Advertising the Victorian Theatre

Globe Theatre, Strand: The Black Rover. The Most Sensational Opera ever Produced. 12.3x18.6cm.

Globe Theatre, Strand: The Black Rover. The Most Sensational Opera ever Produced. 12.3x18.6cm.

An advertising flyer handed out, perhaps to passers-by in the Strand, during the run of the melodrama The Black Rover. While it shows the time of the performance – ‘Every Night at 8.15’ – no dates are given, though there’s a pencilled guess (‘about 1881’) by a later owner at bottom left. In fact its first London performance was later than that, taking place on Thursday 23 September 1890 at the Globe, where it ran for 40 nights. A contemporary review in The Theatre (pp.231-2) details the plot as well as commenting, sometimes acidly, on the performers. The melodrama involved a phantom ship, pirates, shipwreck, a slave revolt in Cuba, mistaken identity and love in peril. The spectacular nature of the scenery is stressed by the flyer, which lists the scenes as a way of attracting an audience. Tastes for the exotic, the dangerous and the shocking are well catered for, and a liking for romance is satisfied by the reassurance of a ‘Happy Denouement’.

While one side of this fragile piece of paper packs in all the information which might grab the attention of a keen theatre-goer (the actors, the scenes, newspaper praise) the reverse is designed primarily for its visual appeal, perhaps to attract a less sophisticated audience. The pirate flag clearly signifies the theme of the production, though the names of actors which appear on the flag’s cord are so small as to be scarcely legible: the only words clear to the naked eye appear on the cord beneath the flag, and identify the author/composer as Luscombe Searelle. The request to ‘Please hold this up to a looking glass’ offers a further visual novelty. While it’s not very difficult to read the backwards text, the mirror-writing might invite curiosity, and even encourage the recipient to keep the leaflet and show it to others.

Globe Theatre, Strand: The Black Rover. The Most Sensational Opera ever Produced, reverse.

Globe Theatre, Strand: The Black Rover. The Most Sensational Opera ever Produced, reverse.

According to the Theatre reviewer, ‘Whatever success the piece achieved was due to the excellence of the scenery, for the "Black Rover" is magnificently put on the stage, and to the very fine impersonation of the title-role by Mr. Ludwig.’ As a celebrated operatic baritone, William Ludwig was already well-established and much admired. Other performers fared less well. Mr. Charles Collette, for example ‘did all that was possible with a thankless part.’ The heroine Isidora was played by Blanche Fenton with mixed success: according to the Times, she ‘did very well in the lighter passages, both vocal and histrionic, but her voice, though fairly tuneful and pleasant in quality, is not powerful enough for the part…’ Fenton’s husband  William Luscombe Searelle came in for criticism as author and composer of the show:  ‘He rarely, if ever, emerges from the domain of the obvious.’ The Theatre critic was similarly underwhelmed: ‘It is certainly a novelty for the libretto and the music of an opera to be the work of one man ; and judging from the lyrics of "The Black Rover," Mr. Searelle would perhaps have acted more wisely had he called in the aid of another.’

The Globe Theatre, Strand (image from Illustrated London News, 16 January 1869: 65, courtesy of The Hathi Trust, the University of Michigan and the Victorian Web).

The Globe Theatre, Strand (image from Illustrated London News, 16 January 1869: 65, courtesy of The Hathi Trust, the University of Michigan and the Victorian Web).

Not surprisingly, the quotations from reviews selected for the advertisement– then as now – were carefully, and misleadingly, chosen. The review in The Times of 24 September 1890 was far from complimentary, and the reviewer in fact marvelled at the ‘popular verdict’. The audience ‘were singularly lenient to the shortcomings of a first night, and nobly forbore to laugh at the spectacle of the pirates pushing their own ship off the stage.’

The Globe, sometimes called the New Globe, opened in 1868 and backed onto the Opera Comique. It seated between 1400 and 1500, with seat prices ranging from 1s.6d. in the pit to as much as 4s. in the dress circle. (Note that the advertisement gives no information about prices.) The proprietor of the Globe, Sefton Parry, had strong connections with South African theatre, which possibly explains his link with Searelle – himself prominent in musical theatre not only in South Africa but also in Australia, England and the United States. The Globe closed in 1902.

Maureen Bell