Rosa Praed\'s Career as a Dramatist
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Rosa Praed's Career as a Dramatist
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by Patricia Clarke
Patricia Clarke's biography of Rosa Praed: Rosa! Rosa! A Life of Rosa
Praed, Novelist and Spiritualist, 1851–1935 will be published by
Melbourne University Press in November 1999.
In the late 1880s Australian novelist Rosa Praed was an acclaimed figure in
London literary circles. She had written a stream of novels since the
success of her first book, An Australian Heroine in 1880. Some were
controversial portrayals of colonial society and politics set in her native
Queensland, others introduced the latest ideas then sweeping London's
'Upper Bohemia'. In 1888 she ventured into the critical world of the London
Her tenth novel, The Bond of Wedlock: A Tale of London Life,
published in 1887, had gained notoriety after being attacked by critics.
Ignoring its underlying theme—the tyrannical aspects of marriage
experienced by many women and their desire for freedom—reviewers
concentrated on more sensational aspects. It was condemned as 'a bald story
of adultery' and 'the mere narrative of a dishonourable and disgraceful
transaction'.[i] Some months after its publication Rosa received a telegram
from the celebrated actress, Mrs Bernard Beere, asking if she would
agree to dramatise the novel. A very tall woman of striking appearance,
always seen with a lorgnette, Mrs Beere was reputed to have no equal in
playing sophisticated, wronged heroine roles. She had recently taken over
the management of the Opéra Comique theatre in London's West End.
Rosa agreed with enthusiasm and worked on a dramatic version through
the latter part of 1887. Play acting had appealed to her from childhood.
Her novels are constructed dramatically and it is easy to imagine that as
she wrote she saw her stories in a series of vivid scenes. She had already
seen the possibilities in playwriting and had dramatised an earlier novel,
Affinities: A Romance of To-day, with her friend, the painter Louise
Jopling, although it had not been acted on a public stage.
Remarkably, The Bond of Wedlock and the theatrical version, which Rosa
named Ariane, caught the beginning of(even predated(a wave of debate in
which the institution of marriage came under public attack. The Married
Women's Property Act, passed in 1882, had given married women for the first
time the right to possess property but it was soon apparent that other
aspects of the bonds of marriage had not been loosened. The Act, for
instance, did nothing to counter male dominance in marriage expressed in
excessive sexual demands, violent acts or demands for obedience. At the
same time the bonds of marriage remained very difficult to break through
divorce, particularly for women. When it became apparent that the Married
Women's Property Act left major problems unchanged, some female reformers
adopted a more radical, fundamental criticism of marriage. This came to a
head in 1888, the year following publication of The Bond of Wedlock, in a
debate in the Daily Telegraph, which in turn followed publication of
articles in the Westminster Review entitled 'Marriage' and 'Ideal
Marriage'[ii] by Mona Caird, until this time a relatively obscure novelist.
(Caird, who was born on the Isle of Wight in 1858, had spent part of her
childhood in Australia. Her articles were published later in book form as
The Morality of Marriage.
Caird declared 'the present form of marriage . . . is a vexatious
failure'. She advocated an ideal form of marriage in which while 'love and
trust and friendship remain, no bonds are necessary to bind two people
together'. Whenever these ceased, 'the tie becomes false and iniquitous,
and no one ought to have power to enforce it'. The interposition of law or
society, was 'an impertinence'. She added: 'It need scarcely be said that
there must be a full understanding and acknowledgment of the obvious right
of the woman to possess herself body and soul, to give or withhold herself
body and soul exactly as she wills'. Mona Caird's articles were taken up by
the Daily Telegraph which invited its readers to comment. The extraordinary
number of letters to the editor—27 000—indicated the enormous extent of the
seething unrest about what came to be called the 'Marriage Question'. A
selection of these letters was later edited by Harry Quilter and published
as Is Marriage a Failure?
