If the Watts Scandal were a musical or a movie, I would want to play Mary Warner. She may not fit our idea of glamorous leading lady today, but she is definitely one of the most interesting characters in this story. Talented, ambitious, hard-working, and smart, Warner was more than just another actress; she was one of the most dynamic figures in the London theatre scene of her era. On top of all that, she was a tough old bird. In 1849, she had achieved something of the status that Dame Judy Dench or Helen Mirren has in England and the U.S. today. She was someone we might refer to as “a national treasure” with fond reverence and a touch of awe. In the end, she was saved from bankruptcy from Queen Victoria herself. How’s that for connections?
Mary Warner was born Mary Amelia Huddart in Dublin, Ireland, the daughter of a two actors. Her father, Charles Huddart, worked for some time as a druggist. After this business failed, he returned to the stage and young Mary followed. She worked her way up through the profession in Ireland. Warner was part of the company directed by William Macready’s no-nonsense father. She even starred opposite the sensational teen-aged prodigy, G.V. Brooke, in his debut. She eventually moved to England. It was hard for an outsider to break in, though. Warner achieved no outstanding success until in 1830 when she appeared as Belvidera in “Venice Preserved” opposite Macready at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Mary Warner would remain one of Macready’s favorite leading ladies throughout his London career. She was a solid, powerful, experienced performer who could provide a counterweight to him on stage and give balance to Macready’s more high-strung and dexterously emotional delineations of character. Having served an apprenticeship under his father’s tutelage, Warner met Macready’s exacting ideals for professionalism better than most English performers. Perhaps more importantly, Warner wasn’t some pretty young ingénue who would become a rival for the audiences’ affections and be foolish enough to be tempted to challenge Macready’s authority backstage.
With the profits she was able to gain from her acting, she partnered with Samuel Phelps and became co-managers of Saddlers Wells (although Phelps usually gets the lion’s share of credit for the work in the history books.) The two took advantage of the newly passed Theatres Act of 1843 which broke the monopoly shared by two London playhouses (Covent Gardens and Drury Lane) on permission to play Shakespeare and the classics. They set out to bring “legitimate” theatre to a new neighborhood with an expanded cast of players.
Despite some initial difficulties, Saddler’s Wells quickly become incredibly successful. In May of 1846, though, Phelps, (brace yourself, I’m going to use some real high-class academic terms here) acting like a true and total bone-headed jerk, hires a younger woman, and fires Warner from the job she created from flipping scratch. Warner, like the true bad-ass she was, called him out for his cravenness on stage during a curtain call, though. Here is a newspaper account of the whole messy affair:
This theatre closed its second profitable season under the able management of Mrs. Warner and Mr. Phelps on Tuesday evening… At the close of the performance Mr. Phelps appeared before the curtain, and informed the audience “that circumstances had rendered it expedient for Mrs. Warner to withdraw from the theatre; and that for the future the sole management would be undertaken by himself.” Mrs. Warner then appeared, and said, “she was extremely sorry to intrude private matters before the public, but in reply to the statement made by Mr. Phelps, she must in justice to herself, and to those kind friends by whom she had been so warmly patronized, state that her withdrawal was compulsory and not optional.”
As we are admirers of plain speaking, as well as fair dealing, we will put this matter in its proper light. The fact is, Sadler’s Wells Theatre has been taken for next season, over the head of Mrs. Warner by her late partners, who having reaped the benefit of her exertions for the last two years, think, now that the theatre has acquired a good name through those exertions that they can do without her. The speculation of taking Sadler’s Wells originated with Mrs. Warner; and for two years it has proved a home, for many, who would, in all probability, have been without engagements to the present hour. Mrs. Warner has toiled hard, by day and night, to bring “the Wells” to its present healthful state, from one of wretched degradation, and this is her reward. The matter, we think, reflects but little credit on the proprietors of the theatre.1
Not to be kept down by such twists of fate, Mary Warner shook the dust of Sadler’s Wells from her boots. In 1847, Warner took over direction of the Marylebone Theater. The Marylebone was a small theater with a deep stage, currently playing lurid melodramas. It was off the beaten track. The Marylebone was not very close to any of the other established theaters. However it would be the first theater that Walter Watts would reach as he drove towards the center of the city from his lavish quarters in St. John’s Wood.
