Thursday, 02 September 2021

Charles Haddon Chambers: The Australian who became a successful English dramatist

Written by Graham Hill; edited by Rob Morrison

Haddon ChambersMr. Haddon Chambers on the set for Passers-By

To mark the centenary of the death of the Australian-born author and playwrightthe first to attain international success with the production of his plays in London, America, Germany, France and in his homelandTheatre Heritage Australia pays tribute with the following profile first published in The Lone Hand in September 1915.

2 Mr Haddon Chambers c.1888Pictured c.1888. National Library of Australia, Canberra.Charles Haddon Chambers comes of a stock which may be described as mixed British; but as from his father’s side he inherits Scottish and Irish blood, and on his mother’s his English descent is blended with a South of Ireland strain, his temperament betrays the dominating heritage of Celtic Iineage and sympathies. His father, John Ritchie Chambers, was the grandson of the celebrated John Ritchie who, in 1750, founded the first of Belfast’s greatest shipbuilding yards, which to-day is carried on by the world-known firm of Workman and Clark. His mother was reared in the neighborhood of Waterford, where her father, an English Kellett, embarked in farming operations, and married a Hartley who was pure Irish. On both sides Haddon Chambers’ forebears had been impelled by the emigrating instinct. The Scotch Ritchies had settled in Ulster, and the English Kellets in the South of Ireland. Representatives of the Kelletts and the Hartleys had long been established in Australia when they were joined by John Ritchie Chambers and his brothers. Haddon, from his migrating antecedents, inherited the habit which in due course brought him back to England. His father made his first Australian home in Ballarat, but had not then been discovered to bind his fortunes to the Golden City, and he removed himself to Sydney. Here he drifted into the New South Wales Civil Service, became a prominent official in the Lands Department, and eventually retired on a pension.

At Marrickville, then a sylvan suburb of Sydney, Charles Haddon, one of a family of five, was born on 22 April, 1860. Robert Louis Stevenson sums up the sunshine and shadow of his college life as a compound of “infinite yawning during lecture, and unquenchable gusto in the delights of truancy.” Haddon Chambers’ recollections of his attendance at and absences from Marrickville Public School point to a similar experience. Most of his time appears to have been spent in swimming in Cook’s River, or indulging in the delights of truancy in the adjacent bush. He could swim before he had learnt to walk; he became an adept bird’s-nester and bushman before he was breeched, and the tales he recalls of expeditions led, enemies tracked, and forays carried out in the country around Marrickville, could justify his claim to being the oldest boy scout in the Empire.[1]

From the Marrickville seminary Chambers was sent to the famous Fort Street School, Sydney, where it was intended that he should qualify himself for a professional career; but the policy of retrenchment which the New South Wales Government adopted at this time affected the financial position of the colony’s Civil servants. John Ritchie Chambers’ pension was reduced by one half, and Charles Haddon’s prospective career at the bar suffered eclipse. As a boy of thirteen he applied for a junior clerkship in the office of a Jewish merchant, [De Lissa of Wynyard St., Sydney] and, after a personal interview, got it. Before he was fourteen the merchant was in the bankruptcy court, and his junior clerk was out of a job. It was decided that he should cram for the Civil Service Examination and follow his father’s footsteps. In a year he had satisfied the examiners of his eligibility for an appointment in the Department of Mines at a salary of ₤100 a year, and it took very little longer to convince him of his own incompetence. The regularity of the hours of work, the sharply defined intervals for refreshment and recreation, the hopeless monotony of the whole round of a Government office, depressed and appalled him. For a man whose whole life was to be a rebellion against routine, and whose career has been composed of a concatenation of struggles for freedom, the atmosphere and atrophy of the Mines Department was unendurable. He ceased to be a Civil Servant, and joined himself to a connection of the family who had a station on the Cowpasture River, beyond Camden. For two years he followed the occupation of a boundary rider, and revelled in every hour of the freer life. In course of time he may have tired of it, but he had no intention of abandoning it when a happy chance drew his feet from the stirrup-irons and directed his steps to the London pavements. He fell across a couple of cousins who, in their sundowning excursions in the Colony, threw up at Cowpasture Station and learnt that they had inherited money which was waiting for them in the North of Ireland. Their invitation to Haddon to return with them to Ulster suddenly revealed to the lad the fact that this was the one thing in the world that he really wanted to do. They proceeded to Melbournethen a lively city—and the three young men, who were a little heady in their unwonted freedom, fell to the unaccustomed lure of the city’s distractions. Their spree lasted a fortnight, and estranged them from nearly all the money that had been provided for their voyage home. However, they managed to get the price of three steerage fares and sail for England. Chambers was as fastidious then as he is now, so he made his bed on deck and slept in it in all weathers throughout the voyage.

After a few memorably jolly months in Ulster, which left no particular impression upon his mind, he made his way to London, and incontinently fell in love with it. London became the city of his desires, the ideal objective, the jumping board of the world from which he could project himself to the realms of—he knew not what. Just then, however, he could not stay there, but had to return to Australia, where he spent another couple of years in Sydney and the bush, impatient for the first opportunity of getting back to London. The hope bounded his dreams, and the realisation of them came with the possession of the passage money. He landed in London in September, 1882, with the price of his dinner in his pocket, and less than the faintest idea of how he was going to make his living. He was unconscious of literary ambitions, and his family had produced no literary light to beckon him along the path he was destined to tread. His only flirtation with the Muse had been a juvenile dalliance, inspired by a sordid aspiration for the cash prize, open to all the schools in the colony for the best essay on The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Chambers secured the reward, but he attributes his success less to his clearness of reasoning or the excellence of his composition, than to his cunning quotation of Coleridge’s lines in ‘The Ancient Mariner’:

He prayeth best who loveth best,

All things both great and small:

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.

In his Civil Service days Chambers had loitered awhile in the outer courts of journalism, and had foregathered there with the bold, bright spirits who composed the extraordinary galaxy of journalistic talent that glittered in Sydney in the late [eighteen] ’seventies. Gibson, the poet, was employed in the Survey Department, and in various branches of the Service were Harold Gray, Victor James Daley, and other writers who contributed to The Bulletin under [J.F.] Archibald’s editorship. Chambers recalls Gray as the cleverest all-round journalist of his time, and compares his biting wit with that exhibited by the best of the modern American newspapermen. He remembers, too, the excitement that was caused by the issue of his journal, The Pilgrim, which Gray edited and published from Darlinghurst gaol, in which he was incarcerated for some alleged misdemeanor committed in a drunken frolic. These wayward Bohemians gave Chambers his first touch with journalism, but only as a non-combatant; and it did not occur to him when he was casting about for a means of humouring his importunate appetite to adventure upon a further acquaintance with the Fourth Estate. For a while he was content to listen to the drum-music of London; he was where he wanted to be, and where somehow or other he was determined to remain. It is curious that at that unsettled and precarious time of his life he resolutely declined to try his fortunes as an actor. His strong histrionic feeling, which is recognised by every actor and actress he has rehearsed, and every manager to whom he has read a play, was palpable to himself; but he shrank from the idea of giving expression to it in public.[2] The thought of posturing for money was distasteful to him, and to this day he avoids every avoidable public function, and only on rare occasions can he be induced to figure on a toast list. It was just chance that, a little later, led him to write for the stage; as it was chance now that set him romancing—chance, and the facts that his finances had reached the vanishing-point, and his tenure of the attic he inhabited in a street off Covent Garden was threatened. At this crisis he made the accidental acquaintance of a young man, just down from Oxford, who was endeavouring to launch himself on a literary career. Chambers became reminiscent, and the Oxford man decided that if he could write as well as he talked some of his stories from real life might be turned to marketable account. The prospect, not of spinning yarns, but of drawing pay for them, appealed to him. In two nights he wrote his first short story, and in two days he received a five pound note for it from a sixpenny weekly called Society, together with a note from the editor inviting further contributions.

This was Haddon Chambers’ start in journalism. It presently turned his mind to The Bulletin, and he commenced a fitful correspondence which lasted three or four years.[3] He was still writing for that journal when he met [William Henry] Traill, and was instrumental in sending Phil May out to Sydney to adorn The Bulletin with his inimitable art, and establish his fame. Traill himself related the story in his own paper, but his recollection of the incidents was a little obscure, and I venture to think the facts are of sufficient interest to be recorded here in the sequence in which they really occurred. Chambers at this time had left the purlieus of Covent Garden and was established in rooms over an unpretentious milk shop in Bayswater, within walking distance of the Paddington Swimming Baths, of which he became a steady patron. He was there one day when a big, bearded man was teaching his boy to swim, and his casual interest in the proceeding was intensified by hearing the word “Australia” mentioned between the pair. Chambers got into conversation with the bearded man and learnt that he was Mr. Traill of the Sydney Bulletin. Here will be observed the amiable intrusion of ‘the long arm of coincidence’—a phrase that Chambers was presently to invent in that same lodging over the milk shop, and was to be quoted in every newspaper in the Kingdom after the first performance of Captain Swift. The two men foregathered, and Chambers learnt that Traill, as part of his satisfactory mission to England, had engaged Baxter (the artist who made Ally Sloper) for The Bulletin, and was returning to Australia on the following Friday. On the Thursday before the day of sailing Traill arrived at Chambers’ place, oppressed with trouble and anxious for advice or suggestion. Baxter had failed him, and Traill found himself within twenty-four hours of leaving for Australia with the most important and most difficult part of the business which had brought him to London unaccomplished. He still required an artist for The Bulletin; he wanted him badly, and he wanted him at once.

