Making It On The Victorian Stage – Managers, Agents, Theatres, and Roles

“A dog of mine,” says the celebrated Mathews, “should not go upon the stage,” and he says wisely, for the profession is fraught with toil, anxiety, and misery, beyond any other; but if that dog cannot be happy out of this hotbed of misery, in Heaven’s name let him be a miserable puppy in it.”  — from the preface of Leman Thomas Tertius Rede’s 1827 book The Road To The Stage, Or, The Performer’s Preceptor: Containing Clear And Ample Instructions For Obtaining Theatrical Engagements, With A List Of All The Provincial Theatres … And A Complete Explanation Of All The Technicalities Of The Histrionic Art

While watching “Stitch In Time”, a BBC series about the history of clothes, I was intrigued when a  costume historian stated that she used old theater photos to study historic clothes because, back in the Victorian day, actors and actresses had to supply their own costumes and, thus, most bought used clothes off the streets.

I have come across numerous theater photos through the years, so, naturally, when I went to look for some, they seemed scattered away. That’s how it works for me—I can’t find what I’m looking for, and I find plenty of other fun things.  In this case, I dug up this wonderful volume that began its long bookly journey first published in 1827 under the title The Road to the Stage. Sadly, the book’s sage author, Leman Thomas Rede, would die a few years after its initial publication, yet his book would live on, being updated and revised through the years, including altering its title and adding tips for the American actors and actresses. I was able to find several versions of the book between the years 1827 and 1872.

For this series of four blog posts on Victorian Theatre, I will use the 1836 edition because it’s in the early Victorian era but still useful to the Regency enthusiast.

This edition contains a kind, short memoir about its late author.

LEMAN THOMAS TERTIUS REDE (the author of the following pages) was the son of Mr. L. T. Rede, of the Inner Temple, author of ” An Essay on the Laws of England,” ” Anecdotes and Biography,” &c. &c., who died at Hamburgh, December, 1806, when the writer of the little work to which this notice is· affixed was only seven years of age, he having been born on the 14th of October, 1799, in Clerkenwell Close, London. At an early age, Mr. Rede chose the law for his profession; but his design of treading in the steps of his father and that father’s father, was frustrated by a dramatic bias, which induced him to leave and attempt the stage. He made his first appearance as Wilford, in the town of Stafford, in 1819; and in the year 1821 appeared at the Adelphi Theatre, London, in a farce called ” Capers at Canterbury.” An accident, which befell him at Margate shortly afterwards, induced him to resign the idea of making the stage permanently his profession; he became connected with the press, and devoted his attention to literary pursuits.

As a companion, he was much sought; his powers were less dazzling than engaging; and, perhaps, few men had a more extensive circle of convivial acquaintances. In 1829, he returned to the stage, and conducted the Queen’s Theatre for a short period; and from that period to the time of his death, he occasionally (though seldom) acted. In November, 1832, he performed The Gentleman in Black in his brother’s drama of ” The Loves of the Devils,” at Sadler’s Wells, for the benefit of Miss Forde. On the 12th of December following, he expired (after a short but severe illness) of a disorder of the heart.

His remains were interred in Clerkenwell Churchyard. Of one, whose social qualities, talents, and disposition, made him the delight of every circle in which he mingled, much more might justly be said, but the subject can only involve the obtrusion of private sorrows on the public ear. Mr. Rede’s enemies (if he had any) will declare that he was in heart and mind a man, in manners a gentleman, in acquirement a scholar, of unquestioned courage, gentle, charitable, and unassuming; formed to adorn any station, from his personal as well as mental advantages. He met death as a certain visitor, who came sooner than he had hoped, but whose approaches he encountered with an unchanged mind. He left a widow, but no child, to deplore him; and is survived by his mother, by three sisters, and a brother, who feels his irreparable loss too much to add one word more to this brief notice.

The illustrations and actress mini-bios in this post are excerpted from a rather dubious 1844 publication titled Our Actresses: Or, Glances at Stage Favourites, Past and Present, Vol. II. ( *Vol. I contains biographies of Regency actresses)

Let’s dive into the world of the Victorian stage!

