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KeywordsLondon theatre Realism Naturalism Cup and saucer drama Burlesque
Marie Effie (Wilton) Bancroft (1839–1921) was an actress, manager, and writer, best known for her work toward raising the respectable reputation of the London theatre. From the time she took over as actress-manager of the newly renovated Prince of Wales Theatre in 1865, until her retirement from the stage in 1885, she strove constantly alongside her husband and managerial partner to establish the theatre as a respectable professional pursuit, even – or especially – for an upwardly mobile married woman. Her writing, both for performance and for publication, has the same end in view. She published two memoirs, jointly written with her husband, and a novel, all of which create a particular image of respectable femininity centered on the working woman. Her four plays, which all received West End productions between 1890 and 1901, continue the work she began in her acting and managerial careers: her plays have domestic settings and rely on the kind of attention to realistic detail her own theatre had become known for. When Bancroft’s husband was knighted for services to the drama in 1897, many assumed his commendation was meant implicitly to recognize her work as well. Throughout the second half of the century, Bancroft’s professional efforts as actress, manager, author, and playwright all emphasized the respectability of the professional theatre.
Marie Bancroft (1839–1921) was best known as an actress and manager, responsible in part for the increasingly respectable image of the theatrical profession. Bancroft entered the profession as a child, performing on various provincial circuits alongside her father Robert, her mother Georgiana, and her younger sisters. She secured her place in the London theatre world through her talents as a burlesque actress after making her debut at the Lyceum in 1856. Bancroft, however, sought recognition for the theatre as a respectable profession and, by extension, of her own respectability as a working woman. To separate herself from these burlesque roles, Bancroft chose to go into management, opening in 1865 the renamed and redecorated Prince of Wales Theatre. Bancroft laid carpets, hung draperies, added antimacassars to upholstered chairs, and decorated with greenery, transforming the theatre’s auditorium into something reminiscent of a respectable home. The staging and decorative innovations at the Prince of Wales allowed for an attention to detail that created an illusion of realistic domesticity. Having met with success at the Prince of Wales, Bancroft, alongside her husband and managerial partner, took over the Haymarket in 1879, further establishing the Bancroft name at the height of the nineteenth-century theatrical profession. From the time of this move, Bancroft began to take an increasingly background role in the running of her theatre. By the time Squire Bancroft was knighted in 1897, it was widely – if tacitly – agreed that Marie Bancroft’s role was a supporting one.
Upon her retirement from the stage, Bancroft turned to writing as another method of establishing her respectability while maintaining a steady profession. She and her husband published two joint memoirs, Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft On and Off the Stage (1888) and The Bancrofts: Recollections of Sixty Years (1909). She also wrote a relatively well-received novel, The Shadow of Neeme (1912). In the decade after 1890, she had four plays produced, one of which was also printed for private circulation: A Riverside Story (Haymarket, 22 May 1890), My Daughter (Garrick, 2 January 1892), Accidents Decide Our Lives (Royalty, 1895), and The Tables (Criterion, June 1901). The last of these, a one-act drama set at Monte Carlo, was written for a single matinée performance for the benefit of the Waifs and Strays Society and seems not to have received much interest beyond the event.
Bancroft’s second play was her most successful, running for 154 performances in 1892, as a curtain raiser to Sydney Grundy’s A Fool’s Paradise. My Daughter, which had been printed for private circulation the year before, was an adaptation of an “unidentified” German piece (Wearing, 101). The play opens with Captain Blake resisting his mother’s hints to marry; this exchange establishes the backstory of an old army friend and an orphaned daughter. It quickly transpires that this girl is about to arrive. She has been led to believe that Blake is her father and is immediately sent to him when illness breaks out at the convent she has lived in. Some farce attends Rosie’s arrival and Blake’s attempts not to disappoint her, before the whole story slowly comes out. Once Rosie’s position becomes clear, she offers to leave; Blake stops her by confessing his love. The Era’s reviewer praises the playwright for “[making] her little play English in tone and thoroughly English in dialogue.” The review goes on to address the potential problem of the love plot intertwined with the mistaken identity plot, asserting that “as to suggestions of an unwholesome kind, who could feel anything of the sort in the face of [Rosie’s] sweet girlish confidence and outpouring of natural affection.” Overall, the reviewer judges the piece “the most unqualified success.”
Bancroft’s first play received a more mixed reception. A Riverside Story chronicles the fate of Alice, a young girl enticed away from her boatbuilder fiancé by the promise of wealth. The story comes, with a few minor dramatic adjustments, from a tale Bancroft relates in the first of her memoirs. She comes across the young boatbuilder while on the beach at Broadstairs, and he relates the story as explanation for having begun to break up the boat with Alice’s name (1888, 255–260). The play, with its extensive stage directions and blocking notes, depends on the attention to realistic detail associated with Bancroft’s theatre. The characters interact in a naturalistic manner both with one another and with the staged environment, and the dialogue replicates the kind of conversations one might expect in a real-life situation. Bancroft merges her lived experience with the innovations of her performance technique. In performance, however, this meticulous attention to detail caused the piece to fail. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper suggests that “the talk is good in its way, but there is a great deal too much of it” and credits the actors with “loyally” working “to keep alive the attention of the audience.” The reviewer for The Financial Times agrees, saying only that Annie Hughes’ Alice was “played […] with admirable sincerity and pathos,” while “all the other parts were more or less well sustained.” The satirical Judy goes further, suggesting quite bluntly that Bancroft is “no author” and the play was only produced because she had a “friend at Court—[I] mean Haymarket.”
Throughout her theatrical career, Bancroft worked to establish her own respectability and that of her profession. Her plays reflect this aim: she wrote domestic dramas, rather than melodrama or social commentary, and relied on the same attention to realistic detail which had built her onstage reputation. While her plays touch on significant social issues, Bancroft’s writing deliberately minimizes the potential social commentary of the pieces. S. Boyle Lawrence, for instance, uses the word “pretty” three times in a short review of A Riverside Story, dismissing the emotional resonance of the piece and its sympathetic treatment of Alice to focus instead on the “simple, homely story.” Even with its otherwise high praise, The Era review applies the same adjective to My Daughter, emphasizing the respectable English domesticity of the marriage plot. Bancroft’s desire, as a playwright as in her acting and managerial careers, was to enforce the respectability of the stage by depicting conventional domestic situations.
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