The Stage Career of Cicely Hamilton (1895–1914)

by Seán Moran (Author)
Monographs 236 Pages

Table Of Content

Seán Moran

The Stage Career of
Cicely Hamilton (1895 – 1914)

About the author

Seán Moran received a PhD from the University of Gdansk in Poland where he works at the Institute of Applied Linguistics.

About the book

Drawing on recently released or previously neglected archive material, this book is the first dedicated to the stage career of Cicely Hamilton (1872–1952). Best known for her work with the women’s suffrage movement, Hamilton was at the same time deeply committed to the commercial stage as an actress, dramatist and activist. The book draws extensively on Hamilton’s own recollections as well as those of her close associates, supplemented by contemporary press reviews and articles, and concludes with a chronology of the productions in which she performed as a touring actress based on confirmed dates and venues.

This book “(…) is a fascinating and fantastic resource for current and future scholars of Hamilton’s work, as well as those interested in the wider framework of (…) the theatre industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dr. Naomi Paxton (School of Advanced Study, University of London)

With its documentation and assessment of Hamilton’s touring career, (…) this well written and meticulously researched study provides an original contribution to theatre, dramatic, and reception history.

Prof. Dr. Rudolf Weiss (University of Vienna)

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.


A page in a history for the use of students; a professor’s comments in a classroom
lecture, a question or two in an examination paper – that is the form in which the
great man survives, that is fame!

Cicely Hamilton, Full Stop.

Cicely Mary Hammill (1872–1952) was many things in a long life. Above all she was Cicely Hamilton, a name change she felt obliged to make on entering the acting profession some time around 1895. In this new persona, she acted on tour and in the West End; wrote dramas (including three for children) and seven novels, as well as romantic and detective fiction and a series of ten travel journals. She campaigned for women’s rights both before and after the First World War; she broadcast on the BBC; worked as a translator; contributed articles to an influential feminist periodical and to some of the most popular newspapers of her age. She worked as an administrator at a French Red Cross hospital between 1914 and 1917; led a theatre company that toured the Western Front, and through all this was a committed Christian. Yet despite this catalogue of achievements, she is best remembered for her activities as part of the women’s suffrage movement between 1908–1914.

For a writer most readily associated with the cause, she showed reservations over the significance of the vote which alienated her from many of her contemporaries. In fact, she took a fiercely individual stance on every issue, declaring herself “by nature inclined to heresy” (1932:227), which makes it difficult to identify her fully with any of her peers. Although strongly opposed to war, she had no hesitation in devoting five years of her life to service (including after the Armistice in British-occupied Cologne) and for the writer of a seminal work on the pure economic necessity of marriage for women (Marriage as a Trade, 1909), she sought sexual equality firmly within the established social norms.

Although she writes of her early stage life in her autobiography Life Errant (1935), little attempt has been made to investigate her professional touring career from the 1890s. Her biographer, Lis Whitelaw, does not explore this in detail, assuming that the “touring companies of which she was a member were mostly too insignificant to be noticed in the professional←9 | 10→ journals such as the Stage and Era so there is very little record of the plays in which she appeared at the beginning of her career” (24), although she does then go on to discuss a tour with Edmund Tearle’s company in 1897 and “the one other play” for which records exist, The Gamekeeper (26).

While Whitelaw may have been perfectly justified in writing such statements in 1990, the proliferation of digital newspaper archives since then has made what would have been the work of many months a task that can be carried out, at least in part, from any location at any time. The primary sources are the two ‘trade’ journals, The Era and The Stage, despite Whitelaw’s assertion to the contrary. The Era boasted a very informative “Dramatic Cards” section, where actors were able to post brief details of current or imminent engagements (or lack thereof), and a separate “On the Road” column listing plays and venues for the coming week. Once the names of individual plays have been established, the British Newspaper Archive, run in partnership with the British Library and findmypast.com, is an invaluable resource for reviews. This is particularly true for tours outside the capital in just the sort of touring company in which Hamilton served her ten-year apprenticeship. Thanks to these archives and other sources, it has been possible to compile a full list of all the plays in which Hamilton featured from her debut in 1895 to the staging of her first work as an author in 1906, a breakthrough which heralded the fulfilment of a long-cherished wish for a place on the London stage, and from there to a point where she was able to witness her own plays being sent out to the ‘provinces’ in the wake of West-End success to be performed by a new generation of touring actors.

In addition, as the digital records expand, they reveal the prominent and respected (by and large) position that Hamilton held in the mainstream press, whatever her status in the more familiar area of women’s rights. As this book seeks to demonstrate, she was viewed as an extremely capable, at times outstanding actress, somewhat less consistent as a dramatist, and a controversial and outspoken social commentator. In her career as a professional journalist, she was often called upon to remark on topical issues of the day, feminist and otherwise, and so was able to maintain a public profile distinct from, and long after, her association with women’s suffrage. Thus, by the time she came to publish her autobiography, she was far from being a peripheral figure. Her reluctance to discuss suffrage in Life Errant←10 | 11→ is probably less indicative of a desire to sweep her more acerbic outbursts under the carpet, as Whitelaw contends (4) and more likely a suggestion that she attached less importance to this stage of her life than modern literary and historical criticism would assume.

Despite having published an autobiography, she was reticent about her past, as its opening sentence clarifies: “Family details are not interesting except to those who know us – and not always to them; so I state mine as briefly as possible” (ix). One of the facts she omits is the fate of her Irish mother, Maud Mary Hammill (née Florence), merely providing the information that her departure was one “whose finality was not recognized at the time” (6). Whitelaw has criticised her for a frustrating lack of detail, condemning the book as “one of the most uninformative … ever written” (1990:4). Hamilton does, however, say that as a young girl she had determined on suicide, should her mother die (6), and the loss may very well still have been acute more than fifty years later. There are similar accounts of episodes from her early life where the pain of recollection is almost palpable and which may help explain why parents and their children are so conspicuously absent from her later writing.

Her father, Denzil Hammill, was Scottish by descent and a distinguished soldier by profession. He had joined his regiment in 1858, not as a lowly private but with a rank equivalent to Second Lieutenant and within ten years had risen to Captain through the purchase of two commissions, each of which would have involved a substantial sum of money. He ended his career in 1885 with the honorary rank of Major General and bearer of the title of Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, and his return to England marked the end of his children’s misery1. He did not stay long. Small obituaries in The Pall Mall Gazette (9 December 1891:6) and The Morning Post (1 January 1892:2) record his death from fever in January 1891 in Bonny (modern Nigeria), where he was serving as a Vice-Consul. He may have been obliged to accept the post rather than retiring as Hamilton writes that a “defaulting solicitor-trustee” had reduced his side of the family to “straitness” by the end of his military service (11).←11 | 12→ Poverty and tribulation were to be further recurrent themes in both her life and her work.

While Denzil Hammill was abroad on foreign service, Hamilton and her three younger siblings were boarded out in South London. Again, this seems to have been a harrowing experience, Hamilton revealing that as late as 1935 she still could not bear the sight of Clapham Common (7). This grim period opened her eyes to the startling realisation that “motherhood has its ugly sides” (8), and the misery is apparent in her evocation of the cruel stepmother type who favoured her own offspring over her wards. If nothing else, it certainly taught her to resent “the masculine justification of women on the ground of motherhood” (10).

The United Kingdom census carried out in the year of her father’s death lists Cicely and Raymond Hammill, aged eighteen and eleven years, living as boarders with two paternal aunts at a lodging house in Bournemouth. While the young Raymond is still a schoolboy, each of the three women is described as “living on her own means”2. This financial independence proved a lifelong source of pride, in that her position in life had largely been attained through her own endeavours, and in the face of austerity and drudgery.

Some time after 1891, Hamilton took the decision to gather her savings and move to London with her sister, less in the hope of finding more rewarding employment than in the desire to finally establish a home of their own to compensate for the instability of their childhood. By the time of the next census in 1901, Cicely (actress) and Evelyn Hammill (dancing school teacher) are listed as occupying two rooms at 28, Glebe Place in Chelsea (Plate 1)3. According to Whitelaw, the sisters lived together until 1929 (151), which would have allowed Evelyn to secure the lodgings during those periods when her older sister was on tour and later serving in France during the war. Presumably this is also the address which contained the furniture purchased largely in her sister’s name and her own “strip of elderly carpet, two books and a kettle” that she declared to revenue officials←12 | 13→ eager to recover assets when she withheld payment as a member of the Tax Resistance League4 (Vote, 13 March 1913:337). Her advocacy of passive resistance is also attested in her apparent absence from the 1911 UK census.

In 1921, Hamilton seems to have moved to a larger home literally across the street from her previous address. Nevertheless the move did not signal a change in her financial fortunes. She placed an advertisement in The Women’s Leader (aka The Common Cause) for two rooms to let at 44, Glebe Place, which suggests that, alone or with Evelyn, she was in need of the extra thirty shillings a week that a boarder would provide (17 June 1921:315). It seems that this arrangement continued into the following decade, as Vera Brittain, her friend and neighbour at number 19, makes a reference to “Cicely Hamilton’s lodger” as late as July 1932 (68). Whatever the hardship involved in its upkeep, the small, red-brick house at number 44 was to remain Hamilton’s home until her death in 1952 (Plate 2).

Aside from its psychological effects, the adversity of Hamilton’s childhood and early adult life had by necessity fostered self-reliance and a suspicion of mass emotion which permeates her writing to an astonishing, almost monotonous, degree. This reluctance to subsume herself fully in the crowd is what Whitelaw appears to be condemning in her disappointment over the mere two chapters of Life Errant dedicated to the suffrage period, and most of this relating to an unsavoury and rowdy incident during a Women’s Liberal Federation meeting at the Albert Hall in London when pro-suffrage hecklers reduced the event to chaos by their constant interruptions of Lloyd George. Nonetheless, Hamilton’s interpretation of the event is significant for two reasons. Once steps had been taken to eject the hecklers (of both sexes), the tumult was broken by the resident organist, who struck up a comic tune which shattered “the deadly earnestness of the suffragette” and restored order (73). As Hamilton frequently employed the same, sometimes irreverent, humour to puncture the solemnity of a situation, her approval comes as no surprise. The Albert Hall meeting is also something of a landmark in that Hamilton witnessed it as an observer. Previously, as she writes, she had been “one of the crowd, and therefore had only a partial view of its excitement” (ibid.). On this occasion, however, she was sitting in a box←13 | 14→ “watching the effects of political passion on a crowd” and was “horrified, amazed and horrified” by what “perfectly decent individuals” could be capable of when organised (ibid.). It was not the first time she had become aware of this, but thereafter she was possessed by the conviction that “the dangerous attraction of membership, comradeship, is that it gives free rein to passions and vices, which, as individuals, we are bound to hold in check” (74). In keeping with this philosophy, Hamilton never felt obliged to fall in with party policy as a suffragist.

