A Merry Manuscript with a Bit of Mystery
Of all the plays authored by Walter Watts I have written about thus far, this one-act most truly deserves the title of “lost.” For some reason, Watts broke with his usual habit and did not publish a version of the script after this farce’s run at the Marylebone Theatre in November of 1848. The only extant copy of the work is the handwritten manuscript submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to clear to play for public performance. Near the beginning of the Covid lockdown period, I was able to get a scan of “The First Night of My Marriage” from Nick Durda, senior librarian of the Cleveland Library’s Ohio Center of the Book. (I want to pause here to express my thanks to him and all the wonderful librarians who have been so helpful during this time when travel has been restricted.)
Since Watts borrowed from French sources for some of his other plays, I will begin by saying that there is a text titled “The First Night of My Wedding” by Pigault-Lebrun . An English translation of this work was published in 1804. I have not been able to obtain a copy of this publication to ascertain if there is any overlap between the two texts. However, Pigault-Lebrun’s “First Night” is a four hundred and forty page, two-volume novel. Watts’ work is a sixteen page, one-act farce. If the play was inspired by the book, it is greatly condensed, to say the least. Watts may have only re-used the title – which he also might have previously encountered as it was employed by British cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson for one in his series of racy, Napoleonic-era illustrations.
A rather exciting aspect of this manuscript is that it seems to be in Watts’ handwriting. I am not a handwriting expert, so this is just a guess, but the name on the title page looks like other samples of his signature that I have seen and seems to match the writing in the rest of the work. The work contains corrections and mark-outs. I think it is probable that the original copy in the British Museum of this play was a manuscript handwritten by Watts.
I have prepared a transcription of this text that is available here. Although I have tried to stay true as possible to the original, I did modernize some spelling and add punctuation for clarity where it was either absent or ambiguous in the original. I also had to guess at a few words in spots where the text was indistinct. Another transcriber working with a clearer scan of the original might come up with a different interpretation of some passages. One character is named “Beckey” in the manuscript. The spell-check function in my word-processor insisted that she should choose between being called “Becky” or “Betsey.” It kept correcting her name to one or the other behind my back until I finally settled on “Becky” to keep the peace.
In November of the year of the writing of this blog, this play will be one hundred and seventy-four years old. It is quite firmly in the public domain. If you and your organization decide to stage a performance or reading of this adorable little comedy, you are not obligated to obtain any type of permission from me. However, I would love to see video or hear audio if you would care to contact me and share your experience.
Like Watts’ “An Irish Engagement,” “The First Night of My Wedding” is a classic example of a mid-19th century British farce. After a brief wind -up to set the scene, every minute of this short one-act is designed to make the audience laugh. Physical and character-based comedy bits are piled on top of another non-stop until the play reaches its end around a half hour later. The play isn’t terribly deep or thoughtful. It’s solid slapstick comedy. I was reminded of episodes of television classics like “I Love Lucy” and “Fawlty Towers.” The purpose of this little play is not to make you think, it’s to make you laugh.
As if to throw the audience off the scent of the merriment to come, the play opens in a grim, dark setting. The year is 1797; we are in a broken-down wayside inn in Dover. A group of smugglers are waiting out a violent thunderstorm before they go on their next mission, drinking, and singing the following sardonic chorus;
Come let us drink
Thought would but sadden us.
Why should we shrink
From aught that would gladden us?
For the juice of the grape brings us comfort, we know,
Yes, the brandy, good fellows, specific for woe.1
As I have repeatedly pointed out in previous blog entries, in all Walter Watts’ plays that I have analyzed so far there is at least one character who, like the playwright was himself, is leading a double life or who pretends to be pretends to be someone who he isn’t. In “The First Night of My Wedding” we have the character of Giles who is both the landlord of the “Jolly Companions” inn and secretly serves as the leader of the gang of smugglers. When asked if he feels any guilt about this double standard, he replies;
Plundering, as you it – I call it as fair and honest a livelihood as any going – and as for plundering – Why, all the world are plunderers more or less – We plunder the King. The King plunders the people – and the people plunder one another and so you see my conscience ain’t at all affected.2
I feel obliged to point out that the above is a sentiment appropriate to not only a smuggler, but also might accurately reflect the attitudes of someone who secretly embezzled money from their company for around a decade as Watts did.
