Wales (NLW Journals) Contents
Cecil Price, National Library of Wales journal. 1961, Winter Volume XII/2
Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales
This is a complete extract of this article (Gareth Hicks Feb 2003)
The towns featured are; Aberystwyth, Abergavenny, Brecon, Carmarthen, Merthyr, Monmouth, Newport, Tredegar and Wrexham.
Price, Cecil. Portable Theatre in Wales, 1843-1914. National Library of Wales Journal. Vol IX/1 1955.
In 1844, there were buildings used as playhouses at Aberystwyth, Abergavenny, Brecon, Carmarthen, Merthyr, Monmouth and Wrexham. They were opened occasionally for performances by the strolling companies that clung to the old traditions. At Aberystwyth, Abergavenny, Brecon, Carmarthen and Wrexham, the gentry were still their main supporters. Yet very little theatrical activity took place in these towns between 1855 and 1865. The old circuits had broken down; religious opposition was strong. An examination of the history of each theatre will reveal that, soon, the old playhouses had to be given up, and the towns to depend for their entertainment on the visits of portable theatres or touring companies.
After Fenton's seasons at Aberystwyth between 1843 and 1845, 1 the theatre remained unoccupied for seven years. 'The want of rational amusement,' it was said, 'is much felt in the town. 2' The playhouse was redecorated and opened in September, 1852, by a company that came from Ludlow and was managed by Paunceford and Windsor. The month's season was successful enough to make Windsor return in August 1853 and 1854. The Earl and Countess of Lisburne as well as the local member of Parliament, Colonel Powell, bespoke performances. 3
There is no further mention of theatricals at Aberystwyth until 1865. The Era described the state of affairs in the town:
Visitors from all parts of the kingdom are to be met with here, and most numerous are the 'English foreigners', as they are called by the residents. Neither the limited amount of accommodation which the place can at present afford, nor the exorbitant rapacity of the lodging house keepers is proof against the natural attractions of the 'Brighton of Wales'. Nothing is so repugnant to the Methodistical mind of this portion of the Principality as the idea of 'theatricals', with the exception of Roman Catholicism, which is held to be the abomination of abominations. Even to read a passage from one of Shakespeare's plays is a vicious sin, of which the offender can be expurgated only by the deep contrition of probable hypocrisy. The influx of the English, however, appears to be reforming our mental constitution; and it was only on Tuesday evening last that the Methodist class aimed a 'stunning' blow at their own intolerance, by giving, in the Temperance Hall---that temple of narrow-minded teaching---an entertainment semi-dramatic, semi-operatic. A few Church people took part in the performance, but it was chiefly confined to the Dissenters of the town. Several pieces from Shakespeare were read with considerable effect, and selections from the operas were rendered with much creditable skill 4.
The resort was regularly visited, between July 1867 and October 1870, by Philip Hannan's company. They played at the Assembly Rooms and received some influential patronage. 'Mr. Hannan is evidently gaining the good opinion and the confidence of the gentry, many of whom, on Tuesday, exerted themselves on his ..................
............................ behalf and secured a crowded and fashionable audience.' 1 Performances were bespoken by the Earl and Countess of Lisburne, Lord and Lady Tredegar, Lord Vaughan, Colonel Pryse, Captain Reade, and Captain Bolton. 2 On 22 July 1868, Colonel Powell paid for a matinee performance, 'in order that the children from the various schools might be able to attend.' 3 Hannan found it profitable to engage Manley's travelling opera company for a week, and when the celebrated Charles Mathew acted there on 8 July 1869, the theatre 'was crowded to suffocation.' 4 Charles Dillon paid his first visit to 'this remote, though fashionable, watering place', and acted Shylock and Belphegor to Mrs. Hannan's Portia and Miss Marie Hannan's Henri. 'Mr. Dillon's Shylock was one of the finest conceptions ever witnessed here.' 5 Gardiner Coyne, the Irish comedian, was the star a week later; and in September, Henry Loraine performed 'a round of Shakespeare's characters.' 6
Philip Hannan's last visit began on 11 July 1870, with Percy Roselle as the star in The March of Intellect. 7 The season was very successful and the theatre was 'nightly filled with the nobility and gentry visiting Aberystwyth'. The programme came to an end in October, when O'Dowd's The Maid of Cefn Ydfa was as well received as the pantomime that accompanied it---Little Red Riding Hood. 8 A little later, Hannan fell ill, and was unable to visit Aberystwyth again.
George Mackenzie conducted a season at his 'Vaudeville Theatre' in the summer of 1872. For the closing performances, he put on Macklin's eighteenth century comedy, The Man of the World. A newspaper report describes in detail its attractions:
Mr. G. Mackenzie represented the canny Scot, Sir Pertinax, in a decidedly masterly manner, and with an unction and humour extremely diverting. Mrs. G. Mackenzie played Lady Rodolpha. The piece was admirably put on the stage and appeared to give the greatest satisfaction to a large and distinguished audience. By desire, Mrs. George Mackenzie recited in her best style, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. The whole concluded with the farce of The Four Sisters ... 9
Old traditions died hard, and this is one of the last performances given in the eighteenth century theatrical fashion.
Players were supported at Aberystwyth by the gentry, 1 and were bitterly opposed by the nonconformists. An enterprising manager could still make a success of a summer season if his standards were good and he could win the favour of influential residents and visitors.
