Anna Cora Mowatt and Walter Watts’ Irish Engagement

This week I’m going to take a little break from a narrow focus on Anna Cora Mowatt and talk about the one example of writing we have from Walter Watts — his 1848 one-act farce, “An Irish Engagement.” As I often say at the beginning of an in-depth examination of a literary work, I’ve been working on a recording this play for Librivox and have therefore had a certain amount of time to think and reflect about the character of this text. The recording is available for download here.

One Act Play Collection 13 from Librivox
One Act Play Collection 13 from Librivox

Previously I had a chance to see a couple amateur stagings of the play available on Youtube ( You can view them here and here). The action in these versions becomes so fast and furious – which, to be fair, is as it should be in a farce – that much of the wordplay in the middle to the end of the script gets lost. Listening to this new reading has impressed me anew with the ingenuity of this text that I think gives us a unique glimpse into the everyday realities of Victorian theatre as well as a glimpse into the mind of a very unusual Victorian playwright.

Watts and the Marylebone Theatre where “An Irish Engagement” was staged were both quite important to Mowatt’s career in London, as you no doubt know from prior readings of this blog. I want to talk a little bit about the genre of farce and how it served as an essential part of the Victorian theatrical milieu. As I’ve said before, theaters of this era in England offered an entire evening’s entertainment for their audiences. A company didn’t just put on “Cats” or “Phantom of the Opera” and go home. There would be a featured performance supported by couple shorter dramas. For example, in June of 1848, a poster for the Marylebone advertises the three-act drama “Dream at Sea” starring husband and wife comedy team, Robert and Mary Anne Keely, as the headline performance. It is followed by two comic one acts, “End of June,” starring some of the Marylebone regular players and “Pas de Fascination,” starring the Keelys again. The evening is capped off with the popular farce “Spoil’d Child” starring Mr. G. Cooke as Old Pickle and Miss Saunders as Young Pickle. Cooke and Saunders were part of the Marylebone’s troupe of specialty players skilled in the acrobatic physical comedy required for the Christmas and Easter pantomime spectaculars.

An evening’s theatrical program usually ended with a farce. The wild, madcap, slapstick humor of a farce seemed to the Victorians, after five acts of “Hamlet” or “Lady or Lyons,” like ending a robust steak dinner off with a plate of ice cream. The progression felt like a natural closure to them and good value for their entertainment dollar.

Farces, as in the case of “Spoil’d Child,” also could provide off-season employment for the clowns, harlequins, and columbines of the pantomime troupes and help a theater hold on to these players during the summer months if they chose to. The physical demands of this genre were nowhere near the level of the pantomime, however. The regular company of theaters frequently filled out the cast of theaters. Headline players, like Robert and Mary Anne Keely, who specialized in comedy, often starred in farces. “An Irish Engagement” was written as a vehicle for Dublin-born comedian James Hudson. Even tragedian G.V. Brooke played in farces – much to the delight of his audiences — while on tour in Australia.

Farce of this era borrowed character types and plot devices liberally from Italy’s commedia dell’arte. The relationship between Victorian farce and commedia was so free flowing not because of some tight socio-economic bond between England and the Mediterranean but because of the Christmas Pantomime and Joey Grimaldi. December 26, Boxing Day, was the biggest theatre day on the English calendar. Almost everyone, of all economic castes, got the day off. Almost everyone spent part of that day in a theater. Huge spectacles were staged. Joesph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was England’s (and some say the world’s) greatest clown. His brilliance made his family’s commedia-style performance the gold standard for comedy for the next century. His routines were copied word-for-word and gesture-for-gesture. I have seen a version of the “Hot codlins” song that was performed in the style of Grimaldi at a clown gathering in 2016. (I include this performance because it is Grimaldi’s signature piece from the pantomime. However it does not give a good representation of the vigorously athletic style for which he was famous.) Commedia’s clown and pantaloon became the stars of England’s Christmastime extravaganzas. The lovers Columbine and Harlequin foiled their ridiculous scheming in thousands of outrageous plots year upon year.

Writers of farces probably absorbed the influence of commedia organically and unthinkingly. Just as I doubt that few writers of sitcoms in the 1980’s and 90’s took time to look up from their keyboards and exclaim, “God! I owe so much to Sheridan and Moliere!” I think playwrights of the 1840’s and 50’s just knew that commedia style was something their audiences liked and would pay to see variations on over and over again.