Having more than adequately fulfilled my desire for fodder in the area of hints of biographical commentary seeping into his play-writing, Watts seems to tap his foot impatiently and ask if we are quite ready now to proceed to the main business of the comedy?
Comedy arrives loudly in the person of the newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Figgins. Mr. Jeremiah Figgins is a pompous, demanding, freshly retired tea and coffee wholesaler. He is accompanied by his bride — who he continually proclaims to be “angelic” and “fascinating.” The Figgins – like Mr. Bean, Hyacinth Bouquet, or Basil Fawlty — are perfectly dreadful people. They are wonderful specimens of an inexplicably overconfident and comically obnoxious type that fans of BBC sitcoms the world over have come to cherish. In this farce, as in others of its genre and its descendants, we watch in appalled and perversely delighted horror as the bumbling protagonists wade deeper and deeper into a terrible situation at least in part of their own making. One is constantly pulled between conflicting impulses of feeling sorry for them and wanting to wring their necks.
The Figgins burst into the smugglers’ hideout drenched from the storm and demanding service. Average travelers would probably realize that atypically menacing and flatly unaccommodating greeting the Jolly Companion’s landlord gives them is a clear signal that it would be prudent for them to keep moving despite their distress. However, the Figgins are too wrapped up in their own sense of self-importance to take the warning. When Giles tells him the house is full, Mr. Figgins proclaims;
And we’re empty! Now, my good, Mr. Landlord, only consider, now… Just steal a glance at what a fascinating woman there… Only just look at her. This morning she was a bride – and in all the joy of connubial bliss we were proceeding to open the honeymoon at Dover. We were overtaken by the storm – upset – nearly killed by fright – nearly drowned with water! And now to finish it refused supper, grog and bed? Mrs. Fig, Mrs. Fig…! What a complication of misfortunes!3
Ignoring the landlord’s lack of sympathy, Figgins goes on to insist;
Mr. Landlord, if you’re a married man, I know you’ll pity us. Look at that adorable woman there, look on my bride – Do the best you can for us!… Now, Mr. Landlord, if you’ll only let us have supper and ale, I’ll pay you whatever you like. Let me tell you, I’m that Jeremiah Figgins, late of the House of Figgins, Baggins, and Co. of Philpot Lane Wholesale Tea and Coffee Dealers, now independent gentleman of Sugarloaf Villa near Dover – Don’t care a fig for money when his dear wife’s comfort is connected, does he, my dear Mrs. Fig?4
Despite Giles’ multiple, increasingly hostile attempts to drive them off, they are blind to the danger they have fallen into and refuse to be turned away. Finally, he essentially says, “Well, fine, then – Stay!” and exits snarling. Thus Watts, in the first five minutes of the script, has neatly set the comic problem for the rest of the show – “How are these two bumbling idiots going to manage to survive their stay in the home base of these criminals?”
An interesting piece of prop comedy is essential to the mid-section of the show. Watts’ stage directions describe the setting of the play as follows;
Interior of the “Jolly Companions” – a roadside House – a window at back covered with a curtain – door on the right of window – on one side of cupboard the inside of which is visible to the audience, two large chests at back – on one of which is flourished pistols & hung against the wall – Table, chairs, & etc.5
Becky, a servant girl working for Giles, hides the Figgins in the cupboard mentioned above. Watts specifies from the beginning of the play that the insides of this construction are visible to the audience and repeats the instruction when the Figgins enter the cupboard. Later the couple will take up hiding places inside two large chests. In both instances, it is important that the performers are at least clearly audible while hidden. To milk the potential hilarity to the maximum though, the actors should also be seen by the audience.