It is not clear when Hamilton first became involved in that campaign, but Whitelaw (46) and Crawford (264) date her activities back to the first public procession, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in February 1907 and known due to the adverse weather conditions as the Mud March, although Crawford lists her as secretary of the Chelsea branch in 1906 (106). In either case, this would place her in the vanguard of the London movement, without taking into account that her activities on a local London level before that date may have gone unrecorded. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) for “a few months” (1935:66) but left in September 1907 over the leadership’s decision to cancel a scheduled annual conference at short notice. Motivated by concerns over an undemocratic bias in the leadership, she had written to Christabel Pankhurst in her capacity as Chelsea secretary to seek clarification over motivation and intentions for the future. By organising themselves into a “non-elected body”, she writes, they had made it difficult “for those who believe in responsibility and representation to ask for adherents and subscriptions to the Union”. Christabel’s outspoken verbal response stated categorically that the leadership preferred not to work with certain individuals whom it feared would be elected if a conference were held, and that, having torn up the constitution, the new committee would exist for as long as it deemed necessary. Anyone who did not accept these new conditions was perfectly at liberty to withdraw their subscription. In Hamilton’s case, this momentous step was taken without affecting her personal admiration for Christabel (Daily News, 21 September 1907:6). The Chelsea branch subsequently became the first to break away from the WSPU in favour of the newly-formed Women’s Freedom League or WFL (Crawford:264).←14 | 15→

Despite her early commitment, she made no secret of the fact that she cared little for the vote and that her personal struggle was primarily feminist in nature – to break the automatic association between woman and wedlock that had left most of her sex with no option in life but to marry or starve. In an article entitled “The Vote as a Weapon of Defence” published in The New Age, a progressive socialist-inclined weekly which took a largely favourable but critical stand on the subject of women’s suffrage, she writes that it is sheer necessity that has finally driven women to fight for the vote, not some vague concept of justice or equality. Certain classes of men – she names politicians, scientists and journalists, seem bent on returning women to the unpaid labour of the home in reaction against their increasing encroachment into the paid labour market. Whatever the legislation or cause men espouse in the furtherance of that aim, their ultimate goal is preservation of the race through the reduction of women to child-bearers. Although she states that she has no inherent difficulty with the concept of a healthy race and healthy children, it is hypocritical for men to insist that women’s labour, women’s personal liberty or personal excesses contribute to the decline of the race. The silent killer both of the race and of its children is the sexual incontinence of men and the diseases this gives rise to, however much this unpleasant fact may be veiled by the silence or ignorance imposed by a misguided sense of social etiquette. By forcing woman out of the paid labour market, men risk driving them into prostitution and the increased risk of sexually transmitted disease. Recent cases in the courts have made it abundantly clear that the law considers a husband’s sole legal duty to his wife to be one of basic maintenance, i.e. keeping her off the rates and preventing her from being a financial burden on the state. The response from those in authority to these momentous decisions has been nil, as those who will suffer “happen to be the voteless inhabitants, and their legal position matters not at all!”

She ends her argument with the controversial conclusion that anyone who relies on another for the barest upkeep required by law, anyone confined to unpaid labour in the home and unable to save for her own future or that of her children is nothing less than a slave. The only safeguard woman can deploy against this degradation is to obtain the political clout enshrined in a parliamentary franchise (7 March 1908:367–368).←15 | 16→

Four years later, she expands on these ideas in a more personal contribution in The Daily Mail on the theme of “Why I became a Suffragette” (6 August 1912:4). Always a feminist, she claims, “by temperament if not by conviction”, she traces her incipient political awareness back to a childhood sense of anger when informed that certain activities were suitable for her male cousin but not for her as a young lady. Later, the contrast between the free development of her brother and her own conformity to an imposed standard of femininity merely emphasised that she was expected to cultivate aspects of her character that held no great personal appeal. While this applies to both sexes, she concedes, the pressure on women to strive for physical beauty in order to be attractive to the opposite sex is undoubtedly more pronounced. With hindsight, she viewed her efforts to be charming as time squandered and remained genuinely indifferent to how most people felt about her. With this came the realisation that she was simply not cut out for “the boring and ridiculous nature” of matrimony, at which point she abandoned all of her endeavours in that direction. Freed from these confines, she came to the realisation that women are “creatures not of one possibility, but of many, and that the best and most necessary thing for us to do was to find out as speedily as might be what those possibilities were”. Working for her own upkeep had long disabused her of the romantic notion that most women were supported by men “as an act of amiability and protection”. The only major difference between the housewife and the working woman was that the former worked without financial reward, a revelation that had taken Hamilton “from a mere rebel, conscious only of personal misfit in the scheme of things, to a full-fledged feminist – that is to say, to a woman who understood that her sense of misfit and restiveness was not particular to herself, but that characteristic of a repressed and restive class”.

Significantly and not without a hint of irony, she insists that her “feministic faith is not, and never has been, based on a belief in the essential superiority of the human woman over the human man. On the contrary, … the male of the human species is, take him all in all, a more advanced, competent, and capable creature than his female relative”. He has, however, encumbered himself with “incompetent and helpless femininity”, and no matter how hard he may resist relief from this self-imposed burden, well-wishing feminists “shall nonetheless persevere in our charitable endeavours to save him from the consequences of his own mistakes!” (ibid.).←16 | 17→

In a speech given to the Women’s Freedom League’s Central London Branch in January 1911, she re-iterates her motivation with a clarity that can be considered a ‘policy statement’.

[M]y interest in the Suffrage movement … is in the things that lie underneath, of which the Suffrage movement and the cry for votes is just a manifestation and a symptom. I should not trouble to speak about votes, if it were not that I think that the women of this country … are being swept by a wave of desire to make things better in the world. I believe that the Women’s movement is one of those movements which occur every now and then in the history of the world, as if people suddenly revolted from the materialism with which they had perhaps been contented for generations, and as if they had been stirred by the wave of what I call the Spirit, and they have tried to get a little bit nearer to the way …

The women’s movement is one of those that stir the face of the waters. They may seem to have very little result, they may seem to have very little connection, but, sooner or later, these things have a material result. The spirit moves first, and the body follows …

There must be that spirit, if the women’s movement is the real thing … The cry for the vote is a symptom of the bigger thing, of the blind consciousness of the woman that she has a brain of her own, of the desire, even if it is a blind desire, to do something to justify her place in the world. It is just because I believe in that, that I believe in what we call the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. (Vote, 14 January 1911:140–141)

Although she writes in her autobiography that many of her fellows looked on her “with considerable suspicion” both because of her personality and her opinions (65), she was a dedicated and popular campaigner and enjoyed great popularity for her wit as an orator.

Her autobiography also recounts the monotony of campaign speeches, telling and re-telling stories every night to a new audience while attempting to feign a modicum of ardour and sincerity, all compounded by having to listen to her colleagues doing the same with an apparently greater degree of enthusiasm. One audience member recalled later.

I first saw Cicely Hamilton on the platform at a suffrage meeting. At that time she had sacrificed her individualism to the extent of adopting the conventionally feminine style of dress with which leading agitators for the vote strove to convince a hostile audience that they were neither womanly nor eccentric … There she was on the platform, trying with doubtful success to look like an ordinary woman, thoroughly domesticated. It was obvious that she was listening with some impatience to the speech which preceded hers … Now it is the turn of the woman with the shock of reddish-gold hair, the pale mobile face and pale greenish-grey eyes←17 | 18→ … She is a nervous excitable speaker. Her platform manner is atrocious – fidgety, restless, too deprecating one minute, too assertive the next, but what she says is witty and wise, practical and well-reasoned. Although she was that day, as she has often been since, a thorn in the flesh of those fanatical propagandists of “women’s rights” who idealize the strength and intelligence and virtue of the sex as a plea for the removal of the disabilities imposed on it, no one alive has put the case against the economic dependence of women more cogently and logically. (Time and Tide, 26 January 1923:83–84)

Whitelaw sees Hamilton’s increasing unease with public speaking as the spur that redirected her energies towards writing dramas (68). Since anyone with talent could speak, perhaps her dedication to the cause could be better expressed by writing, thereafter creating what would become two of the most popular suffrage dramas of the age and indisputable core texts in any modern study of the genre, How the Vote was Won (1909) and A Pageant of Great Women (1909). Her written work is characterised by the positive celebration of what women have achieved despite being unfranchised, rather than a catalogue of injustices endured because they are unfranchised.

Hamilton’s determination to plough her own furrow is further demonstrated by an incident which she was obviously proud enough to include in her autobiography, when she incurred the anger of colleagues by agreeing to chair a meeting by an unnamed former associate of the Pankhursts. This lady had been challenged to repeat in London criticisms of the movement voiced during a meeting in the north of the country. Although Hamilton had “clashed sharply” with her the last time they had shared a platform, she agreed to give her a hearing for the sake of “fair play” (80). Although she omits the speaker’s name, contemporary press reports strongly suggest that the lady in question was Teresa Billington-Grieg, a founder member of both the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League, who had broken away from both and was vocal in her criticisms of the course and cogency of the campaign, particularly with respect to the narrow focus on the vote. For Hamilton it was clearly a question of listening to views that did not conform to her own and of refusing to submit to party dictates. So strong was this defiance that twenty years later, when reflecting on the WSPU in her autobiography, she credits the “wearers of the purple, white and green” with originating the concept of the Führerprinzip through the “idolatry” that developed around Emmeline Pankhurst – “forerunner of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini – the Leader whose fiat must not be questioned,←18 | 19→ the Leader who could do no wrong!” (68), a startling analogy but one that serves to illustrate the indomitable character of its author.

The advent of the militant suffrage movement had provided Hamilton with a sisterhood of like-minded women who questioned their place and their limited options in society, and who brought the hope of eventual change through political enfranchisement. As she herself writes, there was no great innovation in this demand per se, as outspoken women had existed in previous generations, only that “so far as one can judge, very few preceding ages produced a public that would listen when they spoke to them” (1912:115). Despite serious misgivings over the priority given to parliamentary suffrage, she worked wholeheartedly for the cause, admittedly on her own terms, with the wider goal of increasing the options open to women and heralding a new age. The suffrage campaign was only one element in the dawn of a broader, exhilarating age of change, and whatever may or may not be achieved in the long run, she felt, it could no longer be denied that woman had the capacity to survive beyond the threshold of the home.

Lis Whitelaw contextualises Hamilton by her close relationships in a long and fulfilling life “without men” (2) but within a sustaining community of other women “since her friends were, for the most part, the women with whom she worked” (3). In fact, archives underline how established Hamilton was in the mainstream press (as a topic and contributor) after the success of Diana of Dobson’s in 1908 until the late 1930s. Inevitably, this must have meant contact and friendship with a host of men. When she concludes her autobiography with the regret that she has neglected to mention her friends and the support they have provided, she explicitly includes men amongst them. Her friendship with Sir Barry Jackson, founder of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is hinted at briefly, as is one with H.G. Wells. In fact, Wells seems to have respected her views to the extent that he was able to cite her by name in an article for The Freewoman in 1911 where he outlines his aversion to suffragette tactics. Extremism, he claims, overemphasises the sexual differences that he was intent on obliterating and undermines his faith in the common humanity of women. By preference he stands with “Plato and Miss Cicely Hamilton” in his belief that a vote will be a tool in the education and eventual liberation of women (17 December 1911:47). So strong was his faith in Hamilton’s strand of feminism that he invited her to contribute the chapter on women to the←19 | 20→ collection The Great State: Essays in Construction the following year. In What is Coming (1916), he contrasts her advocacy of the essential equality of the sexes with the Pankhursts’ vision of society miraculously transformed by the benign influence of women, once the vote has been conceded. Their friendship was intimate enough for Wells to joke that, come the revolution, her views would regrettably force him to have her “put against a wall and shot” (Hamilton, 1935:26).

Whitelaw also writes of Hamilton entering “new spheres of activity” and finding friendships amongst “the women already working in them” (4). If fact, as an actress Hamilton was part of a sustaining community of males and females, at first brought together in mutual defence in the face of a suspicious, if not downright hostile, society that frowned on their life choices. The records indicate that Hamilton must have had very close professional relations with a number of men in particular. Fewlass Llewellyn, for example, was a member of many of the same organisations and acted with Hamilton in productions from The Sergeant of Hussars in 1908 (Plate 3) through to her last major success The Human Factor/The Old Adam in 1925. Edward Knoblauch (later Knoblock), who had read the original manuscript of Diana of Dobson’s, wrote in 1939 that his friendship with Hamilton had changed little since their first encounter in 1907, although they saw little of each other (91).

Knoblauch was also one of the guests at a dinner held in Hamilton’s honour in 1931 (she includes a photograph in her autobiography), which may symbolise the diversity of her acquaintances. The event had been organised by Winifred Holtby, twenty-five years her junior and a colleague at Time and Tide; guests were received by Hamilton herself, Viscountess Rhondda (founder of Time and Tide), Lilian Baylis (co-author of a history of the Old Vic theatre), and the chairman of the dinner Sir Nigel Playfair, who had played the original Horace Cole in How the Vote was Won in April 1909 and the figure of Prejudice at the Cambridge performance of A Pageant of Great Women in 1910. Apart from “actors, actresses, artists, writers, journalists, suffragettes and co-workers in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont”, she was toasted by representatives of the Institut Français and the German Embassy, the former congratulating her on her war work in France and the latter on her recently published Modern Germanies as Seen by an Englishwoman, a book he credited with doing more←20 | 21→ for international understanding than many politicians5. In her own modest speech, Hamilton said that she thought her two most prized possessions in life to be her “fine thoughts and good friends”. Unable to vouch for the validity of her thoughts, she “rejoiced that she had so many good friends” (Vote, 27 November 1931:383).


