One doesn’t expect to get breaking news on a story that’s one hundred and seventy years old, but late last week I got in contact with a researcher who has access to significantly more information about Mary Warner and her family than I do. As a result, my thinking on the Warners and their dealings with Walter Watts is evolving. I am rewriting the blog entry I planned to post today and awaiting the arrival of reference material that may necessitate even further revisions.
I considered posting an essay on a different topic entirely that I had written for coming weeks. Instead I’ve decided to stay with Mary Warner and give you a few more samples of the reception of her season at Marylebone in 1847 before we move on to the disastrous events of 1850.
Because Warner’s season at the Marylebone serves as an important prelude for Watts’ reign as manager, I think it is worthwhile to take this extra time to show you some extended quotes from the contemporary press to help give you an idea what this little theater’s place was in the London theatrical world and the magnitude of Warner’s achievement in establishing it as an entertainment destination. The first excerpt from a review by The Standard of the debut performance at the Marylebone in August of 1847 draws a compelling word picture of the venue’s transformation from a small local playhouse specializing in melodramas to a major metropolitan theater designed to be a sister venue to Islington’s Sadler’s Wells;
At the end of a mile from where once stood the famous gate of Tyburn, the traveler, going to the north-westward, arrives at a place of no slight consequence to the good wives of Paddington and St. John’s Wood, called Portman Market. Here, as at the kindred mart of Covent-garden, a temple has been reared to the dramatic muses – a temple hitherto of little repute or fame, but which now, under the guidance of an accomplished priestess, promises to become a place of eager resort to all those simple pilgrims who do not blush to avow a reverence for the name and genius of Shakespeare.
Mrs. Warner, stimulated, no doubt, but the experiences gained in her association with Mr. Phelps at Sadler’s Wells, has taken the humble playhouse at Marylebone, and by the aid of the mason and carpenter, well seconded by the painter and upholsterer, has converted it into one of the prettiest and most commodious theatres that London can boast of. She commenced the season on Monday evening last, and a more signal triumph we have seldom witnessed. The house was crammed in every part, and within the brilliant circle of boxes. It was gratifying to recognize faces of many persons of the highest distinction in literature and art. The play selected for the occasion was Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, — a bold undertaking one would imagine, for a company not previously in the habit of acting together, and whose united strength and skill – such strength and skill at least as such a play demands — could only be matter of conjecture. But the result showed with what judgement Mrs. Warner selected her assistants. From the first scene there was neither hitch nor jar. All went smoothly and well. The spirit of the play was well conceived; and the text was rendered with accuracy and intelligence. It was plain the whole company had been well disciplined and well taught. 1
The second review from The Morning Post, though less purple in its prose, may do an even better job of helping us visualize the theater circa 1847. Additionally, this writer, although he couches his argument in the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric of the day, frames Warner’s theater as having a mission beyond mere entertainment. By bringing high-quality productions of Shakespeare to the British public, he argues, Warner and her colleagues are serving a significant socio-cultural purpose. The performers are maintaining a crucial connection between the audience and their English literary heritage.
