I was doodling over my morning cuppa, wondering whose life and career I would delve into today, when I chanced on a delightful photograph of Miss Laura Joyce. Victorian vocalist. I remembered investigating her years ago – probably as a sometime rival to Emily Soldene – so, well, why not her? If Microsoft hadn’t rendered her file unreadable. Nope! It had survived.
I glanced at her obituary … 'born in Berkshire 1858, real name Hannah Joyce Maskell, trained at the Royal Academy…’. Three lies in one breath! Undoubtedly, the Goddess of Truth and her pageboy, Mr Gänzl, were needed. So I loined up my girths, dug away, and now, with my daily lime and gin, I shall render the correct facts on the lady – which are pretty easy to sort out – for your delectation. Small warning, for some reason I gathered minutious notes of Laura’s background, all those decades ago, and I’m going to put most of them into this essay: so you can skip down a bit, if that doesn’t interest you. It interests me. I like to know the family background of my artists …
So first, place and date of birth. Laura Joyce Maskell’s birth record says she was born in the Commercial Road, Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales. Yes, Laura. She was always Laura. Though I can imagine that some handwritten ‘Laura’ might at some stage have been misread as ‘Hannah’. Anyway, Hannah had nothing to do with it.
The date of her birth was 6 May 1854. Has someone got mixed up with her Manchester christening which didn’t take place till later? Anyway, 1854.
Father was one James Henry Maskell (b Islington, 20 August 1824), son of the elder James Henry Maskell, mine host of the White Horse Inn and Posting House, Fetter Lane (d 78 Camden Road, 29 December 1870) and his wife … Joyce. I know little about the younger James. And the little isn’t very flattering. I see him in the 1861 census, saying he’s an auctioneer, and I see him at least once being bankrupted. That, plus future form, makes me think he was a bit of a hopeless Henry. He had two siblings who went into showbiz: George K who was a sometime manager of the Devonport Theatre and perished one night in the river near Gourock Pier, while seemingly out trolling, and Fanny ‘of the Brighton Theatre’ who became Mrs Walter Baynham ‘of the Brighton Theatre’.
Mother was Maria Dalton Dauncey, daughter of James Dauncey sometime of Uley, Gloucestershire. The Daunceys appear to have been into the profitable local clothmaking manufacture. Maria was a tall, ‘imposing’ woman with ‘a sonorous voice’ and she subsequently decided on a career as a Reciter and Reader under the name ‘Mrs Dauncey Maskell’. So James became ‘Mr Dauncey Maskell’. Mrs Maskell was mildly appreciated as a ‘reader of average ability’ in women’s clubs (‘The Bells’, ‘The Diver’, ‘Dream of the Reveller’), from about 1864, when I see her in the ‘elocution class’ of the Barnsbury Institute.
Anyway, this unpromising pair produced a daughter (just one, I have a feeling they gave up trying) who was going to outshine anyone else in the family. And it must be admitted, one or both of them certainly gave her the chance. She was plugged and pushed from an early age. But she did NOT study at the Royal Academy of Music. She was coached in acting by her mother, and she studied music at the underrated London Academy of Music. Teacher: Schira. Who was perfectly good teacher.
Next ‘fact’. She made her debut at the Strand Theatre in The Loan of a Lover. Well, it’s not a total lie, this time. But I don’t think that non-professional performances really count as a ‘debut’. This event took place 4 August 1870, and it was an amateur evening mounted by her mother (’to show off her two pupils’). It was a very amdram event. The other girl went to pieces, missed entrances, mamma hadn’t learned her part, had to be loudly prompted and only Laura gave a performance. But Mamma (I presume) continued to supply tickets and paras to the press, who reported ‘Miss Maskell is destined for the lyric stage and arrangements have been made to bring her out in English opera next season’, before sending the teenager out on ‘a starring tour through Lancashire and Yorkshire’ in ‘an entertainment called Happy Hours of Fanciful Fun by Frank Green and Alfred Lee and, oh dear, Papa. She survived. Manchester even found her ‘a clever versatile and attractive actress and sustains with éclat a long series of character sketches and impersonations with the utmost vivacity and brilliance’. So Mamma decided to bring her to town.
On 11 May 1871 Mamma gave an evening at St George’s Hall. And Laura was starred in two soi-disant operettas. Cupid mid the Rosesand Love’s Disguises. Once again, everything but Laura was a shipwreck, and she headed back to the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute and like venues …
But salvation was coming. Manchester obviously like her and, at Christmas 1871 she was cast as Oberon in the prologue to The Children in the Wood at the Theatre Royal. The Erapronounced: ‘in Miss Laura Joyce the theatre has secured a valuable actress and vocalist’. During 1872 she toured, as one of his attendant sylphs, with Howard Paul … but, more importantly, she somehow got herself on the books of a high-flying agent: Mr D’Oyly Carte.
The big musical and spectacular theatre managers of New York fed off agents such as Mr Carte for new and lovely performers. Niblo’s Garden had done a treat with such as the slightly passé British Mrs ‘Millie’ Lawrence of the music halls who had made the hit of The Black Crook under the pseudonym ‘Millie Cavendish’. There had been mishaps, such as poor Lucy Egerton in The White Fawn, but, by and large, ‘blawsted’ British was as fashionable in the New York theatre as, these days, are loud Russian sopranos in Berlin.
Jarrett and Palmer were about to produce their latest Niblo’s spectacular, and they contacted Mr Carte for starry singing ladies. Carte lined up the big, blonde soprano Cornélie d’Anka for them, and then a fine little singer named Marie Rossetti (she was Miss Brennan from Norwich). But Cornélie she changea-da-mind, so Miss Laura Joyce was sent instead. And thus she set sail on the City of Baltimore 15 October 1872 for what was to be a new and splendid career. Oh, and of course, Mamma came too.