Up to this point, this narrative has been fairly clear and straight forward. The next bit gets a bit muddled. There is a story that says when finances got tight, Walter Watts loaned Mary Warner £1000 to help keep the Marylebone’s books balanced. I think I’ve repeated this tale a few times. It seems to just be a story, though. I can’t verify it or pin down a legitimate source for it.
When you stop and think twice about it, the £1000 story isn’t very plausible. Think about the anecdote this way — Warner’s theater is in financial distress. Some random guy pops up out of the audience and says, “Hey, I’ve got this cash…” and she takes it and makes him a partner a few months later because…? I know that £1000 sounds like a lot of money, but when you’re trying to deal with a shortfall in the operating budget of a business like the Marylebone Theater, it’s really just pocket change. That much might cover sets and costumes for one production. It’s not enough to sustain a theater for even part of a season.
In December of 1849, when management transitioned and Watts was successfully concluding his tenure as manager of the Marylebone but before the scandal concerning him had broken, a newspaper account explained the management hierarchy of the theater in the following terms:
Prior to the autumn of 1847, this house was of a class so professedly inferior, that its existence was scarcely so much as known out of its immediate locality. Not having been built very many years, it had not even a reminiscence of better days to clothe it with a sort of prestige. Mrs. Warner, however, who jointly with Mr. Phelps, had succeeded in raising Sadler’s Wells from degradation to respectability, thought when she left that establishment than an experiment which had succeeded in the Islington neighborhood might also have prosperous results in Paddington, and accordingly in October, 1847, the theatre was opened for the legitimate drama, Mr. Watts being the lessee and manager and Mrs. Warner the directress. When Mrs. Warner quitted the theatre, in the beginning of 1848, it continued under the direction of Mr. Watts…2
Therefore, according to this account, it seems that Watts was paying the big bills all along. Watts was the lessee. Mrs. Warner was what in today’s terms would be called an artistic director. This division of labor is supported by advertising for the theater which during this period reads “Theatre Royal Marylebone – Under the Management of Mrs. Warner.” Later, similar ads would proclaim “Theatre Royal Marylebone – Sole Lessee, Mr. W. Watts, St. John’s Wood.” Warner never held the lease of the Marylebone. People just made this assumption. If this is what happened, then Watts didn’t lie, he just allowed the public and the press to assume something that wasn’t true – the signature Walter Watts move if ever there was one.
The more I look at newspaper clippings from those early Warner/Watts days of the Marylebone, the more I think that it is probable that there was no financial crisis where Watts came aboard with his cash to bail Warner out. I think the Marylebone renovation project was a Watts venture from the onset. It seems very likely he made a nine-month contract with Warner to launch the project. During this initial period, she served as the public face of the Marylebone Theatre using her near quarter century of hard-earned reputation of professional quality and good will with the public and the press to guarantee the little theater the most favorable environment for positive reception possible.
