Back to Top

Tag Archives: theater

Let’s face it, there are a lot of icky things about the Regency (dukes, for instance) as well as the things we love (well, dukes, I guess). But one of the stranger and ickier things I came across recently was the mercifully short-lived craze for child actors in the early nineteenth century: child actors in the sense of children playing major roles in a cast of adults.

For a short time, the London theater scene was dominated by child actors. Charles Dibdin offered an acting school for children at the Royal Circus, and Henry Francis Greville at the San Souci offered regular evenings of child players.

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationPossibly the most famous child actor was Master Betty (William Henry Best Betty, 1791-1874), the son of a once wealthy Anglo-Irish family.  Mr. Betty Sr. discovered a goldmine in his stage struck son, who determined to be an actor after seeing Mrs. Siddons perform when he was eleven. Master Betty became a sensation, playing such roles as Hamlet (below) and Macbeth. His father joined forces with an unscrupulous manager, and one of their most popular money-makers was to charge gentlemen (in the widest sense of the word) to visit Master Betty in his dressing room.

hamletMaster Betty made his Covent Garden debut in 1804, following appearances in Ireland and Scotland and a bidding war between that theater and Drury Lane. A detachment of guards was hired to keep order in the house. For two years he hobnobbed with the great and powerful, and his career eclipsed those of Kemble and Siddons. But in 1806  he was hissed off the stage playing Richard III–and coincidentally when he hit puberty. He had made enough money to restore his family’s fortune, and entered Cambridge in 1808. But the life of a country gentleman was not enough–he made several unsuccessful attempts to revive his acting career, and in 1835 tried to start his fifteen-year-old son on an acting career.

miss mudieAnother reason for his downfall was the emergence of a rival, Miss Mudie. Dickens, who almost certainly met Master Betty, gave this description of a child actress in Nicholas Nickleby. The daughter of Vincent Crummle is supposedly ten years old and “the idol of every place we go into.”

The infant phenomenon, though of short stature, had a comparatively aged countenance, and had moreover been precisely the same age…for five good years. But she had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall.

In a rare show of good taste, the audience was revolted by Miss Mudie’s role as the heroine of The Country Girl, an adaptation of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s about a naive woman, married to an older man, who brings her to swinging Restoration London. There she meets up with a rake, whose last name is Horner, nudge nudge, who’s currently passing himself off as a eunuch so that husbands will be blissfully ignorant of his designs on their wives. And so on. Miss Mudie was eight years old and so small for her age that the actor playing her lover had to go on his knees to embrace her.

During the ensuing uproar, Miss Mudie, who had chutzpah if not acting talent,  announced from the stage, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have done nothing to offend you; and as for those who are sent here to hiss me, I will be much obliged to you to turn them out.”

Actor-manager John Philip Kemble came on to beg that Miss Mudie be allowed to continue. As a witness observed, “All was noise and confusion … the curtain fell upon the most imperfect performance ever before witnessed on a London stage.”

Now here’s a plot bunny going begging. Child star falls out of fashion, what is he/she going to do for the next, uh, seven decades? Or, an impoverished parent of a child prodigy–what’s the ethical thing to do (still a relevant question today, sadly).

Oh, and if you’re in the Washington DC, area please visit Riversdale House Museum this Sunday where we’re having an author event, and I’ll be reading/signing some of my allegedly PG-rated books. Info here.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

St. George has just saved the other Champions of Christendom from the enchantment by the evil witch Kalyb

A few days ago Janet talked about paper dolls of the Regency period, and today I’d like to add to that theme by talking about another kind of toy produced from paper: toy theatres.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

The Seven Champions decide to separate and seek adventures each on his own (St George is off to Egypt in a steamboat)

Toy theatres were first produced by William West in 1811. He ran a haberdashery and circulating library on London’s Exeter Street, which is conveniently close to several theatres, including the Lyceum Theatre, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden. When he first noticed how well cheap prints for children sold, he had the idea to monetize his proximity to the theatres and started to sell theatrical prints. The first of these showed eight characters from Mother Goose, a popular pantomime playing at Covent Garden at the time. Soon, other printers also joined in and sold character sheets and scenery sheets.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