Chambers happened to be on terms with a young artist who was then new to the town and comparatively unknown; but he had illustrated the Christmas number of Society with a cartoon in which all the leading men of the moment were caricatured with the new but true Phil May touch. And Phil May was living in King Street, Strand. Chambers took a cab to King Street and explained to Phil, and the lady who was soon to be his wife, the chance that had arisen, and enlarged upon the peculiar advantages attaching to a job on The Bulletin—if it could be obtained. But May was unmoved by his friends’ enthusiasm, or the allurements of a prospective two years’ sojourn in the land of the Southern Cross. He was as devoted to London as Haddon’s self, he refused to be sent into exile, and he’d be damned if he’d submit specimens of his work. Mrs. May motioned Chambers not to importune the artist, and taking him into the next room handed him some of Phil May’s framed pictures from the walls, and undertook to win Phil to Traill’s offer. Traill recognised the value and attractiveness of the work on sight. ‘That’s the man we want!’ he declared. ‘Let’s go and fix him.’ They had the Mays to lunch, and it was immediately apparent to Chambers that the lady’s logic had prevailed. During the afternoon the terms of the agreement were arranged. At dinner they were joined by a cousin of Traill’s, and he and Haddon Chambers afterwards witnessed the signatures of the contracting parties to the document.  Traill left London the next day and the Mays seven days later.

Chambers is, and always has been, as full of resource as the ocean is of salt—a resource that has its foundations in a cast-iron optimism against which “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ have expended themselves in vain. He has always known precisely what he wants and how to accomplish the end he has in view. His career is proof of his methods. He landed in London without money, friends, or plans for the future. He drifted into journalism, and after leading the Fleet Street life for six years, he emerged from it as the author of a sensationally successful play, presented by the leading actor-manger in London at London’s leading theatre. During those six years he wrote innumerable short stories which are now forgotten; but they represented so many rungs in the literary ladder, and it is a noteworthy fact in this connection that he never wrote a story that failed to gain acceptance, or a play that has not been produced.

At the time when Captain Swift was drawing all London to the Haymarket Theatre, the old St. George’s Club in Hanover Square was the recognised centre of colonialism in the metropolis. The Agents-General were on the committee, distinguished visiting Colonials were on its list of honorary members, and many Australian functions were held in its spacious rooms. Everybody connected with Australian journalism in London belonged to the St. George’s, and on Saturday afternoons few of them were absent from the weekly foregatherings in the smoking room. Here one met Charles Short of the Argus, and Philip Mennell of the Age, the latter always in company with that Johnsonian spirit, Arthur Patchett Martin. Here came also the placid Alfred S. Rathbone, who started, to his own insufferable discomfiture—and some say to that of others—the first society journal ever published in New Zealand, and who represented in England nearly all the New Zealand newspapers, and the Advertiser of Adelaide. Jimmy Thompson, who founded papers from Melbourne to Cue, and the volatile Dr. Mannington Caffyn, whose literary efforts were obscured by the success of his accomplished wife, who still writes under the pseudonym of “Iota,’ were frequently present; and J.C. Williamson made occasional appearances. These, alas, are among those:

For whom all winds are quiet as the sun,

All waters as the shore.

J.M. Barrie, now Sir James, would drop in occasionally with H.B. Marriott-Watson, who has since retired to the seclusion of his beloved Surrey Hills, and Edward Jenkins, the author of Ginx’s Baby, would sometimes find his way to our exuberant corner. If Haddon Chambers was absent from these symposiums one was sure of finding him in the billiard room overhead, where his skill with the cue caused him to be in steady request. There have been many attempts to run a Colonial Club in the West End of London since the St. George’s was handed over to the builders of flats, but so far without success. When the old building closed its doors, the fraternity were scattered. Chambers went to the Bath Club, Marriott-Watson to the Saville, the Agents-General to the St. Stephen’s, Patchett Martin to the Reform, and Barrie to the Garrick.

It was Herbert Beerbohm Tree who turned Haddon Chambers’ attention to the stage.[4] The young Australian’s short stories had won him a measure of recognition, and Tree, in whom amiability of suggestion is a settled habit, inquired if he did not think he could provide him with a play. Chambers thought he could, and proceeded to prove it; but as Tree did nothing beyond acknowledging the receipt of the script, he called at the theatre some months later, and asked him how he liked the play. The manager’s admission that he had not found time to look at it prompted Chambers to offer to read it to him. Tree had no intention of agreeing to the proposal; but before he could frame a plausible excuse for declining it, Chambers had commenced to read. When he had reached the end of the second act Tree was mildly interested in the drama, but he pleaded an important engagement, and invited the author to resume the recital on the following afternoon. When Chambers returned next day Tree was feeling indisposed, and required a Turkish bath to prepare him for the ordeal of the evening’s performance. The great man did not mention the name of the bath he patronised; but Chambers, inspired by the scout instinct fostered in his Cook’s River days, watched the movements of his quarry from a doorway adjacent to the theatre, and tracked him to the Turkish refuge in Leicester Square. So many versions have been given of the strategy by which Chambers secured a hearing for his first play that I have thought it well to relate the incident as it really happened. The rest of the story has been told with a closer adherence to the facts. Chambers, ignoring the prescribed ritual of the bath, made a short cut to the drying room; and when Tree, reinvigorated by the chastenings his body had undergone on the altar of physical purity, sought the relaxation that waits on a bath sheet and conscious innocence, Chambers took possession of a neighbouring couch and read him the third and fourth acts of his play. Tree immediately agreed to produce it, but his literary adviser and manager combated the enterprise with vigour. The dramatist had dared to deviate from the conventional path of Haymarket drama; he had provided a variant to the recognised formula for which the public was not prepared; failure was confidently predicted. Tree liked the part and believed in the play, but he compromised with his advisers and persuaded Chambers to let him do it at a trial matinee.

The afternoon of the 20th June, 1888, was selected for the production of Captain Swift, and the success of the play was never in doubt. The strength of the drama, the dexterity of the construction, the freshness of the treatment and the marked excellence of the dialogue won the enthusiastic approval of the audience, and moved the critics to exhaust their stock of superlatives. Before he left the theatre that afternoon Tree made his arrangements to transfer the play to the evening bill, and outlined a scheme for trying out new plays at a series of matinees. The double-event did not come off, for although he got a long and highly profitable run out of Swift, his trial matinees never yielded him another winner. The success of Chambers’ play was repeated in America, where it holds the stage to this day [in 1915]; but Australia received it without enthusiasm, if it can be said to have received it at all. It was produced in Sydney and advertised as by “a native of this city,” and on the opening night the theatre was half empty. The prophet who had achieved honour in two continents was denied recognition in his own country. But if the playgoers displayed indifference, the press of Sydney was greatly generous, and the notices, without exception, were splendid. By the way, the glowing criticism which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald was written by Gilbert Parker, now Sir Gilbert.[5]

It might be thought that the triumph of Captain Swift would have brought all the managers to the lodging of the brilliant young dramatist; yet he will tell you that although the play opened the doors of the theatre to him, it admitted him no further than the portals. His second play gave him more trouble to place than his first. The Idler, after being refused by Tree, John Hare and Wilson Barrett, was accepted by Mrs. Langtry, who afterwards repented her decision and paid forfeit of ₤250 rather than put it up. Ultimately Daniel Frohman made an offer for the play, and Chambers went over to New York to produce it. The reception accorded to his second piece in America was as cordial as that extended to Swift. Moreover, it brought him a cable from George Alexander desiring the English rights of the play, and the presence of the author in London. The Idler ran through the entire theatrical season.

Haddon Chambers had now dissipated any idea that might have existed that he was a one-play man by scoring heavily with two successive pieces; but The Honorable Herbert went the rounds of the managerial offices before it was acquired by Tom Thorne for the Vaudeville Theatre. But with this third production the tide of the author’s luck suffered an ebb. The Honorable Herbert, which was extremely modern in feeling and treatment, was presented on the first night of the densest and most protracted fog ever experienced in a city; it invaded the Vaudeville Theatre and hung so heavily in the auditorium that, from the front row of the dress circle, the figures on the stage were scarcely discernible. Yet the audience were enthusiastic and the press magnificent. But for nearly a fortnight the atmospheric conditions underwent no change; the pall never lifted. The play staggered on in the fog for a few laborious days, only to receive its quietus by the death of the Duke of Clarence, an event which brought the run of nine performances to a sudden termination.

The brief career of The Honorable Herbert brought Chambers into contact with the Brothers Gatti, the wealthy proprietors of the Adelaide Gallery Restaurant, and lessees of the old Adelphi Theatre, which they had made the home of melodramas. The Gattis made Chambers alluring offers to take a collaborator, as was the Adelphi custom, and to succeed G.R. Sims and Henry Pettitt, who had been very profitably engaged in providing plays for the theatre for several years. A contract was ultimately entered into, with the result that The Fatal Card, Boys Together, and In the Days of the Duke were added to the Gattis’ long list of Adelphi successes.[6]

When his contract with the Gattis expired he declined to renew it, and turned from the easy success and assured shekels that melodrama proffered, to write his second play for Beerbohm Tree. John-a-Dreams, with Tree, Charles Cartwright and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the leading parts, enhanced both the fortunes of the Haymarket Theatre and the fame of the dramatist. The play, which enjoyed a long run in London, secured an equal triumph at the Empire Theatre, New York, and subsequently in all the great cities of the United States.

The Tyranny of Tears was produced at the Criterion Theatre in the spring of 1900. It was pure comedy, pulsating with all the wit, the humanity, and the literary grace that composes the author’s art, superimposed upon personal experience. Its success was the dramatic event of the last phase of the Victorian era. It was acclaimed by the press as the comedy of the season, of the generation, of the century; and it placed Haddon Chambers upon an unchallenged pedestal as one of the foremost dramatic writers of his time. The Tyranny practically created a new school of comedy; it has been copied frequently; its style, and even its theme has been handled in reproduction with a fidelity perilously near to plagiarism. It is regarded as a classic, not only in England and the United States, but also in Germany. Sir Charles Wyndham, the doyen of English managers, has said that the three models of stage work he would commend to the study of all young playwrights are Macbeth for tragedy, Pink Dominoes for farce, and for pure comedy The Tyranny of Tears.