Plays were usually given here in the Cymreigyddion Hall. Henderson's company acted there in April 1845, and were 'tolerably supported'. Mrs. Wheeley of Llanfoist House patronised the manager's benefit night. 'A Miss Grace Addison has been playing Hamlet, but we cannot say much for the skill of the lady.' 2 An accident took place during their stay:
The theatre was unusually full, and as Mr. Henderson and party were commencing the afterpiece, a rush occurred in the gallery, arising from the entrance of large numbers at half price. The increased weight caused the gallery to give way in the middle, and those at each end were precipitated on those in the centre and a most ludicrous confusion was the result. Fortunately the pit did not extend under the gallery, or fatal effects must have been produced by the event ... 3
Several companies visited the town between 1853 and 1858. The Cymreigyddion Hall was thronged in March 1853 'to witness the novel drama of Uncle Tom's Cabin. A large audience also saw Bruton's company perform The Dog of the Regiment. 4 In August, Mendham and Pattison brought George Owen there as their star, and plays were bespoken by Hanbury Williams of Colbrook Hall and by the Abergavenny Cricket Club. A season of six weeks ended in September, 'having been the most successful here for many years'. Rumour said that the managers 'intend to apply for a twelve months' licence for this town, backed by the numerous signatures of the principal inhabitants'. No such striking development took place, but Pattison returned to Abergavenny in November 1854 and acted there for a month. His company's rendering of The Wizard of the Florenze, in aid of the Patriotic Fund, was very successful. 5 Visits lasting a month were also paid by Pritchard's company in July 1856, and by Donald and Nede in September 1858. 6
As at Aberystwyth, no plays appear to have been given between 1858 and 1865. Then, Hord's portable theatre began to visit Abergavenny, and it maintained connection with the town until 1874. Its appeal was almost entirely to the lower classes. A few companies acting at the Volunteer's Hall tried to enlist the support .....................
.................... of the gentry. In December 1866, Moreland's strolling company played there with little success. In the following April, the English Opera Company sang before very large audiences, and proved that there was still a rich reward for those actors whose standards were high. 1
The players had customarily visited Brecon in the winter, when the gentry were at home and the garrison willingly provided an audience. Even these indulgent patrons would no longer go to see a weak company. The Silurian of 15 March 1846 commented:
We are sorry to see Brecon Theatre so poorly attended. This is undoubtedly caused by want of bespeaks. These used to help the manager in former times, and gained for Brecon the reputation of a town which had a substantial patronage for the drama.
The suffering company was managed by the ubiquitous Fenton. It received the patronage of the High Sheriff, the Mayor, and Miss De Winton, but Fenton lost heavily. His misfortune might have been a warning to other managers, but James Morgan opened there in April 1847, only to close hurriedly after a few nights. 2
In the next eleven years, three managers visited Brecon. They achieved fair success because their seasons were short and their standards were much higher than Fenton's. W. Sidney opened there in September 1853 and was patronised by Sir Joseph and Lady Bailey. 3 J. P. Chadwick began a season in October 1856; 'we are glad,' wrote The Era, 'to find this small but comfortable little theatre so well attended.' 4 When Simpson took over the management in November 1858, it was pointed out that this was 'essentially a fashionable theatre', and its prices of admission were quoted in support of the statement. Another newspaper report said,
This well-conducted establishment appears now to be fairly launched upon the stream of success. The most popular London dramas constitute the mental pabulum provided for its patrons---the leading gentry for eight miles round Brecon.
This was no idle boast. Performances were bespoken by Mrs. Gwynne Holford of Buckland; the Lord Lieutenant, Colonel Watkins; the parliamentary candidate for the county, Godfrey Charles Morgan; Captain Downes of Cefnparc; Captain Reid and the officers of the garrison; Captain Shadwell and the officers of the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers. Other patrons were the Mayor, the Oddfellows, the Foresters, and the Licenced Victuallers. 5
It seems very strange that, after the gentry had patronised Simpson so liberally, there should not be another theatrical season for five years. As at Aberystwyth and Abergavenny, no players visited the town between 1859 and 1863.
Walter Carle 'cleaned, aired and whitewashed' the old theatre before opening it on 3 May 1864. 'The long complaint of coldness in the theatre, arising from broken windows, doors etc., has been remedied.' The players were all drawn from the Bath and Bristol companies and, during their brief visit, they were patronised by Colonel Lindsay, Colonel Dickenson, and other officers of the garrison. 1 J. G. Fredericks began a winter season there in December, and put on The Idiot Witness, The Corsican Brothers, Othello and The Ticket of Leave Man. Gardiner Coyne was engaged as star for six nights:
He opened in his great character of Myles-na-Coppaleen, in the far-famed sensation drama of The Colleen Bawn, to a crowded and fashionable audience. He has appeared during the week in his original character of O'Brien in The Irish Emigrant, in Handy Andy, The Limerick Boy. . . . The business has been excellent, many bing turned away in consequence of the overcrowded audience. 2
Such success drew other hopeful companies to the town. Kate Robertson led one troupe that appeared there in October and November 1866. 'Our little theatre has just been opened by a company of theatricals, whose tent will not be pitched here for any protracted period, for the dimensions of our town are too contracted to admit any lengthened support to public entertainers. 3 Another company appeared there, a year later, but met with little favour, in spite of the statement that 'few towns of the size of Brecon can boast of so well appointed a theatre'. 4 Lady Don, Manley's opera company and Harry Liston's troupe paid brief visits 5 to the town, but the only manager to open (between 1869 and 1874) for more than a few nights was E. Stafford. He, too, was unsuccessful. 6
The history of the Brecon theatre affords an interesting example of what happened when the old strolling circuits of theatres were broken. In the past, a company could have occupied Brecon theatre in the month before Christmas and could have found patronage at resorts and other county towns during the remainder of the year. Now there were resident companies in the larger towns, and portable theatres visited the smaller industrial centres. The strolling company had had its day. It had been driven out of the large theatres by the stock companies, and now both were to be driven out of business by the touring company. The visit of Manley's opera company to Brecon is typical of the new development. It stayed a short time; did not exhaust its repertoire; pleased crowded houses; and went on its way well rewarded.