There are few of our readers, we apprehend, but who will be surprised to learn that a theatre, admirably constructed for all dramatic purposes, and capable of comfortably holding upwards of 2,000 persons, is situated in what may be called the “back settlements” of Paddington. Yet here, in the far west of the metropolis, this theatre was opened last night, under the management of Mrs. Warner, the well-known tragic actress, with the express purpose of producing the plays of Shakespeare. No purpose can be worthier, nor none more likely to produce abiding benefit to the surrounding densely crowded population. The humanizing power of the works of the great bard on the heart, and the consequent result on the morals and manners of the middle and humbler classes, are with us matters as clear as the sun at noon day; and now that cheap editions of his plays are taking precedence of that gallimaufry that was wont to glut the small booksellers of the suburbs, a feeling has grown up and a desire has been engendered to witness the stirring subjects exhibited with their scenic accessories. The time is passing away when a terrible title, and a “combat of six,” would excite the interest of the million – the genuine hose and chaise of a murderer would now fail to induce the veriest costermonger to expend his sixpence – The Murdered Monk, or the Bleeding Nun of the Mysterious Monastery have no longer charms for the lowest of our population. A better spirit is abroad, and no more gratifying evidence of the existence of this better spirit could be adduced than the scene witnessed last night. The name of Shakespeare seemed to have acted as a spell upon the surrounding neighborhood – the announcement that one of his plays was to be embodied with reverence for the text and attention to the detail seemed to excite the most lively interest, for the name of Shakespeare has a corner in every English bosom – none so ignorant but have learned the notion of his leading plays. And in this particular, how greatly we differ from the people of France; for there no positive national dramatic poet exists, for there are millions of Frenchmen who have never heard the names of Corneille and Racine, and to whom Les Horaces or Phedre are as foreign as would be a MS. Of Confutzee. The merest urchin who, shoeless, craves a charitable copper from the passer by, knows Othello was a black man, who smothered his wife; and that King Lear was driven from his kingdom by his daughters. The popular reverence and the popular feeling require but nurture; and so we have a full and abiding faith that the theatre at Marylebone under its present management, will do much towards it until its blossoming and fructification. The doors were besieged by immense crowds at an early hour, and scarcely had the doors opened before every spot in the house was filled. The interior is handsome and convenient, and the embellishments and fittings are in the best taste. The play selected was the Winter’s Tale, the character of Hermione being of course acted by Mrs. Warner, and we have never seen this popular lady perform with greater dignity, truthfulness, and effect… Shakespeare at Sadler’s Wells, and Shakespeare at Marylebone – the two extremes of the metropolis, will, we fervently hope, tend to bring him, by degrees, to the very centre of our great Babylon.2
The following critique of “The Gamester” from The Era from October of 1847 is my pick for a “typical” review from Mrs. Warner’s time as manager of the Marylebone. I could show you dozens that read almost exactly like this. Although Warner usually stars and gives excellent performances, she does not overshadow her supporting cast who are all usually singled out for praise. Critics always mention the beauty and perfection of the staging and costuming and the intelligence and sensitivity of the direction. They usually mention that the house was full and the audience was enthusiastic.
On Monday night, Moore’s tragedy of “The Gamester,” was revived at this elegant legitimate theatre. The fair manager, Mrs. Warner, was the representative of the heroine, and her performance was throughout energetic, impressive, and deeply affecting. Her delineation of the fond, devoted, but greatly injured, yet ever-forgiving and adoring wife, was beautifully pure and impassioned. Miss Angell’s was a very pleasing impersonation of the gamster’s sister. Mr. Graham, as Beverley, acted in an effective style. His latter scenes were especially successful. The ungracious character of Stukely was admirably filled by Mr. J. Johnstone, who succeeded well in depicting the cool, deliberated, revengeful, yet cunning, and cautious villain – the seeming friend, but really the tempter and destroyer, of trusting Beverley. The part of Lewison was made much of by Mr. G. Vining, who was an efficient representative of the character. Mr. Cooke was hearty and affecting as the trusty retainer, Jarvis. The tragedy has been excellently placed upon the stage: the mise en scene was complete and in keeping with all that Mrs. Warner has produced here. This theatre deserves much patronage, and we, with pleasure, record the fact that well filled and respectable audiences nightly reward the praiseworthy exertions of the management.3
Here finally is an extended commentary from the drama critic from John Bull commending Mrs. Warner for creating an ensemble cast. This was truly an innovation for the day that required not just an artistic, but a strong financial commitment on the part of the manager who had to gamble that the public would pay not to see a big name star like Macready supported by a weak cast of nobodies but a strong cast of mid-range, familiar performers like Joe Johnson, G. Cooke, and the Vinings who weren’t headliners but were solid, reliable, and versatile players.
