel Phillips Day, was a man of many talents, a former Benedictine monk, Unitarian preacher, journalist and author, who travelled widely, spending time in America, Canada and Europe. At the time of his death in 1885 he had published eleven books on topics ranging from politics and religion to juvenile crime and the history of tea. During the period of the American Civil War he acted as special correspondent for the London Morning Herald, subsequently writing a book, Life and Society in America.
No doubt due to the peripatetic activities of his father – and as the only other male in a household of women, young Phil Day deciding to try his luck on the stage, despite the disapproval of his parents. A natural mimic, with the ‘rubber-face’ of a comedian, he soon found his niche.
One of his earliest engagements was in 1864 with Charles Calvert’s first company at the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester, where another young hopeful, Henry Irving was also engaged. Through his friendship with Irving, he was responsible for the unmasking of the notorious Davenport Brothers, two bogus spiritualists. When their agent, Dr Fergusson, offered £100 to any person ‘who could perform their feats’, Irving, Day and Frederick Maccabe decided to try their luck. With Irving dressed as Fergusson, and Day and Maccabe as the two brothers, the trio hired the Library Hall of the Manchester Athenaeum, and before a capacity audience, reproduced exactly all the Davenport ‘miracles’ thereby exposing their trickery.
By 1868, Day was in London, where he established himself a “light eccentric comedian”, performing at the Royalty, Follies Dramatique and Folly theatres. Over the following fifteen years, as well as playing some of most popular characters in the repertoire, he also created many original roles, including Ned Thornton in A Loving Cup (1868); Jonas Chuzzlewit in Pecksniff (1876); Dr Ox in Oxygen (1877); Signor Sproutzo Cabbagi in Balloonacy (1879); Captain Basil Bagot in Bow Bells (1880); Almaschar in Don Juan Junior (1880); and Viscount de Ternan in Diane (1882).
Unfortunately Day was plagued by poor health and in 1883, he accepted an offer from Williamson, Garner and Musgrove to visit Australia, hoping that the warmer climate would prove beneficial. Accompanied by his wife, Emily, whom he had married in 1872, and a young child, they sailed for Melbourne.
Day made his Australian debut at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne on 27 October 1883, playing the role of Daniel Jaikes in the first Australian production of The Silver King. This play also signalled the return of G.S. Titheradge, who played the title role, and Arthur Garner, who played Captain Skinner, the villain of the piece.
On Day’s first appearance, the critic on the Argus (29 October 1883) wrote:
Next to the two principals, the chief success of the evening was achieved by Mr Philip Day, a new member of the company, who plays the part of Daniel Jaikes, a delightful old man … His humour runs into pathos, and his pathos brightens into humour, and both are blended at time so ultimately that you find yourself “checking the career of laughter with a sigh”. Mr Day’s identification of himself with the part was complete and unvarying. He belongs to a good school of acting, and may be said to have leaped into the favour of the audience almost at a bound.
As predicted, Day quickly established himself as an audience favourite and went on to play further characters with equal success. These included the Doge of Venice in Estrella (1884) – a role he had performed in London – Mr Mumpleford in Confusion (1884), Bosco Blithers in Mixed (1885) and the title character in Uncle Dick (1886).
Undoubtedly Day’s most successful creation was Bosco Blithers in Mixed, which he introduced to Melbourne audiences for first time at the Bijou Theatre on 5 September 1885. Founded on a French farce called Les Trois Chapeaux [The Three Hats] by Alfred Hennequin, the play was first performed in Brussels in 1870 and in Paris in 1871.
One of the catch-lines in the play is “I've called about a hat”, spoken by the character of Bosco Blithers, a professor of penmanship, calling at the home of the George Selwyn seeking his lost hat, which Selwyn had picked up in place of his own, but then lost again when he picked up another hat.
As Blithers, Day “convulsed audiences with his ludicrous make-up and clever acting, which included giving the impression of having an unmanageable artificial leg” – which in one scene he attempts to raise over the back of a high sofa only to end up floundering on the floor in the most outrageously grotesque manner.