THAT a general prejudice exists in the breasts of parents and preceptors against the stage, is as undeniable, as that a love of it is common to the young and inexperienced. That the oft reiterated complaints of the uncertainty attending this ill-fated profession are true, I shall not attempt to deny, but it must be remembered that its rewards are also considerable. If we are to be told that numbers have existed in barns, and expired in workhouses, we should also recollect that many have rolled in carriages, that could never, but for the stage, have emerged from behind a counter.

John Reeve quitted a banking-house contrary to the advice of all his relatives, yet he has cause to rejoice in a resolution that has raised him at once to an income he could never have hoped to have gained in his original station-indeed, be blesses the day when he left off being a cheque-taker to turn comedian.

Perhaps that father would most truly study the welfare of his child who should, on discovering his dramatic bias, send him at once to some country company, instead of driving him, by his opposition, to duplicity when at home, and to seek his favourite amusement in private theatres abroad;-as long as acting affords entertainment to the performer, he must like it–make it his business-his duty-and, in nine cases out of ten, a cure will be effected.

The practice that a private theatre affords is usually pernicious, and mistaken are those parents who consent to their children performing at those establishments, to learn the rudiments of the profession. At private theatres, no man studies rudiments–every one grasps at first-rate characters, which are awarded, not to strength of intellect, but of pocket-­ for the merest booby that ever carried a banner, who could command two pounds, would be cast Richard, in preference to a Kean, if he could only afford ten shillings.

I do not wish to join in the common-place censure levelled at private theatres, though I have reason to fear there is too much truth in the character generally given of these places. There are indeed exceptions, but their number is limited.

*Susanna’s Note: The original 1827 edition mentions Mr. Pym’s theatre on Wilson Street and Mr. Durrant’s on Gloucester Street exceptions.

To any person whose mind is so far engaged with the dramatic mania, as to be unsettled with regard to other professions-to one to whom all other modes of existence appear “flat, stale, and unprofitable”­- I should say enter it at once-and now the how becomes the question.

I shall reserve the mention of the things necessary for any performer on his outset for another part of the work, and proceed at once to explain the method of procuring a situation. At the Harp (a public­ house in Russell-street, immediately opposite the pit-door of Drury), resides Mr. Sims, the theatrical agent, and his hours of business are from eleven o’clock until three. On the payment of an introductory fee of seven shillings, he enters the name of the applicant in his books, together with the line of the drama he may wish to fill-and, on the procuration of a situation, he proportions his demand to the amount of the salary obtained; but it seldom exceeds the total of one week’s stipend.

Mr. Sims holds the situation held for so many years by his father; to the manners and acquirements of a gentleman, he adds an intimate knowledge of the profession, and his promptitude in business is only equalled by his urbanity and good­nature. It has been matter of regret in the profession, that Mr. Sims has not chosen some other place for his house of business, as it is peculiarly unpleasant, especially to ladies, to make calls at a house of public entertainment.

Mr. Tumour (of Covent Garden Theatre) has an office in Bow-street, and is also a dramatic agent­ his mode of transacting business is similar to that of Mr. Sims.

Mr. Kenneth, at the corner of the same street, also procures engagements for aspirants, and Mr. Miller, of Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, is in constant communication with all provincial managers (as agent to the Dramatic Author’s Society) though he does not act as an agent between actors and managers except indeed such as meditate a transatlantic trip.

Though every creature that places a foot upon the boards does so in expectation of becoming a favourite in the metropolis, it is ascertained that only one in one hundred, on an average, comes to the royal theatres in any capacity at all–nor do I mention this as matter of regret. Many provincial situations are preferable to London ones; the favourite of the Bath, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Theatres, may, with reasonable prudence, realize from four to five hundred pounds per annum; and an income equal to that has been amassed in the York circuit. An engagement of twelve guineas per week at a royal theatre amounts, with the deductions made during Lent, Passion week, and the usual vacation to something less than five hundred pounds a year.

The book then lists the managers, towns and circuits, and salaries of provincial theaters and sharing companies. The later version will include lists of American theaters, as well as American agents. I will insert a snippet of the list of English provincial theaters. 

All mentions of travelling troops, such as Richardson’s, Scouton and Holloway’s, Ryan’s, Adams’s, &c. would be here out of place, as these persons its is presumed do even style themselves theatrical managers.

