Making It On The Victorian Stage – You’ve Been Cast! Now What?

Welcome to another installment of my Victorian theater post series! Leman Rede’s book The Road To The Stage, Or, The Performer’s Preceptor, first published in 1827, has sparked my imagination to write about an actor or actress character in a future book. Imagine the possibilities for a character who is knowledgeable of fencing, stage makeup, and maintains an expansive wardrobe of costumes and wigs! Perhaps such a character could find a murdered body in the Victorian London sewer system (as described by my post on the subject) and, perhaps, might have to solve the mystery. See, there’s a method to my blog madness 😊.

Originally I had intended to create three posts based upon the many incarnations of Mr. Rede’s book. However, I’ve decided going forward to reduce the size of my blog posts in order to 1.) maintain my fragile sanity 2.) have more activity on my blog.  Therefore, I’ll have a few more posts based on Mr. Lede’s book in the future. Today, I’m excerpting passages from a later Victorian version of his book titled The Guide To The Stage, Or, How To Enter The Theatrical Profession, Obtain An Engagement, And Become An Actor. Founded On And Partly Taken From Leman Rede’s Book.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Should you have been engaged prior to the commencement of the season, you will be called with the company by a notice in the papers, to attend a meeting in the green-room, generally two or three days before the theatre opens ; but if you are engaged any time during the acting season, you had better call at the Theatre every evening in order to ascertain whether your name is cast in any of the pieces. It has been customary in all well-ordered theatres, for the call-boy to notify at their place of residence, such of the performers as are in the pieces to be rehearsed; but I think you better manifest your early zeal by calling yourself, as I have stated.

The first thing after you receive a part, is to become perfect in the words as soon as possible; in a new piece, never be seen at the last rehearsal with the book or MS. in your hand.  Should the play be in manuscript it will be read to the company in the green-room, to which you will pay particular attention.

It is usual at the commencement of the season for the stage-manager to list upon the door of each dressing-room containing the names of the persons who are to occupy the apartment; but should this not be done, you will consult the stage-manager at once. Having ascertained your room, and the place which you are to occupy in dressing,

You will next proceed to the wardrobe, and learn of the master or costumier what style or articles of dress you will have to be furnished with, in order that you may throw in what extras you may want from your private stock to make up the character; having settled all these matters, go home and select such articles and private properties as you will need for the night, and then read your part over.

When called to the theatre, be careful to make your appearance at the very time specified, this will not only exhibit a commendable devotion to your profession, induce a regularity in your business habits, and prevent your liability to a reproof from the stage-manager or prompter, and prevent a deduction from your week’s salary as “ a forfeit.”

Upon entering the green-room … look at the cast case, see what you are concerned in, and make a memorandum of the parts, &c. If the plays be standard pieces, or such as published, it is expected that you will furnish your own books to study your parts from. Should the play or plays be in manuscript, a written part will be handed to you— this you will take care of, and give back to the prompter or call-boy, when the piece is withdrawn from the stage.

Sarah Siddons

You will next look at the call-board, ascertain what pieces are called for rehearsal; the hour at which each rehearsal is to take place. Should you be concerned in any of the pieces called, see to getting the play, or the part that you are to perform, and study the words of the character, and then appear at rehearsal at the stated-time, and go through your business,&c.

Take a seat in the green-room, examine your part, ascertain which side of the stage you are to make our entrances and exit, the precise entrance or wing, and your cue for entering, which is the last line spoken previous to your going on, and then wait quietly till you are summoned by the call-boy, at which you will proceed immediately to your place of entrance, arrange your manner of entering, and listen attentively for your cue.

Charles Kean

At rehearsal, if there is any particular movement or action, technically termed “business ” for you to perform, the stage-manager or prompter will explain it to you, and show you how to go through it.

Having rehearsed one scene—should you have another, or anything farther to do in the piece, retire to the green room, until you are again called ; never, under any circumstances, leave the theatre, or be out of the way, when you are liable to be called for the stage.

It is the duty of the call-boy, to summon you from the green-room only, unless your presence is required in the music-room for some especial purpose.

Operas, ballets, pantomimes, and some particular pieces are generally called for by the act; that is all concerned in the piece, are summoned at the commencement of each act, and are expected to be at their places of entrance, &c., without further notice.

Should there be any changes made with your entrances, or in anything else at rehearsal, always mark your part according to such alterations, and also make a memorandum of the stage properties, which you are to carry on or use at night, in order to avoid trouble or difficulty, in case the call-boy should forget or neglect to hand them to you.

Be sure to check out the earlier posts in this series!

Making It On The Victorian Stage – Do You Have What It Takes? And The Right Clothes?