Despite her anti-authoritarian tendencies, Hamilton was a member of many societies, and was, most famously, directly involved in the foundation of two – the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchise League, although in both instances she abdicated actual leadership to others. She was also closely involved with, and the only other woman to direct for, the Pioneer Players, founded in 1911 by her close friend Edith Craig (Cockin, 2001:32). Yet the academic focus on these groups far outweighs consideration of her participation in organisations more specifically linked to the acting profession in which she sought recognition for the dignity of her profession and where co-operation and companionship with male colleagues was unavoidable.

She sat on the Dramatic Sub-Committee of the Society of Authors, which was the only body to represent dramatic authors in the United Kingdom. As such, it concerned itself with the question of censorship in 1909 when Hamilton’s name appears under a letter alongside colleagues such as Arthur Wing Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, J. M. Barrie, H. Granville Barker, Jerome K. Jerome, G. B. Shaw and Alfred Sutro. In 1912 the committee was engaged in the discussion over the censorship and licensing of plays, standardising contracts between managers and dramatists, and suppressing copyright violation related to the illegal printing and performance of plays (Carson, 1913:121). She also gave time and donations to the Theatrical Ladies’ Guild, founded in 1892 with the aim of assisting actresses on their becoming mothers. To this end, parcels were prepared for those in need and ‘sewing-bees’ held in ‘At Homes’ (meetings in members’ private houses)←21 | 22→ where children’s clothing was made. While it is no surprise that Hamilton did not physically engage in such activities, she was obviously sympathetic with the aims and, on at least one occasion, entertained the ladies as they worked, giving a speech on the subject of clothing (Chapter Three). She also participated in a fund-raising matinee in which one of her plays was performed.

She also seems to have been sympathetic to the aims of the Actors’ Union (formed 1907), which as a registered trade union represented some, but far from all, of the acting profession. It is difficult, however, to imagine her giving whole-hearted support to an organisation which had voted to exclude women from its committee (Carson, 1909:31).

The Actors’ Association

The Actors’ Association, on the other hand, was not a trade union. Founded in Manchester in February 1891, its stated purpose was to regulate abuses in the profession, arbitrate in disputes between actors and managers and thirdly, to promote the profession of acting itself in a way that would raise its status in society.

To this end, several proposals were put forward for debate at its inaugural meeting. The first was that the Actors’ Association should negotiate with management, for example, to maintain standards in theatre dressing-rooms, since touring actors would never be on site long enough to regulate this themselves. The association would not, however, involve themselves in contracts between actors and managers.

The second motion was that the association should be informed in cases where managers criminally defaulted on payment (rather than simply being in financial difficulties), so that they could be exposed and prosecuted. The third concerned the state of theatre dressing-rooms, both as a danger to the user and as a potential threat in case of fire or other emergency and the need to compel managers to remedy such defects. Actors, for their part, were expected to maintain standards in theatrical lodgings by refraining from defacing walls or damaging furniture. More controversial were the proposals that six performances should constitute a working week and that rehearsals should be paid (Era, 7 Feb 1891:12).←22 | 23→

Hamilton was nominated for election to the association during a regular weekly council meeting in April 1907 and sat on the governing council. One year later on 2 June 1908, she tendered her resignation (from the council at least), in absentia, her request being acceded to with regret and with a request that she inform the council when she would be in a position to serve again (Era, 6 June 1908:13).

The Actors’ Association never achieved the levels of support within the profession that it had aspired to, and was viewed with suspicion by both managers and actors alike. As Michael Baker suggests, this may be attributed to its ‘provincial’ birth at the hands of relative newcomers to the profession (158–159). In its attempts to enhance the status of the actor, working conditions and public perceptions, it would have held an obvious attraction for Hamilton as her career gathered momentum.

It was during a social evening for the Actors’ Association in February 1908 that Hamilton gave a paper on the theme of women’s rights. The chairman in introducing her stated that he personally believed that women had no rights other than to be “eternally beautiful”. Hamilton’s response is not recorded. Instead she begins by confessing that her original theme had been women’s rights in general but that she had been requested to amend this two days before to the more specific “Why Should Actresses have the Vote”. Having devoted all of ten minutes to the question in a busy work schedule, she was forced to conclude that she did not know. They certainly needed the vote no more and no less than other women, but women generally needed the vote as a means of expressing their views on issues which had a direct bearing on their lives. She then continues to state her case in economic terms very similar to the article published The New Age the following month (see above), but omitting the argument of eugenics (Stage, 27 February 1908).

The Play Actors

The Play Actors was a drama society formed in June 1907 from “several of the more active members of the Actors’ Association” (Carson, 1909:34) with the following objectives:

1. The production of the plays of Shakespeare and other poetical dramatists without scenery or special costume.←23 | 24→

2. The introduction to the public of original plays by English authors.

3. The representation of adaptations of dramatic works by foreign authors. (64)

Two degrees of membership existed, the first being restricted to forty professional actors who were also members of the Actors’ Association, and from amongst whom productions were cast. Ordinary members for an initial annual subscription fee of 10s. 6d. were to be entitled to seats at each of the eight performances that would constitute one season. The society was particularly cautious in admitting new acting members, who were required to demonstrate professional qualifications and experience before the council voted. Hamilton sat on this council from the outset, alongside colleagues such as Fewlass Llewellyn and Winifred Mayo. The relationship to the Actors’ Association remained cordial and the latter made available rent-free rehearsal and meeting space (for which it also provided the tea things), although it refused to grant permission for its address to be used (Era, 6 July 1907:15).

One major aim of the Play Actors was the promotion of new talent, both in writing and acting and it was hoped that performances could consist of plays that might otherwise have been ignored and of acting talent that might not have been able to emerge in the existing system of long runs and one-piece tours. According to The Era, one of the pieces from the society’s first performance was sold immediately afterwards, an auspicious omen for the future (21 July 1907:16). Although not named, this was Hamilton’s The Sergeant of Hussars. The Bijou Theatre, off the Strand in London, was to be the original venue for the society’s Sunday evening performances, but in a speech before its first production, the society’s chairman expressed the hope that the promises of support they had received could lead to their re-locating to a larger hall, if not a proper theatre. The 1908 season was held in the New Royalty, Scala and Court theatres, an indication of the measure of their success, and in 1913, an additional Monday afternoon performance was added for the benefit of the general public.

In its first season, thirty-nine plays were submitted for performance, of which nine were actually produced, including The Sergeant of Hussars and Mrs Vance by Hamilton, as well as Grace Griswold’s His Japanese Wife in which she played a relatively minor role. According to one report, she←24 | 25→ accepted the role of an ‘extra’ in The Philosopher’s Stone by Isaac York at the Royalty Theatre on Sunday 1 March 1908 (Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 6 March 1908:2), an indication of her sense of community and indifference to personal fame and practical proof of a statement in The Sphere that she “has never been afraid of taking a small part when she could enlarge her experience” (22 February 1908:158). Apart from this, she appears to have participated in only one major performance in 1908 – Gerhart Hauptmann’s Hannele. The following year, the emphasis on suffrage drama becomes perceptible in the repertoire, e.g. Chains by Elizabeth Baker and Hamilton and St John’s How the Vote Was Won. Otherwise Hamilton had a relatively minor role in one play – Maurice Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice, much of her attention presumably being directed towards A Pageant of Great Women, the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. By 1911, she no longer appears on the list of Council members (Carson, 1912:131) but this does not imply that she had resigned her membership entirely.

A retrospective of the society published in The Era in 1913 states that “half a dozen enthusiastic playgoers”, convinced that there were “clever plays, clever actresses, and clever actors that London had never heard of”, formed the society and found themselves being mocked by sceptics who were equally convinced that all the existing talent had already been discovered. In response, the group grew in number until it assumed its present name, started offering subscriptions and printed a set of rules. After a tremendous history of success, their “next discovery was the lady whose name is now a household word in dramatic circles – Miss Cicely Hamilton”, quickly followed by Elizabeth Baker and “her brilliant play” Chains, as well as Harold Chapin and Harold Brighouse, both of whom had their London debut with the Play Actors (Era, 22 February 1913:15).

In keeping with its other stated objectives, the society also produced works by foreign writers in translation, such as Hauptmann’s Hannele, Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice and Gabriele D’Anunzio’s La Gioconda. It also hosted the first English performance of Ibsen’s Brand (Votes for Women, 8 November 1912:94) and for their premiere they produced Act V, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure with the majority of the cast in “plain evening dress” (Stage, 26 July 1907).←25 | 26→

Actors’ Church Union

Cicely Hamilton was a devout Christian. This fact may not feature very prominently in Whitelaw’s biography but it remains a fact nonetheless. Whitelaw’s reticence on this point is puzzling, as two chapters of Hamilton’s autobiography are dedicated to the subject of religion, and her faith emerges not only from her Christmas play The Child In Flanders (1917), but also her journalism and the ‘travel’ books which she wrote (with one exception) in the nineteen-thirties.

Her faith is relevant here only as far as her membership of the Actors’ Church Union is concerned. As part of the struggle to prove that members of the acting profession might profess the same religious convictions as any individual outside it, the Actors’ Church Union was formed in 1900 to promote their cause. As the Rev. Donald Hole, its organising secretary, states, the church had previously neglected its duty to those of its congregation whose calling often took them far from home and, more specifically, entailed travel to and from venues on Sundays. This life-style set them outside the established structures of the church and “deprived [them] through no fault of their own, of many of the spiritual advantages which are enjoyed by other churchmen whose mode of life permits them to have a fixed place of residence and to attend some particular church” (1934:58). The intention therefore was to ensure that each theatre would have its own ‘honorary chaplain’ to whom actors and actresses could turn when in need. Notices could be placed on site, at the discretion of the manager, informing touring companies of the location of the chaplain’s church and its hours of service, alongside a request that he be informed in case of illness (1910:88). The Union also tried to administer to the social needs of its “temporary parishioners” by organising entertainments to cater for “the cravings for friendship and sympathy” in a profession which could at times be monotonous and lonely (89). More practically, it also undertook the compilation of a directory of suitable local lodgings, where actors would be welcome and where standards, physical and moral, could be regularly inspected.

The Stage reports that Hamilton, as a member of the Actors’ Church Union, appeared with the honorary secretary and other guests at a meeting to discuss the union’s aims, where she and a fellow-speaker “made a valu←26 | 27→able contribution to the discussion, urging that the solid work organised by the local Associates would be warmly welcomed by the profession” (7 May 1908). She would appear to have still been a member as late as 1928, judging by a brief report in The Times of 14 May.


As usual in such cases, there is a host of people who contributed to the completion of this book. It is based largely on a doctoral dissertation for the University of Gdansk and in this regard I would like to thank Professor David Malcolm for his invaluable assistance and support in helping me see it through to the end. Thanks are also due to the reviewers Professor Wojciech Nowicki of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, and Professor Ludmila Gruszewska-Blaim of the University of Gdansk, the latter of whom also proposed the present book form. Professor Andrzej Ceynowa, former Dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Gdansk approved the research grant, for which I am grateful.

I would also like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to Dr Rebecca Cameron of DePaul College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Chicago, Illinois and to Dr Margaret Leask, both of whom helped with the research at the very beginning. Once the work had been begun, various public libraries in the UK, including those in Swansea, Cambridge, Ipswich, Bristol, and the National Library of Scotland provided material, some of which still seems to be otherwise unavailable. All the same, I must single out Swansea Central Reference Library, especially Claire Tranter, for a correspondence that was not only a pleasure but also extremely fruitful, and Emma Williams, Collections and Access Officer at Swansea Museum, for the image of the pageant. Given the nature of the book, the British Library at St Pancras proved an invaluable resource and special mention must be made to the staff at the Archives and Manuscripts Department and in the Newsroom.

