Anna Cora Mowatt and the Cynical Mr. Stirling

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Edward Stirling

If I had written the story of the Watts Scandal as a melodrama and wished to cast it from the pool of actors available in 1850, Edward Stirling would be a natural choice for a villain. He tended to play eccentric, sarcastic, double-dealing, back-stabbing, and otherwise worldly characters, many of which came from his own pen. In fact, when we add him to the mix, and blur a few details in grand cinematic style, the Watts Scandal can assume the appearance of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the spotlight are Mrs. Mowatt and Walter Watts – two young, vibrant, attractive, creative people, bursting onto the London theatre scene from nowhere, breaking all the rules, perhaps fighting the affection growing between them, unaware of the tragic fates that will await them just around the corner. At every dark turn of the plot, just behind them on stage lurks Edward Stirling, the jaded veteran actor, sneering and cynical. A natural survivor and long-time denizen of the West End’s seamy demi-monde, somehow he will manage to dodge every bullet and worm his way out of the muck to outlive both our protagonists.

Let me make this clear – because as you can tell, Stirling is a figure who inspires the conspiracy theorist in me — Edward Stirling (1809-1894) might have been completely innocent in all the misfortune that befell Mowatt and Watts. Trust me, though. He always manages to look guilty as hell in almost every situation where he turns up. Ask the folks who do research on Charles Dickens.

Stirling’s lasting contribution to Theatre History has turned out to be that he was one of the earliest playwrights to adapt Dickens’ work for the stage. He was so early, in fact, that Dickens was not quite finished writing his books when some of Stirling’s plays hit the stage. Dickens was only up to installment number eight of “Nicholas Nickleby” when Stirling’s wholly unauthorized adaptation of that book opened at the Adelphi. To the horror of John Forster, drama reviewer, bosom companion, and future biographer of Dickens, the novelist merely laughed off this particular abridgement of copyright. Although Dickens was not so lenient in other instances, he felt the actor/author had done a good job of catching the flavor of characters.

Illustration from Edward Stirling's adaptation of Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby"
Illustration from Edward Stirling’s adaptation of Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby”

Over the course of his long career, Stirling wrote a truly stunning total of over one hundred and ninety plays. Many of these were adaptations of stories and novels of literary luminaries of the period. Apparently he adhered to the credo that it was easier to ask for forgiveness afterwards than permission before, because most of his adaptions were completed without the foreknowledge of the original authors. Stirling was very proud of the stage versions of “Christmas Carol” and “Cricket on the Hearth” done in collaboration with humorist Albert Smith that had Dickens’ official blessing, though. These productions were wildly successful. Stories about those productions and letters from the novelist are featured in his autobiography.

The “Nickleby” production appears in Stirling’s memoirs as well. Stirling, who was also a stage manager, and, by the evidence of the stories he tells on himself, could be quite demanding on the performers under his charge, describes a deal he made with a barber (whom he calls “Figaro” after “The Barber of Seville”) to get child extras for a benefit performance of his “Nicholas Nickleby at Dotheboy’s Hall” in the provinces;

Lured from the bystreets and alleys by his horn, like the children in the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the small fry followed him to the theatre yard; once there, Figaro closed the gates upon Mr. Squeers’ pupils. Amidst crying and moaning they were placed on the stage, sitting on benches, and kept in order by Figaro’s cane – poor children, completely bewildered. When the treacle was administered, most of them cried. This delighted the audience, thinking it was so natural (so it was). At nine o’clock, the act was over, our cruel barber threw open the gates, driving his flock out, with a pleasant imitation of what they would catch when they arrived home. Mothers, fathers, sisters, in wild disorder, had been scouring the town for their runaways, and the police completely puzzled, and at their wits’ end, at such a wholesale kidnapping. Figaro was nearly torn to pieces when the ruse was discovered.1

We have always heard that the fiction of Charles Dickens brought the deplorable conditions that children were forced to work under to the attention of the British public. This anecdote makes me think that perhaps outrage over some specific theatrical productions of his works contributed as well if they were anything like this one…

Production of Edward Stirling's adaptation of "Nicholas Nickleby" at the Adelphi Theatre
Production of Edward Stirling’s adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby” at the Adelphi Theatre

In a previous blog, I discussed how Anna Cora Mowatt used certain rhetorical strategies in her autobiography to maintain a positive public persona in the face of events in her life that had potential negative public perception. The “Figaro” story is typical of how Stirling negotiates scandal and bad behavior in his autobiography. He tends to omits including facts that would burden him with any responsibility, although we can surmise that he probably paid the barber to round up the children, could see that they were not professional actors, stood by and allowed the barber to strike them, allowed his actors to cause them further distress, and kept them locked in the theater for hours when he should have known this would cause their families anxiety. Stirling, in a manner that becomes a pattern in his memoirs, abnegates responsibility and tells a story that is a rather disturbing as humorous.