As the reviewer in the Argus (7 September 1885) goes on to say:
Mr Philip Day, as Bosco Blithers, was the cause of most of the unbounded hilarity which prevailed during the performance. His appearance, his expressions, his gestures, and his antics were throughout extravagantly and irresistibly droll, and evoked from time to time outbursts of unusually hearty laughter. His “make-up” was so clever and complete a disguise in its way as to be worthy of comparison with Mr Frederick Marshall’s Quilp [The Old Curiosity Shop], and he maintained the awkwardness of gait and the various broad eccentricities of the character consistently from first to last. Even if he had no share in the dialogue Mr Day’s appearance and manners would have kept up a simmer of amusement, and he is to be credited with a pronounced success in the character, which, however, is merely of a wildly farcical type.
The origins of the play and the circumstances around its production in Australia are worth recounting.
Included in the cast of the first Melbourne production was a certain Walter Stokes Craven who was said to be the author of the piece. It seems Craven did indeed write it, but a subsequent court case held in February 1887 (when Craven tried to prevent Day and others from producing the piece) revealed that Craven had merely “cribbed” the play, having been a member of J.H. Nunn’s company in India, when the piece was performed with G.P. Carey in central role. On this occasion, the play was announced as the highly successful farce Three Hats by Owen Dove and Alfred Maltby.
When a report of the Craven copyright case was published in the London Era, it elicited a letter from Walter Blount of the Junior Garrick Club (30 April 1887). In his letter, Blount says it was he who sold the play to Nunn for performance in India. And in a twist, not unworthy of the play itself, Blount claims the play he sold to Nunn had been written by Arthur Shirley not by Dove & Maltby. (Indeed, a copy of Shirley’s play was published by Fitzgerald Publishing in New York in 1889 and can be downloaded from the internet).* As Blount points out, Shirley has the character of Bosco Blithers in his text, whereas in both the French original and the Dove & Maltby version, this character is given another name.
So why did Nunn alter the authorship of the play? Was it to capitalise on the London success of Dove & Maltby’s play? As far as I can tell, the Shirley version was not performed in London until the 1890s.
When W.S. Craven arrived in Australia from India in 1885 he brought a copy of the Shirley play with him, producing it for the first time at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide on 10 June 1885 as Three Hats, announced as a work by Owen Dove and Alfred Maltby – “as played with immense success at the Royalty and Avenue Theatres, London, for over 200 Nights”. This was several months before Craven’s cribbed version was staged in Sydney and Melbourne. And in another twist, Phil Day was in the cast of the Adelaide production, playing Bosco Blithers for the first time!
Interestingly, when G.P. Carey came to produce the play in Hobart in November 1885, with himself as Bosco Blithers, he called the play The Three Hats; or Mixed – and also cited the play’s London and Melbourne success in his adverts. By the time Carey reached Sydney, in March 1886, the play’s title had changed again – to Three Hats Slightly Mixed. In both cases, the author’s name was conspicuously absent.
One final word on Craven’s version of Mixed, for anyone who wants to explore it further. In the Ward Family Papers at the State Library of New South Wales, there is an entry that reads: 1891; 'Mixed', MS., being an adaptation by Walter S. Craven (Call No.: MLMSS 6927/13/2).
Phil Day played the role of Bosco Blithers for the last time at the Melbourne Opera House in September 1887, just two months before his early death on 3 December 1887, aged only 42. He died at the Alfred Hospital from combined complaints of lung and heart disease. He was buried in the “actor’s corner” at Melbourne Cemetery. Among the many mourners who followed his coffin from the Oriental Hotel in Collins Street to the cemetery were G.S. Titheradge, Arthur Garner, Dion Boucicault and George Darrell, who occupied the mourning coach. Day left behind him his wife and young family, a second son Arthur Melbourne Phillip Day having been born in Melbourne in 1884. A subscription list was organised by Arthur Garner, George Darrell and others that raised some £300 to assist his family and aid their return to England.
*See for example, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26157
British Newspaper Archive
Madeleine Bingham, Henry Irving and the Victorian theatre, Allen & Unwin, 1978, pp. 52-53
Due to the great popularity of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Frank Thornton is best remembered for his work with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, having been associated with the company from its inception in 1877.
