HARRY VS. BILLY – THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Walter Watts did not make Harry Bertram, the protagonist of his melodrama, “A Dream of Life,” an easy character to like. In the opening scene, we first meet Bertram’s long-suffering wife and his sweet children. Harry enters, drunk, belligerent, and abusive. In the second scene – which begins the long dream sequence – Bertram is still in the same state. He becomes embroiled in a fight in a bar and winds up fatally stabbing another patron. It is not until the third scene of the play — some twenty minutes into the drama — that the audience starts to see any signs of humanity or remorse in Harry with the following panicked exchange after he flees back to his home to hide from the police:
Ber: Look at me, Grace – tell me, do I look a monster?
Grace: In my eyes, you will never change.
Ber: Do you not see it written on my forehead?
Grace: See what?
Ber: My guilt, imprinted by the hand of heaven on my brow.
Grace: Guilt – your guilt?
Ber: My guilt – look, behold! This hand with which I led thee to the altar, see it now stained with human blood.1
How much sympathy would an audience in 1849 have for a narrative about a violent alcoholic getting a second chance? Despite the many quotes that I could pull from the play condemning the evils of drink in no uncertain terms, drama reviews such as this one I highlighted previously complimented Watts on the even-handed way he dealt with the subject;
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.2
Usually I present you with the opinions of the audience members who recorded their reactions in print – the drama critics from the London newspapers. I’ve also talked a little about young single men who might have bought tickets for the box seats at the Marylebone. However, these two groups actually account for a tiny percentage of the regular patrons of that theatre. The following superb description from The Penny Illustrated Paper is of a typical London audience for a Christmas pantomime. This text was written in 1862, but also reflects conditions prevalent a decade earlier. The Boxing Day crowds were bigger and rowdier than usual and include some individuals who attended the theater exclusively on holidays. However the gathering still displays the same general demographic profile that was the norm for London audiences. Here is a word picture of the sort of folks who may have sat for the first performances of “Dream of Life” at the Marylebone in 1849 in the pit and the gallery:
THE PIT. Near us in the pit, sit many benchfuls of sturdy playgoers. By-the-way a man must really be a playgoer when you find him in the pit. We have no such reliance on the box population. They are a fleeting, transitory race – given to lounging in lobbies, sauntering in for a particular scene, chatting languidly during the performance, and instituting close lorgnette inspections into the beauties of their fair neighbors. Now, the pittie is a man or woman of sterner cast. He comes to see the play, and stickles for full change for his three shillings – he stands for half an hour at the door before it is opened – he is squeezed relentlessly round sharp corners and is then rewarded with a scamper through the long whitewashed passage, and, it may be, a hard seat without a back to it. Nevertheless, there he sits, and sits it out. The pit audience are critical on pantomimes. They don’t take juvenile views of them. Our friend Mr. Humdrum, whom we observe not far off, remembers every pantomime since “Mother Goose.” He is one of the “There are no actors now-a-days, Sir,” school. But still he goes to his accustomed place in the pit as regularly as to his pew upon Sundays. The well-fed couple next to him are cozy tradespeople from a thriving suburb. They seldom repair to a playhouse; but they would count it — good people! – a dereliction of duty to miss the Clown’s broad grin at Christmas time or the glories of the Easter spectacle. The pit is a great place, too, for steady-going maids, under the staunch escort of steady-going butlers. People from the country, too get there almost instinctively; and semi-serious families from Clapton or Hackney – if such folks are ever guilty of such follies – may occasionally be detected there, huddling together, and suspicious of being seen; but only on such occasions as that of a moral and respectable pantomime, preceded by “Jane Shore” or “George Barnwell.”
THE GALLERY. A glance at the gallery – at that chaos of struggling arms and legs and grimy, grinning features, and ginger-beer bottles which do not hold ginger beer, but something stronger – and half-smashed straw bonnets fastened to the brass stanchions – and shirt-sleeves – and half-sucked oranges and thick sandwiches – and perspiring public-house boys, struggling through dense rows of humanity with tin pails, and keeping up a monotonous howl of “Potaw, gents, potaw! Potaw, gents, potaw!” Mighty was the clamour ere the broad, gay act-drop rose: — “Now, then, Bill – museek – where’s your pardner – potaw, gents, potaw! Hoorah, ah, ah—hisss-s-s—throw him hover – now, then –vere are you a-shovin’ to, stooped? … Lor’ Jim, if that ain’t Mary Ann – mus-eek – Hot Codlins – potaw, gents! – hoorah – what’s the row? You do that again – pitch into him – go it, Bill – that’s your sort – mus-eek – hoarorar – potaw! – ah – shame – now, then – silence – ordayr – hats off – ah, ah – down in front – ah – sh-s-s-s-s;” and up goes the curtain.