Thanks are also due to Trish Coleridge at Chelsea Old Church in London for details relating to Hamilton’s funeral, and to the Clerk of Works, Tim Gates, for letting me view out of normal visiting hours the Thomas Moore Chapel where her service was held.←27 | 28→

Lastly, I would like to thank my wife and son for allowing Cicely Hamilton to share our life for what must seem an indecently long time. I wish I could honestly say that it’s all over now.

I have tried to ensure that no copyright has been violated and any failings in this respect are entirely my own and I apologise in advance. The same holds true for any factual errors which may have unintentionally occurred.

Seán Moran,

Gdansk, November 2016.←28 | 29→

1 Information on Hammill’s military career is based on Whitelaw and correspondence with the Gordon Highlanders Museum, which holds his service record (March–April 2013).

2 UK census 1891 [RG12/904]. Retrieved from findmypast.com 19 August 2010. In 1897, she was using an address nearby at 23, Oakley Crescent (now Gardens) for her dramatic card in The Era, e.g. 11 December 1897.

3 UK census 1901 [RG13/78]. Retrieved from findmypast.com 19 August 2010.

4 She claimed that she was persuaded to join this particular group against her will (1951:39), although her later commitment seems to have been total.

5 In fact, the book was translated into German and published the following year as Eine Engländerin entdeckt Deutschland (An Englishwoman discovers Germany) – a slightly misleading title given Hamilton’s fluent German and ties to the country going back to her school days.

Chapter One
Actresses and Critics

Most of the plays in which Cicely Hamilton worked for the first ten years were either revivals of popular works or West End hits touring the country or the suburbs of London. Only rarely does she appear to have acted in a genuinely original work like The Gamekeeper (1898) or Night Birds of London (1900). The ‘hand-me-down’ nature of this repertoire does have one benefit in that initial success attracted critical attention to which we can now turn in order to assess how critics received these plays when first performed and before they went on tour. Reviews of the time are a vital element in this book for this reason – they permit contemporary voices to be heard, and any views expressed therein have the virtue of being contemporary to the source material and therefore free of modern preconceptions or ‘baggage’. Having said this, however, Leonard Merrick’s novel The Condition of Peggy Harper (1911) serves as a reminder that provincial theatre critics may have had little experience of their task or written in the knowledge that they were reviewing plays under a certain degree of pressure. Although Merrick’s work is fiction, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero writes in the 1918 edition (from which all quotations are taken) that he had witnessed “enough of the seamy side of the stage” in his early days as an actor to allow him to vouch for the general credibility of the novel (vi). There is, therefore, no reason to doubt the accuracy of this particular portrayal in a novel which is otherwise scrupulously mimetic of early twentieth-century stage life.

Miss Moore, an eager young journalist, is at first delighted to be given the task when none of her colleagues is available but her initial enthusiasm turns to disillusionment when it is made clear that “dramatic criticism” is understood as “indiscriminate praise” which is “useful to the advertising columns” (155). “Reciprocity” is the key – critics are admitted to the theatre because they can boost ticket sales by writing good reviews for a company which returns the favour by paying to advertise in their columns (161). Miss Moore’s bitter experience in fiction may go some way to explaining the often lifeless appraisal of performances, as well as the lack of extremely unfavourable reviews in the genuine regional press.←29 | 30→ For this reason, The Era or The Stage as independent publications, render a valuable service to the modern researcher for the integrity as well as the extent of their coverage. In addition, with both archives now available in digital form, searching for specific authors or works has become a less strenuous task and one that can, at times, turn up the most unexpected results.

The Position of Peggy Harper also paints a grim portrait of the hand-to-mouth existence lived by aspiring actors – from the expense of buying The Era in the desperate search for employment, rehearsals in empty rooms above public houses, to the oppressive heat in dressing-rooms pungent with the odour of fish and chips. George Moore’s novel A Mummer’s Wife (1884) is another fascinating glimpse both into the daily minutiae of Morton and Cox’s Operatic Company and, particularly in the early chapters, the prejudices faced by touring artistes from a deeply pious section of society suspicious of what was perceived to be their itinerant, lascivious lifestyles. Kate Ede’s decline from pious provincial seamstress through theatrical acclaim to dissipated alcoholic, although extreme, recalls Tracy C. Davis’s observation that for many performers on the Victorian stage “reality … was a low working class wage, social ostracism and the constant threat of unemployment” (xiii). Outside fiction, unemployment may also have been one of the factors in the tragic death of the Yeoland sisters (to use their stage name), Ida and Edith, who committed suicide in their lodgings in 1901 after being out or work for one and two months respectively.

The Yeoland sisters, Lena Ashwell and Cicely Hammill had all felt obliged to adopt professional pseudonyms. Hammill assumed the surname Hamilton (out of respect for her family’s sensitivities) and Lena Pocock her mother’s maiden name of Ashwell. Although Lillah McCarthy changed her name only to the extent of adding the ‘h’ to her forename, she relates how her father was “alarmed” when his young daughter was “invited to tea with a playwright” – George Moore. He consented as long as she refused absolutely to cross Moore’s threshold but endeavoured instead to maintain a conversation from the doorstep. This she attempted while her father anxiously monitored the situation from the opposite side of the street (1933:32–33).←30 | 31→

Hamilton as Touring Actress

Generally, the outline of Hamilton’s touring history in Life Errant provides an insight into how hundreds of her peers were living, especially when considered in conjunction with Lillah McCarthy’s Myself and My Friends, published only two years before in 1933.

In describing the touring system in the Victorian theatre, Hamilton mentions four types: “No.1 tours – visiting Manchesters, Glasgows, and the like – No.2’s and No.3’s, the latter the small fry of the theatre; and, at the tail end of the profession, the fit-ups”, which brought their own sets, lighting, etc. and fitted them up in smaller venues (34). Her own career history suggests that she had experience of all of these and in this respect would appear to be quite typical, and in line with the account in Michael Booth’s Theatre in the Victorian Age.

Nevertheless many aspiring actresses were able to manage without a drawn-out and financially insecure start to their careers or proceeded afterwards to success and fame that eluded Hamilton. Lena Ashwell, for example, was spared the rigours of the touring life by finding work with Henry Irving at the Lyceum in London, whereas Lillah McCarthy spent a decade in the provinces after George Bernard Shaw suggested in a review that she had talent but should go out into the ‘provinces’, acquire ten years’ experience and then return to London. With her apprenticeship served, she rapidly became the archetypal Shaw actress and, in her own words, “Shakespeare and penury were left in the provinces” (1933:42).

By contrast, Hamilton’s early story is one lacking in such recognition. For this reason alone, careers such as hers are of academic interest since “historians have tended to focus on actresses that were extremely successful, popular, and therefore exceptional” (Davis, 1991:xiv). Over a decade, she probably worked, on and off as is the nature of the profession, for somewhere between 20–30 shillings and £2–3 a week (Booth, 1995:117–119) in a selection of touring companies travelling all over the United Kingdom with a repertoire of a “bewildering and exhausting variety of parts” (103). Although she mentions the possibility of an actor playing in anything up to four companies a year, she does not seem to have attained this figure herself.←31 | 32→

Driven as it was by the same commercial concerns as its West-End counterpart, the touring company sought to offer a repertoire with the maximum drawing power. By 1899, Hamilton, for example, was playing the Queen in Hamlet on a tour with Mr Edmund Tearle’s Company which included at least four other plays, Virginius, The Christian’s Cross, Ingomar and Belphegor: Or the Mountebank and His Wife (all of which will be considered below), as well as a selection of Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, Richard III and Othello. These were rotated, depending on the length of the residence in any one theatre.

Edmund Tearle is one of the few people to be named in Hamilton’s theatrical recollections. He may have maintained older, if not obsolete, acting traditions longer than others, she admits, but then again, “you needed, in those days, to be a bit of a barnstormer to play emotional scenes to a Saturday Tyneside audience – which had come to the theatre with plenty of beer in it, and brought bags of nuts to crack through the show” (42). She was paid £2 a week and out of that had to provide her own costumes or else dip into her meagre Post Office savings. She recalls the particular costs entailed in the role of Anne of Austria in The Three Musketeers, as “queens are horribly expensive to dress” (43). Costumes considered unsuitable earned severe looks from the management, made all the more painful since men generally had their clothes provided for them. If the drama was contemporary, costs were reduced and with the bigger London successes the company toured with the original wardrobe (45). However low the wages, she writes, she had no regrets over the year she spent as a member of Tearle’s company, and in fact, took “great pleasure” in those rare occasions when he decided to do Othello, “for I have never seen any other English actor who – however much intelligence and work he put into the part – has made me believe in the agonized passion of Othello” (44–45).

In Myself and My Friends (1933), Lillah McCarthy provides her own brief but revealing insight into the routine of a touring actress.

So there I was at last, planted firmly on the stage. Planted firmly, but how often transplanted! The company toured east and west, and north and south, from the Channel Islands to Edinburgh. How exciting it all was to be at last an actress, every day and all day. To travel in special carriages and take our own scenery with us; to reach our destination, hurry off to our lodgings and run out to buy our food. “Two pound a week and find your own costumes” teaches economy. From ten in the morning prompt rehearsals till two o’clock, ten home to dinner – an←32 | 33→ actress dines, if she dines at all, at three o’clock on rehearsal days. At six o’clock back to the theatre: make-up; curtain up; and after the play, tired out, off to bed. (McCarthy, 1933:40)

In addition, she gives an honest and personal appraisal of Wilson Barrett, the man who was to give her, and Hamilton a few years later, a role in his greatest success The Sign of the Cross. At first, she admits, she could not see beyond the “pompous actor”, and only later discovered the kindness of a great man and manager. He worked, she says, in “the grand traditional manner” (42), with food hampers provided in the guarded private compartments of their reserved train carriages and even the injunction that she was not to speak to fellow passengers while en route to Australia so as to “maintain an air of reserve and aloofness” (43). His regime with actors was rigorous and permitted little respite. Time not spent rehearsing was filled with “fencing and voice production”, on Sundays they were summoned to his hotel for a talk or to hear him read a play, and even their choice of reading material was chosen for them – “Barrett insisted that we should have little or no life beyond the stage and his vigilance” (44).

Although public perception of the actress may have increased over the twenty years of Hamilton’s career, it is clear that basic standards improved little. A measure of the increasing respectability can be gauged, however, from a selection of articles from The Lady’s Realm, a monthly heavily-illustrated magazine “aimed at aspirational upper-class and middle-class readers” (Brake & Demoor, 2009:342). An article in the July 1902 edition remarks on the improving social status of actresses within living memory and claims in their mitigation that the disfavour they have suffered is in many cases due to the squalid nature of the material produced by male dramatists and theatre managers. If the public refused to attend such works, then the dramatist would feel compelled to write more “wholesome pieces, to which men will not be ashamed to escort their women-folk”. There are, of course, many theatres in the capital where the presence of certain actresses (Ellen Terry and Ashwell are mentioned by name) is a by-word for integrity and the male theatre-goer is not obliged “to pay a preliminary tour of inspection before deciding on the advisability of taking a lady with him” (414).

By September 1904 the actress is no longer being “treated more or less as a pariah” and can frequently be seen in the company of the highest←33 | 34→ members of society, nor is there any stigma in being seen at a playhouse. The reasons are clear – from an general surge in artistic creativity from the mid-nineteenth century through to an increase in education and “general culture” amongst members of the profession itself (700). Two years later, The Lady’s Realm is reporting with unmistakable approval on the efforts of the Academy of Dramatic Art to play its part in advancing the profession. For too long, the author notes, the mere desire to act was considered sufficient qualification, and, with standards so low, any hint of “unusual affection for Shakespeare” in young daughters would arouse the suspicion of parents. Faced with such prohibition, flight would often be the only option. The fortunate lady could nonetheless surmount difficulty to achieve her ambition. If not, “too proud to return home, [she] sank into depths unmentionable”. Over the previous two decades, a remedy has been sought in the training of potential candidates, a process which allows the unsuitable to be rejected before any damage occurs. Without doubt “there are some girls who have no vocation for domestic affairs, but who are quite capable of attaining a moderate success on the stage” and such girls may apply (with written permission from their father or guardian of course) for a minimum of three terms of instruction in which they are taught to master skills in all areas of their profession, including voice projection, gesticulation, dancing and fencing (February 1906:458–459). The underlying assumption throughout the piece, however, is that the lady in question will have the means to fund her studies without the actual need to work.

