Anna Cora Mowatt and the Luck of the Irish

Although he’s been dead for almost one hundred and seventy years now, Walter Watts does not cease to surprise me. Writers typically fall into one of two camps in the pictures they draw of him when it comes to the motivation behind his purchase of the leases for the Marylebone and Olympic theatres. The first group, writers of “true crime” sketches and “white collar” crime analyses, see Watts’ theatrical forays in the same light as they see his purchase of fine wines, expensive carriages, and fast horses. It’s all conspicuous consumption. In “Forging Capitalism,” Ian Klaus says, “Today, Watts might have bought a soccer team with his sudden wealth.”1

In the other version, Watts is a stage-struck clerk who thinks he can write plays. He falls in with a lovely American lady who thinks she can act and write plays too. He spends a lot of money, but they are both dismal failures.

Both of these versions of Watts make sense given the tiny scraps of information we have about his background. At the time of his trial, he is only thirty-three years old. He is an assistant clerk in the accountant’s office for the Globe Insurance Company. He has been working for that company for at least ten years. There’s no evidence he has any managerial experience at that company, let alone the years of training and background in theater management that would let him step into the top position at not one, but two failing West End theaters.

Victorian theater management wasn’t just a desk job. It required intense engagement. It had an artistic component. Managers selected scripts and cast the shows. They determined the season. They negotiated contracts and controlled payroll for actors, backstage and front office employees, gasmen, carpenters, as well as sub-contracting out for refreshments and catering. They hired musicians when productions called for them. The manager also oversaw the box office staff, the technical staff, and coordinated publicity for the company.

A complete novice like Watts should fail at theater management. Common sense dictates this. It is a complex job that requires a wide, deep, and varied skill set. It should be extremely difficult for someone with little knowledge of the theatre to handle as a full-time occupation – let alone try to juggle on top of still maintaining another job as a bookkeeper for a high profile London insurance company. Watts should have failed spectacularly. Despite the wheelbarrows of money he was dumping into the project, he should have failed quickly.

But he didn’t fail spectacularly. When one reads the newspaper reviews of the day, they don’t tell the story of an obvious incompetent who everyone saw through immediately. Walter Watts was an engaging, personable young man with an aggressive business plan for his theaters and the money to put his ideas into action. Reaction to his debut year of management of the Marylebone read like the following:

Since the attempt made by Mrs. Warner to establish the Shakespearean drama failed, the property has been under the sole direction of Mr. W. Watts. The theatre has been most tastefully decorated, and a full and efficient company secured, adequate to the performance of all classes of drama. The manner in which the various pieces are here acted, and the style with which they are placed upon the stage, reflect the very highest credit on the management. The smallest minutiae which can add to the illusion is cared for, the scenery admirably painted, and the several appointments provided with a most liberal spirit. The result has been crowded and respectable audiences. The “star system,” as here conducted, is free from the baleful consequences which have resulted from its adoption at other theatres, for the “star” of the Marylebone is not suffered to cast its single ray athwart the “dark profound,” but is assisted by satellites which mainly contribute to its brilliancy. The Keeleys fulfilled a lengthened and most profitable engagement – Mr. Hudson reaped honours by his clever illustrations of Irish character – the American authoress and actress, Mrs. Mowatt, elicited sympathy by her gentle rendering of some of Bulwer’s heroines – and now Mr. T.P. Cooke, the true British sailor, is warming all loyal bosoms by his graphic pictures of the hardy tar who has brave the battle and the breeze… New dramas by recognized authors are also produced in quick succession, and the manager has written some exceedingly clever pieces, amongst which we site a very pleasant original drama, acted last night, entitled Which is the King? of which the plot, though slight is ingenious, and the language spirited. Miss Fanny Vining, the leading actress, has talents of a very high order… The orchestra is excellent.2

“Well,” you might be cynically scoffing, “Watts had plenty of ill-gotten cash. He might have been paying for that kind of press.” That possibility seems to be covered in this piece from the Illustrated London News:

We think the inhabitants of the neighborhood from St. John’s Wood to Oxford Terrace are under no small obligations to the lessee for his unceasing energy in catering for them. The Keeleys, Mr. Hudson, T.P. Cooke, and other “stars” have been successively engaged; and all the pieces in which these popular artistes have played have been in every respect as well mounted as when originally produced. An audience will always flock to any theatre at which they can make certain to be amused, or, besides, see an evident desire on the part of the management to treat them liberally. If this feeling does not exist, not all the conventional newspaper paragraphs in the world, nor self-glorification at the top of the playbills, will fill the house.3

Walter Watts’ house, they reported, was frequently filled from “pit to dome.” As you may have noticed in the first quote, he was also putting plays he wrote on the bill. When I found out that Watts wrote several plays, I began to turn away from the conspicuous consumption model for understanding his motivations for leasing the theaters. I began to picture him – as you might be doing right now – sitting at his Victorian clerical desk covertly scribbling away at some dramatic opus hidden between the pages of a giant Bob Crachit-style account book. Never once, though, did I imagine that thought bubble over his head might be reading, “Someday, I’ll own my own theater and get a chance at a one week contract for popular comedian who specializes in slapstick, singing, and stereotypical cultural humor. This piece will fill out the bottom of the bill nicely and have a sleepy, half-drunk audience laughing their asses off before they go home!”

