Monday, June 11, 2018

Putting Emily in order: W S Gilbert's forgotten lady producer.


It’s strange how some, once famous, actors, actresses and singers just disappear from public memory. It seems that a life full of theatrical and musical successes, some at the highest level, aren’t as effective as a bit of scandal or a royal or aristocratic connection. Pathetic creatures such as chorines Evelyn Nesbitt and Billie Carleton get a mention in print, now and again, a century and more on, but no one even knows what happened to such great stars as Anaïde Castellan and Amélie Deméric-Lablache. Oh, well, I guess that’s life. And publicity.

 I am prompted to these musings by the case of ‘Emily Fowler’. I suppose there are a dozen or two folk who, like myself, are immersed in the Victorian theatre who know who she was. And yet, she was a leading lady with Henry Neville, Dion Boucicault, Henry Irving, Charles Wyndham … she created the English version of the famous The Two Orphans… and she, three times, took theatres and produced plays such as W G Wills’s Nell Gwynne and a new musical comedy by Freddie Clay and W S Gilbert. So a few of the more avid Gilbert fans know her name. But anything about her?

 Well, much to my surprise (and pleasure), someone has put her on Wikipedia. It’s evident that the piece has been taken holus bolus from, I suspect, The Era, and it mentions a lot of the right plays and places, but it has got a bit tortured on the way from that Era to this. ‘She portrayed Helen Barry in The Two Orphans’. No, my dear, Helen Barry was an actress, a cast member. Emily had the lead, she portrayed the blind girl, Louise. Anyway, I thought I had better tidy her up. So here goes.

First off, Emily wasn’t born ‘Emily’. She was born in Rochdale 31 July 1847, the daughter of Samuel Matthew Fowler, a cabinet-maker, and Sophia née Fox, and christened Susannah, after grandma. There were two sisters (Clarissa, Sophia) and one brother (Samuel), and father died in 1860. By which time the family was in London.

I was pretty sure that with father dead, mother doing sewing for a living, and four children, someone with theatrical propensities would be pretty swiftly out earning a wage. So I looked. There! ‘Miss Fowler’ serio-comic performing at Deacon’s Music Hall next to Sadler’s Wells. Also at Jude’s, Dublin, and the Victoria, Newcastle. But always back at Deacon’s. Oh, look! Miss E Fowler at Palmer’s Music Hall, Upper Holloway (‘sang her serio comic songs with much taste and point and was loudly encored’) in 1863. Then ‘Miss E’ again in 1864 at Thornton’s in Leeds with Harry Liston. Why is she having an initial all of a sudden? 

Splat! Probably because Miss Fowler of Deacon’s brought her little sister on to the bill in Islington. Clara. Clarissa? No. Clara. And Miss becomes ‘Louisa Fowler’. There they are in the 1861 census, in Amwell, with widowed mother Mary, staymaker. Oh, heck, a wholly different family! They are going to get in my non-existent hair!

They didn’t. Louisa and Clara, ‘The Sisters Fowler’ got out of Amwell. In 1866, they got a job singing and dancing in variety in America. From New York, they headed to New Orleans … but they never got there. Their ship, with the Alhaiza opera troupe and their variety team aboard … over fifty theatricals in all … sank, and all but two of the passengers were drowned.

Susannah, now metamorphosed into Emily, surfaced, the following year (14 September 1867) on the London stage. The marvellous ‘Pattie’ Oliver had taken the little Royalty Theatre, in Dean Street, and there produced with huge success a burlesque version of Black-Eyed Susan. Long runs were not the style of the time, and so, as the burlesque travelled on to its 100th, 200th, 300th performance, a few cast changes intervened. Fanny Heath had created the bright little pants part of Gnatbrain. She’d moved on, and Emily (‘a comparatively speaking newcomer’) was hired as her replacement. She was entirely successful, and went on to play another boy, Augustus (‘a youth addicted to smoking surreptitiously’) in the not very successful Humbug, in the familiar forepieces John Jones and Married Daughters and Young Husbands, and then, 21 March 1868, when ‘See-u-san’ had finally been withdrawn, yet another boy, the foppish Florestein in a burlesque of The Bohemian Girl. The Merry Zingara of W S Gilbert.

Emily as Florestein
Pattie closed her season in July, but even without poor Louisa and Clara around, I don’t see ‘Emily’ around again for nearly half a year. This is a feature of her career: she seemed to have money, or access to money. She didn’t do no shit jobs. Just waited around for the good ones. Mind you, she had got married. If you could call it that. He was a chorister in the Royalty company who called himself ‘Renouf’. His actual name was John Frederick Fenner and, since they were wed 3 August 1867, it looks as if Emily was in the chorus at the Royalty before she got her first part with Pattie. Anyway, she got rid of him pretty smartly. Or he wandered off. They both ‘married’ again and he died in 1877.

Back to 1868 and Emily. Her next ‘shop’ was a nice one. John Hollingshead was putting together a company with which to open the brand new Gaiety Theatre. It was in one way unusual, in that a number of its members came, not from the theatre, but from the music halls. There was Annie Tremaine, there was Connie Loseby and … there was Emily Fowler, who, not so long since (well, I’m presuming it was she, Miss E!) had been singing at Thornton’s, Leeds. Annie and Connie would go on to be the singing stars of the Gaiety for years, while Emily moved on, but it seems that, at the start at least, it was Emily (with a less legitimate voice than those girls) who was top of the burlesque-girls list. Alongside burlesque boy, Nellie Farren.