Supplementing meagre wages is actually recommended, although primarily for beginners, by the anonymous author of another article (signed simply “An Actress”) published in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1908. The author speaks with some authority and evident personal experience and in fact, were it not for a reference to Hamilton as the “brilliant author” of Diana of Dobson’s, she could feasibly have written the piece herself (28 August 1908:5).

She begins by setting down the essentials that any aspiring actress should possess – a permanent base in London as the indisputable hub of activity, a good sense of humour, the ability to withstand hardship, absolute faith in the eventual attainment of the nigh-impossible, the requisite physical and artistic skills and only lastly, talent.←34 | 35→

Generally an actress may work at most for thirty weeks in the year on national tours of London successes and familiar works by known authors (although some companies offer the luxury of up to forty-five weeks), but a ten-week tour in spring and sixteen weeks in autumn are the norm. As there are few opportunities for saving money while on tour, the inevitable periods of unemployment can constructively be used to earn extra cash through concert bookings or special performances (presumably akin to Hamilton’s appearance in Gringoire in 1897) and by journalism.

More detail can be added to these generalisations by considering a depiction of the reality of the touring actress’s life, again from The Lady’s Realm, which begins by dispelling romantic myths held by those ladies who collect picture postcards of actresses in an effort to relieve the boredom of respectable suburban life. Although there is a certain amount of pleasure, “it is a hard, uncomfortable, rather cheerless, very inconvenient kind of life for any girl who happens to have been born a lady, and who was brought up in an nice English home with the little refinements and comforts of life” (April 1910:683).

Before the tour even begins, the actress will be thoroughly bored with the play and with her own company. Tension is mounting amongst a hungry cast and the producer’s language is far from suitable for the ears of ladies. When they do finally arrive at the train station, the few porters available take no interest and they are jostled by others busy with the loading and unloading of milk-churns and post-bags. On arrival at her destination (usually around midnight), the budget of a principal actresses may extend to 25s for board and lodgings, but those further down the hierarchy must make do with a room without meals for 7–10 shillings a week.

The theatrical lodging-house is in a league of its own – stale with the smell of long-gone actresses, beetles, dust and past dinners, the squalor is most evident in the threadbare carpet peppered with cigarette burns, the cheap prints on the wall, the dirty table-cloth and the old horse-hair sofa. Once settled in for the week, the actress’s first business is either sorting out the food arrangements with her fellow-lodgers (it is more economical to share) or giving the landlady a list of their requirements. Generally acquisition of food is the concern of the most sensible girl in the house, the one who will stand up to tradesmen and make sure that provisions (primarily butter, bacon, sugar and jam) will not ‘vanish’ if left unattended.←35 | 36→

The actress’s day begins around 11 o’clock with breakfast and a newspaper. At noon she sets off with a friend to promenade the town, her indefinable grace as much an advertisement for the production as the placards which adorn the walls. At four, she returns to her lodgings for dinner, after which she departs for the theatre. On her return ‘home’, she may eat supper if her budget stretches or instead make do with cocoa and cake, and spends the rest of the night chatting with her house-mates. In musical comedy, this routine will be interrupted by the occasional rehearsal.

At the end of the week’s run, the company meets at the train station on Sunday morning. Their travels across the country can often be interspersed with long waits at junctions, where various troupes exchange tales and the male comedians will do their best to keep spirits up until the train finally arrives to take them to the next town, where the cycle begins again. This, the author concludes, is the life of the touring actress – for all the camaraderie and the laughs, it is “a rather rough, unsatisfactory, uncomfortable and disappointing life” and not one “that any man would wish for his sister, or any actress recommend to her friend” (ibid.).

In 1914 when Hamilton’s career was drawing to a close, Lena Ashwell contributed a chapter to the Fabian Society’s survey of the professional status of women. It is still a career, she emphasises, in which most women will find it necessary to augment their income in some manner (unless they possess private means), as “the tremendous opening up of this means of livelihood” to women has impoverished as many as it has enriched (289). Combined with the Christmas season and a summer interval which limit the working year to a period of forty weeks by Ashwell’s reckoning, this instability is a serious barrier to the professional development of any actress. Ashwell quotes statistics from the Actors’ Association which suggest an average annual salary of £70, from which £37 must deducted for the transport of luggage from station to lodgings (train fares usually being covered), which leaves an average of only 12s. 6.d per week, or 1s. 9d a day. In melodrama, the average wage is £4 a week but the ‘heavy’ may only expect around £3.

According to Ashwell’s account, the average day of the London (i.e. non-touring) actress is no more glamorous that her touring counterpart and consists of leaving her “tiny, grubby back room in Bloomsbury” (the cost in time and fares excludes better accommodation in the suburbs), poorly←36 | 37→ dressed and poorly fed, to make her way to the agent’s office (300). If she is in luck and obtains a letter of introduction, she will lunch simply on tea and sandwiches before taking her letter to the relevant theatre. Usually uncertain as to the nature of the part in question, she has little hope of demonstrating her suitability or talent to the manager, who may easily send her home without the hope of a position. Even if offered a part, she must wait through interminable rehearsals (unpaid) for the chance to make an impression with her own small role. At five o’clock, the cast is dismissed and her five minutes of actual work have consumed six hours of her day.

Ashwell adds to the condemnation of the available lodgings for touring actresses, dismissing them as “usually extremely bad and dirty, and generally in the least attractive and most unsavoury quarters of the town”. Many women have arrived to discover that they are expected to sleep in “disreputable houses” or to find their ‘lodgings’ vacated after a police raid (305).

The urgent need for improvement in sanitation at theatres, particularly with regard to female actresses, underlines the importance of the mission of both the Actors’ Association and the Actors’ Church Union. Ashwell quotes instances of actresses being expected to share cramped and unventilated space not only with each other, but with rodents and other vermin, and often in changing rooms immodestly close to male toilet facilities. At the same time, many theatres make no provision whatsoever for the natural requirements of women in this area.

By 1914 another means of supplementing income had been introduced. One day’s work in the new cinematographic industry, according to Ashwell’s figures, could pay between 5s and 7s 6d per day, again with the cast expected to find their own costumes. The ability to ride a horse or swim could raise this to 10s 6d and even a simple ‘walk-on’ part paid approximately 3s. With films taking ten days to make, this represented quite an substantial bonus to the struggling actress6.

The touring system was only made possible by the existence of a wide and efficient rail network which had been transforming not only the physi←37 | 38→cal landscape of the nation but also the lives of its inhabitants for at least a generation and which by the last decade of the century linked all of Britain’s major cities. In an extreme example of the efficiency of the service, Lena Ashwell was able to organise a series of “flying matinees” in Eastbourne, Birmingham, Richmond and even Cardiff, in the latter case catching a train at 5 p.m. in order to perform as advertised in London the same evening (Leask, 2012:62). As mentioned above, the bulk of the travelling was done on a Sunday, so that the meagre baggage and scenery would arrive at its destination by the Monday morning, giving the stage manager enough time to set the stage and rehearse the band and any hired local extras (‘supers’ in the contemporary term), if required.

With 158 separate companies touring in 1896 alone (Horn:204), meetings such as those described in The Lady’s Realm must have been quite commonplace, but Derby on a Sunday seems to have been a particularly favoured location. Hamilton and McCarthy both confirm the camaraderie that prevailed when different companies met on train platforms and snatched what little time available for refreshment and a chat in the platform buffet. Another means of communication were the entries in the guest books of those lodging houses that took in actors. These would usually include the part being played at that moment, allowing actors to keep track of each other’s careers (Hamilton, 1935:37).

While Horn quotes the figure of 140 special trains every Sunday solely for the transportation of actors and musicians in England and Wales (204), rail transport ground to an almost absolute halt north of the Scottish-English border on the Sabbath, burdening companies with the additional inconvenience of losing a few hours of the Monday in searching for lodgings (Hamilton,1937b:135). The common prejudice against the acting profession complicated the hardships faced on tour, as exemplified by Hamilton’s memory of a Scottish landlady who castigated her and a friend for daring to play the sitting-room piano on the Lord’s day, instead off studying their Bibles (136), or by one incident in rural Ireland when, in sheer desperation at being constantly refused accommodation by landladies suspicious of the profession, she had the “brilliant idea” of imploring the local police to allow the company to hire cells for one night (1935:36). The problem was exacerbated by the fact that they would often be touring at the height←38 | 39→ of the tourist season in order to attract the largest houses, meaning that accommodation could be in short supply.

Hamilton is more forgiving of the landladies who accepted ‘theatricals’, in their defence pointing out that they generally made no objection to preparing suppers and breakfasts at strange hours of the day and night and happily allowed their lodgers to come back late or sleep in long. They were trustworthy when it came to the provision of meals, if often a little too fond of the aspidistra as a symbol of suburban respectability, and generally provided a week of comfort (ibid.). So Hamilton, and indeed McCarthy, were both able, when writing in the 1930s, to look back on their touring life with pleasure, without denying the austerity and tribulation involved.

One of the fortuitous changes that coincided with Hamilton’s first professional appearances was a slow transformation in the way that the theatre itself was viewed and operated. While the moral and religious objections that had marked the early period of Queen Victoria’s reign had largely, but not entirely, been overcome, prejudice over the alleged immorality of the actress still lingered. Kerry Powell attributes this mistrust to the uncertain position women occupied in society and the freedom of movement offered by their profession.

Actors and actresses, with their multiplication of personalities, suggest that character is unreadable, volatile and subject to transformation. The character of women in particular was supposed to be unmysterious and knowable, circumscribed by the functions of wifehood and motherhood. (2004b:205)

Because they defied simple classification in the Victorian binary system of domesticity, it was assumed that a toll would be exacted on their mental and physical health. Whatever praise, success or wealth she may garner, the actress remained a woman worthy of pity, since she had excluded herself from the bliss of the home and the security of marriage, taking on instead a multitude of identities that merely served to mask her own (181–182). Associated with this liminality was the taint of sexual promiscuity. Simon Trussler has pointed out that, although the association of actress with prostitute was no longer widespread, the roles women played were largely at the mercy of “the male dramatist’s typology of womanhood” (264). The anonymous author of the Yorkshire Evening Post article quoted above claims that what little the public knows of touring life has been gleaned from “extravagant and misleading articles in the cheap magazines from←39 | 40→ unauthorized pens” and is by no means an accurate picture. There was no justification, for example, in the criticisms raised by moralists over sexual standards, and instead credit should be given to the vast majority who resist the undeniable temptations that life on the stage holds. The source of most immorality, she insists, are actually unlicensed agents, strictly speaking outside the theatre itself, who prey on young girls, as in the recent case of a theatrical manager who was dismissed over “questionable conduct with ladies eager in search for [sic] engagements” and then proceeded to open his own office, where he could work unsupervised. Such disgraceful incidents merely emphasise the need for regulation within the profession (28 August 1908:5).

Lena Ashwell adds that, with all domestic chores the duty of the theatrical landlady, there is nothing at home to occupy the mind of the actress when not working, so she seeks her pleasure in the outside world. While the “unskilled, pleasure-loving, short-sighted but ambitious girl” may succumb to the “several shades of temptations … placed before her”, she insists that there is no more immorality than in other professions, but “an amount of humiliating and degrading philandering, a mauling sensuality which is more degrading than any violent abduction” (1914:307). The understandable thirst for luxury as a countermeasure against the oppressive misery brings the actress into contact with the type of man who willingly supplies both the basic requirements and the luxuries of life in return for a certain degree of diversion. Until such times as women are more “intelligent and independent”, the provision of such attractions will remain the exclusive domain of men and certain women will be content to play their part in the exchange (ibid.). While Hamilton does not mention ever being subject to such predatory instincts herself, she does mention twice being “thrown out of work to make way for a manager’s mistress” (1935:47) and accepts this as an ineluctable intrusion into gender relationships, more pronounced perhaps on the stage than elsewhere, but omnipresent nonetheless.

