[Just a quick note before I begin — In order to accommodate the amount of new information that I have added to this blog post since the time I originally composed it, I have decided to divide it into multiple parts. Again, I wish to thank independent researcher, Elizabeth Rye, for the invaluable assistance she has given me in finding out so much more about the Warners. To those of you keeping count, this is part one of what originally was going to be part two of my blog on Mary Warner, Walter Watts’ immediate predecessor as manager of the Marylebone Theater where Anna Cora Mowatt starred during her London tour.]
Theatre history, in my opinion, has dealt with Mary Warner very unfairly. Despite the fact that she had a professional career that spanned well over a quarter of a century, was critically acclaimed as a preeminent tragedienne in Ireland, England, and the U.S., co-founded the renovation of Sadler’s Wells and was the actor/manager of the Marylebone Theater, and was not just a favored acting partner, but was the valued artistic consultant of the greatest actor of her generation, William Charles Macready, Warner barely rates a footnote in most histories of the period. One theatre historian, when she was mentioned, looked down their nose and replied, “If I haven’t heard of her, she must not have been very important.”
If an actress is mentioned in connection with the tragedian at all, it is usually Helena Faucit. This daughter of performers was a beautiful, talented, young actress who performed alongside Macready and Warner at Covent Garden starting in 1836 at the tender age of eighteen. She followed him to Haymarket and rose to fame playing the female leads in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s wildly popular melodramas. By 1845, though, Faucit had left the company, never really expanding her range too far beyond ingénue roles and certainly never founding any theatrical troupes of her own. By 1851, she had retired from the profession completely and married Lord Theodore Martin.
I feel that Warner’s obscurity today can be attributed to the fact that Victorian drama critics, rather than viewing their mission as one of chronicling the rich and varied tapestry of the performance world of their day in as much depth and detail as possible, took what I would term a “Highlander” approach to theatre history. Like the science fiction fantasy movie of the 1980’s, they seemed to believe that “in the end, there can be only one.” Rather than seeking out the neglected or under-reported attractions of the dynamic entertainment world of their era, most obsessively engaged in a game of ranking performers of their day – irrespective of their age or specialty. The contributions of black and brown performers under this system become nearly invisible. Comedians were undervalued. The performances of women were segregated from the males and then often ignored.
The intellectual children and grandchildren of this tradition of turning theatre history into a process of ruthlessly narrowing the field of “significant” performers thrived so heartily in the twentieth century that some critical texts skip the early Victorians altogether. The Kembles, Keans, and Macready are all eclipsed in the eyes of some gamester/historians by Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be granted a knighthood. To them, it would seem that the entire point of drama in the nineteenth century was to raise the social status of actors.
If Henry Irving’s knighthood was the unspoken but generally understood prize waiting at end of the battle royale for which drama critics had been handicapping actors and actresses like prize fighters for over a century, that makes it a lot easier to understand why Helena Faucit kept beating Mary Warner in the rankings and ended up as the woman associated with Macready in the history books. Helena Faucit ended life as Lady Martin. Mary Warner, in the eyes of social climbers, married the wrong man.
In today’s era of hungry paparazzi where celebrities struggle to keep their private lives out of the public eye, it may be a surprise to find out how incomplete a picture we have of Mary Warner’s husband. Robert William Warner was born in Edmonton, (a district of North London), in 1799. Despite the fact that he was well-known by many people whose names will pop up in our story, I have found no descriptions of what Robert Warner looked like, or even general encapsulations of his character such as, “He was a tall, cheerful fellow” or “He was a short, surly man.”