Dear Reader,

I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to abandon you, but life was kinda kicking my backside these last months. I am continuing my posts on Victorian theatre. If you recall in the first post, we learned about the various type of productions, the different theatres, rules concerning the theatres, and the agents. Now let’s look at some of the accomplishments recommended in Leman Thomas Rede’s book The Road To The Stage, Or, The Performer’s Preceptor for an actress or actor entering the profession.


Many of those who will honour me by perusing these pages, may remember an actor, in the character of Corinthian Tom, dancing in the Almack scene; although the gentleman’s  performance  of that character was very excellent, yet, from not having cultivated an acquaintance with Terpsichore, he in this one scene destroyed all our prepossessions of the all-accomplished Tom; whereas Connor, if he did not, by his admirable Hibernian jig, completely make the character of Dr. O’Tool, at least considerably heightened the effect of it.

Elliston was the only Doricourt upon the stage who danced the Minuet de la Gour, and this he made a great feature of his performance; while Egerton, though he opened in the Duke Aranza, at the Hay­market, did not dance at all, thus marring the whole effect of the scene, as the duke pointedly insists on Juliana dancing, and declares his intention of joining the merry circle himself.


There is one theatre in London for which no actor will be engaged unless he has some knowledge of music, viz.-the Theatre Royal, English Opera House. Although the season is a short one, yet this theatre, under the able management of Mr. Arnold, has been the stepping-stone to some of our leading actors. Harley, Wilkinson, and J. Russell, all made their first metropolitan bows in one season here; poor Chatterley also appeared the same year. Miss Love’s first introduction to the stage was on these boards; here it was that Miss Kelly developed her splendid endowments; and it has been the arena where Mathews has displayed all his versatility.

There is no line of the drama in which it may not be requisite to sing. Iago, Falkland, Edgar, (” King Lear,”) and include all vocalize, and it cannot be very agreeable to the feelings of any tragedian, after being highly applauded for his exertions in the course of the character, to be laughed at for his attempt to sing. In light comedy, it is continually requisite to execute music, and sometimes of no very easy character, as Baron Willinghurst, Captain Beldare, and Delaval (as originally written), Sparkish, The Singles, &c. &c. Old Men and Low Comedians must sing.

In melodrama, and serious pantomime, a slight knowledge of music is indispensable, where a certain number of things are to be done upon the stage during the execution of so many bars of music; the cues too for entrances and exits are frequently only cue changes of the air, and unless the ear is cultivated (if naturally bad) the performer will  be led into error. At the time I was myself in the habit of perpetrating divers melodramatic characters in the provinces, I was obliged to get my brother to attend me behind the scenes to tell me when my music was on.


Fencing on the stage is more cultivated for effect than anything else, and a very slender knowledge of the art is sufficient; grace goes further than skill; a few lessons, if the pupil is not uncommonly dull, will be sufficient; it is not essential to rival Kean, or the late Bengough, in the use of the sword, but utter ignorance of the art is destructive to anyone, Edwards’ failure in Richard, at Covent Garden, was decided by his wretched combat–I need  not  add how Kean’s success was enhanced by his excellent one.


A knowledge of this language is a component part of that education every actor should have received; to a light comedian, and the performer of eccentrics, it is indispensable. Crackley, in “Green Man,” and a multitude of other parts, cannot be personated by a man ignorant of the Gallic tongue.

The 1872 Americanized edition of Rede’s book also includes the plays that all actors and actresses should know.

There is a vast amount of study required before the novice applies to a manager to become one of his company He must possess a thorough knowledge of the old standard dramas, for their characters are the standpoint from which all others are determined. The manager, for instance, in describing different parts uses the following phrases:

It is a kind of Bob Acres part, or that it is somewhat similar to Martin Haywood, or that still another part resembles Mrs. Haller; consequently you must judge what these characters are like and as Bob Acres is from “Rivals,” Martin Heywood from the “Rent Day” and Mrs. Haller from the “Stranger,” a knowledge of these plays and many others is most essential; besides, there are very few, if any, theatres in the United States which do not, in the course of a year, play one of the following pieces.

The following plays should, without no exception, be read. Nearly all of Shakspeare’s particularly:

And here’s a funny prerequisite to the modern reader: the would-be actress or actor must possess her or his own costumes! Here is an excerpt from the 1836 version of Rede’s book regarding costuming.

The number of actors that of late years have been in the habit of furnishing their own wardrobe has given the managers a hint which they have pretty generally taken. Every man likes to appear to ad­vantage, and many therefore find their own dresses, if they do not approve of the old suits in the stock ; but as our best actors have generally been the poorest men, it is necessary for me to state the things it is absolutely expected that an actor is to find himself in.

Never build while you can buy, is a rule with regard to tenements–never make dresses while you can purchase them, is a dramatic maxim. Theatrical things made at home always cost treble what they could be purchased for [on the street].

Rede includes extensive costume and property lists for various stock characters. These are page images from the 1836 edition. Enjoy!