The Awakening, the next play by which Haddon Chambers was to be represented in London, was blasted by the destroying effect of a bereavement in the Royal circle. The late Queen Victoria was known to be ill when the author read his play to the company of the St. James’s Theatre; the receipt of the news that Her Majesty was dying caused Sir George Alexander to stop the dress rehearsal; at six o’clock the same night the Queen died. Chambers urged upon Alexander the advisability of postponing the production until the autumn, and filling in a wrecked season with a series of revivals. But Sir George was so confident of the success of the play that he decided that it was unnecessary to revise his plans. Four days after the royal funeral The Awakening was presented in a jet black house. The spectacle of the auditorium on that first night was a sight not to be forgotten; the effect of the unrelieved sable worn by both sexes inspired an irresistible melancholy in audience and actors alike; the performance compelled an enthusiasm that none had the temerity to express. The play ran languidly for some hundred nights in a season that was empty of theatrical activity, and was followed by a series of revivals.

Chambers’ next production, a four-act play entitled The Golden Silence, was done at the Garrick Theatre, and the reason of its inability to achieve success was disconnected from all outside influences. It was despoiled after it had left the author’s hands. I was very familiar with the piece in manuscript; and was impressed by the powerful treatment of the embroglio and the inevitability of the climax. I went to the dress-rehearsal in high hope of having my judgement confirmed by the actual representation of the play; I left the theatre a disillusioned, disappointed, and very angry man. The piece ran for less than a hundred nights, which was more than might have been expected.

In Passers-By Chambers broke new ground—human, finely observed and true to nature, it diffused an atmosphere of glowing sympathy, and the compelling power of its appeal was never for an instant in doubt. It crowded Wyndham’s Theatre for months, as it did, later, the Criterion Theatre in New York. Its success was repeated in its translated form in Hamburg.

In the autumn of 1913 he produced a new play and a revival of The Tyranny in New York, and returned to London to plunge at once into the rehearsals of a revival of the same play at the Comedy Theatre, thus making three productions in little more than the same number of months. The history of the new play, Tante, which was produced at the Empire Theatre, New York, and was proclaimed the event of the autumn theatrical season, provides another interesting example of the working of coincidence. Chambers had devoted much desultory thought to the subject of a play revolving round the person of a musical celebrity. His theme dealt with the inevitable conflict between the artistic and domestic aspirations of the central character, and he showed that a good woman must be spoiled in the making of a great artist. He was pondering the dramatic possibilities of the idea on a homeward voyage across the Atlantic when he chanced to pick up Mrs. Annie Sedgwick's Tante, and found himself reading a book upon the same subject. Not only was there a resemblance between the two stories, but some of the actual details of the plots were perilously alike. In the circumstances Chambers did the characteristic thing. He wrote to the lady, explained the coincidence, and proposed as a solution of the difficulty to found a play on her novel, and concede her a proportion of the fees that might be expected to accrue. Mrs. Sedgwick gladly accepted this offer, and she has since had financial reason to be still more glad that she did so. The play was received with tempestuous applause by the critics and the play-going public of New York.

It is a physical characteristic of Haddon Chambers that he never appears to grow older; it is characteristic of his methods that no one has ever seen him at work; it is generally characteristic of the man that everybody calls him Haddon to his face.

Haddon’s notorious indolence is not a pose; but he has pretended it is more than once. ‘Oh, Haddon, why are you so horribly lazy?’ a lady once asked him. ‘For the sake of the advertisement,’ he replied blandly. On another occasion, between the acts of an opera, a gushing young man interrupted him with his glass within an inch of his lips. ‘Haddon, my dear fellow,” he demanded, ‘why are you giving us no more of your beautiful plays?’ ‘What have you done to deserve them?’ Chambers retorted quietly, and finished his drink. It was in the same foyer at the opera house that a common acquaintance detected a heat spot on the dramatist’s chin.  “Haddon, you’ve actually got a spot on your face!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Young man,’ Chambers reminded him, “There are spots on the sun.’

But to return to the subject of Haddon Chambers’ reputation as an idler, I have shown that it is undeserved. The record of his plays that I have given here is sufficient to refute the impeachment; yet I have confined myself to his principal productions only. If he had written only three of those—Captain Swift, The Fatal Card, and The Tyranny of Tears—he would have won something more than fugitive fame as the author of the best drawing-room drama, the best melodrama, and the best comedy of his age and generation. But he has turned out several other pieces that I have no room to deal with, and at least half a dozen adaptations from the French which [Charles] Frohman induced him to undertake for the American market—a theatrical market, by the bye, which, by virtue of its vaster dimensions, has contributed more than half of Chambers’ income since he commenced to write for the stage. One of the most successful of his adaptations for America was The Thief, which he made from Bernstein’s Le Voleur, and since the Alexander version, which has been played in Australia, has drawn some criticism on the subject of Haddon Chambers’ command of the English language, it may be stated here that the anglicisation in question was made, not by Chambers, but by Cosmo Gordon Lennox.

It is not my claim that Haddon Chambers is an indefatigable worker—indeed, he would be the first to plead innocent of the charge—but only to point to his output as proof that he is not the drone that the world believes him to be. But by far the greater part of his work is done in the open air in the company of his fellow men and women, over his newspaper and coffee, which he takes in bed, in his bath, which preludes his luncheon, and during his homeward walk from the club between midnight and three o’clock in the morning. The clerical labour of transmitting his plays to paper is the least considerable, but most troublesome part of his task. He dictated Sir Anthony to his secretary in three weeks during a fine summer in Hyde Park, and half the time was spent in shifting ground to evade the vigilant collectors of chair money. Chambers loves the country and he adores the London pavements; but the great parks of the metropolis, those wonderful oases of lawns and lusty trees which form a verdant retreat from the skurry and roar of the town, within sound of the stimulating turmoil itself, these are the mistresses of his unalterable devotion.

I can best explain Haddon Chambers’ dramatic instinct, or sense of the theatre, by referring to some of his methods of work. When he has selected his thesis he gives it the run of his brain, and interferes as little as possible with its freedom of development. His characters are not puppets to be moved like chess-men on a board, but living people to be studied, lived with, understood. He never prepares a scenario; he cannot say what his people will do until they have done it, or foretell the manner in which they will solve the problem in which he has involved them. His construction is an almost unconscious unfolding of his theme. The difficulties of “entrances and exits’ do not exist for him; his characters come and go at will, their movements being dictated by the exigencies of the situations. The direct result of this process of intuitive progression is a striking example of the art that conceals art—even from the critics. It is not until the play is complete in his mind that the work of transferring it to paper is commenced, and here again he proceeds after a fashion which is essentially his own. In sharp contrast with the methods of other dramatists, who write and re-write each scene and polish and super-polish their lines with infinite care, Chambers dictates or writes his plays exactly as they are presented in the theatre. As he writes he rehearses the dialogue and the business in his mind, and having written, he never corrects a line in the manuscript or changes, at rehearsal, a scrap of the business he invents in his study. I have had many opportunities of perusing the original MS of The Tyranny of Tears, which was written partly at Maidenhead and partly in the South of France, with brief spells of work in London, as one can see from the occasional interpolation of a score of sheets of club notepaper. In parts the handwriting is leisurely and the letters have a dapper primness; elsewhere the words follow hotfoot one upon the other, and the lines are so close packed upon the page as to suggest that the author has discharged his thoughts in an avalanche of syllables. And at irregular intervals throughout the script the pages are decorated with sportive pen-drawings, sometimes suggested by the characters in the play, but are more often caricatures of persons irrelevant to the story who have chanced into the writer’s mind. But whether the calligraphy is rushed or ruminating, decorous or disorderly, it is innocent of any sign of revision from end to end; and this is the document from which the typewriters made the prompt copy of the play.

Another characteristic of the man is his repugnance of repeating himself, even when the practice would be to his pecuniary benefit. When Captain Swift made a hit and people were expecting him to write another Swift, he was busy on The Idler. One distinctive manner of that first play of his was bound to be reproduced in other plays; but Chambers left the repetition to others, and himself broke new ground. The Idler introduced to the stage a new style of drama; the dramatist left the model for others to refurbish, and turned his attention to comedy. It may be that while the majority of playwrights are for ever concerned with parts and scenes, Haddon Chambers is engrossed in the study of people and life. The range of his friendships and acquaintances is quite extraordinary; he knows everybody, and is seen everywhere. People who meet him in drawing-rooms and at dinner parties regard him as a mere social entity; but in Bohemian circles he is an equally familiar and welcome figure; and he is a staunch supporter of the National Sporting Club. He was a boxer and a follower of boxing years ago, and frequently acted as referee at a time when the science was in disrepute. Today it is patronised by everybody, including the King; but Chambers dates his devotion to the sport from the brave days of Frank Slavin, Peter Jackson, Charley Mitchell and Chesterfield Goode. Nor is he lacking in his sense of his obligations towards his fellow-craftsmen and his craft. He was one of the five playwrights who, with [Arthur Wing] Pinero, the late Captain Marshall, R.C. Carton, and Cecil Raleigh, founded the Dramatists’ Club; and he is an active member of the Dramatic Sub-Committee of the Author’s Society.

Beneath an exterior which presents an air of imperturbable composure Haddon Chambers conceals a surfeit of vitality that would impel a less well-balanced man into all kinds of excesses. Chambers never exceeds in anything. He plays every sort of game and excels in many; but is obsessed by none. He golfs, but is untroubled about his handicap; is one of the best billiard players in the Bath Club, but takes no part in the tournaments; has few equals at Bridge, and is content to play for penny points. In art he is more conservative, more mobile, and more secret. He has an unerring instinct for what is best in letters and in music, and an appreciation of perfection that affords him perennial delight. Art is, to him, no intermittent relaxation, but rather a necessity of existence; he plunges his senses in melody, and wears poesy as a cloak about his mind; and he would feel aggrieved if either denied him a scintilla of their perfect beauty. If I were asked to select an epitaph for Haddon Chambers [7] I should not look beyond the Finis of Walter Savage Landor:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;

I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

First published in The Lone Hand—New Series Vol. 4, No. 4 (1 September 1915), pp.231–234 & continued on pp.265–267.