Fenton's company is again the link between the earlier period and the later one. In November 1844, it came to Carmarthen from Tenby, and gave a season that was hardly successful until some 'gentlemen amateurs' came to the rescue and helped them to close in January 1845. As if to excuse the smallness of the audiences, the Carmarthen journal said, 'Arrangements are in progress for the erection of a new theatre in this town instead of the present wretched building'. 1 A year later, when Fenton had again put on performances in December and January, the same newspaper again blamed the playhouse for the manager's lack of success: 'there is no indisposition in the town to enjoy the drama at moderate prices in a proper building. One is chilled and repelled by the present very unattractive theatre.' 2
F. Barton opened there for six weeks in 1850, and was patronised by the Mayor and by Colonel Love, 'commandant of Her Majesty's forces in the district'. Stock pieces, like The Stranger, The Honeymoon, George Barnwell, Othello, and Gwyneth Vaughan, made up the usual programme. 3 A little variety was added by tableaux vivants that illustrated The Momentous Question ('founded on Crabbe's Tales of the Hall'):
In the course of the drama, an attempt will be made to realise the subject of the popular engraving (a copy of which is now in the possession of His Worship the Mayor) from Miss Sarah Setchel's celebrated painting of 'The Momentous Question', which has been specially dedicated to Her Most Gracious Majesty, The Queen. 4
The leading players in the company were Marion Douglass, Barton himself, and 'Mr. Waller, the American actor'. They went on to Haverfordwest and did not return to Carmarthen, if only because they had forgotten to pay their bills before they departed. 5
Macarthy opened the theatre four years later. His impudence had gained him a bad reputation elsewhere, and he now put out an address claiming that Carmarthen playhouse was equal in elegance to any in the Kingdom. All he had done was to turn the gallery into 'upper boxes', with admission at one-and-six. Yet his effrontery brought him some success, and The Corsican Brothers as well as Jack and the Beanstalk, or, Harlequin, the Welsh Giant were well patronised. A performance of London Assurance was bespoken by the Stewards of the Races. 6
A small company 7 gained no success when it acted there in November 1855 and between that date and September 1862, no players performed at Carmarthen.
Nonconformist opposition made it certain that they would fail. The visit of Harry Crinks and his portable 'Standard Theatre' was, therefore, an important event in the social life of the town:
This town, which has for nearly eight 1 years had no theatricals, owing to the bigotry of the powers that be, has, this week, thanks to our worthy Mayor, been favoured by the appearance of Mr. Curtis (sic) and company, in thir commodious portable theatre, capable of containing above 1200 persons. It is crowded in every part each night. 2
Crinks played at Carmarthen from 21 September to the beginning of November 1862, and performances, especially those of Pizarro, The Lady of Lyons, and The Honeymoon, were well supported. 3
Once Crinks quitted Carmarthen, opposition to the theatre reasserted itself and kept managers out for another nine years. In 1871, Warren opened his 'Model Theatre' there and was warmly welcomed. 'After a lapse of many years, we have at last a clever and respectable company here. The building is commodious and comfortable and is filled every evening.' 4 Warren received so much encouragement that he paid regular visits to the town for several years. 5
The portables did not expect the patronage of the gentry, but could depend on the support of 'the lower orders', always ready to be entertained at the 'penny gaff'. With their small charges for admission yet ample seating accommodation, they could go cheerfully about the country and could successfully defy Methodist prohibitions. Yet the strength of their nonconformist opponents is easily seen when we remember that over a period of fifteen years (1856-1871), only two dramatic companies played at Carmarthen.
Merthyr was a very different town from the four already considered in this chapter. At this period it was the chief industrial centre of Wales, and its population was an amalgam of English, Irish and Welsh. 6 It possessed a vigorous, raw social life of its own. Theatrical managers would depend for their audiences on working people and 'tip girls', who liked melodramatic and sentimental situations as well as boisterous farce. At a performance of Monsieur Tonson 'as Mussoo stood beneath a casement in true lover's style, the window opened and a large bucket appeared---this always brought down the house.' 7
One writer, reminiscing in 1861, thought the kind of entertainment provided there, had changed little over the past half-century:
Something like fifty years ago, a contributor went to the playhouse and stood for the first and last time in his life ... within the walls of a theatre ... The play from what he remembers was much the same as now: the drama showed officers and noblemen flitting before the scenes. Then came a song by a Merthyr carpenter known as Bosha. A farce followed: the curtain drew up and showed a fine fellow at work with a spade, but in order to do his work thoroughly he took off his coat, then threw off another, and so continued till a little mountain of coats stood by his side. This caused immense roars of applause. Then, a large fortune was left him and the labourer turned into a fine gentleman---having dumplings brought to him as a luxury and kicking them about the stage to the delight of his admirers. . . . They catered to the peculiar taste of the people---served up finery and grand speeches, appealed to their nationality with a Welshman to sing them a good song, and ending with hearty rude wit and fighting. 1
The same writer refers to the strong Methodist opposition to the theatre:
An energetic Calvinistic Methodist, David Williams, afterwards founder of Adulam Chapel, discovered that the players boarded with members of the chapel. He laid the case before the church, and the offenders were admonished. They ejected the players. The manager was a determined man and was loath to leave a wealthy village so he took the case before Samuel Homfray, J.P.... The players said they were licensed and were entitled to accommodation. Homfray was on their side, but Williams said, 'Look at the theatres, what class frequents them other than the very worst? You may see it thronged every night by the lowest in the village, a very strong proof that these seek only stimulants and food for their bad and depraved appetite.' Homfray was won over, and he dismissed the case. 2
It is significant that the magistrate and industrialist, at first, sided with the players. Usually the employers of labour were glad to encourage the theatre because it was thought to keep workmen from excessive drinking. Nonconformists had no such interest in the playhouse : they felt that a man's spare time would be better spent at week night services or Blue Ribbon activities, and looked upon the theatre audience as the dregs of society.