Born Frank Thornton Tubbs in London on 16 May 1845, he was a son of Richard Thomas Tubbs and Elizabeth Charlotte Astley. As a youngster he enjoyed singing comic songs and entertaining his friends, and while working in a merchant’s office in the city during the day, he performed in amateur theatricals in the evening reciting humorous monologues and singing popular songs.
Attracting the attention of Richard D’Oyly Carte, he was given the role of Foreman of the Jury in a production of Trial by Jury at the Westminster Aquarium in 1877. In November of that year Carte founded the Comedy Opera Company which was launched with The Sorcerer, the first full length opera to be written by the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership.
In securing artists for the first production of The Sorcerer, D’Oyly Carte invited Frank Thornton to audition for the role of John Wellington Wells. Thornton impressed with his singing and dancing, but was pipped at the post by another newcomer to the comic opera stage, George Grossmith, who like Thornton had commenced his stage career singing comic songs and performing in drawing-room entertainments.
Thornton was offered the position of understudy to George Grossmith and roles in the various curtain raisers and afterpieces that formed part of the bill. He also played a walk-on part in The Sorcerer, that of the Oldest Inhabitant.
For the next three years he continued to lead a double life, working in the city by day and performing at the Opera Comique in the evening. Finally, in 1881, he was given the opportunity to create a leading role in a new opera. As Major Murgatroyd, one of the three Officers of the Dragoon Guards in Patience, he scored a great success, personally and professionally - and was finally able to give up his day job!
From August 1879, the company became known as Mr D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company, later shortened to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company … and the rest, as they say, is history!
Over the following years, Thornton continued to ‘go on’ for George Grossmith when required, notably in April 1880 when he played Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and in March 1882 when he performed Bunthorne in Patience (with Arthur Law taking on Thornton’s role of Major Murgatroyd). He also replaced Richard Temple as Dick Dead Eye in HMS Pinafore during 1879 and as Samuel in The Pirates of Penzance in 1880.
In 1883, Thornton played the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe on tour throughout the provinces, and also acted as stage manager for the production. Prior to the commencement of the tour, he was given a special matinee benefit at the Savoy Theatre, when, on 14 February 1882, Broken Hearts by W.S. Gilbert was performed with Thornton as Mousta.
In early 1884, D’Oyly Carte sent him to New York to stage manage the first production of Princess Ida in America.
At the end of the American tour, Thornton felt he needed a change and accepted the position of understudy to W.S. Penley at the Princes Theatre, where Penley had been engaged to create the role of the Reverend Spalding in the first London production of Charles Hawtrey’s farcical comedy The Private Secretary. The play had had its first production at Cambridge in November 1883 with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as the cleric.
In London, The Private Secretary opened on 29 March 1884, moving to the Globe Theatre on 19 May, where it played for over 500 performances.
Thornton’s familiarity with the role led to him being engaged by A.M. Palmer to perform the lead in the first American production.
The Private Secretary was largely a vehicle for displaying the comic skill of the actor playing Spalding, relying upon a series of improbable situations and pratfalls for laughs, with the central character suffering all sorts of indignities, being “pushed around, tripped up, shoved under tables, tied to a chair, hit by an umbrella, sat on, and stuffed into a chest”.
In New York, The Private Secretary opened at the Madison Square Theatre on 29 September 1884. It ran for 200 nights – something of a record at the time – attracting the attention of Williamson, Garner & Musgrove who promptly engaged Thornton to bring the play to Australia.
Thornton made his Australian debut at the Gaiety Theatre in Sydney on 18 July 1885, the first of six tours of Australia and New Zealand he would make between 1885 and 1909.
During his 15-month stay in Australia, Thornton also appeared as John Wellington Wells in the first Australian production of The Sorcerer at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, and played the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury. But these performances were incidental to touring The Private Secretary throughout Australasia.
He returned to Australia again in November 1888 remaining for some 22 months. During this time he revived The Private Secretary and starred in the first Australian productions of Sweet Lavender and Mamma, the first-named a domestic drama by A.W. Pinero and the second a farce by Sydney Grundy. Sweet Lavender was by far the more successful of the two, and as Dick Phenyl, a warm-hearted old barrister with a propensity to drink, Thornton was able to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. In London, the role of Phenyl had been created by Edward Terry.