“An Irish Engagement” has at its base a classic commedia plot – the lovers (innamorati) wish to marry but are prevented by an elder (vecchio.) They enlist the aid of a pair of comic servants (zanni.) Colonel Bullfinch, the blustering, wealthy father makes a classic pantaloon figure. Tim Rafferty, the wise-cracking, mischief-making servant, fills the role of Harlequino nicely. Because of the doubling, mirroring and reversals in the play, the other traditional roles of the commedia are more difficult to define clearly.

The Victorian farce tends to be a parody of that other most popular theatrical form of the period – the melodrama. This play starts out as if it is going to be a melodrama. Julia is despairing because she cannot marry the man she loves. We begin to realize that we are instead in a farce when Captain Foxglove enters and helpfully explains to us that Julia’s father, Colonel Bullfinch has made the ridiculous bargain of betrothing his daughter at birth to the infant son of his best friend and promised to forfeit the outrageous sum of 10,000 pounds if he reneges. Neither the affianced daughter nor son has ever seen each other in the intervening years. So within the first three minutes, the author has set up this completely unrealistic, but highly distressing situation that all the characters are passionately engaged in preserving or combating. The son of the best friend is expected to show up any day to claim his bride, so a countdown to disaster is set running in our first scene.

An Irish Engagement
Poster for Walter Watts’ one-act farce “An Irish Engagement”

One of the primary characteristics of the farce is the speed of the action. The runtime of this entire show is only forty-five minutes. Therefore rather than dithering about, Captain Foxlove comes to this initial scene of the play with a stratagem already in hand for dealing with their dilemma. He proposes having his servant, Tim Rafferty, pose as Mr. M’Carthy, the bridegroom-to-be, and fool Colonel Bullfinch into thinking the young man is an unsuitable suitor. Wasting no time on unnecessary debate, Julia agrees.

In all of Walter Watts’ creative work (and unfortunately, his real life), there is a good amount of doubling, mirroring, and misdirection. It is sometimes difficult to tell which was the “true” image we were supposed to be following and which was the decoy. At this point in the play, the doubling of the lovers starts as the servant-girl Norah talks about her passion for Tim Rafferty. A contrast, played for laughs, is set up between the conventional “pure and noble” expressions of sentiment uttered by Julia and Foxglove and the more unabashedly sensual language used by Norah as in the following,

Och! If you’d only had the luck to fall in love wid an Irishman, — wid one of the darling boys of Tipperary, they’re the jewels to lay hold of a poor girl’s affections, and kick up a rebellion in her heart. They twist and they turn, wheedle, flatter, and kiss, until they so bewilder a poor girl, that it’s glad she is to say, “Paddy, you devil, take me at once, and make an honest woman of me.”1

Although Norah is presented as being more naïve, she is the only character who expresses any reservations about the deceptions being proposed. She loves Tim for who he is, someone who she knows loves her and will fight for her. She has no interest in seeing him transformed into a gentleman. Julia laughs at these concerns and at Norah’s “eloquence” as presumably also does the audience.

For a novice, Watts certainly did an excellent job of keeping a laser-focus of the primary purpose of this script. If this play was meant as a showcase for James Hudson, Irish comedian, then not much is allowed to get in the way of that goal. Once the character of Tim Rafferty steps on stage, everyone else blurs into soft focus. Rafferty has 75% of the best laugh-lines in the show. His speeches are full of crazy puns like,

Is it persuading you, I am; why you know you’re mad; — as mad as the Dublin hatter, who wore a napless hat, and swore he never felt sleepy.2

Hudson had an excellent singing voice. There are a couple spots where opportunities for singing are worked in very smoothly and in a manner that would allow the Irish tenor to enter the stage to applause.

The pace of the show increases with the entrance of this character. Rafferty talks constantly when he’s onstage, at full speed, addressing all the stuffy upper-class characters familiarly as “my jewel,” “my tuilip,” “darlin’” or “honey.” There’s also an air of unpredictability and comic violence about the character. His speech is peppered with onomatopoeia such as “whoop!” “hurro!” and “arrah!” as well as frequent references to his shillelagh. Even Rafferty’s comical wellerisms sometimes take a weirdly dark spin as in the following,

If this don’t put everything as it ought to be, why I’ll be hanged for murder, as the man said when he cut his own throat.3