Robert Warner enters our tale in the mid-1830’s as the landlord of a popular tavern in Broad Court, Drury Lane, called the Wrekin, built on the site of an inn where tradition had it that Charles II met with his actress/mistress Nell Gwynne. The tavern was the meeting place of two clubs for the literati, “The Mulberries” and “The Rationals.” A biography of E.L. Blanchard, playwright and drama critic for The Era, describes the atmosphere and regulars as follows:
The nightly conclave generally included the names of Theodore Hook, Tom Sheridan, his father (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Charles Mathews, the two Kembles, Munden, Jack Morris (the song writer), George Colman, Morton (the dramatist), Reynolds, Monk Lewis, and, in fact, all who had rendered themselves conspicuous in the world of literature, by either the wit in their productions, or otherwise renowned for their talents on the stage… Warner (who married Mary Huddart, the Mrs. Warner, a handsome tragedienne, of her day under Macready at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and co -manager with Phelps at Old Sadlers Wells) was host of the Wrekin some time, when a club called the Rationals, whose members included Stephen Price, Jerrold, Henry Mayhew, Baylis, Whitehead, Paul Bedford, Keeley, and Strickland, used to have a Saturday afternoon dinner. Then Hemming, a Haymarket and Adelphi actor, became the host, and he died in 1849. E. L. B. regularly attended the coffee-room of the tavern from 1837 to about 1846. During that period he formed the acquaintance of F. G. Tomlins (Jerrold’s sub-editor), Howe, Strickland, Walter Lacy, Leman Rede, Mark Lemon, Donald King, Sheridan Knowles, Bayle Bernard, and a large number of other Thespians, authors, and painters, who used to frequent the house.1
It was presumably at the Wrekin that Robert Warner met Mary Huddart. They got married on the 6th of July in 1837. Months previous had marked low points for both of them. Although the Wrekin was prospering, Robert Warner’s personal finances were in chaos. Official charges of bankruptcy were filed against him on March 11th 1837. A second hearing was held on April 11th.
His wife-to-be’s career was also at low ebb. William Macready’s diary entry for May 30th, 1837, reads as follows:
Called on Miss Huddart, whom I found much less tractable than I had expected. I would not advise or persuade her, but endeavoured to make her distinguish between the fallacy of certain opinions which led to nothing, and facts which were frequent with substantial advantages. I lost time, which I needed much; but at last she agreed to take £9 per week, if Mr. Webster would give it.2
Here, although he claims not to have been “advising or persuading her,” Macready was strong-arming the then Mary Huddart into taking a pay cut and a reduction in status in the company. Soon afterwards, he negotiated a contract with Helena Faucit guaranteeing the starlet £15 per week, standing as the company’s lead tragic actress with the ability to pick and choose her roles, and the option of demanding two benefit performances per season.
Mary Warner was correct to be concerned. Despite the fact that Faucit would soon prove through a couple of notable flops that she did not have the range and stage presence to handle what were called “heavy tragic” roles like Lady Macbeth and Queen Constance that in the past had gone to Warner, the ingénue now became the company’s leading lady while the experienced veteran actress was sidelined to smaller supporting roles. After two years of playing second fiddle to Faucit, the impression that Warner was somehow the inferior talent would cling to the older actress to this day.
You might be asking, “Why didn’t she just go to a different playhouse?” At this time, only two theaters in London were licensed to present Shakespeare and the classical dramas in which Warner specialized. The other theater was controlled by Alfred Bunn, who was at that time only staging operas. At this point in time, Mary was a Shakespearean actress with no attractive alternatives for employment.
She opted, instead, for marriage. Actors by Daylight, a theatrical fan magazine of the day, described her stance on matrimony in these terms:
She has been long attached to her husband, but she would never listen to proposals of marriage until her circumstances were such as to ensure a competency for life.3
This declaration of self-sufficiency as a necessary precondition of marriage is a remarkably modern sentiment. Generally, upper class Victorian women did not assume they would support the men they married. Expectations were very much the other way around. However, if one had just plighted one’s troth to a person who might have just narrowly escaped being sent to debtor’s prison, it seems a practical mindset.
News of her betrothal was not received well in all quarters. Macready’s diary entry of June 28th, 1838 reads;
At Forster’s chambers I met Browning – prevented what seemed to be ripening into a quarrel between them; told them of Miss H.’ s match, and was sorry to find my worst fears confirmed by Forster . He wished me to “stop the marriage.” I explained to him that I could not, on his vague abuse, interfere between two persons so engaged, and that he was speaking without judgment. 4
Macready’s friends here are John Forster (also bosom companion to Charles Dickens, to whom he had just introduced Macready) and poet Robert Browning. The tragedian does not elaborate on what spurred his worst fears or Forster’s vague abuse concerning Robert Warner. No one ever seems to be very specific about their problem with Mary Warner’s husband other than the fact he had money troubles and couldn’t seem to keep a job.