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Endnotes

Compiled by Robert Morrison

  1. The Boy Scouts movement was informally established in Britain following the publication of Lord Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys in 1908.
  2. Nellie Melba met Haddon Chambers in 1895 when a mutual friend, Henry Russell, invited them both to supper to ease Chambers into a discussion of a libretto adaptation of one of his plays as a vehicle for Melba. Russell recalled [in The Passing Show, p.97]: ‘Few people knew more about the stage at that time than Haddon, and Melba realised at once how much she could learn from her talented compatriot. The friendship grew and the diva undoubtedly benefited by the care that Haddon bestowed on every new role she learnt, teaching her gradually to be a talented actress. I remember Melba telling me how grateful she was for his assistance and how she considered her art had improved by her association with him.’

(quoted in Melba: The voice of Australia by Therese Radic, Macmillan, Australia, 1986)

Chambers also undertook the stage direction of most of the New York productions of his plays presented under the management of Charles Frohman.

  1. ‘[Haddon Chambers] received a distinct lift when the Sydney Bulletin appointed him its London correspondent. But this did not last long. That paper, being fond of short, snappy paragraphs, started to cut up his letters into snippets scattered here and there, instead of printing them in full. He had signed these letters “A.B. Original,” and resented their being mutilated.’

(Ref: https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235456087 )

  1. Prior to writing the four-act comedy-drama Captain Swift for Beerbohm Tree, Haddon Chambers had already written three one-act plays and had collaborated with Stanley Little on the four-act drama Devil Caresfoot (a dramatisation of Rider Haggard’s novel Dawn) but the success of Captain Swift was the first to bring him widespread recognition. In a newspaper interview for the Morning Herald in 1899, Chambers disclosed his original motivation to write for the stage: “One night I went to the theatre to pass away a couple of hours. To my surprise, in a one-act play, I recognised one of my own tales—uncredited and unauthorised. It was carefully dramatised, and it seemed to go very well with the audience. As I walked home I said to myself that if other people could make stage capital from the children of my brain, there was no reason why I couldn't do it myself. I set to work, and wrote a little one-act play. It was called A Mere Cipher, and I sold it for a song to Frank Dietz, who was then managing Rosina Vokes [sic]*. Miss Vokes, I believe, produced it in America, but I have never seen it played, and I don't mind telling you in confidence that I trust I never shall.’ (Ref: https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113261954 )

*Victoria Vokes, sister of Rosina, included the play in her repertoire when she undertook an extensive tour of the USA in 1889/1890.

  1. Gilbert Parker’s review of the Australian premiere of Captain Swift, staged at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on 16 February 1889, may be read on-line at the following URL link: Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Monday, 18 February 1889, p.6, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13714562
  2. Haddon Chambers’ collaborators on the melodramas staged at the Adelphi Theatre, London under the management of the Gatti brothers (Agostino and Stefano) were respectively B.C. Stephenson for The Fatal Card (1894) and Joseph Comyns Carr for Boys Together (1896) and In the Days of the Duke (1897).
  3. Haddon Chambers died on 28 March 1921 at the Bath Club, London after suffering a stroke while at dinner the previous evening.

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A Young Australian Dramatist.

Mr. C. Haddon Chambers, whose portrait appears in this issue of THE BULLETIN, is, in the words of the London STAGE ‘surely the youngest playwright who ever bowed to an enthusiastic London audience in the very height of the London season. Proceeds the same paper, referring to the recent production by Mr. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre of Mr. Chambers’ latest play, Captain Swift: ‘What a house! what a furore! After repeated yells for the author a pale delicate lad appeared on the stage and took off his hat to the audience. This young man is a veritable mushroom, unknown and unheard of yesterday, to-day a hero. Never surely was anybody's hand so much shaken as his was as he mixed with the distinguished crowd which poured out of the Haymarket at about half-past 5 … How in the space of 22 years is so much power of passion, so much knowledge of the human heart accumulated?’ Mr. Chambers, by the way, is 28, not 22 years of age, and although he probably looked pale, which was quite natural under the circumstances, he is not delicate, but is possessed of an excellent constitution. The London press, as a whole, deals with Captain Swift in an almost unprecedentedly eulogistic manner. According to THE STAGE:—

The author has to a certain extent drawn on his Australian experiences, and weaving them in with English life has produced a thoroughly original and powerful play in which, from the rise of the curtain to its fall, the interest never flags; and so cleverly is it constructed that, though surprises are sprung on the audience, they are, after a moment's consideration, seen to be but a natural outcome of the events occurring: nor was it possible to form any accurate idea as to how the denouement would be brought about or what it would be .... It is long since so young an author as Mr. Haddon Chambers has been accorded such an ovation as greeted him when he appeared before the curtain.

The subject of our portrait is, as THE BULLETIN has previously stated, a native of Sydney, and ‘Charlie’ Chambers will be remembered as a ‘bright boy’ by many people who lived in that city in the early portion of the present decade. He was always of an unsettled disposition while anchored by force of circumstance in Australia, where brains are at a discount in a limited market and literature as well as softgoods must hail from “dear old England’ to be appreciated by the herd. For many years, during which he was connected with the NSW Survey Department and other light employments, he used to yearn, as other good men have yearned before and since with a mighty yearn, to see something of the world. At length the way opened and he went. But it was only a trial flight, for after a comparatively brief trip, during which he visited the North of Ireland—the home of his father's family—and other portions of the United Kingdom, he returned to Sydney for a space. In the latter end of 1882 he once more found himself in London. It was not until some time had elapsed that he tried his hand at literature, and then his efforts took the form of stories of unusual promise, published in such publications as the ARGOSY, BELGRAVIA, TRUTH, SOCIETY, and the various periodicals issued from the great house of Cassell. Among his stories written at this time, The Pipe of Peace, published in The Argosy, is a particularly artistic piece of emotional writing.

His first attempt at writing for the stage resulted in the production, in 1886, of One of Them, a farcical comedy which was well received and favourably spoken of by the press. Then came The Open Gate, a lever de rideau which the DAILY CHRONICLE described as ‘graceful and sentimental,’ and the MORNING POST as ‘a pleasant little piece of dramatic anecdotage, flimsy enough in texture but entirely sweet and wholesome in sentiment.’ A greater effort than any previous one was made last year, when he, in conjunction with Mr. Stanley Little dramatised Rider Haggard’s Dawn. The result of their labours, a four-act drama under the title of Devil Caresfoot, was produced at a matinee at the Vaudeville Theatre, and was instantly pronounced a striking success. But the reward was still withheld, for, owing to a series of theatrical trickeries and disasters, Mr. Chambers did not make as much out of Devil Caresfoot as he anticipated and deserved; and this play, of which great things were expected, has not yet had a fair show on the London stage. With Captain Swift it is different, for it has already been announced that the play has been accepted for the evening bill at the Haymarket Theatre, that the American rights have been sold for a large sum to the proprietary of the Madison Square Theatre, New York, and that there is talk of bringing out the piece in Germany.

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Haddon Chamber’s short story The Pipe of Peace may be read in a two-part serialisation in The Age (Melbourne) for 2 & 9 October 1886 at https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196011099 and https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196007070 respectively.

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HADDON CHAMBERS.

AN INTERESTING INTERVIEW.

Mr. Haddon Chambers' new play, The Awakening, has just been produced in London with great success, and the Australian playwright is therefore enjoying greater prominence than ever. During a rehearsal of the piece, a representative of The Daily Mail had an interview with the author, and it will bear republication.

‘I hate to go backward,’ was a remark he made incidentally to the scribe, and the expression sums up the man.

It was an accident that gave Mr. Haddon Chambers to the stage. He is an Australian—the only great dramatist that the colonies have sent home—was born at Sydney in 1860.

‘Up to 1882,’ he told the interviewer, ‘I had never contemplated earning a livelihood by writing. I began my career in the Civil Service of New South Wales, and afterwards took to driving cattle in the bush. I first saw London in 1880, and settled here in 1882.’

‘The first question that naturally occurred to me was ‘How to make a living?’ One day I was reciting some of my bush experiences to a friend, when he recommended me to commit them to paper. Beyond winning a prize for composition, I had never written a line in the way of literature, and it was with some misgiving that I wrote and submitted to Messrs. Cassell and Co. some sketches of life in the bush. They were accepted.

‘Thus encouraged, I began to write short stories, the first of which, I well remember, was called ‘Outwitted.’ Sixty others followed. One of them was entitled A Mere Cipher, and it occurred to me one night that it might be turned into a little play. In three or four hours the playlet was completed. I was fortunate enough to make friends with a theatrical agent, who gave me £5 for the play, and having previously sold the story for a similar amount, I thought it very good business indeed. A Mere Cipher was produced in America, but I never saw it.’

Quite a story in itself was the way Mr. Chambers’ first London play came to see the light. He had been ‘free lancing’ in Fleet-street for several years, writing theatrical and other articles, when he evolved The Open Gate. The story may be continued in his own words:

‘I learnt that the Comedy required a play to precede a new venture which was about to be produced. I sent Mr. Campbell Bradley The Open Gate. He passed it on to the principal in the undertaking, and on a never-to-be-forgotten Sunday morning I went to Mr. Bradley’s rooms to learn my fate. Presently the principal entered, and without seeing me flung my poor little manuscript on the table, and said, ‘That's a pretty little play; I want to use it.’ Then he looked up and saw me. ‘Where the dickens did you spring from?’ he exclaimed, and in the principal I recognised an old friend whom I had known in New South Wales—another example of “the long arm of coincidence,” which, I may add, is a phrase coined by me in Captain Swift.’

Another coincidence, and a sad one, is that the run of Mr. Chambers’ play, The Honorable Herbert, at the Vaudeville, was interrupted very shortly after its appearance by the death of the Duke of Clarence; while the production of his latest play, The Awakening, was delayed in consequence of the death of the Queen.

‘I believe,’ Mr. Chambers confesses, ‘that it was the proudest moment of my life when, as a newly-fledged playwright, I was called for the first time before the curtain. But I remember little of that experience, beyond hearing an elderly lady in the pit exclaim: “Pore young follow; how pale ’e do look!” ’

‘As a matter of fact,’ declared Mr. Chambers, ‘I never feel so cool or collected as when I take a call. And yet on these occasions friends in front invariably tell me how dreadfully pale I have looked. People forget that, unlike the actor, the author appears on the stage without “make-up.” ’

Mr. Chambers is nomadic in his habits. The opening part of The Awakening was written in a cottage by the Thames, was continued at Cannes, added to at Monte Carlo, and finished in London. He waits for inspiration, and when it comes, works at high pressure. He decides first of all upon the theme, the plot develops naturally. He ‘feels’ everything he writes, and, moreover, has the knack of making his audience feel also.

