The Lost Plays of Walter Watts – “Which is the King?” Part I

Admittedly, my title for this series of entries is a bit hyperbolic. It’s closer to the truth to say the writings by Walter Watts that I am going to be covering are not actually so much lost as no one has been looking for them. Although Watts’ “An Irish Engagement” (see previous entries here and here and the Librivox reading of the comedy here) is included in several collections of one-act plays and Victorian farces, biographical information on the playwright seems to have become completely detached from the play. I suppose this disconnect is understandable given the circumstances of his death. After all, a paragraph explaining that the author committed suicide in Newgate prison after having been arrested for embezzling from his employer in order to finance his double life as a theater manager doesn’t precisely put most readers in the correct mood to read a light-hearted farce.

Although “An Irish Engagement” has managed to outlive its author to become a public domain darling performed to this day, Watts’ other works languish in obscurity. In Victorian England, all plays performed on the London stage had to first receive the approval of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Like the U.S. Library of Congress, this body retained an official copy of every manuscript submitted for their approval. It is thanks to this censoring board that we today have surviving copies of Watts’ and other Victorian playwrights’ less popular works.

Title page for "Which is the King?"
Title page for “Which is the King?”

Copies of the Watts entries to the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection are squirreled away on microfilm and microfiche in a handful of special collections of libraries across the U.S. Ordinarily, accessing one of these scripts would involve completing an interlibrary loan form or perhaps making a road trip to a nearby university. However with current travel restrictions, library closures, and staff reductions in place, my search to find copies of Walter Watts’ plays turned into a months-long quest that I was beginning to feel I needed the aid of Indiana Jones to complete. Instead, I was lucky enough to receive the kind and generous assistance of Nick Durda, senior librarian of the Cleveland Library’s Ohio Center of the Book, who gave me access to all three manuscripts I was searching for and even helped me find a play that I had not previously realized Watts had authored. (I am forever in your debt!)

The first of these scripts I will be discussing, “Which is the King?” seems, like Watts’ “Irish Engagement,” to have been specifically written for the space, players, and resources of the Marylebone Theater in the fall of 1848. It’s a competently written one-act comedy, but no masterwork of dramatic literature. The play was a work-horse utility piece, designed to feature players from the Marylebone’s regular company and to fill the bill pleasantly between featured productions. “Which is the King?” was never intended to impress critics.

Despite its author’s modest ambitions for this comedy, I feel the play is of critical interest for two primary reasons. First, because “Which is the King?” is a somewhat run-of-the-mill feature written specifically by the manager of a small theater for his company and to what he anticipated would be the tastes of the theater-goers for his venue, this comedy gives us a snapshot of economic and professional considerations that went into composing successful dramatic writing of that day. Secondly, in this comedy, Watts, who was living a double life, once more writes characters who are pretending to be someone who they were not. This entry will focus on the ways the play served the needs of the Marylebone company. Part II will look at how Watts played with issues of identity.

Colorized Playbill header for the Marylebone Theatre 1849
Colorized Playbill header for the Marylebone Theater 1849

When I began to read this play, I was taken a bit by surprise. King Henry IV is the central character. He wanders, disguised as a troubadour through the countryside of his kingdom to get a true impression of the everyday lives of his subjects. In my extreme excitement upon obtaining a copy of the script, I confess that I didn’t read the introductory material carefully and leapt to the assumption that since this was an English play by an English author, the character referred to was England’s Henry IV. Now my sense of humor is such that, yes, I would pay good money to see Jeremy Irons, Eric Porter, or any of the great actors who have performed Shakespeare’s version of this role, preserve the same voice and mannerisms to portray the fearsome and warlike Henry Bolingbroke strolling through the forest, strumming a lute, and solving the problems of young lovers. However, such a take on the character would represent a radical departure from how Henry IV is usually portrayed on stage in English drama.

My careless reading put me on the wrong continent, though. The merry minstrel monarch of “Which is the King?” is Henri IV of France. If you would like a more fulsome explanation of how this ruler came to live in French popular culture as a singing populist icon, see the footnotes directing you to Clarence Brenner’s article, “Henri IV on the French Stage in the Eighteenth Century.”1 Briefly, although the real Henri IV probably wasn’t much of a singer and didn’t sneak around incognito among his subjects, for a variety of reasons, he came to be seen as more connected to common people than some of the later Bourbon rulers…one of whom famously got disconnected from his head for that sort of attitude.