Sharing Companies

The system of sharing companies being nearly exploded, it is only necessary to briefly explain the principles on which they are conducted. If there were eight actors and four actresses, besides the manager, the receipts would be divided into seventeen parts or shares: One to each actor and actress; One to the manager, as an actor; One to him for dresses ; One for scenery; One for properties ; One also as manager. Thus if the receipts any one night amounted to 17l., the manager took 5l., and the company ll. a piece. In addition to this, as some little outlay must occur, the manager advancing this called it a stock debt, for which whenever they had a tolerable house, he made a large deduction.

London Theatres

On a rough calculation the United Kingdom is supposed to contain about 3000 performers; that is to say, individuals of both sexes who really understand their business–the amount of persons connived at by their friends and the public as actors and actresses must be about seven times that number.

As music is becoming daily more popular in this country, first singers are proportionably in request. At Liverpool the leading vocalist has a salary of five pounds per week; and such is the dearth of male singers, that that is now considered the most profitable and safe line, and one for which an engagement can always be obtained.

Tragedy is, it has been justly observed, going out of fashion. Whether England will ever become so completely fashionable as to dislike Shakespeare it is difficult to say, but certainly he has been latterly played to houses, that would indicate that the immortal bard’s attraction was declining ; but as improvements generally originate in the metropolis, so also do innovations, and tragedy, though unattractive in London, is not yet scouted in the provinces. As nearly all aspirants commence as tragedians, this line has always numerous professors; it is now, from the arrangements of modern managers, become imperative that a leading man should provide his own wardrobe. A tragedian always commands the best salary in the theatre, and in large establishments his situation is easy and profitable; in small ones he is expected to blend the light comedy with the serious business, and thus his labour, though not his profit is marvelously increased.

Genteel Comedy has been long called the most profitable line upon the stage–it requires a good modern wardrobe. In small theatres the light comedian must play the seconds in tragedy (Macduff, Richmond, &c.)–the salary is generally first-rate ­- at all events next to that of the leading man.

 Low Comedy is supposed to be the best line, with reference to the benefits it ensures, but this is trusting to a very precarious chance–the salary is generally on a par with the light comedians.

First Old Men obtain somewhat similar terms.

Walking Gentlemen (Charles Stanley, Henry, Moreland, Harry Thunder, &c.) is a line that also requires an extensive wardrobe; this business is usually assigned to persons learning the rudiments of the profession-the salary is generally low ; in Dublin even, not exceeding two guineas per week, and in many respectable companies not more than one.

The observations already made, apply to the other sex equally with regard to the First Tragedy–Fine Ladies–Singing Chambermaids–Old Women–and Walking Ladies.

First Singing Ladies are much more numerous than male vocalists, a circumstance which the system of modern education accounts for–and, perhaps, for a Lady, the Old Women may be considered the most profitable and safe line. Any young lady embracing this line, and possessed of even a moderate share of talent, could seldom lack a provincial engagement, and would stand an excellent chance of metropolitan distinction.

Having premised thus much, it is now necessary to place before my readers the regulations of provincial establishments.

Rede then lists the general rules governing the country theatres including rehearsal and performance and the fines accrued for infractions on these rules. For example, “Every performer is expected to go on the stage and assist in all the processions and choruses, where it has been customary in London for principals to be engaged, as in Macbeth, Pizarro, Juliet’s dirge, Alexander’s entry, &c.-non-compliance with this regulation subjects the party to a fine of ten shillings” and “Saturday is considered the first day of the week, as in the London theatres.”

For rehearsals, “Notice of pieces to be rehearsed to be posted in the green-room, and the time of beginning, before the end of the play on the previous night of performance; and it is the call-boy’s duty to give notice to every performer who does not perform that evening” and “For not being reasonably perfect at the last rehearsal (sufficient time having been given for study), five shillings.”

An actor was fined a guinea for being intoxicated during a performance and five shillings for “omitting or introducing a scene or song without the consent of the manager.”

In the coming post, we will look at the skills required of men and women entering the acting profession.  In the meantime, here is a little 1899 theatrical gem.