Having arrived in Egypt, St. George hears the most dreadful news: the king’s daughter is in grave peril

These first character sheets were not intended for playing – but it seems that this is exactly what happened: children cut out the characters to play with them. So within two years, West had also begun to sell paper theatres. The prints became ever more elaborate: clever cascading scenery was joined by sheets which enabled the reenactment of theatrical tricks.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

But never fear! St. George saves Princess Sabra…

Printers typically based their toy theatre sheets on current popular plays, and they made them available in two versions: plain and colored, which led to the famous phrase “one penny plain and two pence coloured.” Putting together toy theatres seems to have been mostly a pastime for boys, and it became a matter of pride to color one’s characters, scenery, and theatre oneself.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

…and fights against the terrible dragon, who was about to devour her

Before they were cut out, all parts were typically pasted onto cardboard to give them greater stability and make them more durable (though of course, cardboard would not keep the theatre from going up in flames when a particularly impressive trick involving a bang and lightning effect went wrong). Some children might have even built a wooden frame for their theatres, which would have made playing them much easier. Such wooden frames would have also enabled the young impresario to hang the scenery from the cross links rather than putting them into slits in the cardboard.

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

“Take that, fiend!”

To give you an idea of how elaborate toy theatre sheets could become, let us look at J.K. Green’s sheets based on the Christmas pantomime Harlequin St George and the Dragon, which was running at Drury Lane in December 1847: there were 8 plates of characters, 17 plates of scenery, 2 plates of tricks, and 5 plates of wings. (By contrast, the modern version which was published by Pollock’s Toy Theatres in 1972 and which you can see in the pictures accompanying this post, is much abridged and comes with only four plates of scenery and characters.)

A picture of a toy theatre built by Sandra Schwab

Splendid tableau of past & present chivalry

But then and now, the play ends with a tableau of the victorious Wellington at Waterloo (*waving to Diane*). This way it draws an explicit comparison between chivalry of the past (St George!) and modern chivalry (Wellington, of course), which boys were supposed to emulate. So, in other words, toy theatres were not only mere entertainment, but also contained a didactic component (if you actually made it to the grand tableau without burning your theatre down, that is).

Toy theatres continue to be produced today (though in smaller numbers), several professional and amateur theatre companies are specialized in toy theatre productions, and annual toy theatre festivals are held in different parts of the world, including at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Which play would you like to see on a miniature stage?


The production of Harlequin St. George and the Dragon depicted here was arranged for you by yours truly. I also did all the (inexpert) cutting out and gluing together of the various parts of the theatre, scenery, and characters. 🙂

I have been avidly following the news about the discovery and identity of the remains of Richard III. I’ve been a sucker for Richard III ever since reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time--without going so far as to join the Richard III Society or anything (here’s the US R3 Society). I’m already mightily distracted from writing.

This month I attended a couple of events at the Folger, a fantastic resource in Washington DC that those of us who live here tend to take for granted. First, a lecture from the forensic and archaeological team, and then I saw the current production of Richard III which I highly recommend. Here are some interesting snippets from the lecture:

  • The team is doing further DNA analysis from tooth tartar (eew).
  • Richard III would probably have gone down in history, had the Tudors not taken over, as a just but fair king (the um, issue, of the two princes in the Tower would have been downplayed, just as the Tudors, and Shakespeare, propagandized Richard as a misshapen spawn of Satan).
  • Yes, he did have scoliosis. But he was also a seasoned warrior. The BBC (I think) is doing an experiment with a young man with the same degree of scoliosis teaching him horseback warfare, wearing armor, and so far so good. Expect a documentary or two.

Edmund Kean as Richard IIIIn the Regency, Richard III was one of Edmund Kean’s signature roles but he had a rival–Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth. Booth’s London career was launched in 1817 in the title role of Richard III at Covent Garden, and thereafter Boothites and Keanites frequently quarreled in theaters. Booth and Kean seem to have both exploited the rivalry, often performing in the same plays.

battle2richardsBooth emigrated to the US in 1821 where he led a colorful life as an actor, and is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, where Betsy Bonaparte also lies.