From 1847 to 1853, several companies visited the town and acted for short periods in the dilapidated theatre in Market Square. Macarthy opened there in 1847, and the Merthyr Guardian commented:
Mr. Macarthy has hit upon the right path of patronage and profit by fixing the prices of admission for operatives at the price of a pint of beer, and for tradesmen at that of a glass of grog. Since the arrival of the company drunkenness is observed to have decreased. In the gallery we saw with pleasure, young boys thumbing Mansell's 'Penny Shakespeare'. 3
Othello was given to a crowded house. 'The deep damnation scene in the third act appeared very fine: on the whole, the Moor was too mad. lago was good, only a little too flippant.' 4 On 7 December, the company acted in Twm Shon Catti, 'written by William Ellis, a miner who styled himself, "the Welsh Shakespeare".' Very shortly afterwards the season came to an abrupt end. 5
When J. F. Rogers's company began acting there in May 1850, the Merthyr Guardian reported : 'We were curious enough, a night or two since, to take a peep into Mr. Rogers's theatre, and came away quite pleased. This promises to be an agreeable sort of legitimate amusement.' 1 A notice of the company's performance of Hamlet is interesting for the light it throws on theatrical practice at this period:
Mr. W. Waldron's personation (of Hamlet) was throughout a close imitation of Macready; in some parts he succeeded admirably; in others, fell far short of his great original. . . . We like Mr. Grove's Polonius, though he was too much of a fool. There was a numerous and highly fashionable audience. 2
Two other managers brought companies to this theatre now. 3
In September 1854, J. P. Chadwick created a stir by taking over 'a spacious building capable of holding two thousand persons'. It was opened in an unfinished state in October, when Othello was acted. The season lasted until December and was 'not as successful as the enterprising spirit of the manager deserves'. 4 The same large building was opened by James and Johnson a year later but without profit to them. 'The theatre during the winter has exhibited the dark side of the life of the strolling players. The season has been most unfortunate.' With these misfortunes, we may contrast the welcome given to Johnny Hord's portable theatre in the next twenty years.
The old theatre was re-opened by W. R. Waldron, five years later. He had been a member of Rogers's company and was able to make use of this connection to secure good patronage. Among the attractions of his season in October and November 1860, were A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Dred, Romeo and Juliet, and The Life of A Mechanic. 6 He returned to the town in March 1861 and commenced with Scribe's Marco Spada. In the following week, he presented between play and farce a sparring match between Hill Benjamin and Bendigo, ex-champion pugilist of England. 7
During 1862, three companies appeared at the old 'Theatre Royal, Market Hall'. Rosalind Beckett made a bad start in February but afterwards reported 'tolerable success'. Her company departed from custom in two ways. They removed the boxes to the gallery, 'where an excellent view of the entire stage is commanded'. They also denied to the occupiers of the boxes one of their traditional privileges. The local newspaper said indignantly, 'we would suggest bills of performances should be supplied to the occupants of the boxes when entering the theatre; they are entitled to this consideration'. 8 Miss Beckett was no more.....................
...................... successful than Walters, who appeared with a company in April, or Rivers, who visited the town in June. 1
These companies made no mark on the life of the town and were hardly remembered as the years went by, but Hord's portable players 2 and the touring opera companies were recalled, with pleasure. In June 1863, the Merthyr Telegraph expressed the town's appreciation of the visit by the Lyric Opera Company:
Let us look back a few years and see the character of Merthyr amusements. First we had a rambling theatrical company, who by their pieces and acting catered to the lowest of the people and the lowest of tastes, and sentiments; and secondly, concerts which gave the most unambitious of productions ... The last noticeable innovation is the Lyric Opera Company. Who could have imagined a short time ago that a 'gallery class' of a Merthyr audience could be found to enjoy this luxury? They were supposed to suit only higher palates; but, night after night, we have seen the gallery applauding most heartily some of the first operatic pieces. These things should teach a lesson to those who are left, now and then to cater to the popular relish for amusement. Bring talent here of unquestionable soundness and an audience will be found sufficiently large to make the introduction remunerative.... The townspeople are very advanced in the theory and practice of music. 3
The company paid another visit in January 1864, and gave Martha, Lucrezia Borgia, La Traviata and Fra Diavolo. 4 Its success brought other travelling opera companies there, yet neither the English nor the London companies ever achieved the same local renown as the Lyric. The performances of all three were elevating: 'Unlike that in the boarded theatre' in Market Square, this entertainment is redeemed from vulgarity and sensationalism.' 6
One of the last of the strolling companies visited Merthyr in February 1867. It opened at the 'New Theatre Royal' at a time when Hord's portable was 'crammed in every part'. A local newspaper welcomed the newcomers:
No town in Wales was so much in need of a good theatre. The locus in quo of the company is the spacious new Drill Hall, a place admirably suited for all kinds of entertainments, and on Saturday night, the first performance was given here. There was a tolerably numerous attendance when we consider how inconvenient it is for most of the tradesmen to leave business on Saturday nights. The Manager announced that the authors from whom he would draw his plays would be Shakespeare, Sheridan, Bulwer and other standard dramatists. The piece performed was Lady Camilla's Husband, and as we almost thought, rather above the appreciation of a Merthyr audience. 7
Bennee, the manager, announced that Mondays and Saturdays were 'People's Nights', and Thursday would be 'the Fashionable Night'. On 7 March R. T. Crawshay bespoke Time Tries All, when 'the brilliant Cyfarthfa band was in ............