Thornton was back in Australia in 1893-1894 (his third tour) with Charley’s Aunt, a three-act farce by Brandon Thomas, which Thornton produced in association with Charles Arnold. The story goes that W.S. Penley, who held the rights to the play refused to negotiate with Thornton (was Penley jealous of Thornton’s success with The Private Secretary?), preferring to deal with Charles Arnold.
Charley’s Aunt was a phenomenal success wherever it went. On its first London production it broke existing records by running for 1,466 performances – and has remained popular ever since, being the basis for numerous films and musicals.
Thornton returned to Australia for his fourth tour in December 1896 and during the following 19 months produced in addition to revivals of his previous successes, another cross-dressing play, The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown, and a sporting farce, The Bookmaker; the first by Robert Buchanan and “Charles Marlowe” (Harriette Jay) and the second by J.W. Pigott.
His fifth tour commenced in May 1902, when he opened at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in Facing the Music, a farcical comedy by J.H. Darnley. This play was also the only one he produced in England, performing the lead himself in the provinces and with James Welch at the Strand Theatre in London in February 1900.
Thornton’s fifth tour also saw the first Australian production of A Little Ray of Sunshine by Mark Ambient and Wilton Heriot, his only “failure”. In an interview, Thornton said that along with Dick Phenyl in Sweet Lavender, the role of Lord Markham in Sunshine was his favourite. This play has a curious plot – reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol - in which a benevolent old peer returns unexpectedly one Christmas eve after a long absence and although mistaken by family and friends for a village pauper, a money-lender, a housemaid’s uncle, a baker’s man, a Cambridge don and a trainer of racehorses, appears to each of them in turn as a ‘little ray of sunshine’ dispelling any worries or concerns they might have. In London, Thornton’s former nemesis, W.S. Penley played the role.
Thornton’s sixth and final tour saw him open at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 21 December 1907, with When Knights Were Bold by Charles Marlowe, a play that had been performed in London by James Welch.
Thornton made his final Australian appearance in Melbourne on 15 January 1909, when he played Charley’s Aunt for the last time.
From each of his Australian tours, Thornton made a packet, and for the most part rested back in England between visits. However, he made a few notable appearances during these times, joining the London Gaiety Company for the burlesques Miss Esmeralda and Frankenstein in 1886/1887, and creating the role of Pyjama in The Nautch Girl for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1892.
Frank Thornton died in London on 18 December 1918, London, England, aged 73. He was survived by his wife and three children.
Michael Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A duel biography (2002)
Cyril Rollins and R John Witts, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A record of productions, 1875-1961 (1962)
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, https://gsarchive.net/whowaswho/T/ThorntonFrank.htm
The New York Clipper, 15 March 1884
"A Chat with Frank Thornton", The Era, 16 March 1895
"Mr Frank Thornton", Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 21 November 1891
"Mr Frank Thornton: Reminiscences of a Great Comedian", Mercury, 17 June 1908
"Mr Frank Thornton", Table Talk, 29 November 1889
This is the first in a series of biographical pieces focusing on the performers highlighted in a recent talk given by THA members Elisabeth and Mimi at the State Library of Victoria. The talk was on the Troedel Collection of theatre posters, continuing THA’s quest to unearth theatrical gems within the library’s collection and reveal the stories behind the objects.
English actress Jennie Lee (1846-1930) is best remembered for playing the role of Jo, the pathetic crossing sweeper in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – a role she is said to have played more than 9000 times – performing it throughout the United Kingdom, America and Australia, as well as South Africa and India.
Born Emily Lee in London on 1 July 1846, she was a daughter of watercolour artist and wood engraver Edwin George Lee and his Irish wife Mary Anne Ryan. (1) Raised in a large household in Marylebone in London (Charles Dickens lived just around the corner in Fitzroy Square and along with Millais was a regular visitor), Jennie displayed an aptitude for dancing and singing at an early age. (2)
In 1869, following the death of her father, she decided to try her luck on the stage, and with a letter of introduction to Messrs Richard and William Mansell sought an opening at the Lyceum Theatre. (3) She made her stage debut as one of the twelve pages in the opera bouffe Chilperic in January 1870. The following year, she scored her first ‘hit’ as the Street Arab in Herve’s Little Faust. From the Lyceum, she moved to the Strand, where she enjoyed further successes in the burlesques The Pilgrim of Love, The Idle ‘Prentice and Coeur de Lion. Two of her sisters, Ada and Katie followed her on to the stage and at various times the three of them acted together.