The Referee (Sydney, NSW), Wednesday, 20 March 1901, p.10, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120643931

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HOW I WRITE MY PLAYS.

MR. C. HADDON CHAMBERS REVEALS SOME INTERESTING SECRETS.

It is said of Mr. Chambers that to speak with good effect was always easy to him, and to express himself readily on paper came as if by nature, so, his tendency towards a musician's career notwithstanding, it seemed inevitable that he should become known as an author.

THINKING OUT IDEAS.

When brought to describing minutely how he writes a play, he says:

‘Well, of course one starts by having some central idea—some theme on which one wants to enlarge. Then the question naturally arises, what combination of characters would best compass it, and in what surroundings shall they work out their doom? As soon as I think of a subject for a play I make rough notes, and when the whole scheme is fairly settled in my head I go through all these little scribbles, deciding which had better be omitted—putting off, as it were, the evil moment of beginning to write in earnest.

‘The first two pages are really a desperate struggle—like making up one's mind to plunge into cold water in Winter! However, as soon as they are turned all goes well, one warms to the work as to the water, and existence under the circumstances begins to prove pleasant, in spite of its forbidding aspect of a while ago. Then it becomes quite enjoyable, and the first act is finished without further delay. Should the second go well, one begins to see the promise of a prosperous voyage through the whole undertaking.

THAT TROUBLESOME SECOND ACT.

‘I am speaking, of course, of plays in four acts—the favorite form nowadays. It has been said, with a certain amount of truth, that almost anyone can write the first act of a play. With equal truth, it may be said, anyone can write the third, for in that act naturally all the drama of the scheme must culminate; but, I think, most dramatic writers would concede that in a four-act play the second act calls most loudly on the resources of craftsmanship.

‘It is the second that is the real test. Sometimes I have got just as far as that act, and have become so much involved by the conflicting claims of rival schemes for the compassing of a satisfactory conclusion that I have had to put the play aside for weeks, and just let it simmer undisturbed in my head, trusting that the best idea would eventually come to the top, and permit itself to be transferred to paper without further trouble. My chief difficulty, as the play progresses, is that it generally grows deeper—more serious in effect than I originally intended, which makes the necessity of getting the story told and all complications cleared up within the specified time a somewhat desperate prospect. Then the observances of the preference which the ordinary audience has for a happy ending is also a hampering restriction.

‘It leads to almost unavoidable suddenness on the part of the characters in the play, unless their lot has been all along cast in such pleasant places that they have but calmly to pursue their progress on the primrose path; and that sort of uneventful meandering can hardly be called interesting to contemplate, can it? No; when one has anything serious to say one does rebel against the restricting “three hours’ traffic of the stage.” Hurry is inevitable. By that remark I do not mean scurry and scrambling; but that there is an ever-present necessity to get on.’

FIRST THOUGHTS ARE BEST.

‘Do you correct your first manuscript very copiously before deciding to leave well alone?’

‘No; I rarely touch it. Just as it is first put on paper, so it is played. Look, here is The Awakening’—twirling over the leaves of a ruled book, full of regular, very legible writing—‘there finishes the third act. Would you like that page?’ And before one had time to grasp the meaning of the generous offer, it was torn out and handed over.

‘What do you think of the plan which some dramatists pursue, in writing their last act first?’

‘Well, to me it would, if followed, simply mean writing two last acts, for never yet did I bring a play exactly to the point which I had intended to make such a previously constructed termination fit on neatly. Some of my characters always grow inevitably more important than I had foreseen, or develop some peculiarity which quite belies the promise of their youth, making a ready-written fate an impossible enterprise for them. The only play I have written which in its inception began with the last act is The Golden Silence. One afternoon, while walking up Fifth Avenue, in New York, I suddenly got the idea of the last scene. It so overcame me that I had to turn into Central Park to avoid the crowd. I walked excitedly for an hour, and then went back to my rooms and wrote it all down. The next day I started to build my play up to that idea.’

A PLETHORA OF PLOTS.

‘Are you ever at a loss for a plot?’

‘No; my difficulty is rather which of several equally attractive stories to choose. Life is so full of stories!’

‘Then your stage-folks are your neighbours, endowed with a few new qualities?’

‘Say, rather, carefully edited for dramatic purposes. Believe me, we writers for the stage who take our craft seriously do keep as near to Nature as we can in our plays, and as much as possible write from experience rather than from hearsay. For instance, the scenes in The Fatal Card—the melodrama I did with Mr. Stephenson for the Adelphi—concerning thieves and their manners and customs, were studied first hand in a not particularly delectable quarter of London.

‘From my earliest boyhood I was a great reader. I read everything I could buy or borrow—Dickens, Thackeray, Lytton, Scott, Eliot, Cooper, and all the rest of the giants, with Balzac, Daudet, Zola, Maupassant to follow later. At fifteen I was free of school, and boring myself on a stool in a Government office. But two years of Civil Service was all I could stand, so I exchanged captivity and regular routine for the shifting fortune of life in the Bush.’

BUSH-LIFE MAKES DRAMATISTS.

‘Does not bush-life sometimes get monotonous?’

‘Oh, no! Impossible to be dull or bored out of doors, and in almost ceaseless sunshine. Of course, one has books for leisure hours wherever one is. Perhaps it was the long evenings passed in the bush that encouraged my capability for story-telling, quite a cultivated and much-considered art in the lonely “back blocks.” ’

‘And what of poetry?’ the interviewer suggested.

The dramatic author's face lit up.

‘You have written much verse, of course?’

‘Yes—and torn it up! One is too appreciative of real poetry to retain one's own feeble outpourings in verse. But in regard to poetry, as in regard to music, one is infinitely thankful for a splendid memory.’

Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW), Sunday, 3 July 1904, p.2, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127809844

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AUSTRALIA’S ONLY DRAMATIST

C. Haddon Chambers

‘HIS SYMPATHIES ARE UNIVERSAL ’

Charles Haddon Chambers has been described, in a recently published work of reference, as our only Australian-born dramatist. If the compilation of reference books was reduced to an exact science he would have been more accurately catalogued as the only Australian who has achieved a recognised position in the select circle of European dramatic authors. In point of fact, with the solitary exception of Charley’s Aunt, and the works of Shakespeare, Chambers’s The Tyranny of Tears has been represented in Germany a greater number of times than any other English play, and a translation of his The Fatal Card, enjoyed something like a record run for a melodrama at the Porte St. Martin, in Paris. His literary output during the past 20 years amounts to about a score of pieces, and while some, ‘I remember pleased not the million,’ he has, in Captain Swift, The Fatal Card, and The Tyranny of Tears, produced the best drawing-room drama, the best melodrama, and the best comedy of his age and generation.

The main facts in Chambers’s career must be familiar to our readers. Born at Stanmore in 1860, and educated in Sydney, where he put in two years as a civil servant, he early forsook the sedentary and circumscribed routine of a Government office for the more stirring solitude of a bush-whacker's life. At the end of other two years the allurements of the ‘noble, silent bush’ had palled upon him, and he went ‘home’ for a tramp holiday.

During the next half-dozen years Mr. Chambers wrote everything there was to be written for cash, and more than most editors cared to read or pay for. He turned out articles and interviews, poems, stories, and obituary notices. In the course of time he obtained a footing in the magazines, and one editor offered him a post on the staff. But the appointment carried conditions of attendance, and specified hours for coming in and going out—especially for coming in—and he had learnt in the New South Wales Government office ‘the worm, the canker, and the grief’ of such regulations.

Orderly habits and methodical rules of life are doubtless admirable for those people who possess a conformable mind, but that, like red hair or a classic nose, is not given to everyone. In Haddon Chambers nonconformity is not an affectation, but a temperamental peculiarity. He can conceive, construct, and complete a play, and carry it in his head for weeks or months before the inclination compels him to transfer it to paper, but when the mood is on him he writes or dictates a whole comedy inside a month; and as the play is written it is presented on the stage, without the alteration of a word. In twenty years he has never rewritten a solitary passage, or sat out a single representation of one of his own plays,

Haddon Chambers is regarded by some people as a lazy man, but that misconception arises from the fact that he never goes to bed until he is tired, and seldom gets up until he has to (says a London paper.) But, like Maypole Hugh, he is active enough when he is really awake, and at midday our representative discovered him in his pyjamas, going through his early course of physical exercises. He offered to take on his visitor at Indian clubs, or with the gloves, for money or the fun of the thing, but this courteous offer was firmly declined. For a lazy man Chambers is one of the best all round athletes of his years that literature can show. He makes a point of keeping himself a little below physical concert pitch, arguing with no little reason that no man at the top of his condition, would condescend to do anything so unhygenic as the writing of dramas for a living. He plays everything from lawn tennis to quoits—he boats, punts, cycles, uses a straight left with precision, and sits anything that lets him get up; and although he no longer drives himself home on the dicky of a hansom, with the driver stowed away inside, he is admitted to have as delicate a pair of hands as any jehu in London. At 45 he looks 30, and he turns the scale at 10st.

Our representative suggested that if Chambers was busy he would wait until the performance was over.

‘Bless your heart!’ he replied. ‘Why, I’ve only just begun. If we can’t get to the business until I’m through, I shall keep you hanging about for another hour.’

As our representative hesitated Chambers saved the situation by tumbling into bed again, and for the next hour the conversation was of plays and players, the conditions governing the drama, and the future of the English stage. On the subject of his own work he was obstinately diffident.

‘What can I say?’ he protested. ‘If the pieces I have on the stocks are successful they will speak for themselves, and if they aren’t, what’s the good of talking about them?’