However, the above unromantic sentiment does seem to encapsulate the motivation behind the writing of the only play Watts created for which we still have a script, “An Irish Engagement.” A writer for The Atlas skillfully summarized the plot:

Mr. Bullfinch has betrothed his daughter to a gentleman from Tipperary, whom he has never seen, while the young lady has, of course, chosen a lover for herself in the person of a Captain Foxlove. This gentleman hits upon the expedient of making his Irish servant, Tim Rafferty, personate the absent lover, and so to disgust the old gentleman and make him break the contract.
The writer characterized the farce as “entirely new, but formed out of old materials.”4

(If you wish to read the script in full, it is available online here ) The work is short. It is a one-act farce. The total runtime is around 45 minutes. The part of Tim Rafferty seems to have been written for Irish comedian James Hudson. In 1848, Hudson was on a whirlwind tour of London. Watts was only able to secure a one-week contract with him for the Marylebone between engagements at the Adelphi, Haymarket, and Drury Lane theaters. Watts’ “An Irish Engagement” (see the word-play there?) didn’t have to be the world’s greatest play. It just needed to be a new and novel vehicle for the comedian that would draw in his fans that couldn’t be seen at any of the other playhouses where Hudson would be appearing during his tour. In surprisingly workman-like manner for a novice playwright, Watts sat down and hammered out a short farce that gave Hudson forty-five unfettered minutes to play his schickt to the delight of the crowd. According to the reviews, everyone went home happy:

Last evening the entertainments afforded him excellent scope for showing his varied comic powers; and they appeared to be thoroughly and completely relished by his hearers. In the laughable drama of The Nervous Man, his performance of the part of M’Shane was particularly rich… An Irish Engagement also affords capitol opportunity for some very ludicrous and entertaining acting… The house was well-attended and the evening’s proceedings passed off with some spirit.5

As may be apparent from this review, An Irish Engagement was not the evening’s featured performance, but rather just a short “closer” to round out the bill and send the audience home in a good mood. Watts had chosen William Bayle Bernard’s 1833 “The Nervous Man and the Man of Nerve” for the main draw of the evening.

Currently there’s a student production of An Irish Engagement on Youtube. Even without the services of a famous comedian, the show’s slapstick humor and deployment of the classic trope of having a wily servant turn the tables on a windbag lord have the audience in stitches. The text is scarcely a masterpiece of comedy, but it is, as the Illustrated London News pronounced it a “clever farce.”6

From the plot summaries and reviews I’ve seen of the rest of Watts’ works, “An Irish Engagement” was typical of the type of play he produced — Nothing very grand or with a lot of literary pretensions. Each piece seems to have been written specifically for the Marylebone Theater and the actors performing there. When we visualize Watts the playwright, we need to picture not a bored clerk daydreaming over lovely dramas he hoped to produce some day, but a hard-nosed professional banging out scripts in short order designed specifically to get butts on seats, sweeten contracts for star players, and send his “gallery gods” home with smiles on their faces.

How could an insurance clerk with no background in theater almost instantly take on the attitude of a seasoned professional? I don’t know. The question does raise some interesting possibilities, though. Little information about Walter Watts’ life before 1847 is available. Did he actually have zero connection to the theatre world before that time? Was “An Irish Engagement” really the first play he ever wrote? How much mentoring was Watts getting from colleagues like Edward Stirling and R. Nelson Lee who were also theater managers and prolific playwrights? Stirling had started out as a bank teller. Watts’ migration from the world of finance might not have seemed like a strange transition to him.

How much guidance did Watts receive from Mary Warner, the previous lessee of the Marylebone? Watts started out as Warner’s silent partner, lending her at least £1000. Unlike Watts, Warner had years of experience. She and Samuel Phelps had already accomplished the same sort of “upmarketing” of Sadler Wells that Watts continued at the Marylebone after she turned the lease over to him. Did Watts continue to receive side-coaching in theatre management from Warner? Did she become his silent partner?

I am still looking for answers as my investigation into the manager of the Marylebone Theater where Anna Cora Mowatt achieved her brightest London stage triumphs continues. At this point, the only thing I am sure of is that the success he did enjoy at that venue had nothing to do with luck.

1. Klaus, Ian. Forging Capitalism: Rogues, Swindlers, Frauds, and the Rise of Modern Capitalism. Yale University Press. 2014. Page 139.
2. “Marylebone Theatre,” Morning Post, Thursday, November 9, 1848, page 6.
3. “Marylebone,” Illustrated London News, November 4, 1848, page 282.
4. “Amusements,” The Atlas, Sept. 23, 1848. p. 623
5. “Marylebone Theatre,” Morning Advertiser, September 26, 1848, page 3
6. Illustrated London News, p. 282.