An American Indian War Dance on the Operatic Stage in 1824

One of the best things about working with the autobiographies of opera singers is the curious and unexpected anecdotes that you frequently come across. Today I’ve been re-reading the memoirs of Henry Phillips, a popular bass singer of the early nineteenth century. His autobiography, Musical and Personal Recollections During Half a Century, was published in 1864. It’s full of fascinating and unexpected stories.


Hand-coloured lithograph | Henry Phillips as Count der Tiemar in ‘Amilie’ | Richard James Lane | London | 1839 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

One which has intrigued me especially is the account of his involvement in the first ever British production of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1824. This opera, with its ghoulish and elaborate incantation scene, was to become immensely popular in nineteenth-century Britain. Phillips was still in the infancy of his career at this stage, and his casting in the opera was a major coup, as he was to appear on stage with the famous tenor John Braham. A new role had been created expressly for Phillips. This was because the managers of the Theatre Royal felt that the role of Caspar required both an experienced actor and an accomplished singer to interpret the difficult music. As no man existed who could fulfil both of these criteria, they split the role in two. Caspar was to be played by the actor Mr. Bennet, while a new character called Rollo was created to sing Caspar’s parts. This role was given to the young Phillips.

One of Caspar’s songs that Rollo was to sing in the first act involved him convincing the character of Max to use a magic bullet. Caspar, whose soul has been forfeited to the devil, does this in the hope that he can secretly trade Max’s soul for his own. The corresponding song for this part of the opera was to be sung by Philipps, who had been told that German productions involved Caspar doing some dance steps during this performance. However, he misunderstood and assumed he was required to do an elaborate dance. He explained:

I had been given to understand that in Germany it was customary for Caspar to make a few uncouth steps, a sort of dancing, to the symphonies of the song, but this was so imperfectly conveyed to me, that I scarcely understood it; a something of the subject gleamed across me, and a study of the situation caused me to imagine that a man placed as [Caspar] was, inducing a fellow-huntsman to use the magic bullet to save [him] from perdition, would naturally have recourse to the most desperate means to accomplish his purpose on the instant.

In other words, he imagined that his character’s desperation would compel him to dance desperately and passionately. For inspiration, Phillips turned to an unusual source. He continues:

There flashed across me a memory of some American Indians I had seen the season before exhibited at the Lyceum, in a melodrama written for them, in which they went through their war dance in the most excited and determined manner imaginable. I resolved to carry out the idea in the action of my song, but disguised my intention till the first evening of the performance, fearful lest the manager might object, if he observed it at rehearsal.

Phillips then goes on to describe his interpretation of the American Indian war dance:

The house on that eventful night was thronged with Germans; the overture encored, the curtain rose, and all proceeded quietly and well, till it came to my drinking song. Young and enthusiastic, I cared for nothing; so carrying out my intention, I danced and sang with the desperation of a man on the verge of destruction. At the termination of my song I got gloriously hissed, but there were a few demands for an encore, which being insisted on I sang it again, amid a storm of “noes” and “bravoes”. Mr. Arnold [the manager] ran about tearing his hair, and exclaiming, “That young rascal has ruined the opera!” At its termination I received a storm of hisses, which resembled a shower of sky-rockets at Vauxhall.


Tinted engraved print on paper | Edmund Kean Esq | G. F. Storm (engraver) & Frederick Meyer Jnr (illustrator) | London | 1827 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

I find this fascinating: an interpretation of an American Indian war dance in a production of a German opera on the London stage! Though I’ve looked, I haven’t been able to find anything out about the production at the Lyceum which Phillips cited as his inspiration. However, it’s clear from a trawl through newspaper databases that there was a keen interest in American Indians during the 1820s; several books on this topic were advertised. Furthermore, there are several accounts of American Indians being on display in London society. There are, for instance, reports of Indian chiefs being present at a society party just a few months after the production of Der Freischütz. On this occasion they performed a war dance for fellow guests. It was also in the 1820s that the famous actor Edmund Kean toured Canada, where he met four chiefs from the Huron tribe in Quebec. Kean presented them each with a medal and in return they made him a member of their tribe, giving him the name Alanienouidet. He was immensely proud of this honour, and often gallivanted around in full native dress. A portrait of him in this guise still exists in the collections of the V&A.