What an infinity of Christmas-boxes have been cheerfully exchanged upon the crowded stone staircase tonight for brass and tin counters ere that gallery came to be so crowded. Little boys were certainly besieging the entrance since five o’clock by keeping up fire of vigorous kicks at the broad, battered door; young ladies in limp bonnets and dingy shawls were to be seen, escorted by their respective “young men;” gentlemen connected with the coalheaving interest and their wives, puny little women – coalheavers’ wives always are so – mustered in great force. The throng was further augmented by an army of those shabby nondescripts whereof the pursuit and calling is a profound mystery; and as may be conceived, terrific was the rush up that stone staircase, and divers were the unfortunate Sarahs and Sukeys over whose prostrate forms half the crowd mounted to the regions of the gods. What transpired further our readers will partially know – the pencil will partially tell them; for it is beyond the power of the pen to enumerate in sequence due the exploits of the gallery; how many pots of porter were consumed – how many oranges were chucked into the pit – how many fights were begun – how many altercations were begun and ended – how many hats were knocked in — how many shawls were torn – how many “Hot Codlins” and “Tippitywichet” were called for. The sayings and doings of the gods, now as in ancient times, must not be too closely inquired into.3
In short, we can glean from this simply glorious description that Watts was probably facing spectrum of opinion on the question of temperance in his audience. The spectators in the mid-range priced seats in the pit – the “pitties” – tended to be tradespeople, shop assistants, individuals in service, or employed in other types of stable jobs that gave them a moderate amount of free time and disposable income. These people might be in professions that demanded them to maintain certain standards of public conduct. This pressure to conform might tend to make them more receptive to strong anti-drink sentiments such as those the character Grace expresses at the beginning of the play;
Grace: His love of drink becomes each day more powerful. His home’s deserted; his nights passed midst revel and debauchery; his money squandered; his wife and children left to starve, whilst he has sunk beneath the lowest of the poor.4
On the other hand, as The Penny Illustrated’s description indicates, many occupants of the theater’s balcony were probably consuming alcoholic beverages while they watched the show. Then, as today, these were the cheap seats. They were occupied by people in the lower income brackets, the working poor. These theatre patrons were called “gallery gods” for their ability to bring a show to a standstill by raining down tokens of their displeasure from on high. If they didn’t wish to hear a sermon on the evils of alcohol, these critics had it in their power to put an end to such noise with hisses, boos, catcalls, and a barrage of foodstuff.
Marylebone audiences had the reputation of being tough customers. How did Walter Watts escape raising their ire with this piece that would seem to inevitably risk either coming down too soft on the evils of drink for the temperance crew or too preachy for the hard drinkers in the crowd- no matter if they were seated in the gallery, pit, or boxes?
It will probably come as no surprise that the compositional technique I want to highlight is Watts’ creation of a mirror of Harry Bertram’s personality and plot trajectory in the storyline of Billy Swizzle. In all of Watts’ works we have looked at thus far, he employs some form of doubling. (It’s almost as if this man, who was living a double life, was obsessed with contrasting parallel lives in the narratives he composed.) Looking “Dream of Life” at today, the dissonance between Bertram and Swizzle’s lives creates moments that some might even label Brechtian if they forget that Bertold Brecht was inspired by sensational Victorian melodramas just like this one. In high contrast to the gloom and despair of the Bertram household, Watts quickly throws us into the cheap glee of Billy Swizzle’s unrepentantly decadent barfly existence.
“Dream of Life” is a melodrama in the purest sense the word originally connoted. That is to say, it features songs. When we meet Billy Swizzle, he is enjoying this lively lyric;
Come drink, boys, come drink,
We have no time to think
Of this world, its cares and its woes;
So let’s drink and be gay,
And let come what may,
The present we’ll catch as it goes.5
If there was going to be any doubt about his nature, Billy immediately proclaims;
Swiz: Bravo, my lads! A song after my own heart, exactly my own sentiments. Drink while you may, and let tomorrow take care of itself – so, therefore, I’ll have another pint. Here, Susan!6
Billy flirts with the barmaid, then tells a comic story about how his girlfriend’s father, upon discovering the teen-aged couple were about to elope, swapped the girl’s grandmother for Swizzle’s girlfriend in the intended getaway cart, causing Billy to bear the name “Grandma Swizzle” for years to come. Although he claims this is what drove him to drink, he seems to take the turn of events good-naturedly. Billy sings for the crowd;
Let’s drink and be gay,
By night or by day;
Who cares a button whatever they say,
While you’ve money to pay,
You should never say nay,
But fill up your glasses, and
I’m not certain if these songs were written for this show. The script does not include a musical score or additional credits. Frequently traditional tunes or popular airs were included in melodramas. The audience may have recognized this song and could have been enthusiastically singing along with the performers. In an immediate, shocking twist, at the close of this happy drinking song, a fight breaks out between Harry Bertram and the aptronymicly dubbed, Jack Bully. Harry drunkenly stabs Jack in the chest. All flee the scene.