Apart from working conditions for the actors themselves, there was also increased interest in the historical accuracy of costumes, architecture and properties to be used on stage (Edith Craig, a close friend of Hamilton’s and one of the pioneers in this field, collected scrap-books of images from a very early age which formed the foundation for a business manufacturing and supplying costumes (Cockin, 1998:42) and, generally, there was increased←40 | 41→ reverence for the text. As Booth points out, this accuracy demanded research and an investment of time and money which could only be recouped by a long run, which was by no means guaranteed. This stands in contrast to Colley Cibber’s ‘hybrid’ Richard III, for example, with which Hamilton toured in 1899, much to the delight, she admits, of “mining and industrial centres” where additions such as “the famous line … Off with his head! So much for Buckingham” bothered no one (Hamilton & Baylis:110–111). Never the purist, she defends such adaptations by suggesting that Shakespeare could be enhanced to accommodate subsequent developments, for instance, in lighting and staging. If done well, older, classic plays could benefit from techniques open to the modern playwright but unknown to his Elizabethan predecessor (1935:106–107).

Her analysis of the relationship between artist and audience appears in an article published in The Common Cause in 1920 (9 April:222). All individuals, she writes, have a irrepressible “desire for make-believe” which is, in essence, a longing to enhance the quality of their lives, and a pleasant hour spent in the theatre is a hour spent lost in a world far removed from everyday, mundane concerns. All theatre gives audiences “the pageantry, the humour, the insight into the lives of their fellows which their daily existence denies them”. It is this urge to see one’s aspirations for glamour and beauty reflected in art which accounts for the persistent popularity of the stage, rather than any wish to hold a mirror to reality – “Melodrama flourishes and always will flourish so long as the desires of the many are tinged with adventure and sentiment; while a public that craves for much spending and luxury will be gratified by expensive ‘productions’, the display of dress, jewels and scenery”.

Mass entertainment must, by its very nature, appeal to the largest proportion of society and therefore runs a permanent risk of deteriorating in quality. The self-respecting artist will endeavour to rise above the conventional demands of his audience, while simultaneously resisting the temptation to slide into “meaningless innovation and mere high-brow, eccentric experiment” that would only alienate his audience. In good theatre, the actor’s quest for constant challenge is held in check by the popular expectations of the audience, while purely commercial theatre “puts the cart before the horse” by first ascertaining and then catering to public taste instead of stimulating the talents of its actors. The making of money is not a vice per←41 | 42→ se, but the tendency in commercial theatre is to keep repeating successes until the audience tires and moves on, at which point derivative work is presented to ensure a continued influx of cash, and audiences uncritically accept whatever pedestrian fare the management cares to place before them.

Healthy theatre, on the other hand, challenges. The critical faculties of the audience are aroused and consequently the artist is impelled towards constant self-improvement, which in turn increases his respect both for himself and for his craft. Hamilton’s own touring career suggests that her attack on the purely commercial theatre may have been prompted to some degree by the unimaginative and formulaic melodrama of her early acting days. A few years after this article, she berates what she calls the enforced “weathercock deference to public opinion” derived from the star tradition (Hamilton & Baylis:14), claiming that an audience would attend a second performance of Hamlet merely to see one actor outdo a rival (78).

This cult of celebrity was promoted by the new medium of the photographic picture postcard (especially after 1902 when the Post Office finally permitted a full image on one side), one fortunate consequence of which is the visual record it offers of sometimes obscure, transient performances or characters which may have left little else to prosperity in the way of tangible evidence. Sadly, as Hamilton never attained the success of McCarthy or Ashwell, no postcard portraits of her exist from this pre-suffrage era, although it is also just as feasible that even at this stage she exhibited the idiosyncratic approach that distinguished her from many of her contemporaries and simply refused to function as one of the proscribed “successful embodiments of the recognized and approved ideals of femininity and masculinity” (Richards:38) that popular success demanded and that actors and actresses were expected to subscribe to, if public approbation and financial reward were sought.

In addition to this cult of the actor, theatre was dominated by the power of the actor-manager. With an eye on their own careers, actor managers tended to accept only those plays which offered greatest scope for self-projection, thereby denying aspiring talent any means of expression, while at the same time keeping their eyes on the accounts. Governed by the omnipresent conflict between drama as an art and theatre as a profession, actor-managers were notoriously self-seeking in their choice of productions. For all his criticism of Wilson Barrett, Bernard Shaw does commend him for←42 | 43→ doing the best for his plays and not for himself, which reflects admirably on the entire cast and the play as a whole (1948:14). Generally, the opposite held true. Ibsen’s plays, to take one example, were unpopular with actor-managers, because of their unsympathetic nature of the male characters they would be expected to portray, and when Ibsen was produced, it foundered on the “very low level represented by the average taste of the huge crowd of playgoers requisite to make a remunerative run for a play” (Archer, 1895:xx). Lena Ashwell, in the capacity as the actress-manageress who produced Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s in 1908, conceded to its author that the play would have had little chance of being staged prior to women entering the profession, given the relatively minor nature of the roles for male actors (Dymkowski:110).

Audiences also had an apparently insatiable appetite for melodrama. Very few of the plays which Hamilton toured would have any chance of success in the more nuanced world of today. The characterisation of villains, as in the spectacular case of Jonas Cradwell in From Shadow to Sunshine, is unremittingly and incurably evil. Leonard Merrick highlights the dilemma in a scene in The Position of Peggy Harper, where Christopher Tatham, the aspiring dramatist, is admonished for his attempt to portray a more multidimensional rogue.

“Another thing,” continued Ross, “your villain isn’t really a bad man, he only connives at a murder - you’ve got to strengthen your villain.”

“I tried to make him a human being.”

“We don’t want human beings, my boy, we want parts. He shilly-shallies. That’ll never do; he must be consistent, old chap; he mustn’t have pangs of conscience. Why, you’ve given your villain lines that’d queer the whole show; the audience’d begin to be rather sorry for him! They don’t want to be sorry for the villain, they want to hoot him. You’ll have to alter that; you’ll have to go over the part again and give him more relish for crime”. (125–126)

For Hamilton, the real source of contention was the audience itself. A trivial mind will only be held by two things: sensation and “noisy and obvious humour” (1935:67) and this is what melodrama provides in abundance. The genre is stereotypical because any deviation from the norm may lead to inattention, and so the formula of “action, much action, low comedy and crime” (ibid.) is perpetuated ad nauseam. Tearle’s combination of Shakespeare and melodrama was a popular one since audiences were only con←43 | 44→cerned with characters meeting their fate and not whether this was due to a tragic flaw in a character or in spite of that character, as is the case with melodrama. Both were staples in the touring company, constituting the vast majority of roles in what can be reconstructed of Hamilton’s career.

There is also, according to Hamilton, who admits that she was usually cast as the female “heavy” (1935:38), the simple fact that it is better for the actor to be hissed and booed than cheered and lauded. Besides, the villain is in essence the backbone to any melodrama, the virtuous characters only existing as “material for his ruthless ingenuity” (Hamilton & Baylis:97). For the actress playing this more challenging part, there was the added bonus that it permitted her to sit in the same carriage as the female lead when travelling between venues – as in society as a whole, there was a hierarchy even in the touring company.

David Mayer has devised a thorough definition of melodrama which is worth quoting as a preface to the discussion of Hamilton’s career.

Melodrama … is a theatrical or literary response to a world where things are seen to go wrong, where ideas of secular and divine justice and recompense are not always met, where suffering is not always acknowledged, and where the explanations for wrong, injustice, and suffering are not altogether understandable. Melodrama tries to respond with emotional, rather than intellectual, answers to a world where explanations of why there is pain and chaos and discord are flawed or deeply and logically inconsistent, where there are all-too-visible discrepancies between readily observed calamities and palliative answers. Melodrama provides an emotionally intelligible picture of the world to deracinated western cultures, severed by science and technology from former religious and spiritual “truths”. (2004:148)

Mayer goes on to argue that it offers solace to its audience by validating the world as they know it through a simple Manichean depiction of a world where the “forces of wickedness and goodness are in constant contention and where there is no place for characters who are tainted, but not wholly good or altogether bad” (ibid.). Such clear divisions, with the support of other conventions, are essential in helping audiences to distinguish good and evil, a recognition which lies at the very heart of the genre. It re-affirms morality by restoring the hero or heroine’s virtue in the face of adversity and the villain’s evil machinations without taint on their own characters. Mayer quotes Booth’s analogy of “a dream world inhabited by dream people and dream justice, offering audiences the fulfilment and satisfactions found only in dreams” (166) and not in the world in which they are←44 | 45→ unfortunate enough to find themselves. Melodrama provides them with the certainty which may be lacking in real life outside the theatre that justice and right will ultimately conquer and prevail.

In 1914, Hamilton was called as an expert witness in a much-reported plagiarism case over the similarity between two melodramas A Beggar Bride by Rosemary Rees and The Beggar Girl’s Wedding by the Melville brothers. According to a report of the trial, one of the arguments for the defence was that originality does not exist and that all melodramas are mere permutations of certain generic elements (Stage, 5 February 1914:34–35). Rather strangely, Jerome K. Jerome’s comic investigation of melodrama, Stage-land (1906), seems to have been consulted as something of an expert text, with comparisons being drawn between his stock villain and the villains in the plays involved in the litigation. Hamilton supported the case for the defence in her testimony that “There is no thing as an original idea … but there is such a thing as an original combination of ideas. All melodramas consist of the efforts of the villain and the villainess to slaughter off the hero” (ibid.). Her testimony can be trusted as that of a reliable witness with many years of direct personal experience to support her. She, like many others, had little time for the genre as such, but the dislike was tempered with the pleasure she had derived from touring.

Similarly, Lillah McCarthy, in her own autobiography, formulates the simple, though equally valid, definition of melodrama that the plot was merely a device to assert the integrity of the pure and the “irredeemable villainy of the wicked” (83), which made no allowances for any subtlety of personality – the good were good and the bad were bad. She too admits that, although the professional actress in her later career scorned such plays, it was beyond doubt that they had “helped people in their lives” (44).

1895 – Triumph of the Philistines

As described in her autobiography, Hamilton’s determination to become a professional actress came to fruition some time in the mid 1890s “by dint of hanging around agents’ offices and playing an occasional part in suburban performances” (33). She is vague, as she is in her presentation of many events recounted in the book, when it comes to exact names, dates or←45 | 46→ places, and provides only this rough point in time and the fact that her first job offer was “a character part in a play by Henry Arthur Jones” (ibid.).

Jones’ The Triumph of the Philistines and How Mr Jorgan preserved the Morals of Market Pewbury under very Trying Circumstances is certainly the first play in which Hamilton is mentioned by name in contemporary reviews. According to The Era and The Stage, after a run at the St James’ Theatre in London from May 1895, the play toured the country from approximately August to December 1895 with Hamilton in the role of Angela Soar. As “president of the ladies’ anti-evening-dress association” (7), Soar was the first of many decent, upstanding and religious individuals that Hamilton would be called upon to depict, and the “Lady Correspondent” of The South Wales Daily News provides a rare glimpse into the costumes that Hamilton would have worn. Prefacing her piece with the comment that the stage had now usurped the fashion plate as a source of inspiration and that many women, rightly or wrongly, attended the theatre as much to see the dresses as the play itself, she goes on to describe the female cast to an extent which merely underlines the drab simplicity of the dress of pale brown “trimmed with diamonds of black velvet” and the “large black bonnet highly suggestive of the Salvation Army” worn by Hamilton (13 August 1895:7).

The part of Angela Soar is an ideal one for a novice in that she has only one scene to speak of, but it is one in which she is called upon to fall into animated fits of excitement over the bare flesh exposed by women’s evening dress. She seems to have fulfilled the role with sufficient flare for The Era to describe her performance as “highly amusing” (9 November 1895:25) or one local critic to write that “Miss Cicely Hamilton, as Miss Angela Soar, is, during the comparatively short period in which she is a prominent figure, an amusing representative of the maiden lady …” (Nottingham Evening Post, 17 September 1895:1).