Henri IV of France converses with peasant girls
Henri IV of France converses with peasant girls

In 1769, playwright Charles Colle authored “La Partie de chasse de Henri IV” for the Comedie Francais. In this play, when the king becomes separated from his hunting party, he is mistaken for a poacher by a peasant who takes him home and gives him some supper. The king has a very merry time with his subjects while in disguise and ends up bestowing a princely dowry on two pairs of lovers before he returns to palace life. This sweet, romantic view of a ruler connecting in a caring and democratic manner with his subjects was popular with everyone — except Louis XV who had it banned.

The play and variations on it kept popping up for years to follow. The more tyrannical and disconnected from their people the Bourbon kings became, the more nostalgia there was for a fictional ruler who had behaved differently. In 1775, De Rozoi wrote “Le Roi et le minister, ou Henri IV et Sully” in which Colle’s hunter king becomes an even more lovable and relatable singing king. As the monarchy clamped down with sterner efforts to censor dramas starring the sweet populist hero, Henri IV, street theatre such as pantomimes and marionette shows increasingly began to add him to their repertoire of characters.

The long history of Henri IV on the French stage was news to me, but apparently, this trope was old hat to London critics in 1848. The reviewer from The Sun parenthetically identifies Henri IV as “that invaluable monarch for Vaudevilles” and gives the following fondly indulgent summary of the plot of “Which is the King?”:

Of course the King is mistaken by some young lady for her lover, who was to come in a somewhat similar disguise – of course the poor young man is hated by her father, who desires her to marry someone else, and of course the King interferes, and “makes two lovers happy.” These materials are common-place enough, but they are well put together, thanks to the really excellent acting of all parties in its production, this amusing trifle was quite successful.2

The critic from the Home Review was less entertained. This writer dismissed the production with a flat, bored report of;

“Which is the King?” is another new Marylebone version of an old anecdote.3

Whether or not you, dear Reader, are more of a French history buff than I am, you may still be a bit surprised by the next creative choice Watts made concerning the central character of the play. Henri IV was played by a girl.

The starring role in “Which is the King?” belonged to — and perhaps was specifically created for — Miss Sophia Villars. Villars was the member of the Marylebone’s resident company who specialized in breeches roles. She made her London debut in 1845 playing Captain Pinch at the Lyceum.4 You may remember from previous entries that the Lyceum was an established and prosperous venue popular with a segment of the theater-going public that Walter Watts seemed determined to woo. Previously I have referred to the group as “the Fast Man and Slowcoach” crowd. This important demographic was composed of single men from around 18-40 years old with jobs that allowed them enough leisure hours and surplus income to regularly attend the theatre. The Lyceum productions these fellows loved were typically light-weight, sentimental comedies full of popular tunes and pretty girls.

"Which is the King?"
“Which is the King?”

Sophia Villars seems to have been a talented singer. After leaving the Marylebone, she would join a company specializing in light opera. “Which is the King?” calls for her to sing several solos. The king’s songs are popular tunes of the day rather than music and lyrics written specifically for this show. One example was “Welcome Me Home” which has the following, appropriately romantic lyrics:

Gaily the Troubadour touch’d his guitar,
When he was hastening home from war;
Singing, “Palestine hither I come,
Lady love, lady love, welcome me home.

She for the Troubadour hopelessly wept,
Sadly she thought of him when others slept,
Singing, “In search of thee would I might roam,
Troubadour, Troubadour, come to thy home.

Hark! ‘twas the Troubadour breathing her name,
Under the battlements softly he came,
Singing “From Palestine hither I come,
Lady love, lady love, welcome me home.5

Since songs like “Welcome Me Home” and “The Troubadour” were not new to the audience, it is very possible that Villars encouraged her listeners to sing along with her in what we now think of as the great English Music Hall tradition. To this very day, Christmas pantomimes incorporate pop songs into their performances and encourage raucous sing-a-longs with their enthusiastic patrons to heighten audience engagement with their shows.

The character of Dolly in Anna Cora Mowatt’s novel “Twin Roses” may have been based at least in part on Sophia Villars, who played the role of Victor in her production of “Armand” at the Marylebone in 1849. Mowatt describes the energetic young performer as follows;

She was the boy-heroine of the company: The representative of all the pages, mischievous boys, dashing youths; the Smikes, the Grinders, the Oliver Twists, She was somewhat diminutive in stature, and very plump, but finely proportioned. That she was instinctively, un-artificially masculine cannot be denied; but it was masculine on a small scale. Her only feminine trait displayed itself in her intense love for her brother. That puny stripling occupied the position of second low comedian in the theatre.