Despite the aspersions I have cast on Stirling’s devotion to veracity, if you are a devotee of Victorian theatre, I highly recommend “Old Drury Lane; Fifty Years Recollections of Author, Actor, and Manager.” His narrative style is kaleidoscopic, almost impressionistic. Written in 1881, when he was in his seventies, the two-volume work is a cornucopia of theatrical tall tales covering the better part of the nineteenth century. Rather than moving forward in a strictly chronological manner, he keeps jumping back to the salad days of the 1830’s. In particular, the narrative seems to flinch from the years 1848-1850 like they are still an open wound.

Edward Stirling and Fanny Vining in "The Rag-Picker of Paris"
Edward Stirling and Fanny Vining in “The Rag-Picker of Paris”

Stirling knew everyone who was anyone in the London theatre world. His original surname was Lambert and he started out as a banker’s clerk in Thames, Oxfordshire.2 This information is not covered in his autobiography. He does admit that he had a taste for amateur theatricals. I’m just going to go ahead and uncharitably speculate that he got fired from his stable, good paying job with a pretty secure future as a clerk and decided to try his luck in the much, much more risky and less immediately well remunerative field of drama. He arrived in London in around 1828 and began specializing in “character” parts, or as the writer of his profile in Tallis’ Dramatic Magazine puts it,

A slight eccentricity of manners, or a hideous moral deformity, are each by him truthfully depicted.3

Stirling played opposite Macready, Vanderhoff, Yates, and many other of the great tragedians of his day in roles such as Gratiano, Cassio, and Sir Benjamin Backbite. The second volume of his autobiography is composed entirely of sketches of performers who appeared at the Drury Lane Theater. Anna Cora Mowatt gets one brief mention in the profile that Stirling does on E.L. Davenport. On one level, this snub is reasonable, since Mowatt never played Drury Lane. However, Stirling does find excuse to write about other performers who didn’t appear on the Drury Lane stage.

In Volume One, though, here are the only two sentences Stirling uses to recall his professional association with Mowatt,

Mrs. Mowatt and Davenport, American artists, made a highly favourable impression on the public by their excellent performances. The lady, an authoress of repute in the United States, produced several of her own plays.4

On the surface, this sounds mild enough, but re-read that last line. Mowatt did not produce her own plays. There are many people in London who could be forgiven for repeating this slight that makes seem as though the lavishly staged and carefully promoted productions of “Fashion” and “Armand” were expensive vanity projects. However, Stirling was a close enough associate of Walter Watts in 1849 that he was hand-picked by Watts to sub-let the Marylebone when that company moved to the Olympic. He had to have been an integral part of that transition that fall. Stirling could not have realistically been unaware of the kind of money Watts threw into his productions – including these two dramas that were more high risk than usual because they were by a female American author. Why erase Watts from the equation at Mowatt’s expense? Despite having a good opinion of her as an actress, did Stirling have a low opinion of her as a playwright? Between 1850 and 1881, had Stirling somehow managed to completely forget about Walter Watts?

Neither Walter Watts nor the Marylebone Theater appears anywhere in Stirling’s autobiography. This omission is a little more remarkable than it sounds. Walter Watts was Mary Warner’s partner as lessee of the Marylebone in 1847. By 1850, he was gone. That’s not a long time to make a deep mark in Theatre History. However, Watts was a rather important person in Edward Stirling’s career. Because of Watts, Stirling became sole lessee of the Marylebone Theater. That’s a big promotion up from being a mere stage manager. One would assume an event of that significance would rate a few lines in one’s autobiography. However, Stirling remains silent on Watts and the Marylebone even when he relates anecdotes about performers connected to the time he was there and matching the name of a manager or a theater would have clarified when and where the events took place.

As regular readers of this blog may already be anticipating, I have more to say about Mr. Stirling than I can comfortably cram into one entry. Next week I will look at a suspicious theater fire that ended in Edward Stirling coming to the Marylebone from the Olympic and Watts and Mowatt leaving the Marylebone for the new Olympic. Finally, the week after that, I’m working on a piece that looks at how Stirling (or someone whom I’m assuming to be Stirling) appears in Mowatt’s writing.

So, look forward to more scandal and skullduggery!

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Edward Stirling
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of actor/playwright/manager Edward Stirling

1. Stirling, Edward. Old Drury Lane; Fifty Years Recollections of Author, Actor, and Manager: Volume 1. London: Chatto and Windus, 1881. Page 141 -142.
2. “Mr. Edward Stirling.” Tallis’ Dramatic Magazine and General Theatrical and Musical Review. November 1850. Page 521.
3. Ibid.
4. Stirling, Edward. Old Drury Lane; Fifty Years Recollections of Author, Actor, and Manager: Volume 1. London: Chatto and Windus, 1881. Page 165.