When it was pointed out to him that he had been silent, so far as the theatre was concerned, for a couple of years, and that Australians might be curious to know in what direction his sportive fancy had been leading him in the meantime, he became more communicative, and admitted that he had completed two pieces, that will probably be produced next season. One of them is a fantasy called Mr. Flame, and the other a comedy, named Sir Anthony.

‘I called it Sir Anthony,” Mr Chambers explained, ‘because there’s no such person in the play. It’s a straight modern comedy, a comedy of the outskirts or suburbia. The suburban field is comparatively fresh; in fact, I think we've nothing covering it, and that's saying a good deal at the present day. George Tyler has secured the American rights, and I’m not a little curious to learn how an American audience will regard this picture of English middle-class domesticity.’

‘And the other play?’

‘That’s a comedy, too, but of an utterly different kind. It’s a genuine fantasy, and when I had finished writing it the thought struck me that it ought to be set to music. The music has been written by Bernard Rolt, and George Edwardes has the rights both for here and America.’

‘And In this piece the man of the title, the Mr. Flame, really appears?’

‘Oh, yes, he dominates the entire play.’

‘Is it a comic opera?’

‘Yes, in a way; I mean in the strict sense of the word. It is not a musical-farcical entertainment, but, a legitimate fantastic comedy, which could be played without music, only music seemed appropriate.’

Chambers has recently returned from a trip to New York, and in the course of conversation he declared that, outside David Belasco’s productions, there is nothing in America to compare with the spectacular magnificence of the London stage. ‘Look at Tree’s production of Nero,’ he said. ‘I consider it is absolutely the finest production I’ve ever seen. Of course, I have a prejudice in favour of Tree because he produced my first play. By the way, a paper over here recently published a statement that the story of how I read Captain Swift to Tree at a Turkish bath was altogether apocryphal. As a matter of fact, it’s entirely true. He had the piece for three months before he ever looked at it. Then, one day I managed to read him the first two acts. The following day I went again, to give him the balance, but he was slightly indisposed, and very courteously put me off. I saw him go into the Turkish bath In Leicester-square, followed him, presented myself before him when he was lightly clad in a bath-sheet and innocence, finished the reading then and there, and had the work accepted.’

In his enthusiasm for art Chambers is cosmopolitan, and his sympathies are universal. He enthuses over Whistler and Hokusai; his literary loves include Milton, Turgenief, and Swinburne; he knows the score of Lohengrin and Madame Butterfly by heart; and  while Ibsen and D'Annunzio command his admiration, he regards the third act of Stephen Phillips’s Herod as a masterpiece of English dramaturgy, and considers Granville Barker’s Voysey Inheritance to be one of the truest, most arrestive, and most notable plays of recent years.

‘I should say The Voysey Inheritance is the most excellent modern play of the age,” he declared emphatically; ‘It is certainly the most extraordinarily clever piece of work I ever witnessed. I went to see it twice in four nights—and I’m not much of a theatregoer in the usual way. It shows a marvellous insight into the life of the upper middle classes. I don’t know if It has been arranged to present the play in Australia, but I hope it will be done there, although the performance cannot equal that given at the Court. Granville Barker, who is the active head of the company, is quite a young man, but in addition to his capacity for writing plays, he seems to have a singular genius for making people act. In the case of The Voysey Inheritance we had not only the best play of its kind, but the best performance that was to be seen In London.’

‘Now, Mr. Chambers,’ said our representative, as the dramatist commenced to exhibit signs of restiveness, ‘I see you have been described as our native-born dramatist—’

‘And, therefore,’ Chambers struck in, ‘you have no hesitation in inferring that I write my own biographical notices.’

He laughed, and when our representative protested that he did not infer any such thing, said it didn’t matter in the very least.

‘Lastly, Chambers, have you any advice to give to Australian aspirants for theatrical recognition?’

Chambers hesitated a moment, and then said: ‘The only way to learn play writing is to write plays, and the only chance of getting them accepted is to read them to managers. It’s not a bit of use posting a MS. to a theatre, because no man approaches a play with the feeling that he is going to read a masterpiece. What I mean is that a manager reads so many plays, mostly bad or indifferent, that it is not surprising if he fails to recognise a good one when he comes across it. Then, again, in reading his own play, an author can convey to some extent the atmosphere he has tried to create; he can bridge over the gap that yawns between the cold text and the play in action. My advice to authors is, read your plays to managers, and if you don’t read well, practice till you do. The Australian who mails his MS. to London has no more chance of getting it produced than I have of keeping my luncheon appointment, unless—(what, must you really go?) Well, good-bye; if I think of any, other useful advice I'll post it to you.’

Up to the time of our going to press no communication from Chambers has been received.

Sunday Sun (Sydney, NSW), Sunday, 19 August 1906, p.5,https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231868877

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A Chronological Listing of the Plays of Haddon Chambers

(plus dates and venues of premiere productions)

(Selected playscripts may be read and downloaded from the Internet Archive at the indicated URL addresses.)

pre-1886

  • A Mere Cipher (one-act)—Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia, PA—16 September 1889

1886

  • One of Them (two-act farce)—Theatre Royal, Margate—10 September 1886

1887

  • The Open Gate (one-act)—Comedy Theatre, London—25 March 1887—(playscript at https://archive.org/details/opengateoriginal00chamrich )
  • Devil Caresfoot (adapted by C. Haddon Chambers and J. Stanley Little from Rider Haggard’s Dawn)—Vaudeville Theatre, London—12 July 1887 (matinee) subsequently produced at the Strand Theatre, London—6 August 1887 and the Comedy Theatre, London—23 August 1887

1888

1890

1891

  • The Pipe of Peace—the performance rights were secured by George Alexander but apparently the play remained unproduced.
  • The Honourable Herbert—Vaudeville Theatre, London—22 December 1891

1892

  • The Collaborators (one-act) (“a dramatic joke”)—Vaudeville Theatre, London—7 January 1892
  • The Queen of Manoa (by C. Haddon Chambers and W. Outram Tristram)—Haymarket Theatre, London—15 September 1892
  • The Old Lady—Criterion Theatre, London—19 November 1892

1894

  • The Fatal Card (by C. Haddon Chambers and B.C. Stephenson)—Adelphi Theatre, London—6 September 1894
  • John-a-Dreams (aka John o’ Dreams)—Haymarket Theatre, London—8 November 1894

1896

  • Boys Together (by C. Haddon Chambers and J.W. Comyns Carr)—Adelphi Theatre, London—26 August 1896

1897

  • In the Days of the Duke (by C. Haddon Chambers and J.W. Comyns Carr)—Adelphi Theatre, London—9 September 1897

1899

1901

1902

  • A Modern Magdalen (founded on the Danish play The Jensen Family)—Bijou Theatre, New York—29 March 1902; subsequently produced in Australia at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide starring Nellie Stewart—18 October 1902, and then on tour under the title of Dolores.

1903

  • The Golden Silence—Garrick Theatre, London—22 September 1903

1904

  • The Younger Mrs. Parling (founded upon Henri Bernstein’s Le Détour)—Garrick Theatre, New York—26 January 1904

1905

  • Mr. Flame (a fantastical musical comedy—music by Bernard Rolt)—British and American rights secured by George Edwardes but apparently remained unproduced

1906

  • Sir Anthony—Park Theatre, Boston—12 November 1906; subsequently produced at the Savoy Theatre, New York on 19 November 1906; and Wyndham’s Theatre, London on 28 November 1908

1907

  • The Thief (adapted from the French play Le Voleur by Henri Bernstein)—Lyceum Theatre, New York—9 September 1907

1910

  • Suzanne (adapted from the French play by Frantz Fonson and Fernand Wicheler)—Lyceum Theatre, New York—26 December 1910

1911

  • Passers-by—Wyndham’s Theatre, London—29 March 1911

1913

  • Tante (founded on the novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, 1911)—Empire Theatre, New York—28 October 1913; subsequently produced in London as The Impossible Woman—Haymarket Theatre—8 September 1914

1916

  • The Great Pursuit—Schubert Theatre, New York—22 March 1916

1917

1922

  • The Card Players (posthumously produced)—Savoy Theatre, London—26 April 1922

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Filmography

26 The Idler 1914Irene Hunt & Thomas Mills in The Idler, 1914Movie versions of the following Haddon Chamber’s plays were made in America (and Britain) during the silent film era.

Images from the Internet Movie Data-Base

 

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THIRTY YEARS OF PLAYWRITING

By C. HADDON CHAMBERS.

I apologise in advance for the personal nature of the notes I am about to make. They will necessarily be personal, because, it having been pointed out that the production of The Saving Grace dates my career as a playwright so far thirty years, I have been invited to draw upon my fund of reminiscences during that period. As a matter of fact, I have been play making for a slightly longer period than thirty years, having produced in England a couple of one-act plays and a dramatised version of a novel, in collaboration, prior to the presentation of Captain Swift at the Haymarket Theatre, London, in the early days of Beerbohm Tree’s management of that house. As I regard the earlier experiments as negligible, I am accustomed to look upon the production of Captain Swift, on June 20, 1888, as the initiation of my long connection with the stage. The emphatic success of that production makes this natural.

Every play, particularly every successful play, has its own personal history, and when I look back upon the productions that I have made I find I could write a lengthy story in each case of the way in which the idea of the play occurred to me, of what happened during the writing of it, of how it came to reach its final destination, and of its subsequent career. I do not propose, within the limits of this article, writing the story of each venture, which might be as wearisome to the reader as to myself, but I think it would be interesting if I related briefly the personal history of my first and of my last play. The fortunes of the others may be left for other occasions, but as the majority of modern playgoers may have forgotten the titles of the intervening plays, I am taking this opportunity of reminding them of them. After Captain Swift came The Idler, The Honourable Herbert, John o’ Dreams, The Fatal Card, Boys Together, The Days of the Duke, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, The Golden Silence, A Modern Magdalene, (an adaptation,) Sir Anthony, Tante, Passers-By, and then The Saving Grace.