Once again truth is stranger than fiction.

What’s your take on Richard III?

 This week Risky Amanda is launching her latest Harlequin Historical title, The Taming of the Rogue!!  Risky Megan steps in as interviewer and talks to Amanda about all things Elizabethan….
There is only one woman who can tame London’s most notorious heartbreaker!
Anna Barrett is more comfortable filling tankards at the White Heron theater than shopping for corsets.  Her “take no prisoners” attitude has earned her a tough reputation.  Where she was once innocent and naive, now she’s vowed never to be ensnared by a man again.  Except Robert Alden is not just any man…
Gorgeous, dashing, and decidedly reckless, this playwright has left a trail of broken hearts across London.  He’s also a spy on a dangerous assignment.  Anna cannot help getting embroiled in his mission–even if this seemingly untameable rogue is the last person  with whom she should become involved…
“McCabe sweeps readers into the world of the Elizabethan theater, delighting us with a lively tale and artfully drawing on the era’s backdrop of bawdy plays, wild actors, and thrilling adventure” –RT Book Reviews
Megan:  Your books are so rich with history—but never overdone—that your characters seem as if they could only have existed at that time. You reveal bits of history and setting so well that it’s possible to know more than you did when you started the book, and yet the romance is primary.
What intrigues you most about the Elizabethan period?
Amanda:  Thanks so much!!!  That is the greatest compliment someone could give me about my writing (jn my mind anyway…)  Since I write in a variety of time periods, I love the challenge of finding the “tone” and atmosphere of each setting and figuring out what makes the characters people of their times (even if they rebel against some aspects of their surroundings, which they usually do!).  Anna and Rob couldn’t really be a Regency couple (unless they ran a Covent Garden brothel or something darker like that!), they are very 16th century in their thinking and their actions.
I think what draws me to this period so often is the incredible raw energy that surrounded the later 16th century, surrounding the charismatic queen.  The arts were flourishing in a whole new way, particularly with music, literature, and the theater, “new” people were rising up the social ranks, exploration was opening up the world in ways unimaginable a century before, and sex and romance was at a very honest and bawdy place (as well as a beautiful, poetic place)–it’s a very exciting moment in history.  And there’s lots of juicy conflict inherent in the times to throw at my characters!!
Megan: What is your most favorite obscure bit of history?
Amanda:  Wow, where do I start??  I’m such a history nerd–one of the most exciting things in my life is to read non-fiction books, especially old diaries and letters, and find weird events and people I could somehow make into stories.  One of my favorite real-life characters of this period is Penelope Rich, a cousin of the queen who was one of the most beautiful, intelligent, cultured, and rebellious women of her day, who lived a wild and eventful life.  I’m always surprised more people haven’t heard of her!  I’m hoping to write a historical novel about her one day…
But this particular story came about after I got to see play at the reconstructed Globe Theater in London!  I toured the great museum behind the scenes then watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was amazing–as I sat there on the narrow little bench, laughing at the antics of the characters on stage and eating honey-roasted almonds (while the people behind me ate extremely stinky beef and onions–also authentic, I guess, since it would not have smelled pretty at Shakespeare’s real Globe!), I felt like I had almost stepped back in time and was seeing this play for the very first time.  I could really picture Anna and Rob there.  (Also I’ve always been intrigued by stories from the theater of the time, like that of Christopher Marlowe, the young, handsome playwright/spy who came to such a violent and weird end…)
Megan: Who’s your favorite actor? Which actor did you see as Robert?
Amanda: As you have probably figured out, my actorly obsessions change depending on what I’ve been watching or reading!  I have really been loving Michael Fassbender lately, and I decided after seeing The Artist that Jean Dusjardin is now my French husband.  But for this book I had to turn to one of my favorite movies, Shakespeare in Love, and Joseph Fiennes.  (though Anna is more Emily Blunt than Gwyneth Paltrow).  They even managed to make the cover hero look like him!
Megan: If Anna and Robert were contemporary characters, what would they be doing? Where would they live?
Amanda: Interesting question!! I imagine Anna would be one of those very efficient, sharply dressed  young women running a chic modern-art gallery or auction house in London, living in a sleek apartment on the Thames and thinking she will never marry.  She doesn’t have time to date.  Rob would be–hmm, something mysterious.  Spy?  Oil company exec?  He comes into town, driving around too fast in some ridiculously expensive car, showing up at her art openings to sweep her off her feet before vanishing again on that mysterious job–until he realizes he can’t live without her and pursues her relentlessly…
Megan: What role do secrets play in the Taming of the Rogue?
Amanda: I always love characters with lots of secrets!  Things that torment them so they think they will die if anyone finds out.  Rob has secret reasons why he does what he does (working as a spy for Walsingham, which usually meant a very short life expectancy), why he thinks he has to make amends, and Anna has secret reasons why she can never marry again.
 Megan: What do you think is the biggest secret one person can keep from another?
Amanda:  LOL!  I guess that could depend on the context.  I often do stuff like sneak in new purchases and then claim they are not new at all (that’s how I know I’m a shopping addict…).  I would imagine marrying someone (spouse number two) while still being married to spouse number one would be pretty bad–but that wouldn’t be the romance novel hero!  Maybe the villain…
Megan: And what’s next for you??
Amanda: My other half, Laurel McKee, is launching a new series next month!  One Naughty Night is the first book in the Victorian-set “Scandalous St. Claires” series, which also features the theater (in a whole different time period), as well as an ancient family feud, Dickensian backstreet villains, and a heroine who has pulled herself up from the streets and is trying to be respectable at last–if the hero would just let her.  I loved exploring this whole new setting!  Amanda’s next book will be out in October–The Tarnished Rose of the Court, set at the court of Mary Queen of Scots in the 1560s…
What I’m most excited about at the moment is the fact that I will soon have a third alter ego!!  Amanda Carmack will be writing an Elizabethan-set mystery series for NAL starting next year. Stay tuned…
Comment for a chance to win a signed copy of The Taming of the Rogue!!  Winner will be announced on Tuesday. You can read an excerpt at Amanda’s website