The incorporation of comic violence is another element that distinguishes farce from melodrama and ties the genre back to its roots in pantomime and commedia dell’arte. If you’ve seen the recorded versions of “An Irish Engagement,” you know that the script provides the set-up for some classic slapstick confrontations between Rafferty and Colonel Bullfinch. From their very first handshake, the two are embattled. Farce tends to deliver violations of norms and social rules. On one level, what Rafferty is doing is cruel. He is a young man being abusive towards an older man – so we are shocked at this violation of norms. On another level, Bullfinch is a terrible, blustering bully who could have stopped the whole thing if he would have just been reasonable – so we laugh to see him meeting his match. If the play is directed properly, the action keeps building. Just when we think Bullfinch has learned his lesson, he comes back again for more. His stubbornness makes us lose sympathy for him and the violence becomes more outrageous and funnier.

The original production paired James Hudson with G. Cooke in the role of Colonel Bullfinch. As you’ll remember, Cooke was one of the Marylebone’s veteran pantomime clowns. It’s my bet that the two of them had the audience rolling in the aisles.

As Anton Chekhov’s maxim for dramatic suspense dictates must happen, once Watts had established in the first scene that the son of Colonel Bullfinch’s friend who he had promised his daughter to could show up on the scene, once the worst possible moment for him to show up arrived, he had to make an appearance. Continuing with the pattern of doubles and mirrors, M’Carthy, when he does inevitably arrive, is the exact opposite of everything we have been told was true of Irishmen. Socio-cultural stereotypes are the meat and potatoes of farces. Up until this point, we have been stuffed to the brim with English caricatures of Irish-ness. Tim and Norah both speak in nearly incomprehensible brogues spelled out phonetically and loaded down with florid metaphors fairly reeking of a fantastic vision of “Ould Ireland.” When M’Carthy arrives, instead of continuing this pattern of exaggeration, this young Irishman from Tipperary is completely indistinguishable from the aristocratic English characters in his pattern of polite speech and manners. In fact, he is bland, boring, and interchangeable enough with Foxlove that one starts to wonder why Julia made so much of a fuss about potentially being paired with him. Far from being a wild Irishman, it is M’Carthy, in a mirror-image reversal of the expectations set up in the initial situation, who is shocked by the insanity of the upper-class English characters and tries to flee.

Let me make a brief mention of Anna Cora Mowatt (since this blog is about her.) The character of Julia Bullfinch serves as an interesting commentary on the kind of young ingénue role that was Mowatt’s standard stock in trade. My favorite part of the script comes when Rafferty, leaving Julia in the room alone with M’Carthy, advises her,

Give it him, miss. You must fight your own battle now…4

Julia then proceeds to go into her “mad” act and in the process neatly burlesques the tendency of her own character type toward emotional extremes and simpering irrationality as well as exposing underlying selfishness and jealousy lurking behind the modest and demure mask of the typical sweet maidenly heroine of the melodrama. A disturbing byproduct, though, of seeing her drop so easily into this exaggerated mirror version of herself to deceive M’Carthy, is that we start to reflect that Miss Julia isn’t behaving very properly in some other ways. She has agreed very easily to allowing Rafferty to trick and abuse her father. We then find that she has never introduced Captain Foxlove to her father and has been seeing her intended behind her parent’s back for some time.

In fact, at the end of the play, when Tim asks the Colonel for Norah’s hand, Bullfinch says he would be honored to give the bride away and serve as godfather to their firstborn. When Foxlove asks the same, the Colonel replies,

Well, I suppose I must; there, take her, Captain Foxlove. The deceitful little hussy has played her part so well, there’s no refusing her.5

Despite the fact that in the first scene we laughed at Norah’s seemingly crude declarations of love for Rafferty, in the end, it seems that the servant-girl might have been the one the author is holding up as the true “lady” of the text for having proved the less deceitful of the two.

Rather than finalizing with a complete return to the status quo like other specimens of this genre, “Irish Engagement” ends on a more precarious, edgy note. Tim unmasks himself as an imposter, the lovers are forgiven and united, but instead of entirely giving up all the powers he gained under his reign as Lord of Misrule under the carnivalesque time allowed by the farce for the power balance to be inverted, Rafferty warns Bullfinch,

If you don’t I’ll be powdering your wig again; and this time I’ll be doing it with a shillalah.6

Thus the promise of comic violence continues. The balance of power is not restored back to its original proportions. In the audience’s imaginations, this farce ends with a bit of a question mark instead of a period. Because of Rafferty’s genial defiance, the conflict in the plots has the potential to continue to play on infinitely rather than resolving neatly.

