Georgian Era Theatre, History

Miss Searle and her Abolitionist Performance

One of the most interesting aspects of my research for my novel An Actress of Repute was discovering the fascinating topics of the performances my main character, Elizabeth Searle, took part in at the Royal Circus Theatre, south of the River Thames. The Royal Circus was a non-patent theatre, meaning dialogue was not allowed. However, theatre manager John Cross was very clever at finding ways to bypass these restrictions. By performing ‘Burlettas’, mini-operatic pieces could be sung. This could sometimes disguise more contentious topics. If more explanation was needed, draperies and banners that featured key descriptions would be unfurled during performances. This would have a similar effect as words flashed onto a silent film, as seen in the early twentieth century.

Slaves in Surinam, from John Stedman’s autobiographical account

Mr. Cross often chose sensational topics for the time in order to lure in audiences and sell tickets. In the summer of 1804, Mr. Cross wrote and produced Johanna of Suriname. This was based on the best-selling account of soldier John Gabriel Stedman entitled The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The autobiographical book outlined the shocking accounts of inhumane acts against slaves in the Dutch colony. His romantic involvement with a slave by the name of Joanna – who became mother to his son, is also revealed. Stedman’s disgust at the harsh treatment of the enslaved captives of the plantations is clearly outlined and the horror was amplified by the graphic prints (engraved by two of the top artists of the time – William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi) of the torture endured by the unfortunate souls at the hands of their captors. The book became very influential and was circulated widely amongst those in support of the abolitionist cause to bring an end to the evil slave trade.

Scenes of plantations in the Dutch colony of Surinam

Miss Searle was chosen to portray the slave Joanna. I was very honoured to include the fact that the main character of my novel was taking part in such a noble endeavour. Yet it also brought about some troublesome issues that I thought could potentially offend the modern reader. First and foremost was the idea that Miss Searle might perform in what is now known as ‘blackface’. I am not sure that Miss Searle would have darkened her face and skin to portray the character of Joanna, but I feel quite certain that there would have been no qualms about doing so back in Late-Georgian times. As far as I am aware, there were no performers of colour on the stage at the time in London ( the earliest I am aware of is Ira Aldridge in the 1840’s – I tweeted a link to information about his career awhile back: https://twitter.com/ronanbeckman/status/1281818253304750080?s=20 ) – so Elizabeth would have been cast in the role without a thought (she portrayed a Chinese princess at Covent Garden in later times). I felt that, in the context of the times, it was important to describe Elizabeth Searle portraying her role onstage as it would have been at the time. I hoped that the positive effects of educating her audience about the evils of the slave trade would outweigh the modern feelings about portraying someone of a different ethnicity onstage.

A mixed race slave in Surinam. She would have had a higher status than other slaves due to her partial European ancestry – yet she would still be regarded as a slave regardless.

A ‘tweet’ that I saw led to a very last minute and final edit to my chapter regarding the performance of Johanna of Suriname. The tweet highlighted the fact that there were 10,000 people of colour in Regency Era London, yet they never received even one mention in modern Regency fiction. I felt so moved that I want to play my part to rectify the situation – but my novel was due to be published in just two weeks. I did a very quick rewrite that I hope went some way to addressing this issue. At such short notice, it was difficult for me to imagine a character to place appropriately within my book. The performance of Johanna of Suriname was an ideal opportunity I felt. So I made one evening’s performance a special one – to serve as a benefit event for the abolitionist movement. Who might attend such a prominent event? I thought of someone who was perhaps amongst the most prominent person of colour and someone from London’s history that I adore. I included Dido Elizabeth Belle in the audience. Dido was the daughter Sir John Lindsay, and greatly loved by her family in England. I thoroughly recommend the amazing 2013 film of her life – Belle ( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404181/ ) Some little bits of karma that made me feel that this was the correct decision: Dido Belle was baptised in the church of St. George’s in Bloomsbury – just 3 doors away from where Elizabeth Searle lived. The church features prominently in my novel, and you can explore it virtually in this brief video: https://youtu.be/QESj0z2lvSc Dido Belle sadly passed away in the month of July 1804 – the same month that the play was performed. In my novel, Dido and Elizabeth have the opportunity to meet each other and speak about the performance. She gives Elizabeth her approval and blessing, as I would have hoped she would have done in real life. And deep down, I truly hope that they did indeed meet each other in reality.

Close-up of Dido Elizabeth Belle by Johann Zoffany

Georgian Era Theatre, History

Henry Erskine Johnston – a Regency Heartthrob

It seems that most novels set in the Regency era have their very own ‘Mr. Darcy’ type of character to make the female readers swoon.  An Actress of Repute is no exception, featuring the devastatingly handsome real-life Scottish actor Henry Erskine Johnston. Only there a few differences. He isn’t immensely wealthy. He is a bit more bawdy than brooding. Oh yeah – he’s married as well (but unhappily so – does that help?). Perhaps most importantly, his legs must’ve looked great in a kilt as that seems to be the most famous and copied image of him. And my main character had a few opportunities to admire those muscular calves.

Henry Johnston seems to have had a very intriguing backstory as well. He was born in May 1777 in Edinburgh. There is a lot of conjecture about his early life, with some reporting that he was the son of a hairdresser, that he was apprenticed to a writer for a notary or signet, and that he had been apprenticed to a draper for three years. He showed much theatrical promise as an amateur, and was spotted by Stephen Kemble, of the famous Kemble acting family, who was responsible for first getting him on the stage. He soon became very well known for his portrayal of Norval in the play Douglas, which gave him opportunities to show off his fine physique in a very heroic role.Henry became besotted with the beautiful Scottish actress, Nanette Parker, and would throw roses to her onstage at her performances. He was a young 19 when he married her (she was even more youthful – being only 14 years old). They became a power couple in the theatre and often performed together. They had six children together, but the marriage appeared to be very stormy. There were many arguments witnessed and accusations of infidelity (which rather stuck to Nanette, as she abandoned her young family for an affair with Covent Garden manager Henry Harris). In 1807, Henry began a court case in Dublin accusing her of adultery with a Richard Curran, a barrister and son of a Master of the Rolls. The couple remained separated until Henry managed to get an annulment of their marriage in 1820.

Henry was no angel himself, I suspect, and had a bit of a reputation as a hot-headed firebrand. He started a big dispute over contracts at Covent Garden Theatre, signing a list of grievances with seven other actors during the 1802-3 season. There were also some implications from his wife Nanette that he would beat her. She made these accusations slipping out of character during a performance onstage in Glasgow. Henry’s character had to recite dialogue stating how if he were to lays his hands on a woman, he would be a wretch. Nanette interrupted his performance saying “Ugh! You brute!” He then qualified his dialogue, implying hitting a woman was wrong “unless she richly deserved it”.

Domestic disputes aside, Henry was known as “the biggest boy in the world”. He had a playful persona and enjoyed making others laugh, using his great talents of mimicry and impersonation. Much of his ability to do so was through his physicality. Without uttering a word, those around him knew who he was imitating solely through his movements. He was expert at mimicking animals, as well as being skilled in ventriloquy. The Monthly Mirror summed up much of Mr. Johnson’s appeal: “His voice is unusually flexible, and its tones various; soft, sweet, melting, strong, piercing, full, capable of any depression, or any elevation…His countenance is expressive, his figure is pretty… His action is animated and often graceful; the same may be said of his deportment…” It summed up that he had finer requisites, figure excepted, than any other actor on the stage.” High praise indeed, and a perfect résumé for my novel’s main love interest – don’t you think?  

by Edward Mitchell, after Henry Singleton, hand-coloured stipple and line engraving, published 1806