This may be the role of Alice. Emily didn't get into skirts often art this stage.
Thus, on the opening night of the Gaiety, Emily appeared as Butts (a maid) in the play On the Cards, and as principal girl, Alice, in a burlesque of Robert le diableRobert the Devil of W S Gilbert. Connie and Annie had smaller parts, and Isabella was turned into a beauty role for one Lillian Hastings’s legs. Emily played (‘Queen of Kokatouka’) in the next burlesque, Columbus, too, but, when the season ended, she was up and gone. Where? Why to the little Charing Cross Theatre, from where managers Messrs Bradwell and Field had just made a delicate exit. The new manager was to be Miss E Fowler. Aged 22.

Now, I can’t pass this event by without a very big WHAT? WHY? Leasing a London theatre was a vastly perilous exercise. Hiring a company and staff … they went bankrupt regularly. And Mrs Fowler is still sewing? Sorry, Emily has to be a front for somebody. Or somebody is supplying her with money. Well, I have the odd idea …

 Emily’s management opened with the drama Edendale, left over from the previous managers, and a new burlesque Very Little Faust and More Mephistopheles. She, of course, was Mephistopheles. In the ten months of her season, the theatre played a few old pieces, several burlesques (Abon Hassan, Ixion each with Emily in the title-role), and some new pieces, written and performed as leading man by Mr Wybert Reeve (Won at Last, Not So Bad after all). In spite of mediocre reviews, Reeve’s plays were kept on the bill for a considerable time. Was he Emily’s ‘backer’? However, the season would today be quite forgot, along with Mr Reeve’s plays, and the Illusions of Joseph J Dilley, were it not for the last new production, a musical comedy entitled The Gentleman in Black. Music by Freddie Clay, book by … W S Gilbert. About which enough has been written. Emily was the leading 'boy'.

Miss Fowler’s management of the Charing Cross ended at the finish of June, and it was gossiped that she was going to America. Maybe she did, but not for long, because at Christmas she was starring at the Olympic as Prince Lardi Dardi in The White Cat. And then as Kate Bertram in The Rights of Woman… a bit of a change! And it was a change.

 In 1871, she went out for a short tour with Dion Boucicault’s London Star company, playing Rosie Aircastle in his Elfie and Sam Willoughby in The Ticket of Leave Man, in 1872 she played opposite Dolly Dolaro in the burlesque of Zampa at the Court Theatre, and in 1873 she rejoined Neville, now managing the Olympic, for a run of increasingly important roles (Florence in Mystery, Lady Kate Fanshawe in Sour Grapes, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Lady Betty Noel to the Lady Clancarty of Ada Cavendish, Suzanne in The School for Intrigue, Martha Gibbs in All That Glitters, Louise in The Two Orphans). She played her Much Adoat the Crystal Palace, as well as Helen in The Hunchback, alongside Creswick and Genevieve Ward, took the role of May in a major revival of The Ticket-of-Leave Man, appeared in a Benefit at Drury Lane acting in French (En Wagon)and then she got married again.

Her husband John Callin Pemberton was the son of actress Amy Sedgwick. Unfortunately, the ceremony came a little too soon. Or fortunately. Anyway, they were divorced in 1879 on the grounds that ‘Mr Renouf’ hadn’t quite died wjhen thney were wed, so the marriage was illegal.

Emily moved on to play Katharine in Henry V at the Queen’s, in an unsatisfactory season at the St James’s (The Scar on the Wrist, more Lady Clancarty), and then she once again was billed as manager. Back at the Royalty where she had once been a chorus girl. This time it was shorter, but wholly successful. She appeared in the title-role of W G Wills’s Nell Gwynne and scored a huge success. And a supporting piece, from the French, entitled Scandal,was also liked. The next year, after appearances at Drury Lane (Perdita in A Winter’s Tale), the Princess’s, the Royalty and the Haymarket, she would take the two pieces to the country. Then As You Like It with Henry Neville, Constance in The Love Chase at a Benefit …

And she got married a third time (Reigate, 25 December 1880). And this time she got it right. Her husband was a career military man, Captain (later Major) Walter Latham Cox. Somewhat younger than she. He seems to have been quartered in Oxfordshire for a while.

 Anyway, Emily appeared, now, infrequently on the London stage. In 1881 she joined Henry Irving to play Emily L’Esparre in The Corsican Brothers at the Lyceum, but dropped out, so the papers suggested coyly, to have a baby. I don’t know about that. But for more than a decade Miss Fowler was absent from the West End stage. And then, in 1894, came the news that she had been summoned from China to play Lady Winifred Skipton in a version of Le Gendre de M Poirier for Charles Wyndham at the Criterion. And she came. Unfortunately An Aristocratic Alliance turned out to be a badly adapted piece and a failure.

And that was it. I don’t think Emily wanted it to be. She advertised ‘disengaged’ through 1895 …

She was still, more or less, in the public eye. So I am rather surprised that, when she died, some time in mid 1897, I can find no report of it, anywhere. No obituary, no listing in the year’s theatrical necrology. And she didn’t die in China, she’s there in the deaths listings for Shoreditch, June quarter 1897. Why? And if she had money, where is her will? So, even if I’ve managed to summarise pretty accurately her splendid theatrical career, Emily still has the odd secret from me…  I suppose it’s another case of shell out a few quid for a death certificate!

The pictures in this article are mostly from the grand Guy Little collection at the V&A. Emily was much photographed …!

1 comment:

ss said...

Duly brushed up at Wikipedia. Send me an e-mail if it needs further adjustment.