The two English girls (and the mise-en-scene) were the successes of Leo and Lotos, and Laura’s singing of ‘The Beautiful Blue Danube’ (‘her powerful voice floating along’) was a highlight. Miss Brennan then went off to try herself in opera in Europe, but Miss Joyce stayed. Maybe Mamma couldn’t get out of her old mindset, and at one stage it was announced the Laura would bring out the old ‘entertainment’, but happily she didn’t. She stayed on at Niblo’s to feature in Azrael(Lisette) and The Beats of New York(Mary), and then she went and got married.
She married one James Valentine Taylor, a well-off young man from Boston who was well-off only on inherited money. Which, in traditional fashion, he was spending fast. I sha’n’t spend time on Mr Taylor. They had two sons … between which Mrs Taylor returned to the stage to star in the title-role of Evangelineat the Boston Globe, alongside Harry Beckett … and divorced. She claimed he was drunk and violent, he claimed she and her family were draining him dry, and that father was the drunk … one way and another, I think it was not a marriage made on Olympus. We don’t need to follow them further, do we. Well, I have, but …
She returned to the stage at Christmas 1875, starring at the Boston Globe as Prince Amabel in Turko the Terrible, after which I see her in concert with the Berger Family and Jules Levy, then playing Caste (Polly Eccles) and Our Boys with the ‘New England Comedy Company’. Mamma was lecturing to Boston’s ladies about ‘What I Know About Readers and Reading’.
Then Laura escaped from Boston. She went to play her Evangeline role in Philadelphia, and there got a 6-month’s engagement with John Ford. Baltimore, Washington … Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Lady Wagstaff in Pink Dominos, Miss Zulu in Forbidden Fruit … she ‘paralysed Joseph Jefferson with her Lydia Languish at Washington DC...’ played in Camille with Modjeska, and when her divorce was settled ventured back to Boston for more Evangeline …
If her career seemed, at the moment, to be axed towards the non-musical stage, that was soon to change. In November 1878, she was hired to play Germaine to the Serpolette of Catherine Lewis in Les Cloches de Corneville, after which she appeared with another company (10 February 1879) as an ‘an admirable Buttercup’ to the Josephine of Annie Pixley. She was hired for more Buttercups, with Annis Montague and William Castle (Haverly’s Theater, Brooklyn, Philadelphia) and also took the title-role in Fatinitza and played Lady Allcash in Fra Diavolo, in the American musical The First Lifeguards in Brighton and as Lange in La Fille de Madame Angot.
In February 1880 she was hired, in the midst of a weak cast, by D’Oyly Carte to play Ruth in a firstPirates of Penzance in Chicago.She, A W F McCollin (Major General) and Marie Conron (Josephine) just saved the pirate ship from sinking.
Later that year she was engaged for Daly’s Theatre, New York. She played in a mixture of non-musical and musical plays (Hebe Josselyn in Our First Families, Signora Zanina in a perversion of Nisida entitled Zanina, Silena in Needles and Pins -- and deputising for Ada Rehan in the lead --, Gabrielle Prince in Quits, Mrs Leonora D Livermore in Americans Abroad, Georgette in Royal Youth, Merope Mallow in Cinderella at School), but henceforth she was to become a prized komische Alte in the musical theatre … and not just any theatre: she played for Comley Barton, at the Bijou, the Casino, the heart of American comic-opera world, and in the companies of John McCaull.
In the 1880s she appeared as Bathilde in Olivette, Lady Jane in Patience, Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Mrs Cowslip in Virginia, Donna Scolastica in Heart and Hand, Manola in La Princesse de Trébizonde, Diana then Juno in Orphée aux enfers, Palmatica in The Beggar Student, Lady Clare in Nell Gwynne, more Lady Janes, more Ruths ..
In the middle of all this, she changed her name. She became Laura Joyce Bell (3 March 1883). She married the musical-comedy star Digby Valentine Bell. He took in Mamma and the two boys, they had one daughter together, and lived happily ever after for the 20 years until Laura’s death. Mamma lasted longer. Papa didn’t like Nyack, NJ, and fled back to Britain, but I guess he knew what side his bread was jammed and he was soon back.
McCaull was at his peak, at this time, shuffling first-class comic opera companies round America -- I see Laura in The Mikado, The Crowing Hen, Indiana, Ruddigore – until finally he had to rationalise, and reduce to one company. He kept Laura to be his star character contralto, and Emily Soldene went home.
However, the golden period was over. Laura appeared in a series of indifferent American musicals (The Tar and the Tartar, Jupiter, The Queen of Brilliants, Princess Bonnie, Madeleine, The Sphinx, Nancy Lee etc) and toured in companies with her husband, first in comic opera, then, with considerable success, in farce comedy (The Midnight Bell, The Hoosier Doctor, The Walking Delegate, Joe the Hurdy Gurdy Gentleman).She took over from Ada Deaves in The Burgomaster in Chicago, and appeared with DeWolf Hopper, as Mrs Bardell, in Mr Pickwick (Digby was Sam Weller) …
And midst all this Papa died in New York (4 September 1897 aged 74).
Mamma lasted twenty years longer (d 2 December 1917), but Laura didn’t. She died in at her home at 1476 Lexington Ave, NYC 29 May 1904 of ‘heart disease’.
I’ve followed up the three children, Valentine, Herbert and Mrs Harry C Schlichting (inter alia), but have found naught to tell. The memorable Digby, of course, is enshrined in my Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre which everybody has …
Phew. Basta. 7.15pm. I think I’ve earned another lime (and gin). Now, who tomorrow?