There was no way that Watts, an unknown trying to gentrify a theater in an unfashionable part of London, could have gleaned the kind of open-armed and dewy-eyed welcome from the press and the public that Mary Warner, beloved queen of the stage who had been so recently and publicly stabbed in the back by her supposed best friend Sam Phelps, received. Rather than being skeptical of the Marylebone’s out of the way location and previously run-down condition as disqualifying characteristics for a venue, the press seemed to look approvingly on as, in their view, Warner heroically engaged in another praise-worthy renovation project for the benefit of the theater-going public. The following was typical of the breathless prologues to reviews of Marylebone shows:
Let those who affect a preference for, or write in favor of the modern drama, go and see how “the legitimate” is performed and appreciated at the Marylebone Theatre. Not only are the plays of Shakespeare produced at the house, so as to win the admiration of all who witness them, but the best productions of other old sterling writers are here represented in a manner little imagined by those who suppose that “all the talent” is engaged at theatres less remote and better known. Our readers are aware that Mrs. Warner, the best tragedy queen now on the stage, and one whose fame throughout the provinces is even greater than it is among those of the metropolis who love the drama in its highest state, has the management of this establishment, which has been repaired and beautified to a great extent and made a very charming little temple.3
Even the usually cool and stodgy John Bull prefaced their critique with the following words of approbation:
This theatre was opened on Monday under the management of Mrs. Warner, for the performance of the regular English drama. To this lady, as much as to Mr. Phelps, the public were indebted to the formation of the excellent dramatic company, which converted Sadler’s Wells from a place of entertainment of the same class with Astley’s, into the most classical theatre of the metropolis. Mrs. Warner contributed most essentially to the great and unexpected success of that experiment, though she has not been allowed to reap the benefit of it. Her present undertaking is of a similar nature, deserves similar success, and, we sincerely hope, will obtain it. In addition to her well-known professional talent, she possesses judgement, energy, and experience in theatrical affairs, and is well-qualified to be an efficient manager.
The Marylebone Theatre, like Sadler’s Wells, is situated at a great distance from any other place of dramatic entertainment, but in the midst of a large and populous district, sufficient of itself to furnish a constant audience of educated and intelligent people, quite able to appreciate and enjoy the highest beauties of the English state. It is small and unpretending, but neat and comfortable… There is a great deal of lamentation about the abandonment of “the two great national theatres” – the desecration of the ancient temples of English drama – as being a sign of decay and downfall. For our part, we hail this very circumstance as the most cheering sign of its revival. 4
There were a number of compelling inducements for Warner to say “yes” and agree to sign a contract to serve as the artistic director of a new theater even if it did have a novice lessee at the helm. Her involvement in the management of Sadler’s Wells demonstrates her commitment to establishing viable alternatives to Covent Garden and Drury Lane for theatrical professionals like herself specializing in the so-called “legitimate” drama. In that position, she had control over casting and setting the season without (apparently) taking on the usual financial risks carried by a lessee. She could provide employment for colleagues under advantageous terms.
Not only did Watts offer higher salaries, his contracts were more generous on several fronts. He was willing to hire for longer periods of time. He paid understudies, which was not a standard practice. There was more paid rehearsal time. The billing system was different than the norm at the Marylebone. The “star” system was abolished. Members of the “regular company” got better exposure than with other playhouses.
In addition to the famous co-workers Warner brought when she came to the Marylebone, such as William Macready, Robert and Mary Anne Keely, G.V. Brooke, James Hudson, and T.P. Cooke, she also brought family. Her sister and a niece, both known as “Miss Huddart,” starred alongside her in many dramas. These were probably roles carefully chosen to boost their respective careers.
Mary Warner’s appearance at the Marylebone opposite Macready in “Hamlet” when she closed the season was a high-water mark for the Marylebone. This series of performances would be among Macready’s last in London before departing for the U.S. in what would turn out to be his disastrous tour that would culminate in the Astor Place Riot. Those dark clouds were far on the horizon, though. For “Hamlet” at the Marylebone, all the major papers carried reverent descriptions of awe-struck audiences packed densely into the small theater to witness an elegantly beautiful staging of Macready’s masterful performance. The reviewers competed to heap praises upon Warner in the both in the role of Gertrude, looking every inch the queen, and as manager reigning over her delightfully welcoming theatrical kingdom.
I hope Sam Phelps and his management team were feeling like the jackasses they were when they read those reviews.
I wish I could end Mary Warner’s story here, but, unfortunately, this is not where the where the story ends.
Next week, more about Warner and Watts. I promise to also mention Anna Cora Mowatt. The blog is about her, you know.
1. “Theatres and Music.” John Bull, May 9, 1845. Page 567-68, col 2.
2. The Weekly Chronicle: London. December 15, 1849. Page 5, col 4.
3. The Era, October 5, 1847, page 11, col 3
4. John Bull. September 6, 1847, page 567, col 3