While reading, I became concerned about obstructed sight lines. I’m finding it hard to visualize how the stage was arranged and the closet-like prop was designed so that the two actors inside were visible by all audience members from all sides of the house. The Marylebone was a relatively small theatre with a deep stage. Watts’ scene designer and lighting crew had experience concocting a wide variety of fantastic effects for Easter extravaganzas and Christmas pantomimes. The stage directions for some of the productions this crew mounted tend to indicate that they could create more sophisticated effects with gaslights than we might assume. Perhaps the door of the cupboard was only a sheet of painted muslin that would reveal the shadows of the actors when lit from behind? I’m not certain. Reviews of the show don’t give any hints. The failure to mention how the cupboard scenes were handled only indicates that the Marylebone crew did not utilize a technique of lighting or prop construction that surprised the experienced theater-goers writing these reviews. Such a caveat leaves room for many possibilities.
I think if I were directing a modern production of “First Night of My Wedding” I might have the actors mime the closet and chests the Figgins hide in. I would use sound effects of rusty hinges creaking to underline the opening and closing of doors and lids. I would indicate the parameters of the floorspace covered by the cupboard and sea-chests with tightly focused lights. These spotlights would light the area when the cupboard or chests were occupied. The objects would be dark when they were empty. The rest of the reality of the cupboard and chests would be established in the imagination of the audience by the actors’ pantomimic skills. Such an approach might have been a bit too experimental for Victorian theater, but wouldn’t have been very far off the clowning traditions of the time and would keep the actors clearly visible to the audience during some of the farce’s funniest moments.
The play premièred when the renowned comedy duo, James B. Buckstone and Fanny Fitzwilliam were playing an engagement at the Marylebone Theatre. Watts had taken over management of the Marylebone from Mary Warner a few months prior. He did not yet have an established roster of stars for his company. Instead, Watts was inviting popular players for short, lucrative visits at the Marylebone. Favorites of the London stage, such as Robert and Mary Keeley, Irish comedian James Hudson, and T.P. Cooke delighted Paddington audiences with exquisitely staged productions of their greatest hits assisted by the Marylebone Theater’s stock company.
I think it is possible that Watts could have written “The First Night of My Wedding” intending it to be played by Buckstone and Fitzwilliam just as he had provided “An Irish Engagement” for James Hudson. The Figgins are of the general type played by the pair. Buckstone tended to play bumbling, blustering, and/or bemused fellows. Fitzwilliam had a very good singing voice and was known for her sweetly dotty comic roles.
James Buckstone was also a highly successful playwright. During their engagement at the Marylebone, the actors starred in a pair of hit plays he had penned, “Flowers of the Forrest,” and “A Rough Diamond.” To give you a flavor of the these scripts, the actors played characters named “Starlight Bess” and “Cheap John” in the first and a couple called “Margery” and “Cousin Joe” in the second.
If the Figgins were written for Buckstone and Fitzwilliam, Watts might have hoped that Buckstone and Fitzwilliam would take “First Night” back to the Lyceum Theatre when the duo returned back to their home base. The Lyceum, with its sterling reputation for light comedy, was one of London’s most popular and consistently profitable theaters at this time. Even a short run for “First Night” at that venue would have been a coup for Watts. Copies of the play would bear not only his name, but his theater’s. The debut of the farce would have undoubtedly been mentioned in reviews. A successful staging of the comedy by Buckstone and Fitzwilliam of the little comedy could have been very good advertising for the Marylebone Theatre and its lessee.