Nature, in one of her many frolics, had given to the sister the manly, independent spirit formed to battle with circumstances and the world to the brother the soft and yielding character that belongs to womanhood.6

Setting aside Mowatt’s use of gender-based stereotypes typical of the day, the picture she paints of tough but tender-hearted Dolly is that of someone who despite her youth is a seasoned performer. Dolly’s irreverent sense of humor and vibrancy of character carry over well to her portrayal of lively young men and boys. Despite the fact she is not a leading actor in the company, she is an audience favorite.

Sophia Villars, too, probably had a devoted following among the Marylebone’s regular patrons despite the fact that she rarely appeared in starring roles in the theater’s major productions. “Which is the King?” must have been a treat for both the actress and her fans. The Illustrated London News praised her performance as follows;

A very smart little piece, called “Which is the King,” brought out here on Monday, gives Miss Villars a capital opportunity of sustaining the part of Henry IV (of France) with great spirit and effect. It is admirably mounted, played throughout with general excellence, and, as a matter of course, entirely successful.7

Reader, if you are a person of a more cynical nature with a preference for performances with bit more weight and edge to them, you may be reading the descriptions of “Which is the King?” and thinking, “This show is starting to sound very fluffy and a little silly. Would people really come out on a rainy night and spend money just to watch something like that?” The answer is that no, audiences were not coming to the Marylebone solely for the purpose of watching this production. Victorian theater-goers came to the theater for a full evening’s worth of entertainment – not for one stand-alone show.

Newspaper ad for "Which is the King? 1848
Newspaper ad for “Which is the King? 1848

At the time of the debut of “Which is the King?” the Marylebone was hosting a series of performances by guest artist T.P. Cooke. Cooke was an actor who had risen to fame in the 1830s. Although he was a little past his prime in 1848, Cooke was still popular with audiences. His specialty was portraying English sailors. His interpretation of the lead role in the ever-popular “Black-Eyed Susan” was considered definitive by critics and adored by audiences. Cooke’s run at the Marylebone featured maritime melodramas. The Morning Post said of his performances;

…T.P. Cooke, the true British sailor, is warming all loyal bosoms by his graphic pictures of the hardy tar who has braved the battle and the breeze. Black Eyed Susan, My Poll and my Partner Joe, and Poor Jack, seem to rejoice in perennial existence, and Mr. T.P. Cooke to have discovered the elixir vitae; for his eye is as bright, his voice as clear, his limbs as pliant, and his trim as taut as when he spun his first yarn, and danced his first hornpipe, many and many a long year since.8

Cooke had proved so popular with Marylebone audiences that his stay was extended from two weeks to well over a month. “Poor Jack” starring Cooke supported by Fanny Vining in the role of Eleanor was the featured performance on nights when “Which is the King?” played. “Which is the King?” filled the middle of the bill. The evening concluded with the performance of another one-act titled “The Miser’s Daughter.” This short drama had Fanny Vining and J.W. Rae as leads.

Actor T. P. Cooke
Actor T. P. Cooke

As I said at the beginning of this entry, “Which is the King?” was not a play Walter Watts self-indulgently composed and put into production to wow the critics with his skills as a writer. Looking at the evidence of when the comedy debuted, the players it featured, and the genre of entertainment into which it falls, it seems to me that Watts was acting as playwright/manager. The priorities of his theater were firmly at the top of his mind when he sat down to write. Although it may seem insubstantial, “Which is the King?” provided a showcase for some of Watts’ regular team of performers, was of the correct length and tone to complete a full bill complimenting performances by the Marylebone’s guest star, and satisfied the desires of patrons who had come to the theater longing for shows packed with beautiful costumes, some funny jokes, nice songs, and pretty girls.

Like the old song says, Watts knew what his people wanted, how they wanted it, and gave it to them just that way.

Next week, we will look at the commentary Watts embedded into “Which is the King?” on the perils and pleasures of leading a double life.

Images of Walter Watts' "Which is the King?" 1848
Images of Walter Watts’ “Which is the King?” 1848

1. Brenner, Clarence D. “Henri IV on the French Stage in the Eighteenth Century.” PMLA, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Jun., 1931) pp. 540-553.
2. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Sun: London. Tuesday November 7, 1848. Page 7, col. 5.
3. “Theatricals.” Home News. November 24, 1848. Page 21, col.
4. “Local Intelligence.” The Hull Advertiser. Friday, April 4, 1845. Page 5, col. 3
5. “Welcome Me Home.” The Irish Melodist, A Collection of the Newest and Most Admired Songs as Sung at the Principal Theatres and Public Concerts. Dublin, 1843. Page 148.
6. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Twin Roses. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1857. Pages 18-19
7. “Marylebone.” The Illustrated London News. November 11, 1848. Page 11, col. 1.
8. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Post: London. Thursday, November 9, 1848. Page 6, col.3.

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