Between 1838 and 1844, Mary Warner gave birth to three children. As various theatrical venues opened and closed, she left and then was forced to return to Macready’s company. During this time, Robert Warner was unemployed. More accurately, it is probable that he was acting as his wife’s personal manager. At his insolvency hearing in 1853, his lawyer would describe the outlines and necessity of this occupation in this way:
A lady in the position of Mrs. Warner needed someone to make her engagements, to attend her to and from rehearsals and performances – and who so fit for those duties as her husband?5
Today, a personal manager is a position we see as an essential part of any star’s entourage. To Victorians, a job for a man that had a salary entirely derived from his wife’s income would seem fictitious and suspect. The birth certificates of the Warner’s children list Robert Warner’s profession during this period as “gentleman.” At this time, a “gentleman” was someone who had enough money to not have to work for a living. A response to a letter to the editor in an 1838 edition of Actors by Daylight very insinuatingly claims,
Mrs. Warner’s liege lord is what we may term “a man about town,” in the fullest sense of the word.6
Not knowing the question asked, or if the “liege lord” in question is actually Mary Warner’s husband, employer, or one of her frequent stage partners — Macready or Phelps… or indeed what “a man about town” really connoted in 1838, it is very hard to precisely interpret this ambiguous reply.
When the Warners took a gamble on forming their own theatre company with Sam Phelps and T. L. Greenwood at Sadler’s Wells, Robert Warner seemed to get the short end of the deal. Phelps, in his memoirs, recalled the initial division of labor in the new troupe as follows:
Tom jumped at the idea, and in the course of forty eight hours, the Phelps, Warner and Greenwood management was arranged on the following basis: I was to have £20 a week, Mrs. Warner the same. As a sweetener for her, her husband had £5 a week as treasurer, Greenwood had £5 a week as acting manager and five pounds a week for his wardrobe. These sums were charged to the current expenses on the pay-sheet weekly. If they didn’t come in, of course we couldn’t get ‘em. If they did, we should get ‘em, and if there was any surplus it was to be divided pro rata.7
Treasurer for the company seems to have been a position of trust in keeping with the skill set of an individual who had previously managed a successful tavern. £5 per week was an adequate salary for the time period. However, it was a quarter of what Robert Warner’s wife was being offered, he was the lowest paid member of the management team, and it is clear from Phelps’ phrasing that Warner was only included as a favor to his spouse.
I have previously accused Phelps of maneuvering Mary Warner out of Sadler’s Wells in order to replace her with a younger actress. Thomas Marshall, in “Lives of the Most Celebrated Actors and Actresses” – which seems to be excerpts from an unnamed theatrical publication – asserts that the real problem was between Phelps and Robert Warner;
The season terminated on Tuesday, May the 4th, 1846, with “Julius Caesar” and “The Rivals;” when, through a misunderstanding between Mr. Phelps and Mr. Warner, Mrs. Warner seceded from the management of the theatre, which reopened, after extensive alterations and improvements, under Mr. Phelps, on Saturday, July 25th, 1846…8
I have yet to find any elaborations on the nature of this miscommunication. However, it must have been quite severe in nature if it led to the breakup of the partnership. The popularity of Sadler’s Wells suffered. All subsequent leading ladies for several years were compared in print by critics and audience members to the memory of Mrs. Warner and found wanting.
As yet, I have found no clear articulation of exactly what quality distanced people from Robert Warner. There are no overt accusations from anyone that he was an alcoholic, a gambler, or an addict or abuser of any kind. As I said previously, the worst thing people usually said about him was that he was bad with money and that he couldn’t keep a job. He seemed to be very devoted to his wife. No one ever seemed to be very close to Robert Warner, though. In my research, I have only come across one person who was ever identified as Robert Warner’s friend.
That person was Walter Watts.
1. Scott, Clement, and Cecil Howard. The Life and Reminiscences of E.L. Blanchard, with Notes from the Diary of W. M. Blanchard, Vol. I. (Hutchinson Co, London: 1891) Page 63-64.
2. Toynebee, William, ed. The Diaries of William Macready, Vol 1. (William Putnam Sons: New York: 1912) Page 401.
3. “Memoir of Mrs. Warner.” Actors by Daylight. Saturday, February 16, 1838. Page 122.
4. Toynebee, William, ed. The Diaries of William Macready, Vol 1. (William Putnam Sons, New York: 1912) Page 402.
5. “Insolvent Debtor’s Court – London, Dec. 8.” The Kerry Examiner and Munster General Observer. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 1853. Page 1, col. 4.
6. Coleman, John. Memoirs of Samuel Phelps. (Remington and Co., London: 1886.) Page 200.
7. Marshall, Thomas. Lives of the Most Celebrated Actors and Actresses. (E. Appleyard, London: 1848.) Page 217.