It is an extraordinary example of Rosa Praed's ability to catch—in
fact help to create—the mood of the moment in England (as she had with the
advent of theosophy in her novel Affinities) that her novel The Bond of
Wedlock should appear the year before this debate on the 'Marriage
Question'. In the novel she explored the powerlessness of women in
marriage, the sexual double standard that condoned infidelity in men but
not in women, and the flawed nature of the legal institution of marriage
which sanctioned violence and marital rape. Unlike her early books set in
Australia, which usually followed the romantic formula of the quest for
marriage partners, it was a story about the married state. The heroine,
Ariana, is a victim of a coarse, insensitive and violent first husband,
then of her father who manipulates her divorce and remarriage for financial
gain and subsequently of her second husband when she is trapped in another
unhappy marriage. The view of marriage presented in the novel could not
have been more cynical, encompassing an arranged divorce and two
unsatisfactory marriages. The 'other woman', Babette Steinbock, explicitly
states the attractions of a life free from marriage with 'no one to have
the right to ask me any questions'. Babette wanted only to be free like a
man. But 'in this country a woman can only be really free when she is
immoral; and so I mean to take up with immorality again for the sake of my
Ariane opened on 8 February 1888 at the Opéra Comique. The uproarious
audience, apparently attracted to the play because of the alleged
'immorality' of its plot, included the Prince of Wales. Some years before
he had shown interest in Rosa by inviting her lunch following the publicity
generated by her earlier sensational novel, Nadine: The Story of a Woman.
The opening night was a climax in Rosa's life as well as a time of almost
unbearable tension. Her short diary[iv] of the days surrounding the opening
of her play vibrates with the great nervous strain of the event. The
stage rehearsal, she recorded, left her with a sense of confusion and
impending disaster—although everyone spoke reassuringly to her she could
see that they looked 'blank'. At the stage door Mrs Beere comforted her: 'A
stage rehearsal is the worst to see'. Others told her a bad stage rehearsal
was a good omen but Rosa remained overcome with pessimism. When the
climatic pistol shot misfired during a second rehearsal of the fourth act,
Rosa speculated that the following night she 'would be blown from a
cannon's mouth'. Asked whether she would go on stage if there were calls
for the author on the opening night, she replied that she would bow from
her box. She was told the Prince of Wales and his party would be occupying
a box just below hers and her public appearance above would be impossible
for reasons of protocol. The prospect ahead terrified her.
On the day of the premiere, Rosa's family gathered for the event. Her
father and step-mother, Thomas and Nora Murray-Prior, came to London from
Lausanne and the Praed boys were brought home from their schools to join
their mother and father, Campbell Praed, and their sister Maud. The family
dinner before the performance proceeded in an atmosphere of feverish
excitement and dread. When they reached the theatre Rosa sat in a corner of
her box with the curtain drawn. From the start the audience was rowdy
and applause and hisses intermingled to such an extent she could discern no
pattern to them. As the first and second acts proceeded the atmosphere of
impatient uproariousness continued and the applause was sparse.
A turning point came with the third act, and after it Joseph Knight, the
Athenaeum drama critic, a personal friend, came to her box and told her:
'Your play is safe now'. He added a proviso—if the audience did not have to
wait too long for the last act. There was reason for apprehension as the
Prince of Wales, who had been talking loudly and 'behaving disgracefully'
throughout the first three acts, had in the interval gone backstage. There
was an unnerving wait for the fourth act to begin with the actors unable to
appear until the Prince decided to return to his box.
At the end of the play the curtain fell to applause mingled with a few
hisses. When there were cries for the author, the stage manager came for
Rosa but she thought the cries were hooting and refused. She, her husband,
her father and Nora and the rest of her party waited until the audience had
gone then left by a side entrance. Rosa went to bed to a night of strange,
Early the next morning she heard Campbell in the next room talking
about the avalanche of criticism in the papers beginning with the Times
which recommended audiences to take with them a 'portable disinfectant'.