........................... attendance'. 1 Exactly a week later, he patronised a performance there of a new play by the Merthyr historian, Charles Wilkins. It was called David Morgan the Jacobite:
And it is descriptive of cutoms and habits at that time, and has allusions to the finding of the first ironfield in the valley. But the piece lacks dramatic interest and does not possess ingenuity of plot, versatility of language, fluency, and boldness of dialogue. . . . It is, we think, too prosaic. Its success was greatly marred by the actors, who were evidently careless of their representation, and made no end of deviations from the author's text and were observed throughout to be reading their parts from written copies. . . . With a little revision, the piece might be made interesting, especially if turned into Welsh.
The theatre was 'crowded to suffocation', and it is evident that a play of Welsh interest was a most attractive novelty. Yet the company neglected its opportunity by being shockingly careless in performance. It is not surprising to find them leaving Merthyr shortly afterwards. 2
Once the connection with the strolling companies was broken, Merthyr people had few opportunities of enjoying a straight play, outside Hord's portable. Between 1868 and 1875, occasional visits were paid by touring companies, like the United Service Dramatic Company, 3 or by the stock companies of the Cardiff and Swansea theatres. Yet there was a growing desire for innocuous entertainment, free from the vulgarity of the portable. The annual visit of travelling opera companies, or of Poole and Young's panorama, catered for such tastes. In 1873, the Temperance Hall was enlarged to hold four thousand people. It put on performances like Leach and Barnum's marionettes in the spectacular extravagance, Blue Beard, or like Dr. Hodges' 'colossal diorama of America, Canada and the Far West'. The Drill Hall's rival attractions included Harry Liston (for one night only), Pemberton Willard, and Tannamaker's Japanese troupe in ladder balancing, wire walking, and umbrella spinning. 4 These variety performances were ways of amusing people who felt that attendance at a play was degrading, even sinful. The theatre proper needed purifying and, until that happened, staid middle class folk would avoid its snares and temptations. What could be more insidious than actresses in tights? What could be more innocent than umbrella spinning?
When the Hereford company played at Monmouth in the autumn of 1845, they could only command good audiences in the last week of their stay. The theatrical connection between these two county towns was maintained until 1851, and only terminated when Rogers, the Hereford manager, left for the Devonport Theatre. 5
Mendham and Pattison brought their company to Monmouth in September 1853, and opened with 'an entire new version of Uncle Tom's Cabin'. They were glad to report that business was capital. A performance was bespoken by John Rolls of The Hendre; and George Owen, the tragedian, drew crowded houses with his portrayal of Othello and Richard III. 1 On the manager's benefit night, the head of the playbill 2 ran:
Theatre, Monmouth. For the Benefit of R. H. Mendham, Who in returning his sincere thanks to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Monmouth for past favours, has great pleasure in announcing that the performances on Monday, November 7th will be (by desire) and under the patronage of Alexander Rolls, Esq., Croftybulla.
On Monday Evening, November 7th, the performances will commence with, for the first time here, the celebrated drama, (performed for 200 successive nights) entitled, THE LIONESS OF THE NORTH, OR, THE PRISONER OF SCHLUSSELBOURG.
Other attractions promised were 'a screaming farce', The Wandering Minstrel, and the engagement of the Monmouth Quadrille Band.
Mendham reappeared there with a company in October 1857, but his partner was now H. R. Stephens. Henry Swanborough and Kate Kirby were well received in their 'drawing room entertainment' ; and the company was proclaimed 'the best for years'. The manager said that business was very good and that a performance had been bespoken by the Loyal Trafalgar Society of Ancient Druids. 3
It is surprising to find that this is the last reference to a professional company at Monmouth in this period. Theatricals were given, year after year, at Rolls's mansion 4 in the neighbourhood but they were amateur performances. Like the other county towns we have mentioned, Monmouth saw nothing of professional actors for years after 1858. She had been 'one of the best theatrical towns in the provinces,' 5 but her neat theatre was now to remain closed. 6 'Art after art goes out, and all is Night.'
In the early forties, Newport had 'generally been visited in the dreary and pleasureless months of winter by a theatrical company---the patronage bestowed on which, however, has mostly been (indeed almost proverbially) but very trifling'.' 7 It is difficult to know who the writer means, unless the managers were the 'adventurers' of the following description : 'Former failures arose from the very humble, if not contemptible claims on public support which adventurers presented, and in fact, . . . instead of the stage languishing in Newport for want of patronage, patronage absolutely courted the drama'. 8
None of the visiting companies made any great mark on the town until 1854. Ten years earlier, Angel and Artaud and the Cardiff company had converted 'Mr. Williams's large room in Commercial Street' to their use, and had acted there in November and December. 1 Fenton set up a kind of theatre in the rear of the Parrot Hotel in 1847. 2 Later visitors, like Bruton and Moreland, seem to have fitted up rooms for their purposes. 3
J. P. Chadwick's playhouse was built in wooden sections at Gloucester and was assembled on a site in Dock Street, in March 1854. It was 'of classic design and elegant structure---the chief arrangements being, it is said, according to the strict rule of Shakespeare's times'. 4 Its wooden interior and canvas roof are described in the address given on the opening night:
Now Queens and Czars are issuing proclamations,
And the whole land is roused with preparations,
We catch the passing spirit of the age;
True to our text, that 'all the world's a stage'.
And preparations made to wage our war,
Gainst vice and folly, whereso'er they are;
Paint virtue in its fairest form, and try
To tear the mask from BLACK HYPOCRISY.