I cannot recall the incidents which led to my writing Captain Swift without an inward chuckle. One day, when walking in the neighborhood of the Haymarket Theatre. I encountered Beerbohm Tree. We were slightly acquainted and we stopped to speak. After a short discussion on the weather, he fixed me with his pale blue eye and asked me why I didn’t write him a play. As my experience of stage writing had been so slight and uneventful, I found this a somewhat startling proposition. It immediately occurred to me that this only meant the exercise of one of his many mannerisms. I determined, however, to take him seriously, and, although I had never written or attempted to write a four-act play, I hastened to assure him that I would provide him with one within the next few months. I suppose, justly considered, it was a piece of superlative cheek; but the fact remains that I hurried home to my rooms over a milk shop in a suburb of Bayswater and started to work out a play that very night. I am looked upon, I understand, as being rather a lazy person; but in my opinion a man who builds and writes an original four-act play in four months, and turns out half a dozen magazine articles meanwhile to keep the pot boiling, must be looked upon as not wholly without industry. But it is one thing to write a play and quite another to get it produced. I think it was an American cynic who once said that any man could write a play, but only a genius could sell one. I am therefore taking the risk of a certain Implication when I relate the ultimate proceedings in connection with Captain Swift.

I duly sent in a manuscript to Mr. Tree at the Haymarket Theatre. It was beautifully written from a calligraphic point of view—there were no typewriters in those days, or else I was unable to afford one. I awaited the result with a lively Interest, but many weeks passed without any developments. Then I began to haunt the stage door of the Haymarket, and, to cut a long story short, I ran Tree to ground one day and secured an appointment for a reading the following afternoon. I kept my appointment, but the elusive Tree did not. He had gone to the Leicester Square Turkish Baths. Thither I followed him, and in the hot room and the cooling room I read him my play. Tree was pleased and promised a production, but three days later difficulties arose. I was talking with Tree in his office at the theatre one afternoon when his stage manager came in and threw a manuscript which I recognised on the table. ‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Tree. ‘Rotten!’ replied old Hastings, who at that time was the most experienced stage manager in London. I must explain that Hastings did not know me by sight.

A little later Comyns Carr, to whom I was then also a stranger, but who afterward became one of my dearest friends, denounced the work in my presence with equal brevity and aversion. Tree turned his blue eyes on me with a touch of pity, and formed his pale eyebrows into a note of interrogation. I rose with what dignity I could command, seized my manuscript, and prepared to make an exit; but it appeared that Tree’s belief in the play was not wholly shaken, or at any rate his belief in himself in the part of Captain Swift, which was a particularly fat one, remained fairly sound. ‘Don't go, my dear fellow,’ he said, and then turning to Carr, ‘What about a matinee, Joe?’ Carr relented, and a trial matinee was arranged for the 20th of the following month—June.

The trial matinee was one of the great events of my life. If in mentioning it I appear to betray a trifle of egotism, it must be remembered that six years before I had arrived in London without knowing a dog in the streets, without any plans for my life, and without any knowledge whatever that I had any potentialities as a writer for the stage or for anything else, and that in the meantime my experience had taught me that at least I could earn a livelihood by writing stories for magazines and occasional journalism. I awoke in my rooms over the milk shop, on the 20th of June a practically unknown man. All London came to the matinee—by all London, of course, I mean the large section of well established and well known persons who were interested in artistic events. I was well aware that It was not on my account that they were there. They were there because Beerbohm Tree, both as an actor and a manager, had already won his way into their affections, and any production of his was certain to stimulate their curiosity and interest. Personally, I must confess I expected a success. I was very young and overflowing with optimism. I believed in the play, and the period of rehearsal had convinced me that I was being favored with an exceptionally fine cast; but the result achieved was far beyond my wildest expectations, and the event was quoted as one of exceptional theatrical interest for many years afterward. As a matter of fact, it was so surprising and so overwhelming that I was constrained, immediately afterward, to go to the country for a week to give my mind a chance to simmer down. I think I must have had the whole incident in mind, when, several years later, I wrote in John o’ Dreams the two following lines of dialogue; ‘Think of leaping into fame before a delighted world,’ says the heroine to the hero, to which the hero replies: ‘Think of leaping out again before an equally delighted world.’

Among the persons who contributed to the success of that occasion, and made it a memorable one in London theatrical history, I am one of the few left to tell the tale. Tree himself, to whose courage and good judgment I owed such a splendid introduction to the public as a dramatic writer, and who was among you all only the other day, has now passed into his rest. Indeed, most of the great figures, who loomed largely in my association with the stage, including George Alexander and Charles Frohman, are no longer my familiar associates, and sometimes when alone the lines of a great poet run in my mind—lines that he wrote in his forlorn old age:

Yet Ah! they cannot hear my closing song,

Those Hearts for whom its earlier notes

were tried,

Departed is, alas, the friendly throng.

And dumb the echoes all that first replied.

Dearly I should like to place at the disposal of Beerbohm Tree, Comyns Carr, ‘Old Hastings’, Charles Frohman, Charles Brookfield, and Fred Macklin a commodious box from which to view the performance of Cyril Maude and his associates in The Saving Grace.

Captain Swift went into the evening bill of the Haymarket, London, on 1st of September, 1888, and was shortly afterward presented to New York at the Madison Square Theatre, under the management of A.M. Palmer, generally remembered, I believe, as ‘Old Man Palmer.’ Here again I was fortunate in being represented by a splendid cast. Maurice Barrymore—father of three dear friends of mine, and conspicuous ornaments on the modern American stage, Ethel, Lionel, and Jack—was Captain Swlft, and, although it is so long ago, there must be some thousands of New Yorkers who remember what a magnificent Swift he was. These at least need not be reminded that he was supported by such splendid artists as Agnes Booth, Ferguson, Stoddard, Rose Coghlan, and Annie Russell.

One would have imagined that after this felicitous event the placing of my second play with a good management would have been an easy task, but it did not prove so by any means. Tree refused The Idler, so did John Hare, and I was beginning to think that playwriting was not all it was set up to be as a career, when one day a brilliant and charming lady from America, Miss Elisabeth Marbury, requested a sight of the manuscript, and within a few weeks I was making my first of my thirty visits to New York, for the purpose of presenting The Idler under the Daniel Frohman management at the old Lyceum Theatre. It was on that occasion that I met Charles Frohman, and there began that long friendship with the great play producer to which I shall refer presently.

A few years later John o’ Dreams, from the Haymarket, London, was done here at the Empire Theatre, with Henry Miller as the protagonist. The Fatal Card, done in London at the Adelphi, was next in order on Broadway. The actor whose name was principally associated with it here was that fine old artist, William Thompson. Then, If I remember aright, came The Tyranny of Tears, which is well known to the modern playgoer. My old pal, John Drew, who played and made Mr. Parbury his own, came up from Southampton the other night to be present at the production of The Saving Grace. Later on I produced Sir Anthony here. It was a study in suburban snobbery, and, as it was written in the vernacular of the London distant suburbs, it not unnaturally had no more than a success d'estime in New York. But I was with you again fairly soon afterward with a play called Passers-by, a work which I hope and believe is not yet forgotten. Then, just before the war began, came Tante, which was a free adaptation of the celebrated novel. Like The Idler the first production of this play occurred in New York, and not in London. Ethel Barrymore made a great hit in it at the Empire Theatre, under Charles Frohman’s management. I had a much greater success with Tante here than in London later on, when it was produced at the Haymarket Theatre while the world was ablaze, the English were retreating from Mons, and nobody was much Interested in the theatre.

And now I will tell for the first time the personal history of The Saving Grace. Late in 1913, or early in 1914, Charles Frohman asked me to write him a comedy, his only stipulation being that it contain a good part for a girl. By May, 1911, I had sketched out a scheme, had begun the dialogue, and had intrenched myself In a cottage near Marlowe-on-Thames, where I hoped to finish the work during the Spring and Summer. Marlowe is a delightful spot. I had taken Frohman to see it some years before, and he had become very fond of the place and was in the habit, during his visits to Europe, of coming down to spend a few days at the old Inn there whenever he had an opportunity. One day I had a cable from him announcing that he was sailing by the Lusitania, and proposed spending his first week end In England with me at Marlowe. Well, you know what became of that quest. As for me, I was rung up by telephone on the Saturday morning and told of the tragedy. A day or two later I went with Frohman's London manager, William Lestocq, to Queenstown to recover the body of my old friend, which had been found. It was perhaps the most melancholy experience I have ever had.  We carried the body to Liverpool during the night, and sent him back to his relations and friends with such poor honors as we could pay, on board the New York.

That is how it came that Frohman, who asked me to write it, never knew anything about The Saving Grace. I put the manuscript aside and returned to certain war activities that I had been engaged upon. A little later came a request from Mr. Hayman to complete the play for the incorporated firm, but later still things happened that threw the whole matter, as a business proposition, out of gear, and as I had become more deeply involved in other activities, I put it out of my mind for the time being. During my visit here in 1916, which was connected with quite different affairs, I happened to meet my old friend, Cyril Maude, who was playing in Grumpy. He came to supper with me one night, and I was tempted to read him the opening scenes of The Saving Grace—about one-third of the opening act. It was quite obvious they arrested his attention, and the part of Blinn Corbett made a strong appeal to his histrionic instinct. I remember expressing surprise at his enthusiasm on so small an acquaintance with the part, and he explained that he knew a man in real life who was very much that sort of fellow. The upshot of it was that I agreed to finish the play for Maude, and an arrangement was made by which the enterprise should come under the management of the Frohman firm. But it Is one thing to undertake to write a play and another to write it, particularly in wartime. In this instance I had first to free myself from the activities already alluded to, to permit of my finishing the comedy, and this was not accomplished until the early days of the Summer of 1917. Meanwhile, friend Maude was not immune from an accusation of a certain impatience, which perhaps was not unnatural, particularly as I found, when at last I was able to settle down to the work, that the work would not come to me. It will interest dramatic authors, many of whom have doubtless had similar experiences, to know that for five consecutive weeks I sat down every morning with the manuscript book before me, and under very felicitous circumstances, without being able to write a single line. The truth is I suppose that my mind was too deeply occupied at that time by the war to permit of my making a reconnection with Captain Blinn Corbett, his wife and associates. One day in reply to a ‘hurry up’ note from Cyril Maude, I wrote: ‘Dear Cyril—Please write me the following letter: ‘Dear Haddon—Take your own time and give me of your best.’ He did, and I quote the incident here in all honor to the actor-manager. Curiously enough, from that moment my mind seemed to re-establish communications with the scheme of the play, and from that time I never experienced any further difficulty. I wrote up to the end of the second act in my little house in London, and, notwithstanding the war excitements, including many air raids, with comparative ease.