In a tongue-in-cheek preface to the 1899 Samuel French edition, Jones claims that his purpose in writing the play was to “vindicate those who find a didactic purpose” behind his work (x), which is displayed here in the attacks on the “dull hard mixture of stubborn virtue and stupid hypocrisy that go to make up English middle-class respectability” (86). In The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895, the respected critic William Archer praises it for being “such a gloriously ill-made play. There is not a rule of orthodox←46 | 47→ construction, there is scarcely a canon of mere common-sense, that it does not openly outrage”(154). He still, however, concedes:

Here, then, we have a play which, intentionally and unintentionally, transgresses all the rules, not only of convention but of reason, for arousing and holding the interest of an audience. Yet it does (except for a few moments in the last act) hold the interest of the audience very effectually. (159)

Having said this, Archer then goes on to suggest that the Soar character should be eliminated altogether as “childishly cheap” and “a piece of pre-Pickwickian caricature” (169). Sixty years later, Allardyce Nicoll in his five-volume A History of English Drama criticises Jones’ somewhat clumsy treatment of his subject but still credits him with an “indisputable” contribution in the elevation of English drama from the “puerile” insignificance that he inherited to the “civilized and civilizing art” that he bequeathed his successors (172).

Hamilton remembered the play well, and describes it as a workable piece of that melodrama which was “written for the most part in jog-trot, speakable verse” but still among the best that English playwrights were capable of turning out in a period of “Georgian and Victorian barrenness” that had led theatres to fall back on Shakespeare and similar “masterpieces of past generations” (Hamilton & Baylis:67).

1896 – Shop Girl

One of the least expected of Hamilton’s early roles is Lady Appleton in The Shop Girl (1894). As Katherine Mullin writes, the play “signalled the birth of musical comedy, and the beginning of impresario George Edwarde’s long run of sell-out stage sensations” (106). Hamilton admits that she had exaggerated her lack of musical ability at school, but at the same time disputes being “in any way musically gifted” (1935:12). Still, as the anecdote from the Scottish living room suggests, she obviously did enjoy singing in company at times, but this is a far cry from the solo “For Charity’s Sake” performed by her character in the original draft of the play submitted for licence to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The song is not reproduced in the published score, so the possibility exists that it may have been omitted from later performances. Lady Appleton is herself an ex-shop girl, now ennobled through her marriage to Sir George, and mother of the male love interest,←47 | 48→ Charles. She and her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Charity, have formed themselves into a small charitable group “the cheerful workers”7 (37) and are organising a bazaar.

The play is interesting from a biographical perspective because of the glamorous setting at The Royal Stores in London with an equally alluring cast of female foundlings who constitute the staff. Talk of a strike for overtime pay – “That’s it. We strike. No pay, no work. Hurrah!” (5) – provokes the immediate response that any one of the girls can be replaced in ten minutes, with the underlying theme of exploitation left unexplored. More importantly, the plot revolves around the revelation in the first act that one of the girls, whose identity has yet to be ascertained, has inherited a fortune of $4 million that will take her from this life in much the same way that Diana Massingberd’s smaller inheritance temporarily frees her from the misery of shop-work in Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s (1908).

The Shop Girl was credited with introducing a more decent and respectable form of musical entertainment, although the presence of a coherent plot and the uncharacteristic (for the genre) departure from burlesque was ‘balanced’ by the presence of the ‘Gaiety Girls’. Unlike the ground-down, exploited and ultimately more mimetic girls at Dobson’s store, the girls at the Royal Stores sing of themselves:

In us of course you see a charming coterie,

Whose fascinations all confess;

Please to gaze upon the grace

Of each pretty little face.

And admire our very dainty dress,

In fact you will not find

The equal of our kind

In any part of history’s page … (28–29)

The play also provides an instance of self-censorship independent of the official channels. The dominance of the censor, as well as excluding depictions of an overtly religious nature, effectively stamped out any meaningful discussion of or reference to sex on the stage. Despite this, Archer expresses bemusement that some lines about the location of birth-marks on young←48 | 49→ ladies’ anatomies were allowed to stand unaltered in the original production and adds with approval that the more suggestive dialogue was booed and hissed by some of the audience. The play as a whole, he is quick to add, was “clever, merry, inoffensive, and entirely successful” (1895:316), so the reaction could not be attributed to any general audience displeasure. Authors should avoid such salacious humour, he suggests, as it has no place in drama, but failing this, it is heartening to observe the public assuming the duty that the censor had regretfully neglected in this instance. For Archer the reaction is unprecedented and at the same time praiseworthy in its justification of his stance that the only true censorship of the stage should be self-censorship, so he is suitably gratified that the production of the following year (1895) has had the offending lines excised (1896:316). Given that the collection of fruit-related birthmarks, according to the Lord Chamberlain’s copy, includes one girl with “a vegetable marrow and a group of pineapples” (44), the audience’s displeasure is fully comprehensible.

1896 – Romance of the Shopwalker

The Romance of the Shopwalker (1896) Archer describes as an “agreeable, unpretending piece of work” with a standard plot designed to appeal to the ready-made tastes of its audience (1897:65). This criticism is mitigated with praise for its “bright, novel and entertaining” first act and the genuinely moving third, although the second he considers flat and “conventional” in comparison (66). Shaw rather shamefully confesses in Our Theatre of the Nineties that he enjoyed the piece, whatever his misgivings might have been about a structure “so colossally lazy, so scandalously and impenitently perfunctory” and its appeal to a sympathy that “flows in channels deeply worn by use” (58). Its greatest fault, he claims, is simply that insufficient skill had been exercised in its construction. Such drama is not as easy to write as the public like to think, he adds, and there must be a small spark of genius in an author who can hit the target when so many fail, although it may not be the target he was aiming at.

The play relies on a motif similar to the expected legacy of The Shop Girl. Thomas Tompkins is convinced that he is destined for better things than the life of a shopwalker but lacks proof. His urge for self-improvement is accelerated by his love for Lady Evelyn, the daughter of an earl. A friend then←49 | 50→ reveals that, after seeing and checking an advertisement in the press, he is in a position to tell Tompkins that he is in fact heir to a fortune of £20,000 per annum from a maternal uncle in the West Indies. Lady Munro, the earl’s sister (and the role played by Hamilton), suddenly tries to like Tompkins, while her brother maintains his unflinching enmity to the “vulgarian” (19) and “parvenu” (23). Lady Munro’s change of heart is in part due to the family’s precarious financial situation which Tompkins could now easily alleviate. On the strength of his wealth, Tompkins stands for parliament, but undergoes a change of heart when mocked by a hostile crowd for his shopwalker past. His final gesture is to offer Evelyn the mortgage on her family home which he had purchased as a bargaining tool in his failed negotiations for her hand.

The motif of a liberating inheritance is far from an innovation in itself, indeed a decade later in 1908, the Pall Mall Magazine felt obliged to explain that “the marked resemblance” between Gertrude M. Fox’s story The Windfall, which appeared in the issue of April 1908 and Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s, which was then running at the Kingsway Theatre, was merely “a singular literary coincidence” (512). Nonetheless, it seems possible that The Romance of the Shopwalker may have provided the inspiration for one line of dialogue in Diana of Dobson’s. Just as Diana Massingberd curses Mr Dobson with the words “Damn Mr Dobson!” before the curtain falls on Act One, so Tompkins, when discovered by his employer celebrating his inheritance with champagne, dismisses him with the cry “D – n the shop!” (18). It seems beyond coincidence that an actress who played in The Shop Girl and The Romance of the Shopwalker would choose a similar theme for her first full-length play. Possibly it was intended as a belated riposte to the particularly light-hearted depiction of work conditions in The Shop Girl and to the glamorously seductive nature of the girls themselves.

1897 – Gringoire and Twelfth Night

In 1897 Hamilton contributed to a one-off open-air event in what would now be termed a ‘charity performance’ in order to raise funds for the Phillips’ Memorial Homœopathic Hospital and Dispensary in the grounds of Shortlands House, Bromley, Kent. The Stage states that the cast of Théodore de Banville’s Gringoire (1866), in a translation provided courtesy of←50 | 51→ Louis N. Parker, and of Twelfth Night which accompanied it, were recruited principally from among Ben Greet’s stage companies (8 July 1897:7). As Hamilton was about to embark on a tour with The Sign of the Cross in the role of Poppaea, her talent must have impressed Greet sufficiently for her to be included on the bill for this event. She played the role of Nicole Andry, the young sister of Simon Fourniez, a merchant whose daughter refuses to be wed.

Gringoire also deals with a member of the underclass winning the affection of a noble lady. The eponymous hero, a roving “balladmonger” (the name given to some English translations of the French original8) unwittingly performs a traitorous song before the person of the King, and is set the task of winning the heart of Fournier’s daughter within an hour to avoid execution. He accomplishes his task, as expected, but the play successfully avoids the simplicity of melodrama in plot resolution, relying instead on “complete and living” comedy and “lyric enthusiasm” (Lang, 1907:68). The play also ends with a moral – Gringoire’s future bride telling the King that he has proved himself to be a true ruler in showing the grace to pardon a poor subject.

The Bromley and District Times suggests that all the actors participated without fees, that Hamilton was “charming, and as natural as charming” in the part of Nicole Andry in Gringoire, and that she played Olivia in Twelfth Night, to the same high standard. She must also have participated in the “musical bicycle ride” which followed the performances, where the ladies clad in white rode bicycles adorned with “flowers and ribbon streamers” (9 July 1897:5). The fact that The Stage omits her from the cast of the Shakespeare play and makes no mention whatsoever to the bicycle event illustrates the valuable role of local press reports in occasionally ‘fleshing-out’ more general reports in the wider press.

Gringoire was a favourite in numerous translations on both sides of the Atlantic well into the early years of the twentieth century and Herbert Beerbohm Tree even declared without hesitation that the eponymous hero was his favourite part as an actor, with Hamlet coming a poor second (Harker, 1924:146).←51 | 52→

‘Toga Plays’: The Sign of the Cross (1897), Virginius (1899) and The Christian’s Cross (1902)

One sub-genre of melodrama was the so-called ‘toga play’. Hamilton appeared in three between approximately 1896 and 1898, and generally, they lose nothing by being treated more or less as one entity. In each case, the drama takes place in Rome and involves the newly emerging Christian minority. The plays are The Sign of the Cross (1895) by Wilson Barrett, Virginius (1820) by James Sheridan Knowles and The Christian’s Cross (1898) by the Rev. F. Oakely M.A.

Despite their ostensible historical settings, they were very much rooted in the England of their times. In his study of how the Victorian and Edwardian stage portrayed the Ancient World, Jeffrey Richards sees them as a means for judging the present and “to explore the roots of national, communal, individual and gender identity” through the prism of history, since “history held the key to understanding the present and the eternal truths about human nature” (1); as well, one could add, as the nature of the British Empire itself by comparison with its Roman predecessor. “The costume, the setting, the decorations are heroic. We have Roman tunics, but a modern English heart, – the scene is the Forum, but the sentiments those of the ‘Bedford Arms’” (34). The pagan Roman is redeemed by the power of the Christian faith, there are images of the dissolute woman, exposed in her lusting after power or sex, and of the ‘New Woman’, who defies traditional roles, but Barrett complements these with his own elements of resistance to tyranny, “the celebration of female honour and the integrity of the family” and a desire to educate his audience through the historical accuracy of his settings and costumes (150). Knowles’s dramas revolve around family relationships, husband and wife, affection between lovers or the reciprocal love between father and child as in Virginius, all of which were designed to appeal to an undeniable domestic ethos in their audiences. Apart from these more noble aims, the toga plays undoubtedly catered for a growing Victorian desire for “the exotic, for spectacle and for education” (1). To these, Dennis Kennedy adds the equally important “titillating sexuality submerged in religious righteousness” (2008:9), so visible, for example, in the picture postcards released to promote some of these plays. One image, for example, depicts Lillah McCarthy in a very free interpretation of a Roman toga, the←52 | 53→ neckline of which extends down to the breasts and to the large, unadorned crucifix she clutches tightly between them in an incongruous synthesis of the sensual and the spiritual.

The image of women is therefore a dual one. On the one hand, she becomes the object of desire, the woman who reveals her body on the stage, albeit clad in the semblance of a toga, and on the other, she is the Victorian ideal of woman made manifest in the garb of the early Christian, who, for example, in The Sign of the Cross converts the heathen.