Our barque is built, and stoutly timber'd, too,
Of tonnage large enough for us and you:
You know 'tis said whatever chance befalls,
Britons fight always best in WOODEN WALLS.
In a snug Dock we lie, securely moor'd,
Our CANVASS SPREAD, our gallant crew on board.
The Easter Monday opening performance of The Hunchback and The Widow's Victim, was given before eleven hundred people. The manager promised to promote 'healthful and intellectual amusement and to enforce police regulations strictly,' so that 'the heads of families may bring their wives and children without the fear of offence to decorum or morality.' Private boxes and a cloakroom were shortly to be installed, and would render 'this pretty little Thespian temple still more deserving of the patronage of the aristocracy'. 6
Plays were bespoken by the Mayor, by Colonel Clifford and the Officers of the Royal Monmouthshire Militia, by Crawshay Bailey and Samuel Homfray. The actors and actresses enjoyed good benefit nights, and when Mrs. Chadwick took her evening, her patrons included Sir Charles and Lady Morgan as well as 'the friends of the younger branches of the Tredegar family' and the Officers.......................
................... of the Light Infantry. The season did not close until the first week in September, and Chadwick could certainly congratulate himself on Newport's response to his enterprise. 1
He gave a regular summer season, there, for the next three years. Sir Charles and Lady Morgan, Samuel Homfray, and the Officers of the Clare Militia were among his patrons ; a new act drop was among the attractions. 2 All seemed to go well for a time in 1857. J. P. Weston's production of the pantomime, The Storm King's Dream, and the re-appearance of Angel, the old comedian, were greeted with delight. Almost as soon as the manager had stated, 'Good business is doing,' attendance fell off and the season ended abruptly in June. Trade at Newport was slack, and the theatre was the first to feel the effects of the depression. Chadwick had been unable to find a good winter circuit of theatres and had to depend on a 'bumper' summer season to keep his company together. He was now ruined:
Mr. Chadwick ... has at length despaired of success and been reduced to insolvency. Every exertion has been made to keep afloat, but in consequence of the slender encouragement afforded by the public, the results have been the ruin of the manager and the demolition of the theatre. The latter was offered for sale last week, with the properties, scenery, etc., but no bid being made, all the lots were withdrawn, except the gas fittings which were sold. The building will he shortly pulled down. 3
Chadwick returned with a company in 1865, and his very re-appearance indicates that he thought Newport promised to be a good theatrical centre in more settled times. Other managers were deceived in the same way by this fickle town.
Between the year of his departure and that of his return, a variety of companies visited the town. Huntley May's troupe came from Oldham to act in a building 'erected for Mr. Brown's circus.' 4 They broke off their season for a week, while the National Opera Company gave a number of favourite operas : 'a pleasing week from a musical, if not a pecuniary, point of view'. 5 When May's company left the town, another took its place. Their foolhardiness was the subject of criticism:
Business has been anything but encouraging, but what could be expected? One manager, after struggling to the last gasp, closes on Saturday; another opens at double the previous prices on the Monday following. The new company is, in some respects, far superior to the old one, but there is still much room for improvement. 6
This troupe, led by W. H. Walters, remained there from August to October 1858; and was patronised by Sir Charles and Lady Morgan, Samuel Homfray, Colonel Bell and the Officers of the 23rd Regiment, and the Licenced Victuallers of the Town. A performance of Fazio was bespoken by the All-England Eleven and the Gentlemen of the Cricket Match. 7
Later entertainers met with varying receptions. 'The classic groupings of the tableaux vivants, although good, do not seem to be understood or appreciated by their Newport audience.' The Metropolitan Opera Company found the wooden theatre too cold, and moved to the Town Hall. A small troupe, under Walter Grisdall, opened on Easter Monday 1859, but closed hurriedly at the beginning of July. 1 Yet when Sam Cowell and his party gave two nights entertainment there, the Town Hall was so 'densely crowded' that he paid Newport another visit only five months later. His 'quaint style and inimitable face' made everyone roar with laughter. 2
On 11 November, the 'wooden building which has long disgraced the name of theatre here, was levelled to the ground by the wind'. 3 There was now much talk of putting up a public hall and theatre, but the next company to visit Newport played in a portable. Lovegrove's actors drew excellent audiences between April and August 1861. Then, the manager approached the magistrates for a licence to perform there for twelve months. The newspapers reported that he was granted one and that 'the New Drill Hall erecting in Dock Street is about to be let to a theatrical manager'. Lovegrove opened the 'New Theatre' in the third week of December:
The new house is spacious and conveniently built, or what is more than we have been able to say of any theatre hitherto erected . . . it is warm and comfortable. Considering the general depression of trade everywhere, business has been good. In The Miller and His Men, the working boats in the first scene, and the destruction of the mill at the end, reflect great credit on the machinist, Mr. Yarnold. The scenery by Mr. Cassando is beautifully got up. 4
Mrs. Chadwick made a few appearances there in February, and was welcomed by an audience that was 'crammed to the ceiling'. After taking Mrs. Haller in The Stranger, she recited 'the Poet Laureate's great "Charge at Balaclava" with electrical effect on the house'. Lovegrove selected Black-Eyed Susan for their final performance in May, and brought this six months' season to a triumphant close. 5 There are no references to a further visit by this manager, who won more success at Newport than anyone but Chadwick.
When Chadwick himself returned to Newport in 1865, he opened a 'splendid new building' called, the Alexandra Theatre. For a short time after the opening on Whit Monday, it was well attended; but he soon complained of 'sectarian prejudice' and the opposition of religious people. Once again, Newport had failed him . 6 The history of this theatre in the next twelve months is well summarised for us in a newspaper paragraph:
It is a singular circumstance but a very true one that the Newport Theatre has been a very unlucky one. Mr. Chadwick built it, but owing to bad business and the wretched entrance .................