Harry pauses to give us a remorseful monologue on his horror at sobering suddenly to come to grips with his desperate situation;
What would I not give to recall this deed; how many thousands are there, who repent for years, the work of minutes. They come, I must away – but where? Home! Ha, ha, ha, home. The murderer has no home. Fiends are forever by his side, and hell stares him in the face.8
Billy, too, is on the run. He pauses to catch his breath and give us a few satirical reflections on the reasons why people drink;
Swiz: Oh, dear, I’m quite out of breath. I can’t keep up with ‘em. Here’s a go, poor Billy. I feel the cold steel in my stomach; now this all comes of drinking, but yet people will do it, it comes so natural to them, that even the dear little ladies like a drop on the sly. And as for excuses, some take it because they’re dry, some for amusement, some for pleasure, some to pass away the time; some take it (as they say) medicinally, some to drown dull care, to cure the heart-ache, jealousy, crosses in love, scolding wives, squalling brats, and all the other ills this blessed world produces, and who can help liking it. In the morn it washes away dull dreams, at noon it is a refresher, in the evening it is a comforter, and at night a downright pleasure.9
Throughout the rest of the play, the playwright’s pattern of drawing parallels that twin Harry and Billy’s lives holds. After Harry’s portion of the plot makes the audience cry, Billy’s section tempts them to laugh. After Harry’s fate presents a shocking, severe lesson, happy-go-lucky Billy strolls in and gives us a roguish wink.
In scene II of the second act, Harry seems near repenting;
Grace, dear Grace, what is thy fate? Two years ago, I left thee to beggary and despair, to become the thing I am. O, misery! What punishment is there half so terrible as that inflicted by one’s own conscience! ‘Tis over! I feel life waning fast, my tongue cleaves to my mouth; a drop of water, my life for a drop of water; but one to save my wretched life. Grace, wife, children, I see you hovering round me – but not one hand to save me. Drink, for the love of heaven, some drink. [Faints]10
Instead of any saving grace, Harry’s aid comes in the form of Billy Swizzle who enters, singing;
Drink, drink, drive every care away;
Pull away, boys, at spirits or porter.
Drink, drink, while you can get a drop;
Blow the blue devils, we’ll give ‘em no quarter.11
Despite the fact that Billy seems to be the more irresponsible character, Watts arranges the plot so that even though Swizzle is the tempter, Harry Bertram ends up committing the heavier crime. When penalties are handed out, Billy gets the lighter sentence. Harry is condemned to hang.
By simultaneously presenting two characters with the same flaw, contrasting personalities, and different fates, Watts is able to create a play with an ambiguous central theme of, “Doom and destruction awaits you if you drink too much… or not.” Harry is clearly the protagonist. Billy is his mirror reflection who is sometimes aligned as an antagonistic force in the plot. Despite the fact that Billy is not the main character, displaying two possible pathways for the life of a drinker instead of one inevitable outcome still gives the script more complexity than one might expect. In a Brechtian type manner, this compositional choice allows the audience room to make up their own mind about the play’s temperance rhetoric. The quick infusions of humor that Swizzle and other characters provide save the show from pamphleteer-like dogmatism, predictability, and give it an edge of street-wise cynicism.
Billy Swizzle is a flawed and amusing rogue, who seems designed to charm the audience despite his failings and vices (which he repeatedly intimates that his listeners all share.) Including Swizzle’s story as an imperfect twin to the grimly cautionary tale of the hapless and remorseful Harry Bertram allowed Walter Watts to serve his diverse audience a big slice of morality pie to chew on while simultaneously offering them a nice gin toddy to help wash it down.
1. Watts, Walter. “A Dream of Life: A Drama in Three Acts.” (London: S. G. Fairbrother, 1849) Page 12.
2. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 6, 1849. Page 5, col. 3.
3. “The First Night of the Pantomimes.” The Penny Illustrated Paper. January 4, 1862. Page 9.
4. Watts, Walter. “A Dream of Life: A Drama in Three Acts.” (London: S. G. Fairbrother, 1849) Page 6.
5. Ibid, page 8.
7. Ibid, page 9.
8. Ibid, page 11.
10. Ibid 19.