Mrs. Warner is eminently entitled to the approbation and support of the public, not only on account of her distinguished talents in her art, but of the excellent manner in which she rules her little kingdom in the distant land of Marylebone. Her reign, we trust, is a prosperous one; at least, when we visit her theatre, it shows signs of well-doing; a house handsomely fitted up, a nicely and comfortably kept; a good and well-chosen company of performers; a stage well supplied with elegant decorations; and an audience not only numerous but attentive, intelligent, and discriminating, evidently attracted by a genuine taste for the drama. Mrs. Warner, at Marylebone, is following out the course of which she herself assisted in setting the example at Sadler’s Wells; and these two remote suburban theatres are certainly the places where the best works of the old dramatists are performed in the most complete and satisfactory manner. In these theatres, the “star-system,” so ruinous to the modern stage, is discarded; the good old plan adopted, of having a permanent company, every member of which, from the highest to the lowest, regularly belongs to the theatre. A company of this kind, accustomed, as of old, to act together, animated by the fellow-feeling derived from community of interest, and consequently zealous in their mutual co-operation, cannot fail, with moderate individual talent, to produce a satisfactory result. Such companies, till revived by Mr. Phelps and Mrs. Warner, had entirely disappeared. In every theatre (even in the provinces) the principal parts were sustained by three or four leading performers — “bright, particular stars,” wandering through the whole dramatic firmament; and showing themselves one or two at a time, now here now there, like comets or meteors for a few nights; then reappearing on some other horizon. But single stars have no effect in illuminating the heavens: the more dazzling their own brightness, the deeper the surrounding gloom. In order to be enabled to present his “star,” the theatrical manager must sacrifice every other consideration. An enormous salary (unheard of in the most palmy days of the stage) paid to the hero or heroine of a six or twelve nights’ engagement, is scraped together by a beggarly economy in every other respect. In regard to the actors, the manger adopts the famous maxim of Catalani’s husband, “Ma femme et quatre ou cinq poupees;” a maxim which, in the days of the greatest musical star that ever shone in England, reduced the opera stage to the lowest depth of degradation; and our theatrical readers, we think, will acknowledge it to be the result of their experience, that, the greater the star, the more wretched the general performance. There are no such blazing luminaries at either of the theatres we are speaking of, though the principal actors at both are deservedly eminent; while, at both, there is a combination of ability adequate to the satisfactory performance of the best productions of the drama. 4
What I hope these reviews demonstrate is that the Marylebone was not a vanity project for Mary Warner. She was not an aging actress selfishly setting up her own private domain where she could continue to star in ingénue roles despite the fact that she was in her forties. The Marylebone was a bold and serious attempt to extend and change the way drama was performed in London.
Like Charles Kean, Warner was dedicated to creating meticulously detailed productions of Shakespeare and other classical dramatic texts. She worked from versions of the scripts that were not watered down or abridged to pander to contemporary sensibilities. Most importantly, she resisted the standard practices of her day and insisted on longer rehearsal periods and the abolition of the star system that highlighted one featured player to the detriment of all others.
Following in her footsteps, Walter Watts would continue these reforms and add a few of his own with things that seem like obvious necessities today, but were thought of as wasteful extravagances by Victorian managers – such as paid understudies for lead players and free programs for audience members.
Warner’s approach to the dramatic art was demanding of both performers and audience. It was also not the most inexpensive method of producing a performance. In the end, there were budget shortfalls and Warner decided she did not have the personal financial resources to continue as manager. However, her experiment succeeded in that she proved that there was an appetite for Shakespeare and the classics outside the heart of London. A “minor” theater didn’t have to play a constant repertoire of melodramas to survive. She also showed that the ensemble model was viable. Audiences loved big stars, but would come to see strong, well-rehearsed casts of minor players they knew and recognized.
Warner was ahead of her time. Her triumphs became lost in the chaos that would engulf the Marylebone in the wake of the Watts scandal and the personal tragedies that would overwhelm her personal life in the early 1850’s. However, her experiments with theater management would live on in the minds of the performers she worked with and the audiences who had viewed them. Other director/managers, later in the century, would repeat them with more success. Today, we take such theatrical practices for granted, never realizing that we have innovators like Mary Warner to thank.
1. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Standard: London. Wednesday Evening, September 1, 1847. Page 2, Col 3.
2. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Post: London, August 31, 1847. Page 6, col 4.
3. “Marylebone.” The Era. October 31, 1847, page 11, col 2.
4. “Theatres and Music,” John Bull, April 10, 1848. page 231, column 2