The New York Times, 13 October 1918, p.22

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HADDON CHAMBERS

AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR'S DEATH.

London. March 28

The death is announced of Mr. Charles Haddon Chambers, the well, known playwright.

Charles Haddon Chambers was a native of Sydney, being born in the suburb of Stanmore, in Sydney, on April 22, 1860. His father was John Ritchie Chambers, a member of the Civil Service, and after completing his education at the Petersham, Marrickville, and Fort-street schools young Chambers entered the Lands Department at the age of 15. He found this work uncongenial, and after trying a post as canvasser for the Commercial Union Insurance Co., under Mr. St. Vincent Welch (manager), he sought more adventurous experiences of outback. He then visited England, and returning on the same boat with the Montagu-Turner Opera Company eventually revisited London, after acting as Miss Annls Montagu’s manager. He settled in London in 1882, and at the suggestion of Outram Tristram, the novelist, tried his hand at articles and stories for The Hawk, Truth, The Century Magazine, and various periodicals.

His first dramatic effort was a curtain-raiser, One of Them, in 1886, followed by another, entitled The Open Gate the following year. These attracted only passing attention, but in 1888 he made a genuine hit with the drawing-room drama, Captain Swift, produced by Tree at the Haymarket; and in 1890 his reputation was assured by the society comedy, The Idler, produced by George Alexander at the St. James’s Theatre. By chance this piece had been acquired for Australia by the late Charles Cartwright, and it was produced by him at the Sydney Garrick (afterwards the Tivoli), with Olga Nethersole in the cast, a week or two before the London first night. Chambers’ three next efforts, The Honourable Herbert, The Old Lady, and The Pipe of Peace, were only partially successful, and did not reach this country; but in 1894 John-a-Dreams enjoyed substantial runs both in London and here; and in 1899 he wrote the brilliant comedy, The Tyranny of Tears, for Sir Charles Wyndham. This very human and vivacious play attracted crowds both in England and America, and was staged here by the Broughs with much acceptance.

During the ensuing twenty years the dramatist produced The Awakening, The Golden Silence, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Queen of Manoa, The Fatal Card, Boys Together, The Days of the Duke, Tante, and The Saving Grace. Of these the only ones known in his own country are Passers-By, in which Hilda Spong appeared about seven years ago, and The Saving Grace, the war comedy, performed last year by Robert Courtneidge’s company. Amongst various adaptations from the French which Chambers took in hand, the best known was The Thief, from Le Voleur.

As regards his literary and dramatic style, Chambers possessed a fine sense of character, and of the quiet humour springing from it, which causes laughter, even without recourse to wit in the dialogue. Passers-By illustrated as well as anything he wrote his gift of tenderness in love-passages, and he was a master of stage-craft in the construction of his comedies. The Saving Grace, though bubbling over with comedy, was inherently touching and brought home the reality and pathos of war in a wonderful way.

In November of last year Chambers, who was a widower; married Miss Pepita Bobadilla, the daughter of a Spanish South American educated by her mother in Brussels and, on the outbreak of war brought by her to London, where she went on the stage. During the present year the young actress has been appearing at Drury Lane Theatre in The Garden of Allah. Mr. Chambers, early in this year, was at Nice to avoid the London winter, and wrote from thence to his sister, Mrs. Lila Rooney, of North Sydney, to say that he was completing a new play to be produced shortly in London at the Royalty Theatre. The dramatist has another sister in Sydney, Miss Agnes Chambers, the well-known pianist, organist, and teacher. His brother, Harry Kellett Chambers, for some years on the Sydney press as a reporter, has been long settled in New York as a journalist, and has written Frenzied Finance, The Butterfly (for Lillian Russell), and other plays.

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Wednesday, 30 March 1921, pg.11, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15940359

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HADDON CHAMBERSMEMORIES

(BY A LIFE-LONG FRIEND.)

‘Charlie’ Chambers and the writer lived near each other in Stanmore, and attended the same Sunday-school, and were fond companions. ‘Charlie’ was a lad of singular brightness and vivacity, mentally and physically daring and alert, precocious beyond his years, and gifted with unusual felicity of speech. His voice was strikingly musical and soft. He was lightly but perfectly proportioned, had fair hair, grey-blue eyes, and perfect teeth, and altogether had an air of juvenility which lasted well into manhood. Even in his thirties he looked little more than a boy. He was a splendid swimmer, and many a time we spent hours on summer evenings or Saturdays at Cook’s River, which was then (and perhaps still is) a favourite resort for boys fond of the water. Charlie was not a model schoolboy. He had the wandering temperament, and he often found tongues in trees, and books in the running brooks, which attracted him more, and maybe taught him as much as did Mr. Bridges, the famous pedagogue of Old Fort-street. He failed in his first essay to pass the Civil Service examination. His elders and mentors shook their heads—clearly young Chambers was doomed to an ignominious future. He himself laughed at their prognostications, and joked at the steady dry-as-dust youths round whom he could run rings intellectually, and who put on airs because they had passed. Still he determined to let them see what he could do. He learned the list of kings and queens by rote, got off the names of the chief capitals of the world, learned the difference between a predicate and a preposition, and dismayed those who crowed over him by passing quite easily next time. But if routine study was irksome he had an inherent flair for what was good in literature. He picked out historical novels, such as Harold, The Last of the Barons, and Ivanhoe, and read and reread till he knew them almost by heart. His predilection for the drama came out in a fondness for Massinger, and he was never happier than when he could induce a companion to listen to his declamation of resonant passages from A New Way to Pay Old Debts, or The Virgin Martyr. Later on he grew enamoured of Swinburne, and the present writer, staying with him at his humble ‘diggings’ in Bayswater, London, would be regaled at a protracted breakfast with the felicitous stanzas of ‘Dolores’, or Choruses from Atalanta, which were made doubly alluring by the sweet and flexible voice with which he rendered them.

Chambers and the present writer went to England almost at the same time. We were to sail by the same boat, but he was delayed, and followed three weeks later. In Ireland, where he stayed on his first visit, and later In London, where he settled on his second and final trip, we spent vacations together. At this time he was very hard up. He had tackled London with stout heart, but without a single friend of any influence. He used to sally forth and buy his humble rasher, which his first wife would cook. He prided himself on his judgement of bacon, and was greatly flattered when the grocer asked if he had not been in the trade himself.

He did various things for a living, among them canvassing for a cordial maker. But the literary instinct shone out. He was full of assurance—‘darned cheek’ he called it unashamedly. But his manners were so engaging that he was able to mask his audacity under an appearance that seemed naive and boyish modesty. He made it a rule to enter into conversation with every man with whom he came in contact anywhere, and never hesitated to approach the great and eminent of the earth if chance gave an opening. ‘Any number of acquaintances and a few staunch friends’ was his motto. One night we went to see a young singing actor play in the opera Rip van Winkle, in an out of the way suburban production. With his customary audacity Chambers, after the performance, got into conversation with one of the minor performers. I remonstrated with him for wasting time. ‘My dear fellow,’ he replied, “that man may be an Irving some day, and then I'll be glad I got to know him.’

At this time he had succeeded in having some short stories published in minor weeklies. His first was a story of old Australian life called Outwitted, which in 1881 was taken by Society, a fashionable periodical long defunct. He pegged away regardless of disappointments, bearding in his den every editor who returned a screed ‘with thanks and regrets.’ After a little he had quite a number of papers at his disposal, and his pen was kept busy. He wisely insisted on his name, C. Haddon Chambers, being printed every time. He would frivol away for hours or days before he really got to work. This habit lasted to the end, and accounts for the uneven quality of his work, some of It very fine and even great, some of it considerably below his general level. But once caught in the cogs of interest he would become enthusiastic, and would work right on for 12 hours at a stretch. He wrote Captain Swift, his first success as a dramatist, in six weeks. The first draft of the last act of The Idler he wrote in one sitting. His first wife died long ago, leaving one daughter, Marjorie, who became a talented musician. His second marriage is fresh in public memory. [1]

His last letter Iies before me, dated December 27, 1920. Of his second wife, Miss Pepita Bobadilla, he says: ‘Pepita is to have a beautiful part in the play I am writing … She is beautiful, cultured, and brave. She went on the stage because the war had broken the family. Her mother is pure English, her father, who died two years ago, was a South American merchant of Spanish origin. We have been genuine pals since she and her mother and sister escaped from Belgium just before the German occupation. … We grew into close affinity, and we both thought it an excellent thing to go and have a chat with the registrar. … She speaks five languages perfectly, while I only speak three—English, American, and Australian. … I am still thinking of re-visiting Australia. … Don’t imagine I have lost affection for my native land. … My pride in our boys who came over to fight in the war was-overwhelming.’

And now he has gone—the only Australian who really won a high place as a dramatic author, and his last winsome wish to see his dear native land again remained unfulfilled. Vale, Charlie, dear old pal.

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Wednesday, 30 March 1921, p.11, https://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15940360

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[1] On 29 October 1920 Chambers married 28-year-old Nelly Louise Burton, an actress known professionally as ‘Pepita Bobadilla’. Survived by his wife and a daughter by his first wife Mary, née Dewer, he died of cerebro-vascular disease at the Bath Club, London, on 28 March 1921 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. He died intestate leaving property worth £9195.

Ref.: Chambers, Charles Haddon (1860–1921) by B.G. Andrews, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, MUP, 1979

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Additional sources

  • The Adelphi Theatre Calendar, https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/index.htm
  • Internet Broadway Data-Base, ibdb.com
  • J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890–1899: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014
  • J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1900–1909: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014
  • J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1910–1919: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014
  • J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1920–1929: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014

 

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