Happy Tuesday, everyone!  I am deep in finishing up a book due Oct. 31 (the first in my Elizabethan mystery series!  I’m soooo excited about it), but first a little Tuesday business.  The winner of Love and Louis XIV is…Elizabeth Mahon!  Check your email inbox for more info…

And in looking around for a blog topic today, I found out that Georgian actress Anne Oldfield died on this day in 1730.  I’m a huge theater buff, and love to collect books about the history of the theater/opera/ballet, so I sorted through my shelves until I found Joanne Lafler’s The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress.

Anne Oldfield was born in London in 1683, the daughter of a poor soldier.  She was apprenticed to a seamstress, but she loved reciting poetry and plays, and one day was overheard (it was said in a tavern!) by theater impresario George Farquhar, who was impressed with her beauty and her speaking voice.  She then found herself engaged at Drury Theater and was an instant hit, at first for her looks more than any acting ability, but as the years passed she honed her craft and became renowned as a great comic actress.

Some of her most famous roles were in plays by Ben Jonson (Volpone and Epicoene) and Colley Cibber (The Careless Husband, The Provok’d Husband), who declared she “here she outdid her usual Outdoing.”

She was one of the great theatrical idols of her day, renowned for her talent and her ladylike behavior, her clothes and hats copied, her plays sold-out.  Alexander Pope, in Sober Advice from Horace, said,  “Engaging Oldfield, who, with grace and ease, Could join the arts to ruin and to please.”

She died at 47 at her fine house at 60 Grosvenor Street in London, leaving her rather large fortune to her two sons.  She was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Who would you love to go back in time and see onstage???

Posted in Research | Tagged , | 5 Replies
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By