If that was the plan, it didn’t work out. The roles of Jeremiah Figgins and his wife were played by Mr. J. Herbert and Miss Fanny Hamilton, members of the Marylebone’s stock company. The farce had an unusually short run for a Watts play. By December 1st, “First Night” no longer appeared in advertisements of the Marylebone’s schedule. No printed version of the script was published.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Watts wrote “First Night” for Herbert and Hamilton. The farce was meant only to compliment productions staged by Fitzwilliam and Buckstone. Watts’ calculation might have simply been that audiences drawn to see the two Lyceum stars would be likely to stay to see a comedy in the same style. The play’s short run and lack of a published version might have been due to the fact that Buckstone and Fitzwilliam’s stay at the playhouse drew large crowds and kept the company very busy. To showcase Fanny Fitzwilliam’s singing talent, the Marylebone staged two comic operas in December. Charles Selby’s “The Witch of Wyndemere” had its première the first week in December. A staging of “The Pet of the Petticoats” followed the next week.
While the guest artists were in residence, the Marylebone’s company and crew were simultaneously preparing for the theater’s lavish Christmas pantomime. This spectacular presentation, titled “One O’Clock; or the Knight and the Wooden Demon,” starred the clown Jefferini. The show also featured complex tumbling and leaping stunts performed by an large cast of skilled extras in the role of the demons who sprang out unexpectedly into and out of view aided by traps and devices hidden in the set and stage floor. Late November and December of 1848 was an extremely busy time for the manager of the Marylebone. “First Night of My Wedding” could have simply gotten lost in the shuffle.
Another possible explanation for the lack of a printed script for “First Night” may be that there was a difference between the performed script and the script cleared by the censors. Near the end of the show, the smugglers find the Figgins’ suitcase and begin to pull out their clothing much to the couple’s horror. After only having taken out and displayed the newlywed’s silk nightcaps, one of the smugglers abandons this activity, saying;
1st Smuggler: [Pulls out a variety of things] A parcel of rubbish… This affords no clue… Now, then to search!5
This is a very uncharacteristic bypassing of comic potential on the part of Watts. Mr. and Mrs. Figgins are hiding inside large sea-chests at this point in the plot. The smugglers are loudly vowing revenge against them. We see them find the first items of couple’s wedding night dainties. Then suddenly the smugglers lose interest and the plot lurches forward a bit awkwardly to the discovery of the Figgins in the chests and the couple making a last, desperate stand against the smugglers just before the timely arrival of the customs officers.
I think that there’s a good possibility that in the performed version of the play, there may have been a few more lines of dialogue here. Possibly the smugglers continued to take items out of Figgins’ portmanteau, comment rudely on them, or tear them up, further outraging the hidden couple. The items probably included nightgowns and may have even included undergarments. In my opinion, such revelations could have provided a more fitting comic trigger to provoke Figgins or his wife to breaking cover and attempting a shoot-out with the smugglers.
If I’m right, it is very probable that such a scene might not have gotten past the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The theoretical extended suitcase scene that I have proposed could provide an alternate reason why there is no published version of “The First Night of My Wedding.” It seems to have been Watts’ standard practice to make copies of the Marylebone’s productions available for purchase for interested patrons. Anna Cora Mowatt reported this practice – that apparently was not common in the U.S. — in connection with the production of her drama, “Armand,” at that theatre;
The copies nightly sold at the door of the theatre caused great annoyance to the dramatic representatives of the play. It is a singular fact, that if the eye of an actor chances to rest upon an individual in the boxes who is deeply absorbed in a book, and if the actor fancies that book is of the play then performing, he will almost invariably forget his part, though he may have enacted it correctly dozens of times. Sometimes the mere leaf-turning of books in the hands of the audience will throw a whole company into confusion, and the prompter’s voice may be heard vainly attempting to plead the cause of the author.6