There were calls for the play to be withdrawn (European Mail), condemnation
of its 'immoral tone' (Morning Post) and advice to Englishmen to keep their
wives and daughters away (Standard). The Daily Telegraph critic said the
play did not contain a scene or a character that did not bring 'a shudder
of disgust'.[v] Though better news was to come, the trauma of failure and
rejection that Rosa suffered during that night and early morning remained
with her. It was to reappear in her novel The Scourge-Stick where she
portrays the devastating failure of a young actress, Esther Vrintz,
propelled from obscurity into a leading role in the West End, who is
attacked by critics and gives up her acting career.
Following the shocking reviews, Rosa gained some reassurance from a
note from Joe Knight. 'Do not be discouraged', he told her. 'You were right
not to shew yourself. A few of the rougher would have hissed. The piece
however is safe. No more opposition will be heard nor would have been heard
but for the lateness of the hour. You were very nearly sacrificed to
H.R.H.'[vi] Later that day Knight arrived with a copy of the Star newspaper
which contained a 'very daring' article attacking the Prince of Wales's
disruptive behaviour. Knight had written a favourable review of Ariane for
the Athenaeum but it was not due to appear for a few days. Meanwhile Rosa
faced the fact that all the reviews published so far were abusive. She
telegraphed Joe Knight and Mrs Beere asking if the play should be altered
to overcome the criticism of its lack of morality. Mrs Beere, who still had
hope for the play and regarded the criticism as 'glaringly
prejudiced', immediately replied 'no'.
'Never was such a storm', Rosa wrote in the diary she kept of these
events. Her father and Nora departed in low spirits. The boys returned to
their schools, the eldest, Bulkley, distressed because he was afraid his
mother's play had been a failure. Campbell went to his brewery at
Wellingborough. Then a surprising telegram arrived from Mrs Bernard Beere:
'Piece splendid success last night'. That night after returning from
Wellingborough and visiting the New Club and the Garrick, Campbell arrived
home with the news that Ariane was playing to crowded houses.
Ariane became not only a popular success but its fame escalated when
it became the subject of a parody, "Airey" Annie, A Travestie of Mrs C.
Praed's play of "Ariane", which opened at Easter 1888 in the Strand Theatre
in Aldwych opposite the Opéra Comique. Its author was the editor of Punch,
Francis Cowley Burnand, playwright and author, famous for his burlesques.
In published form "Airey" Annie was only twenty-four pages in length, a
note after the listing of the four acts stating: 'The piece is played
throughout in one scene. No change given. No time allowed for refreshment.
No "drop" between the Acts'. Several sections were in verse sung to popular
tunes. At the climax of the parody, Ariane's first husband Henry Lomax
portrayed as a brandy-and soda wifebeater, tells his wife to extract money
from her admirer, Sir Leopold D'Acosta:
If you don't do exactly what I like,
You'll find the hand that cannot work can strike.
Rosa took the parody in good humour. Francis Burnand was a friend and the
publicity generated by his burlesque was no disadvantage in keeping her
play in the news. Burnand told Campbell Ariane was the only play he had
seen for a long time worth a parody. 'This sounds an odd compliment', he
wrote. 'But a piece or plot must be written in good earnest & there must be
true grit in the characters otherwise the ingenuity involved in true
travestie is unprofitable'.[vii] Rosa's children went to see Burnand's
play, Humphrey reporting that it made him roar with laughter.[viii] Rosa's
play, Ariane, continued to play to crowded houses through the spring, its
run ending at the beginning of June after nearly four months.