I think this unconventional for its time tensiveness was because the playwright identified more with Rafferty than Bullfinch. Remember that when Watts wrote Rafferty’s reply to Bullfinch’s question of how the Irishman planned to use the dowry he was negotiating in these terms,

First, I’ll be after taking the largest house in town; sarvants shall be as plentiful as mushrooms. I’ll have valets, footmen, coachmen, grooms, butlers, ladies’ maids, chambermaids, dairymaids, housemaids, cooks, and, in a very short time, it’s a nurserymaid I’ll be wanting likewise: — then I’ll have coaches, cabs, four-in-hands, and illegant jaunting car; whisk, dash along – I shall keep up with everything, but nothing shall keep up with me. There goes a dacent boy, says one; a dear little devil, says the ladies. Arrah, my darling, and you may say that, says I. He’s a beauty, says another. Hurro! For the wild Irishman. Whoop! Tipperaray forever… Then my parties. Och! What illigant parties I’ll be giving. Wine and whisky punch galore, the largest bowl in Ireland’s nothing to it. Then, lords and ladies, knights, and barrow-knights, lovely ladies, enchanting music, dancing. Och! Won’t I give them a beautiful jig; I’ll astonish the weak minds of the dirty world.7

He was himself a clerk working at the Globe Life Insurance Company during the day, but leading a double life as a millionaire on weeknights and weekends with the money he was embezzling from his employers.

It’s through something of a fluke of history that we have this play today. Farces were the sitcoms of that time. They were popular with audiences. They brought in good money for the theaters, playwrights, and performers, but there wasn’t the sort of prestige associated with them that was attached to Shakespeare, the classics and other specimens of what was called “legitimate” drama. Newspaper reviewers and later chroniclers of the drama didn’t go to a great deal of trouble to document productions of farces, which, as I have said, were usually stuck at the end of the bill. I can’t find any records of “An Irish Engagement” being produced for a long time after its debut in 1848. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced. James Hudson probably added the show to his repertoire and played it as he toured throughout Great Britain and the U.S.

Back Entrance to the Marylebone Theater
Back Entrance to the Marylebone Theater

According to Allardyce Nicoll’s History of Early Nineteenth Century Drama 1800-1850, Watts only published four plays during his life; a burletta (or short comic opera) titled “Which is Uncle?,” “An Irish Engagement,” another farce titled “Which is the King?” and “Dream of Life,” a domestic drama.8 He also co-wrote a Christmas pantomime script that apparently wasn’t published. Because his life ended in disgrace and scandal, his achievements as a playwright have been dismissed or ignored. Although “An Irish Engagement” is performed to this day; the text is included in collections of one-act plays from the period; and excerpts are used for monologues for auditions, Walter Watts’ biography has become disconnected from his work.

In the aftermath of the scandal that ended his life, chroniclers who mentioned his writing framed it in terms of a conventional narrative pre-written in their heads – Watts was a no-talent pretender who thought he could write plays and bought his way into the theater with ill-gotten gains to produce his bad dramas. They paid no attention to the actual reviews of the quite successful productions that had taken place in the years that he managed the Marylebone Theater – particularly of “An Irish Engagement” which seemed to score a solid hit with audiences and critics. I suppose, I can’t be too harsh on these authors, though. It would have been very complex to write and for the public to wrap their minds around a story that said, “Walter Watts led a double life as a humble clerk and a millionaire playboy who successfully managed an West End playhouse in full view of his supposedly trustworthy employers and all of London society and committed one of the most shocking financial frauds of our times… but he was also actually a very interesting and talented comedy writer.”

Frankly, it’s sometimes still a bit much to digest now.

However, thanks to the combined random efforts of James Hudson, public domain laws, and the internet, Walter Watts and his one-act farce have survived and prospered improbably against the odds and are having the last laugh.

Anna Cora Mowat and Walter Watts' "An Irish Engagement"
Anna Cora Mowatt, comedian Jame Hudson and scenes from Walter Watts’ farce “An Irish Engagement”

1. Watts, Walter. “An Irish Engagement.” S. G. Fairbrother: London, 1848. Page 8.
2. Ibid, page 18.
3. Ibid, page 17.
4. Ibid, page 15.
5. Ibid, page 25.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid, page 7.
8. Nicol, Allardyce. A History of Early Nineteenth Century Drama 1800-1850, Vol II. University Press: Cambridge, 1930. Page 409.

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