...............being out of the way altogether, he lost it. Messrs. Wyn, lessees of the Theatre Royal, Cardiff, opened it for a four months' season and lost above £150. They then tried a second season which lasted two weeks and three days---a total failure. Mr. Harrison has taken it for two months. We wish him better success. 1
Between 1866 and 1874, the town was visited by at least thirteen dramatic companies, and very few of them were at all successful. Yet the town was expanding and there should have been ample patronage available for the players. The following advertisement suggests just that:
Newport Theatre Royal---To let for the Summer Season. Population, 30,000. New Docks about to start 3000 navvies to work. Rent, £6 a week. £20 deposit required. For a Tenting Season, wanted Equestrians with their own horses. Address Mr. Henry, 74, Commercial Road, Newport, Mon. 2
It was always difficult to predict the kind of reception a company might have. Wybert Rousby lost money on a short season at the Victoria Hall in 1867, but when he paid 'flying visits' there in September 1872 and July 1873, 'hundreds were unable to gain admittance'. 3 When the old tragedian, Charles Dillon, appeared for three nights in Othello and other favourite characters, only a tiny audience greeted him; but when Harry Clifton or 'the great Vance' paid brief visits, the Victoria Hall (capacity, three thousand) was crowded . 4 R. F. Smith gave a successful seven months season in 1870; returned for a shorter period at Christmas 1871; and stayed only three weeks in September 1873. 5 It is difficult to find reasons for these variations.
Harris, who took over the management in 1873, seems to have thought that the interior needed improving and that there was not sufficient variety in the entertainment given at the theatre. He had the Victoria Hall redecorated:
In the past ten days there has been a complete metamorphosis of the building. The stage has been rebuilt and the wings repainted. The walls and ceilings have been regilt and decorated. A pit, capable of holding 1,000, has been fitted up with magnificent stalls covered with rich crimson velvet and fitted with spring seats. The floor is covered with a rich Brussels carpet. 6
The manager put on afternoon promenade concerts and brought down the trapeze artists, the Flying Leonis. 'Acrobats are now the principal attraction, supported by plays.' After presenting a successful pantomime, Harris left the town . 7 The new era of the touring company begins with the visit of the Craven-Robertson Caste company. 8
Newport never supported a company for long. The only item sure of success was the Christmas pantomime. 1 Otherwise the town responded with enthusiasm only to 'flying visits' by stars or the opening nights of a season. Trade depression and religious prejudice have been mentioned as affecting attendances. The competition of other places of amusement, like the Parrot Music Hall or Evans's Concert Hall of Varieties, may also have robbed the theatres of part of their expected audience. The history of theatricals at Newport reveals a long succession of unfortunate managers.
A number of portables played at Tredegar between 1859 and 1866 2 but, once the Temperance Hall was opened in December 1861, dramatic performances were usually given there and competition from portables was not welcomed. Opposition to the use of the hall by companies was also expressed:
Our Temperance Hall, we are sorry to find, has often been converted into a theatre, especially of late. Many are enquiring how this is to be accounted for. Such a use of the building is certainly altogether at variance with the object its originators had in view. Is it not a fearful responsibility on whomsoever it rests, to introduce a Theatre into our town, in which it was all but unkown before, and to permit the use of our splendid Temperance Hall for such a purpose? ... Are theatrical representations, especially such as we have in Tredegar, likely to elevate and promote the welfare of the people? .... What necessity is there for either play houses or public drinking assemblies? Why not have a Working Man's Club? Why not have penny lectures delivered? 3
The writer quoted Dr. Johnson, Sir Matthew Hale, and Cato, in support of his case. Another writer declared, 'such prostitution of our noble hall will not be tolerated much longer'. To say that Queen Victoria had attended plays was in his opinion no argument in their favour: she did so 'because of the position she occupies and, in any case, she is not infallible'. 4
These critics were answered by a writer calling himself, 'Thespian'. He repeated the old argument that theatrical performances were valuable because they 'kept many a man from the alehouse'. He added, 'however degrading it was to the noble Temperance Hall to turn it into a playhouse, the £11. 5. 0 which was paid for its use by the said players, was no disgrace to the persons who received it'. Besides, the actors bore letters testifying to their good character, and their theatres were often patronised by people of the highest respectability, 'by the presence and commendations of such as the Rt. Hon. Lady Langdale, a noble lady of the highest order of morality; of such men as the Rev. Mr. Banks ...'. 5
The controversy ended for the moment, and the Temperance Hall was occupied by a company under J. Whitehead. Its performances of The Lady of Lyons and The Corsican Brothers were excellent:
There has never been a greater theatrical treat for the people of Tredegar (there bing a total absence of vulgarity) ... The Queen's English is properly spoken, and not murdered as we have it, too often, by the nomadic Thespians. 1
Moreland's company was said to be 'really good' when it acted there in October 1865. They presented Muller's Trial, Duke and Drover, Belphegor, Macbeth and Othello. In the Christmas pantomine the views of Tredegar clock and streets were much enjoyed. Moreland returned there in October 1866 and gave Tom Cringle 'to an overflowing house---as regards second and third seats'. 2
Horace Butler's company also visited the town twice, playing there for two months in 1866 and again in June 1867. They gave The Octoroon and a farce called, The Welsh Widow. When C. A. Homfray bespoke Jack Sheppard, 'the house was crammed and two hundred people were turned away'. On their second visit, 3 they were praised, but made little money : 'theatrical business in Tredegar has been entirely ruined by one or two duffing troupes'. 4
The standards of the strolling companies varied from adequate to pitiful. Only the new touring companies (like the London Opera Company that performed there in February 1866) 5 would be able to maintain a good standard and make theatre-going, at Tredegar, a habit and a delight.