In Australia the Bulletin reported that Rosa Praed intended to write
drama exclusively in the future.[ix] Although there is no other evidence
that she intended to write only for the stage, she had high hopes for a
dramatic version of a novel, originally named 'Binbian Jo', which she had
written jointly with Irish Nationalist parliamentarian, novelist and
journalist, Justin McCarthy. Just before the novel was published in 1888
under the title The Ladies' Gallery, Rosa Praed was advised to secure the
dramatic copyright by arranging a public performance. Pupils of Miss Sarah
Thorne's school for drama, including Beatrice Lamb and Violet Vanburgh, who
later became theatrical celebrities, performed the play at the Theatre
One of the critics present recommended the play to the famous English
theatrical couple, Madge and William Kendal, managers of the St James
Theatre, London, who were planning to tour the United States and Canada the
following year. Madge Kendal saw dramatic possibilities in a story that
began in the uninhabited Gulf country of north Queensland where 'Binbian
Jo', known only by the name of the range where he has discovered a rich
gold lode, is saved from death by thirst by a mate. Later in London, the
friend, Rick Ransom, becomes a radical member of Parliament. At the climax,
during the Trafalgar Street riots of unemployed people (which took place in
1887), 'Binbian Jo' saves the life of his friend but loses his own. On 26
October 1888 Rosa signed an agreement with the Kendals who agreed to try
out the play, renamed The Two Friends, in the provinces and, if it was
successful, take it to London and then to the United States.[x]
The first performance was in Bristol on 23 November 1888 but Rosa, who had
worked unceasingly through the autumn on the dramatic version, was too ill
to attend. Madge Kendal wrote to her just before the opening night: 'I have
been rehearsing & directing every line, movement & emphasis of your play
for the last fortnight at the theatre from 11 to 4 every day . . . I can't
sleep now through excitement & after the Play tomorrow it would have
cheered & helped me if you had appeared'.[xi] Rosa was so ill, however,
that her doctor called in a specialist as she waited anxiously in bed for a
telegram from the Kendals. When it came it was all 'warm congratulation'.
She heard later that Madge Kendal was magnificent as the heroine, William
Kendal an admirable Binbian and the audience wept.
Over Christmas and New Year Rosa worked on further rewriting of The
Two Friends then travelled to Norwich the day before the play's planned
opening there on 26 January 1889. That night she and the Kendals talked
until 2.30 a.m. The next day she attended the rehearsal in the afternoon
then the performance and again sat up until the early morning talking about
the play before returning exhausted to London with the Kendals. All through
February she and Madge Kendal worked on further rewriting but in the end
Rosa was relieved when the Kendals decided not to produce it in London.
Although this was the end of her dream of a future as an international
dramatist, Rosa was relieved the nervous strain was over. The Kendals
opened in New York on 7 October 1889 in Sardou's A Scrap of Paper, the
beginning of their extraordinarily successful American tours which
continued until the end of the century.
So ended Rosa Praed's public career as a dramatist. Her career as a popular
and prolific novelist continued. Later she wrote that, although it had been
her 'dearest wish' to write plays, she was trammelled by a feeling of
limitation in writing for the stage as well as a 'certain self-
consciousness and dread of ridicule'.[xii]
[i] Athenaeum, 22 January 1887, p. 127.
[ii] 'Marriage', Westminster Review, August 1888, 'Ideal Marriage',
[iii] The Bond of Wedlock, pp. 44–5.
[iv][v] Praed Papers, John Oxley Library, OM64–1, 3/11/1.
[vi] Quoted in European Mail, 10 February 1888.
[vii] Joseph Knight to Rosa Praed, Praed Papers, John Oxley Library,
[viii] F.C. Burnand to Campbell Praed, Praed Papers, John Oxley Library,
[ix] Humphrey Praed to Nora Murray-Prior, Murray-Prior Papers, National
Library of Australia MS7801, Box 5, Folder 32, 9/19.
[x] Bulletin, 2 June 1888.
[xi] Rosa Praed to Louise Chandler Moulton, 27 November 1888, Louise
Chandler Moulton Papers, US Library of Congress.
[xii] Notes from Madge Kendal's letters, Praed Papers, John Oxley Library,
[xiii] Mrs Campbell Praed, 'Why I Don't Write Plays', Pall Mall Gazette, 8