By late 1871, Jennie was in New York earning rave reviews for her performance of Mary Meredith in a revival of Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin, with starring roles in burlesque and comedy to follow, in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
It was in America that she married JP Burnett (1946-1917), an Edinburgh-born actor and playwright. (4) They first met in 1870 while performing at the Strand Theatre, and were reunited again in August 1872 when he joined the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia where she was performing with the Vokes Family. It is not clear if their meeting was by arrangement or circumstance, but from this time on they became inseparable, but were not free to marry until late 1873.
It seems that in 1867, Jennie had wedded a certain William Parker Scott, with whom she “lived very happily” until the time of her American engagement. (5) In 1873, Jennie’s husband filed for dissolution of their marriage on the grounds of his wife’s misconduct, with JP Burnett cited as co-respondent. Jennie and Burnett returned briefly to London, but were back the USA by September 1873. In November, Jennie received her decree nisi and was free to marry Burnett. (6)
From September 1873 to August 1875, the Burnetts remained in San Francisco, performing initially at the Alhambra and Opera House and later at the California Theatre.
It was at the California Theatre that Burnett’s dramatization of Bleak House had its genesis, when in June 1875, they were supporting visiting tragedienne Fanny Janauschek. One of the plays being performed was Chesney Wold, a dramatization of Bleak House by Henry A Rendle. For this production, Jennie Lee played Jo, the crossing sweeper, with Janauschek in the double-role of Lady Deadlock and Hortense. With her emotional and heart-wrenching performance, Jennie stole the show, a performance reportedly witnessed by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault.
It was apparently at Boucicault’s suggestion that Burnett devised his own adaptation of Bleak House as a starring vehicle for his wife. (7) On their return to England, the play had its premiere at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool on 8 November 1875, where it proved something of a sensation. The Era (13 November 1875) for example wrote:
Miss Lee’s conception and embodiment of the part could not easily be excelled, and it may rightly take rank as one of the best of modern impersonations. Her make up alone stamped the impersonation as one of the most realistic nature, faithful in every detail; and her realisation of Joe’s utter wretchedness was most artistic, natural and touching. The affecting death scene was specially good, and Miss Jennie Lee fairly secured the genuine triumph the true artist deserves.
After a season of pantomime at London’s Surrey Theatre playing Jack in Jack the Giant Killer and Tom Thumb, Jennie Lee introduced Jo to London audiences. It opened at the Globe Theatre on 21 February 1876, where it was even more successful.
Burnett’s play is a loose paraphrase of Dickens’s novel with some of the dialogue copied directly from the original text. It roughly follows the chronology of the novel but leaves out many characters and situations. Plotlines involving Lady Dedlock, Hortense and Tulkinghorn have been preserved, but revolve around their interactions with Jo. The play culminates with Jo’s death at Tom-all-alone. (8)
An interesting story surrounds Jo’s last words. In the novel, Dickens has him say the Lord’s Prayer, ending with “Hallowed be thy …” - whereas in the play, he ends with “I’m movin on” – recalling words used by Inspector Bucket. It seems that in the original manuscript that Burnett sent to the Lord Chamberlain, the correct words were crossed out, as it was forbidden at that time to quote sacred text on the stage. (9)
Though some critics found issue with the pacing and construction of the play, audiences embraced it whole heartedly, and after touring throughout the British Isles, Jennie Lee took the play to America (appearing at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in August 1881) and then on to Melbourne, where it had its Australian premiere at the Princess’s Theatre on 29 April 1882.
In reviewing the play, the critic in the Argus (1 May 1882) echoed similar sentiments to reviewers in the UK and USA.
