Mistaken identity or characters in disguise are plot complications featured in dramatic texts the world over throughout the history of theater. The trope of confused or concealed identity is, after all, a metaphor for the mimetic art itself. Actors are always inherently pretending to be someone who they are not. The fact that the author of “Which is the King?” chose to deploy this well-worn plot device would hardly be mentioning were it not for the added irony that Walter Watts himself was living a double life at the time he wrote this play.
As with other thematic and stylistic elements, “Which is the King?” owes much of how it builds comedy around the idea of confused identity on the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte. This stylistic influence could come from two directions. (It is likely the inspiration came from both.) First, as I have argued before, Walter Watts demonstrated an interest in theatre beyond a simple desire to acquire a company as an investment. I think it is probable that perhaps from a young age, as was the habit of many other Londoners in his family’s income bracket, he attended Christmas and Easter pantomime performances. The influence of Commedia on English pantomime in the 1830s and 40s was direct and overt. The harlequinade was an essential segment of such performances. Characters were called Pantaloon, Columbine, and Harlequin just as they were in Commedia. These stock characters served corresponding functions in traditional plots that had been passed down from antiquity. There are differences between the performance tradition as it existed in Victorian England and in Renaissance Italy. However, Walter Watts having mastered complete fluency in this style would not require him to have taken extended trips to either the vaults of the British Library or the streets of Milan.
The second direction a Commedia influence could come from was France. As I discussed in the last entry, there is a strong tradition establishing Henri IV as a populist hero of romantic comedies in that country. Given the similarities between the plot of “Which is the King?” and “La Partie de chasse de Henri IV” and other examples of this genre, Watts’ comedy definitely has an English translation of a French play in its DNA. Taking that as a given, one can then trace the influence of Commedia on the French stage and derive an explanation of the appearance of the elements of that style in that manner.
The romance plot of “Which is the King?” is classic Commedia. It features two pairs of lovers. The struggles of the servant sweethearts provide a comic mirror of the difficulties faced by their master and mistress. The path of true love is blocked — in accordance with the well-worn formula applauded by the Greeks and Romans over two thousand years ago — by a meddling father who wishes his daughter to marry a Pantaloon-like, wealthy, old man.
After the base plot is established, Watts begins to pile layer after layer of identity confusion to create further obstacles. Upon this foundation of misdirection and double awareness, he builds the comedy of the piece. Into the seemingly hopeless romantic tangle strolls the merry monarch, Henri IV, disguised as a troubadour.
Watts chose to add another level of disguise to this character by opting to have the role of Henri played by a woman. Breeches roles were quite popular with audiences in the 1840s-60s. Unlike the later Victorian period when this performance convention began to go out of fashion, there were no demands from critics that the young women playing these male roles try to completely conceal the fact that they were female. Breeches roles were enacted — as they can still sometimes be seen to be portrayed in English Christmas pantos to this day – by young women in what were for the time revealing costumes playing exaggerated stereotypes of charismatic young men and boys. Performers and playwrights exploited the audience’s double awareness of the performer who was not male playing a man or boy for comic and sometimes romantic effect. Early Victorians loved women in breeches roles because, first and foremost, they found them to be adorable, and secondly – although they didn’t express the sentiment quite this way – kinda sexy.
Historical and theatrical traditions surrounding Henri IV made playing him with a heightened air of sensuality appropriate. One of the monarch’s nicknames was “le vert galant” because he was reputed to have had many mistresses. (The color green (vert in French) is associated with sex.) Henri’s reputation as a lover put him into a category of breeches parts that the Victorians seemed to particularly enjoy – a man played by a lady who was a lady’s man. Comedy from such roles springs from allowing the audience to see through the character’s disguise and laugh at their overstated claims of manliness. Simultaneously, these parts contain somewhat titillating scenes of attractive female characters falling for and fawning over female characters in male dress.
“Which is the King?” milks a good deal of fun from the characters on stage being unable to pierce through Henri’s flimsy disguise of which we, the audience, are fully aware. Upon their first meeting, the disguised king has the following conversation with a peasant;
Timothy: Then perhaps you have seen the king.
Henry: As plain as I ever saw myself.
Timothy: By my authority, you don’t say so. Now, just tell me what is he like?
Henry: Like a man, to be sure.
Timothy: I mean what sort of a man.
