WALTER WATTS’ SPECIAL EFFECTS EXTRAVAGANZA
Walter Watts’ 1849 melodrama, “A Dream of Life” was his most ambitious project. With a runtime of an hour and thirty minutes, the drama was the lengthiest of Watts’ creations to be staged at the Marylebone. The show was by far the most complex of his works, with an elaborate dream sequence involving technically challenging gaslight cross-fades between settings and a shocking execution scene. Despite its substance, “Dream of Life” was still a work that — like “An Irish Engagement” and “Which is the King?” — was designed to be in the service of Watts’ theatre and troupe of performers.
Recently I devoted several paragraphs in a blog to discussing how the London reviewers signaled that G.H. Lewes’ “Noble Heart” was a significant work by a noteworthy author by the amount and quality of critical space they devoted to it. In much the same way, one can tell merely from their responses that “Dream of Life” is a second tier, middle-of-the-bill show. This is not to say that “Dream of Life” got bad reviews. It just wasn’t a feature performance. Remember that Victorian theatre-goers came for a full night of entertainment. A bill would highlight a five-act drama or comedy featuring the biggest stars the theater could afford, then a shorter, secondary show. The evening usually ended with a one-act farce.
When “Dream of Life” debuted in February of 1849 at the Marylebone Theatre in London, a revival of Sheridan’s “Pizarro” was at the top of the bill. Reviewers gave “Pizarro” their full, four-part treatment, including reports of the audience’s reception of the play, and critiques of Anna Cora Mowatt, E.L. Davenport, and Fanny Vining in their starring roles as Elvira, Rolla, and Cora. In obedience to the conventional formula, most critics included a synopsis of the plot of this familiar melodrama and even dissection of the literary merits of Sheridan’s drama with an eye to evaluating whether or not this well-worn favorite was deserving of the popularity it still enjoyed.
“A Dream of Life” was a three-act play starring newlyweds E.L. Davenport and Fanny Vining, who were leading actors in the Marylebone company with sterling reputations as performers. It was, by the standards of the day, a special effects stunner that was well-received by both the audience and the critics. The play had been written by the manager of the house, who had previously produced a string of successful short plays. However, “Dream of Life” was not a full-length, five-act drama. Mowatt, arguable the company’s primary star at this point, was absent from the cast list. Although the play featured highly effective performances from Davenport and Vining, it was special-effects heavy enough to come off as a bit gimmick-y. Also, although Watts had several successes to his credit at this point, they were self-produced, short, utility pieces that appeared in the middle or end of the bill. He had not established himself as a member of London’s literati to rank with Lewes by any means. It therefore was probably a disappointment to Watts and the company of the Marylebone (and now to me) that “Dream of Life” rarely received at most a paragraph of attention from the London reviewers. However, it is not really a surprise or a pejorative comment on the production.
Another difference between the “Noble Heart” and “Dream of Life” critiques is that although the reviewers avoided grappling with Lewes’ controversial subject matter, they were happy to address Watts’ less provocative topic.
Mr. Watts’ interesting drama of A Dream of Life concluded the entertainments of the evening. He has caught the moral of Hogarth in his production, and paints the vice of intemperance without the usual cant against temperate enjoyment. This is as it should be: we detest inebriety, but despise the nonsense of teetotalism. It is like the Puritanism which brands the harmless recreations of life with the same stigma that we apply to crime.1
The only provocative aspect of the performance for the critics was not the topic Watts choose to examine, but the sensational way he chose to put it on stage;
Mr. Watts, the lessee of this theatre, has come forward as an author, and by blending the notions of Victorine and The Bottle, has produced a drama in three acts, with a strong “temperance” moral. The subject is the reformation of a drunkard by a dream, which exhibits a series of crimes terminating in the gallows. The principal characters, consisting of the drunkard and his devoted wife, are played with great melodramatic effect by Mr. Davenport and Miss Fanny Vining. The scenes, one of which combines four in one, or the Jonathan Bradford principle, are highly credible, some of the effects displaying great ingenuity. On future representations we would recommend an abstinence from too close an imitation of the details of execution, seeing that such exhibitions are repulsive as well as impressive. The piece concluded with a “moral” in verse, spoken by Miss Vining amid thunders of applause.2
A second critic also made a point of explicitly suggesting that the execution scene be removed;
Out of somewhat discordant elements, the author of the new drama of A Dream of Life has produced a piece of much interest, as well as one having a healthy moral, in that it induces to the temperance principle; the incidents of CRUICKSHANK’S Bottle, and the French La Nuit Porte Counseil (the Victorine of the Adelphi), have been blended and enlarged upon, and with some good scenery and acting, tell with considerable effect. DAVENPORT and Miss FANNY VINING sustained the chief characters with ability, and if the objectionable scene that feeds only the morbid taste for horrors –viz., the execution – be omitted, the drama has every prospect of a long and successful run.3
While we are on the subject of morbid fascination — I will mention here that there are a couple of elements of “Dream of Life’s” plot that carry a certain macabre twist today because of their unsettling foreshadowing of events related to Watts’ death. In scene II of Act III, Billy Swizzle, Harry Bertram’s co-conspirator, faces the prospect of a sentence of transportation for life for his crimes:
Bertram: You – you have a chance.
Swizzle: That’s better than nothing. A chance!
Bertram: Of transportation for life.
Swizzle: That’s unpleasant again. I can’t say I’m transported at the idea.
Bertram: A living death – a life of toil the most severe a man can undergo – without the slightest glimmer of hope – a dark, void, desolate blank, whose only relief is death.4
After months of trials and appeals, Walter Watts was sentenced to ten years transportation. He gave himself the sentence that the jury decreed for Harry Bertram – death by hanging. I have no explanation for these parallels other than they are an example of extremely unfortunate happenstance. I simply note them for you.