It is impossible to make Jo the leading personage in the drama but he is brought on the stage very frequently, and the part is sustained with such consummate art by Miss Jennie Lee that the interest centres in the fortunes of the poor crossing-sweeper. It is evident that Miss Lee has studied this character from the life, when she is on the stage the illusion is complete. It is difficult to believe that she has ever been anything else than the ragged London street boy. The action of the broom, the facial expression, and the little bits of bye-play, which are sparingly used, are important aids in the filling in of a very complete picture. Miss Lee has the personal advantages for this part of the petite figure and boy-like voice, without which much of the art displayed would fail of some of the intended effect. But there is also a great deal of real feeling in the impersonation, and her acting is often charged with a natural pathos which is very touching. The poor lad’s remonstrances with the police inspector for always “chivvying him on”, comic enough in the first scenes, become tragic in the last, when the victim of starvation and want, wasted with disease, knows that he is “moving on” out of this world. The death scene is artistically managed, without any objectionable prolongation. The reputation Miss Lee has gained elsewhere in this character was fully endorsed by the audience. The applause she received was of the heartiest, and she often extracted the highest tribute of moistened eyes.
The play was a huge success in Melbourne, playing for 5 weeks (not 5 months as Wikipedia states), before touring throughout Australia and New Zealand. Jennie Lee remained in Australia until 1885. Though she performed in other plays, such as The Grasshopper and Where’s the Cat?, that showed off her abilities as a singer and dancer, her portrayal of Jo was the one everyone wanted to see, so it remained at the forefront of her repertoire.
Jennie Lee made two subsequent trips to Australia, in 1889-1894 under engagement to Williamson, Garner & Musgrove, and in 1908 with her daughter, Joan Burnett, who had been engaged by JC Williamson Ltd to perform in Peter Pan. Sadly, a few weeks after arriving in Melbourne, Joan succumbed to tuberculosis, somewhat reminiscent of the death of Jennie’s sister Ada, who had died in Sydney in 1902 from the plague. (10) In February 1916, her sister Kate died in London, just five months before her only son, John Burnett was killed fighting with the Canadian forces in Belgium. (11) JP Burnett died in London on 17 April 1917, aged 71. (12)
Though Jennie had retired from full-time acting by 1906, the last full-length version of Bleak House being given at Drury Lane in 1896, she performed Jo on two notable occasions: on 30 March 1908 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne when a benefit was held following the death of her daughter, and for the last time at the Lyric Theatre in London on 7 February 1921 to commemorate Charles Dickens’ birthday. Jennie Lee died on 3 May 1930 at her home in London after a brief illness, aged 83. (13)
ELISABETH KUMM © 2018
(1) UK BMD, Births, Sep 1846, Marylebone, vol. 1, p. 143; Mainly About People, 1 October 1904, p. 380
(2) Mainly About People, 1 October 1904, p. 380
(4) JP Burnett is said to have been born John Pringle Dodds in Scotland in 1846, the son of an Edinburgh barrister.
(5) UK BMD, Marriages, Mar 1867, Marylebone, vol. 1a, p. 782; Divorce Court File 2699, The National Archives, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk
(6) “An actress’s divorce case”, Lloyds Weekly London Newspaper, 30 November 1873, p. 4.
(7) “Bleak House Scene” by Malcolm Morley, The Dickensian, vol. 49, 1 January 1953, p. 177: “After seeing her performance he [Boucicault] said to her " Tell that man of yours," meaning Jennie's husband JP Burnett, "to take the book of Bleak House and write a play making Jo the part, and you'll never want a penny and you can play Jo until you're seventy, if you don't get too fat".
(8) “JP Burnett’s Bleak House: A Drama in Three Acts” by Carrie Sickmann Han, Streaky Bacon: A Guide to Victorian Adaptations, https://www.streakybacon.net/tag/jennie-lee/
(10) NSW Deaths, 3503/1902 (Ada Lee); Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 1902, p. 7; VIC Deaths, 2911/1908 (Joan Burnett); Bendigo Advertiser, 11 March 1908, p. 3.
(11) Era, 16 February 1916, p. 11 (Katie Lee); Era, 16 August 1916, p. 10 (John Burnett); Canadian Virtual War Memorial, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/485842
(12) UK BMD, Deaths, Jun 1917, Hampstead, vol. 1a, p. 738; Era, 25 April 1917, p. 5.
(13) UK BMD, Deaths, Jun 1930, Marylebone, vol. 1a, o. 591; Era, 7 May 1930, p. 6; Stage, 8 May 1930, p. 18.
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