In 1848, the players who visited this town still clung to the tradition of acting during the period of the race meeting and of appealing to the gentry for patronage. George Owen opened there for the month of October and was patronised by Sir Robert Cunliffe and Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. On his last night, the manager claimed that he had 'elevated an old theatre which had sunk into the last stages of disrepute and decay.' 6 A year later, he had the gas fittings improved, the seats of the pit covered in crimson, and the boxes refurbished with three hundred yards of drapery. A fairly good season was enjoyed, and nine plays had been bespoken 7 before the theatre closed on 3 November. Mrs. Frederick Hope began a season there in October 1850, with Watkin Burroughs as the star during race week. Then came performances by Henry Howard Paul and his sister in Paul's 'quizzical, satirical burletta, Jenny Lind in America' . 8
In 1851 and 1852, the town had to be content with performances given at Latimer's portable 1 and at Greenfil's 'Royal Pavilion Theatre', set up in the Cattle Market. 2 The old theatre was re-opened by Burkinshaw and White in June 1852, and again in 1853. They followed tradition by performing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; by giving a large share of their proceeds to the Infirmary; and by securing the patronage of Sir R. H. Cunliffe and Simon Yorke. 3
There is nothing to record for the next ten years. The redecorated theatre was eventually opened in August 1863 by the Stockton-on-Tees managers, Stoddart. 'It is many years since we have seen such respectable parties attend our pretty little theatre.' The managers returned to Wrexham in February 1865, and all went well during the first fortnight of their stay. Then, shortly after the Mayor had bespoken a performance, the members of the company complained to him that they had not received from J. H. Stoddart what was owing to them. The Mayor advised them to leave the manager and give an entertainment in the Town Hall. They did so and were handsomely rewarded with a crowded house. 4
The Wrexham Theatre was opened in July 1866 by the 'Allied London Dramatic Company' with Charlotte Saunders as their star. Once she left, attendances were poor and the company's acting was heavily criticised. In the farce, The Omnibus, there was much noise and little humour. In Lady Audley's Secret, all the characters but Watkins were below mediocrity. Charles Dornton was engaged to attract audiences, but at both The Corsican Brothers and The Blind Artist, 'the boxes and pit were well nigh deserted'. It is true that a comic opera, Bagatella, was being given at the same time at the Wrexham Music Hall but it is hardly likely to have attracted those who would take box or pit seats at the theatre. 5
In 1868, the 'compact little theatre' was opened by Jones and Fidler with The Colleen Bawn. Their efforts were commended : 'the drama has long been at a low ebb in Wrexham, but the present company are taking the right course in raising its character'. 6
This was more decisively achieved by Philip Hannan. We have already observed him obtaining aristocratic favour at Aberystwyth : he showed great skill in obtaining such patronage at a time when county theatres were no longer fashionably attractive. He was equally successful at Wrexham:
In three weeks (although the theatre has not for some time past been held so highly in the fashionable world) Mr. Hannan has been honoured with the following bespeaks; His Worship the Mayor; Sir W. W. Wynn; the Town and County Club; the Royal Denbighshire Volunteers; Mr. Edmund Peel; Squire Yorke; and Mr. S. P. Hope. 7
He re-appeared at Wrexham in April 1869, when Under the Gaslight was given: 'the express train was well managed and fairly took the house by surprise'. Sir W. W. Wynn bespoke a performance at the beginning of May, and Captain Yorke and the 1st Royal Denbighshire Rifle Corps patronised The Dead Shot. In June, Charles Mathews acted there for two nights. The season was the most successful at Wrexham for many years, and when it came to an end on 26 June the manager announced that he was shortly commencing a tour of Wales with Mathews. 1
He returned to Wrexham for the winter, and engaged Henry Vandenhoff and Elise Gordon to take part in The Hunchback and The Stranger. 2 As Christmas drew near, attendances dropped, so Hannan procured the services of Madlle. Beatrice, the only 'female performer on the globe', and of Monsieur Conn, 'the champion bicycle rider'. 3 They drew good audiences. Hannan took them to Welshpool for a few nights, and they 'aroused the spectators to an intense state of excitement'. 4 Returning to Wrexham, Hannan put on Little Red Riding Hood, 'the first pantomime seen there for many years'. 5
The following notice of the Wrexham Theatre appeared in March 1871:
This little theatre has now been opened for five months. Mr. Hannan's continued indisposition precludes his appearing as usual on the boards. Mrs. Hannan ... has taken his place as manageress, and handles the reins most creditably. Her benefit on March 17th was played to a crammed house. 6
After summer visits to other Welsh towns, 7 she commenced at Wrexham on 2 October, with The Green Hills of the Far West. 8 Sarah Nelson, the burlesque actress, was their star for two weeks, and was followed by Edith Sandford in Firefly. In an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop, both John Watkins as Quilp and Mrs. Hannan as Nell were enthusiastically praised. On the last night of the season, the company presented Mrs. Hannan with two handsome gold rings. One last reference to her Wrexham connections occurs in 1874, when she acted Leah before a crowded house. 9
This period in the history of theatricals at Wrexham came to an end in October 1875. 'The structure formerly known as "The Old Theatre" has been entirely demolished, and in its room has sprung up a new building, which now rejoices in the designation of "The New Temperance Hall". 1 Small playhouses were everywhere giving place to large, up-to-date halls ; that meant a greater appeal by players to the mass of the people and at Wrexham as in the other county towns, an end to dependence on the gentry.
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Gareth Hicks Feb 2003
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