In February of 1849, the sensational elements of “Dream of Life” recalled some of the Marylebone’s history as the home for rough and tumble melodramas that it had possessed before Mary Warner’s efforts to turn it into a haven for “legitimate” drama. Writing in 1925, in London’s Lost Theatres of the 19th Century, Errol Sherson says of the tastes of the Marylebone’s audiences;
A type of drama much favoured at the old Marylebone was the gruesome type like “Susan Hopley” or “Katharine Howard” with corpses and coffins, bloody murders and bleeding victims.5
“A Dream of Life” presents the cast and crew with the technical challenges of staging a bar-fight, a house-breaking, and the afore-mentioned hanging. The most daunting task, however, had to be what one reviewer had called the “Jonathan Bradford” principle after a novel that had been adapted for the stage years before.
Scene V of Act II is divided into four settings:
a) The Bertram home with Grace and the children,
b) Sir George Wormley’s Chamber (this is where the shooting will take place,)
c) Moonlit exterior of the Manor House, where Greg Growise and his wife (the show’s comic relief) have an argument,
d) Room in Manor House where Harry and Billy enter.
Thanks to cinema, almost everyone reading this blog has grown up possessing an extensive visual vocabulary of the dramatic use to which fades, cross-cuts, and dissolves can be employed. To Victorians, though, these techniques were all new and exciting. Gaslights were much more difficult to control and focus than electric lighting is. Needless to say, the kinds of effects that can be achieved with today’s computer-controlled led lighting were undreamed of. Although the Marylebone was a relatively small theatre, it had a very deep stage. Watts and his creative team were able to figure out a way to arrange the sets and lights so that they could rapidly switch focus back and forth between the different settings as the robbers progressed through the house, even swapping between brightly lit interiors and a moonlit exterior.
The pace of Scene V is staccato. The audience is ping-ponged from action to pathos to rough comedy finally to tragedy as the action grinds to a screeching halt as Harry attempts to escape the scene of Sir George’s shooting only to come face-to-face with his wife who immediately screams, “Murderer!” To the audiences at the Marylebone in 1849, this scene must have landed like an electric shock.
Looking at the Marylebone’s schedule, “A Dream of Life” might have only been a warm-up for bigger things for the creative staff. Directly after this show’s three-week run, comedian Albert Smith began a guest star tour at the Marylebone for the Easter season. Just as they did at Christmas, Londoners of all income brackets treated themselves to a trip to the theaters during Holy Week. Accordingly, just as they did for Boxing Day, the playhouses staged big-cast, special-effects heavy extravaganzas designed to draw the crowds.
Author/performer Albert Smith was a forerunner of today’s stand-up comedians. He was known for his sharp social satire. Smith penned an outrageous burlesque, “Guy Fawkes; or, a Match for a King,” for the Marylebone and its company. [I’m trying to think of a U.S. equivalent of this slapstick comedy about the Gunpowder Plot and coming up blank. I don’t think we have a famous comedy about a conspiracy to murder any historical figures and subsequent ghastly execution of said conspirators…] The play featured a few members of the Marylebone troupe I’ve mentioned before. Sophia Villars, who played the king in “Which is the King?” took on another breeches role, starring as Robert Catesby in Smith’s script. George Cooke, who enacted the role of the father in Watts’ “An Irish Engagement,” appeared as Lord Monteagle.
Like “Dream of Life,” “Guy Fawkes” featured a dream sequence that called for dissolves between scenes and an elaborate execution sequence. In addition, “Fawkes” would demand on-stage explosions. In those days of gas-lights and devastating theater fires, there was no room for carelessness or error in managing such technical challenges.
If “Dream of Life” was a trial run for the type of intensive special effects that “Guy Fawkes” would demand, the strategy seems to have paid off. The reviews for the Marylebone’s Easter extravaganza are uniformly positive for that year. In their review of “Guy Fawkes,” like several other papers, the Era singled out the creative staff of the Marylebone for praise;
Both the play and the burlesque were magnificently mounted. The scenery, dresses, and appointments were beyond all praise, many of the scenes eliciting loud applause.6
I think the coordination between writing and staging design is why Watts made the unusual (but not unheard of) choice of crediting his creative staff on “A Dream of Life’s” credits. At the end of the Dramatis Personae, he lists;
The Scenery by Messrs. Dayes and Gordon.
The Appointments by Mr. E. Bradwell.
The Dresses by Mr. Brown and Assistants.7
In “Dream of Life,” I think we see Watts once more striving not to create great art, but writing as an essential team member in close collaboration with his creative staff in order to promote the best interests of his theater.
Much ink has been spilled on the impact of the actor/manager on 19th century theatre. Looking at the bold experimentation taking place at the Marylebone while Watts was treating himself to some unwitting corporate sponsorship from the Globe Insurance Company admittedly does make me wish he’d been able to succeed a few years longer so we could have seen what this playwright/manager could have done for the state of the art.
1. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 6, 1849. Page 5, col. 3.
2. “Marylebone.” Bell’s Weekly Messenger, March 3, 1849. Page 70, col. 4.
3. “The Drama.” Bell’s Weekly Messenger. March 4, 1849. Page 4, col. 5.
4. Watts, Walter. “A Dream of Life: A Drama in Three Acts.” (London: S. G. Fairbrother, 1849) Page 30.
5. Sherson, Erroll. London’s Lost Theatres of the 19th Century with notes on Plays and Players Seen There. (London: John Lane, 1925) page 289.
6. “Marylebone.” The Era, Sunday, April 15, 1849. Page 12, col. 2.