In the absence of a published script for “First Night of My Wedding” though, viewers could only rely on their memory of what was said and assume that what they heard had passed muster with the censors of Lord Chamberlain’s office. The copy in the Lord Chamberlain’s office was the official version. That manuscript only had a few inoffensive lines about nightcaps. The only supporting evidence I have for my speculation is that one reviewer did register a mild complaint that the play had gotten a bit risqué;
Such is the outline of a piece, which, of course, will be ephemeral, and which seems chiefly a vehicle for exhibiting the low comedy of Herbert and Miss Hamilton; we would recommend, however brief its career, the pruning of certain equivocal expressions hardly suited for so genteel an atmosphere as Marylebone.7
Although it had a short run and was greatly overshadowed by the productions put on by Buckstone and Fitzwilliam, “The First Night of My Wedding” got approving nods from the few critics who did bother to notice it. The Morning Advertiser describes the play as follows;
In addition to the first appearance, to which we have already referred, a new farce, by the author of An Irish Engagement, entitled First Night of my Wedding, was produced. It is an amusing trifle, the whole fun of which arises out of the peculiar position which Mr. and Mrs. Figgins are placed in, owing to their vehicle breaking down in the course of their journey from London to Dover. They take shelter in a house which is the rendezvous of smugglers, and this circumstance is made the medium by which the prominent personages elicit loud laughter from the audience. Mr. J. Herbert and Miss F. Hamilton, who played the characters in question, acted with great spirit throughout.8
The writer from the Satirist seemed to agree with this assessment, concluding of the farce;
Its fabric is very slight, but its purpose of provoking a hearty laugh was fully answered.9
The Morning Post summarized the appeal of the comedy as follows;
The author has relied upon sprightly dialogue, and the exhibition of the terrors and trials of the peripatetic conjugal pair, and other odd mistakes committed by the several parties concerned. The judgement proved sound, for the result was, that the audience was kept in a constant roar of laughter, and all honours were awarded to the performers and the performance at the conclusion.10
I’m very sorry that there was no published version of “The First Night of My Wedding.” Although it is, as the reviewers pointed out, quite unpretentious, the comedy is a classic example of mid-19th century farce. Had it, like “An Irish Engagement” fallen into public domain, I have no doubt it would be performed as widely and regularly as that one-act.
Without any further clues, it’s hard to say why this delicious little comedy slipped through the cracks of Walter Watts’ tenure at the Marylebone Theater. With the success of “Which is the King?” following “An Irish Engagement” he might not have been feeling any particular sense of urgency about promoting his own work at this point. Reviews suggest that Buckstone and Fitzwilliam’s stay at the Marylebone was extremely successful, drawing very large crowds for each new show. The playhouse did not regularly staff an in-house orchestra, so the production of the two operettas was quite ambitious for the production team. As I stated previously, December was always consumed with preparations for the Christmas pantomime. Boxing Day was the single biggest box office day of the year for London playhouses. January was a critical month for attracting theater-goers with extravagant productions. This year, Watts had something special in mind. He had contracted to bring back two performers that had already proved popular with Marylebone audiences – the American actors, E.L. Davenport and Anna Cora Mowatt. In mid-January, he was going to produce a stunningly lavish production of Mowatt’s “Armand” with the actress in the starring role of Blanche.
“The First Night of My Wedding” didn’t receive any more attention from its theater manager/author than it did – not because it wasn’t a good play — but perhaps because it was simply unlucky enough to come along at a point in Walter Watts’ life and career when he had other more important things on his mind.
Next Time: Did Anna Cora Mowatt publish under the name Lucy Landon? A new pen name unveiled!
- Watts, Walter. “The First Night of My Wedding.” British Library Board, 1848. Transcribed by Kelly S. Taylor. https://alphacentauri2.info/AnnaCoraMowatt/WWthefirstnight02.html
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. page 302.
- “Marylebone Theatre.” The Satirist. 18, 1848. Page 500, col. 2.
- “Marylebone Theatre.” Morning Advertiser, Tuesday, November 14, 1848. Page 3, col. 3.
- “Marylebone Theatre.” The Satirist. 18, 1848. Page 500, col. 2.
- “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 15, 1848. Page 3, col. 5.