In Virginius, the daughter of the eponymous hero is lusted after by his rival Claudius, who casts aspersions on her birth in order to claim her as the child of his slave and therefore his property. Despite the disclosure of Claudius’s plot, Virginius, although fully aware of her “innocent blood” stabs his daughter saying: “There is one only way to save thine honour – /’Tis this!” (Booth, 1969:137) and she dies on stage. This “classic exposition of paternal love and the preservation of female honour” (Richards:32) can be compared to a story Hamilton retells from her childhood when she first heard the story of Lucrece and was confused in a child-like way as to its meaning. With a little more maturity, the full truth was revealed to her and, as she says herself:

I became a feminist on the day I perceived that – according to the story – her “honour” was not a moral but a physical quality … it was insulting to talk of “honour” and “virtue” in a woman as if they were matters of chance – things which she only possessed because no unkind fate had thrown her in the way of a man sufficiently brutal to deprive her of them by force. (1935:282)

She had at least the consolation in Virginius that she was not playing the female lead, but rather Servia, the Roman-cum-Victorian ladies’ maid, whose role is largely limited to a few interjections along the lines of “Help! Help! Help!” (Booth, 1969:112) with no speech exceeding ten lines in total. Virginius involves an attempt by one man to steal the property of another (in the shape of his daughter) and, in keeping with its reflection of the real world around it, when the legal case is being discussed, it is significant that Virginia remains largely silent throughout – a revealing and perhaps subconscious symbol of her nineteenth-century counterpart’s lack of a real voice in defining the laws that circumscribed her.

Virginius, given its longevity on the English stage, must have seen many actors serve out the same apprenticeship as Hamilton. It was first produced←53 | 54→ in 1820 and was the work of the Irish dramatist James Sheridan Knowles, who was once considered second only to Shakespeare in his talent, although his fame has failed to endure. William Archer writes in his retrospective of the Victorian theatre in The Theatrical ‘World’ of 1895 that Virginius “heralded a dramatic revival” (1896:386), yet it was considered outmoded as early as 1872, and, as it offered only one memorable scene and the fifth act had been “looked on as an excrescence” since the earliest performances (Booth, 1969:77), it was also considerably abridged from the original five acts to three. Wilson’s 1897 production in the Lyric Theatre was the last of any significance, although Hamilton toured in it the following year after a six-month tour in 1897 with The Sign of The Cross.

Melodrama illustrates precisely the divide between the critic and the audience in the theatre. Critics and other playwrights showed nothing short of contempt for Virginius, The Christian’s Cross and The Sign of the Cross. In a letter to the critic William Archer, Pinero cursed the second of these as a sign that crusty old British drama was still alive and kicking (Jenkins:162 & Richards:125).

Barrett, probably under the influence of Knowles’s play with which he had toured, composed the piece directly as a wholesome response to the ‘problem play’, Pinero’s own The Second Mrs Tanqueray in particular, which he felt was frightening decent families from the theatre. A second motive was the desire to entice to the theatre that element of society that would normally avoid it out of strong religious convictions. His success on both counts made The Sign of the Cross what Richards terms “a cultural phenomenon” (125), and Kennedy claims that, with it being seen by 70,000 people a week by the end of 1896 in Britain alone, it may well have been the single-most popular play of the century (2004:10). From its premiere in Leeds in 1895, it transferred to London the following year where it ran for an astonishing 435 performances. While the most popular West-End plays toured the provinces with perhaps three or four companies simultaneously, The Sign of The Cross merited as many as nine. By 1904, it was estimated it had been performed 10,000 times world-wide and the specially composed hymn “Shepherd of Souls” sold out its first print run of 5,000, whereupon a second of 20,000 was printed to cope with the demand (Richards:126). Nonetheless, somewhere in the wilderness, William Archer was crying:←54 | 55→

No, my dear Mr. Wilson Barrett, I am not going to play up to you by criticising, discussing, or even ridiculing The Sign of the Cross. It lies quite outside my province. The art critic does not chronicle the latest addition to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors; the musical critic takes no cognisance of a Salvationist orgie [sic]: why should the dramatic critic devote a moment’s thought to a combination of the penny dreadful with the Sunday-school picture-book? My business is with the drama as a form of art, and art has nothing to say to this series of tawdry tableaux, with their crude appeal to the shallowest sentiments and lowest instincts of the mob. (1896:9)

This reaction is typical of like-minded opponents’ views. In writing the play, Shaw joked, Barrett had cunningly convinced its public that some of the dialogue was Biblical in origin when in fact it all came from Barrett’s own pen (Richards:130). In fact, with the depiction of Christ and other figures impossible under censorship, there was a long-standing reluctance to portray the Bible on the stage. Barrett’s play, and others like it, was able to circumvent the regulations through quasi-Biblical settings. Although one critic noted that the audience at the performance he attended might more accurately have been considered a congregation, such was the number of clergyman present (133), not all ministers of the church supported the play. Some were profuse in their praise of Christian values triumphing over the corruption of pagan Rome, where others found the scantily clad heroine, for example, or the “(faintly) orgiastic banquet scene” distasteful (Booth, 1995:24). More interestingly, Lillah McCarthy quotes another who stated that he preferred a “direct challenge to the power and reality of the Christian religion to that sickly exploitation of Christianity for theatrical purposes of which The Sign of the Cross was a nauseous example” (1933:168), the challenge in question being what is regarded as Shaw’s direct riposte to Barrett, Androcles and the Lion, where McCarthy found herself in the strange position of parodying her own lead role in Barrett through her lead role as Lavinia.

1898 – Shadows of a Great City

Shadows a Great City (1884), by the American L.R. Shewell, is archetypical melodramatic fare. In the first acts, Hamilton played Annie Standish, the daughter of a millionaire who is disinherited by her father at the instigation of his nephew.←55 | 56→

As Standish and her young daughter have been evicted from her squalid lodgings just before her father repents his disavowal, his hired detectives are unable to find them. Stolen diamonds are planted in the kit-bag of a sailor who suspects the nephew’s motives and he is imprisoned for theft. In prison he meets a man hired by the nephew to drown his niece. Instead of abetting him in the crime, he rescues the child and brings it up as his own, her mother having died at the time of the abduction. From this point on, Hamilton played Standish’s adult daughter.

Fifteen years later, as the sailor and his ward fall in love, the evil nephew re-appears, alerts the authorities that the sailor has not served his full prison term and claims guardianship of the young girl to further his own wicked intent. She nobly devotes herself to proving her lover’s innocence and virtue finally prevails.

Contemporary references to Hamilton are confined to the month of February 1898. While there may be various reasons why this should be so, we cannot rule out the very real possibility that this is one of the instances Hamilton mentions in her autobiography when she was released to make way for a manager’s mistress. Certainly the play continued to tour for several months after her ‘departure’, her twin role now divided between Miss Ina Lawrence and Miss Alice Rochefort, with Lawrence’s appointment being listed in The Stage of 24 February 1898 (16). Rochefort stayed with the tour until the end of the run in May 1898, whilst Lawrence was seemingly replaced after two months. If she was indeed the manager’s ‘mistress’, the liaison does not appear to have been a long one, at least not in the professional sense.

1898 – Gamekeeper

The Gamekeeper, a drama “of a sombre character” (Era, 21 May 1898:13) deals with a reprobate daughter, who runs off with a French dancing master, leaving her child to be cared for by a farmer and his wife as their own. On her reconciliation with her father many years later, the mother dies after confessing her sullied past and the existence of a daughter, Nell, who is now heir to the family estate. The Squire suggests that his son marry Nell, but he refuses, partially out of honour and partially because he already has a lover in the form of Elfreda Salisbury (played by Hamilton).←56 | 57→

For her part, Elfreda is forced to deny Ralph at the request of her uncle the squire, who had taken her and her mother in when her gambling father was killed in an accident. In the conclusion of the scène à faire confrontation which ends the play, Nell is eventually shot on stage by her jealous ex-lover, the gamekeeper of the title.

The Era’s critic writes that “Miss Cecily [sic] Hamilton merits warm praise for her sympathetic portrayal of Elfreda Salisbury” (21 May 1898:13) and over half a century later in a possible moment of confusion, Hamilton’s obituary in The Times of 8 December 1952 states that the character’s name was one of her professional aliases as a touring actress, a claim which it has proved impossible to substantiate or to refute.

1899 – Ingomar and Belphegor

Hamilton’s other minor roles tell a similarly sad story. Ingomar (first produced 1851 and also published under the title of The Son of the Wilderness after the original German Der Sohn der Wildnis from 1842) soon became another standard in the touring company repertoire because of its old-fashioned love story and stage presentation of “approved and accepted gender roles” (Richards, 2009:79). Hamilton played the role of Actea, mother of the young heroine, and the only other strong female lead in the cast. Ingomar himself, the leader of the Alemanni tribe which is holding the young Greek Parthenia to ransom, is very much the stereotypical male, “the doer, the creator, the discoverer [and] defender” (80), although he eventually succumbs to Parthenia’s civilised charms and wishes to become Greek. Further, Parthenia, although she ‘tames’ the wild barbarian, clearly reflects contemporary Victorian morality in her assertion that “as wife, as servant, slave, I sink down in the dust before thy feet” (ibid.).

Despite this affirmation of female inferiority, The Times of 8 September 1883 (a good fifteen years before Hamilton appeared in it) declared Ingomar to be dated and without any of the appeal it may have held thirty years before. The Illustrated London News of the same date was somewhat less reserved in its opinion: “highly moral but extremely wearisome, artless and nonsensical … dreary and imbecile”. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and The Era, also of the same date, wondered at the simplicity of the audience that might be amused and declared it “improbable”←57 | 58→ respectively (all quotations Richards:80–81). The modern reader is tempted to share this wonder and the play certainly falls far short of the assertion by F. C. Wemyss, editor of an undated New York edition by Wm Taylor and Company, that its “language, poetry and dramatic action … have not been excelled or equalled in the history of the Modern Drama” (iv).

Belphegor:or the Mountebank and his Wife was a translation from a French original also from 1851. According to H. G. Hibbert, the original title was Paillaise and it was first imported by Ben Webster (145), with whom Hamilton had once toured. W. Davenport Adams provides details of several different adaptations and confirms the original French title in his 1904 survey of modern drama. It is typical melodrama in its sentimental treatment of a poor travelling juggler and his wife, who face tribulation and deceit when she is discovered to be the daughter of a Duke. They triumph ultimately, of course, in accordance with the closing moral that “… man, whatever his chance of birth, may still be happy in his heart’s affection, so that that heart be true to honour and itself” (Courtney:50). Whatever their literary merits, the English stage’s reliance on translations of foreign works was very much seen as one of the symptoms of an ailing theatre.

1900 – Royal Divorce

Originally written by William Gorman Wills, A Royal Divorce (1891), which relates Napoleon Bonaparte’s divorce from the Empress Josephine, opened at the Avenue Theatre in Sunderland on 1 May 1891. A review in The Graphic in September of the same year is harsh in its appraisal – rumours had spread that it was not up to the standard of the author’s other historical biographies – Napoleon having a mere walk-on part in his own story and the drama lacked real action until Act IV. This might be improved with some editing, the reviewer adds, but even then its appeal will still be limited “to uncultivated audiences” as intrinsically it can only “dissatisfy all critical persons” (Graphic, 19 September 1891:333). By the following year, Wills was dead and the original Josephine, Miss Grace Hawthorne, had undertaken to revise the play to such an extant that she credited herself as co-author (under the name of Collingham) of what was now termed “this rather perverse historical drama” (Graphic, 30 July 1892:142). In a biography of its author, his brother is dismissive of the play, claiming that←58 | 59→ due to ill health most of his contribution had to be replaced by the original source text, an inferior American play. He does admit that it was “strangely popular” although “unworthy of his fame” (Wills:266).

Biographical notes

Seán Moran (Author)

Seán Moran received a PhD from the University of Gdańsk in Poland where he works at the Institute of Applied Linguistics.


Title: The Stage Career of Cicely Hamilton (1895–1914)