Henry: He is considered by the court to be like me.1
When Sophia Villars, playing the role in 1848 while wearing her gorgeous green troubadour’s costume that displayed her shapely legs to such an advantage, gave the front rows a wink, assumed a dashing pose and proclaimed, “like me,” Timothy, along with the audience, bursts into laughter. We, the listeners, have the pleasure of laughing both with him and at him as he cautions Henri;
…no more fibs of the king being like you – ha, ha, ha. I like the idea of our noble King Henry being like you, ha, ha, ha. I can’t help laughing. Follow me, Sir King – Ha, ha, ha.2
Henri laughs along good-naturedly, then turns to the audience and utters a line that must have resonated with Watts’ own experiences;
Henry: Ha, ha, ha. How different the king looks in the dress of a poor man. There is no nobility without the aid of the tailor.3
Walter Watts was, at the time he wrote “Which is the King?” leading a double life. Weekdays, he worked as a clerk at London’s Globe Life Insurance Company. On weekends and weeknights, thanks to the funds he was embezzling from that firm, he was a wealthy playboy who managed the Marylebone Theatre. There are several factors that enabled to successfully carry off this masquerade. The first thing that convinced people he was wealthy was the obvious but essential element – he had a lot of money. Watts not only had the funds he had taken from Globe accounts, but revenues from investments he made. He spent freely and paid cash.
The second quality that allowed Watts to pass undetected was that he sounded convincing. At the Globe, Watts was not merely an entry-level cashier. He was a bookkeeper in the auditor’s office. This was a position of trust that required a greater level of proficiency in recording and reconciling accounts. Although he was neither an accountant nor a financier, he understood the basics of finance and accounting well enough to inspire confidence in investors like ex-lawyer James Mowatt.
The third factor that lent Watts legitimacy with his employees and investors was that he looked the part of a wealthy entrepreneur. Almost all descriptions of him mention his fashionable wardrobe and his impeccable grooming. Like the disguised Henri IV in his play, he must have marveled at the power of a good tailor to confer the illusion of legitimacy. This comment about clothing is one of several remarks Watts puts in the king’s mouth that could be interpreted to have implications on his own situation.
A second level of commentary can be found when another plot twist results in the young lover, La Fleur, being mistaken for the king. Again, Watts sets up the situation so that the audience is in a superior position. We are in on the joke. We are not fooled. We know that La Fleur is not the king. The character directs his asides to us. We are his confidents. Our pleasure in the situation comes from laughing at the characters who are duped by La Fleur. This kind of approach to a mistaken identity plot device is not uncommon. What I wish to mark here is that Watts deploys it consistently. His sympathy in this and his other plays is always with the trickster. As playwright, Watts creates a situation where the audience too will sympathize with these clever frauds. His characters turn to deceit easily and often although they typically do so with benevolent intentions.
In “Which is the King?” La Fleur uses his moment of being mistaken for the monarch to powerfully press forward his own suit, persuading the greedy Baron the renounce all claim to the fair Amelia on the false hope of a future appointment to a high place at court. As is typical of Watts’ characters, La Fleur does not tell the Baron outright lies. Rather he fully exploits the other person’s incorrect assumptions to his advantage.
La Fleur: There’s something in the air. What the devil can they all mean? Sir, your most obedient.
Baron: Your Majesty ought not to conceive an unfavorable opinion of your servant.
La Fleur: Oh no; I have only conceived one unfavorable opinion of you. [Aside.] I’ll try to turn this to my advantage.
Baron: Your Majesty ought to let me know it, that I may amend it.
La Fleur: If you persist in marrying the Lady Amelia, you will incur my everlasting displeasure.
Baron: Then I ought to give her up, and will. I am aware I ought not to touch the end of her fingers if your Majesty don’t wish it. [Aside.] I suppose he wants her for himself.
La Fleur: You resign her, then?
Baron: As I ought to do – at your Majesty’s command.
La Fleur: It is my most express and positive command. Write, then, under the penalty of my most extreme displeasure – here are tablets and pencil – that you will never marry the Lady Amelia, under the forfeit of 20,000 crowns.4
This technique of passive deceit seems to have been one that Watts deployed in his own life as well. Rather than concocting elaborate stories about who he was and where his money came from, the evidence from accounts of his associates is that he just allowed those around him to make assumptions and come up with explanations that did not turn out to be true.
As transpired with Watts, La Fleur’s subterfuge is inevitably uncovered.
1st Courtier: Why, this is not the king.
All: Not the king?
La Fleur: I never said I was.
Baron: Then you ought to give me back my paper.
La Fleur: By no means: t’was a voluntary gift. You have resigned the lady of your own free will. I cannot – will not – restore her to you.
Baron: Then I ought to be kicked.5
Although his intentions may, like those of his trickster characters on the stage, have been merely to bring some happiness and romance to his life and those around him, Walter Watts wasn’t able to manage to tie up the loose ends of his existence with the same easy dexterity he commanded in fiction. Unlike the world of the stage, people couldn’t calmly accept that a charming imposter had lulled them into deceiving themselves.
In real life, there was no laughing the consequences and walking away.
1. Watts, Walter. “Which is the King?” (S.G. Fairbrothers: London, 1848) page 9.
4. Ibid, pages 16-17.
5. Ibid, pages 17-18.