Lithograph | Der Freischütz (incantation scene) | Artist uknown | London | 1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

After the lukewarm reception of Phillips’ dance, the rest of the production fared no better. In the famous supernatural scene only one of the giant owl’s wings flapped, the skeleton horses and dogs got stuck in the middle of the stage, and the fire was held too close to the nose of the devil, which gave him a coughing fit. Phillips remembered:

The manager objected in strong terms for my mania for dancing, but it was of no use. I stuck to it like [ballet master] Oscar Byrne, dance I would, and dance I did.

Eventually audiences came around, and this scene came to be one of the most popular parts of the opera. Phillips says it was greeted with enthusiastic applause and nightly encores. In fact, it was to prove so popular that future British productions of the opera also included a wild dance scene:

I created a dance peculiar to myself, which was afterwards imitated when the opera was transplanted to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, but which fell, like all copies, far short of the mode in which I had imitated the wild and unrestrained beings from whom I took my idea. How little I thought, while viewing the uncouth and extraordinary gestures of those rude Indians, that learning their accomplishments would lay the foundation-stone of my future reputation.

Some years later Phillips found himself on tour in Vicksburg, Mississippi. While he was in town, 2,000 members of the Chocktaw tribe happened to be camping outside of the city. Phillips passed through their camp and spent some time in the home of the Chief, whose mother had been Scottish. As he was therefore able to speak English, he had been elevated to Chief as he could negotiate with the American authorities. Phillips vividly described the scene he encountered in the camp:

I shall ever remember a view I had of [the Indians]. An old woman of the tribe, very stout, covered with silver and Indian jewels, her grey hairs streaming down to her waist, was surrounded by 3 rows of young Indians, hand in hand, dancing and singing. In the centre figures this woman, who turned one way, while the rows of men moved in a contrary direction, joining her song at intervals and dancing with the wildest gestures. Myself and many about me, feared this was a sort of war prelude to an attack on the inhabitants. However, it soon became evident that the old lady, having taken a little more than was her usual habit, was merely displaying her Bacchanalian joy at its effect, which the young Indians encouraged for the sake of a frolic.

Phillip’s accounts of his time touring America are filled with similarly vivid and extraordinary anecdotes. I’ll be blogging about more of these in the future!

eBay: The Forgotten Archive?

I am lucky enough to be a regular user of archives at the British Library, the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery. However, some of my greatest discoveries have occurred not at these esteemed institutions, but on eBay. Yes – eBay; the popular auction site that is a tantalising graveyard of junk and stuff. My favourite eBay purchases include an eighteenth-century map of Barcelona, an antique print of a Slow Loris (don’t ask!) and a collection of ancient, dusty books that is growing rapidly out of control. There is also a small mountain of antique prints stored on top of my wardrobe, awaiting frames and a bigger house to display them all in! You really can buy anything on eBay; from a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois to a ghost in a jar. There is another side to eBay, though. It can be a treasure-trove of sources for the historian… if you know where to look.


Just a few of my eBay purchases!

eBay supports a roaring trade in prints, postcards, old newspapers and other ephemera. Many sellers of these historical materials post high-quality images of their wares, often carefully labelled with a date and the name of the publication where these images or articles first appeared. As you may know, my own research concerns opera singers of the nineteenth-century. I work with sources including cartes de visite, cartoons, reviews and obituaries. By merely entering the name of a particular singer into the eBay search bar, I am presented with dozens of such sources. Cigarette cards, caricatures, pages from newspaper interviews, sheet music, even genuine letters and autographs. The vast majority of these listings feature high-resolution images.

Prints and pages from old newspapers are in particularly plentiful supply. These listings are carefully labelled with the events and people depicted or written about. This means that you can even search eBay for ‘events’ and bring up an array of useful results. For example, searching ‘Indian Mutiny’ brings up 1,018 results. Aside from relevant books, these results also include medals, prints, nineteenth-century toy soldiers and well over 100 contemporary prints and newspaper reports. Similarly, a search for ‘Great Exhibition 1851’ brings up results which include commemorative mugs, coins and even (intriguingly!) a souvenir razor blade, as well as over 100 antique prints and pages from contemporary newspapers. The best thing about using eBay in this way is the unexpected nature of the materials that it is possible to find; while the British Library holds hundreds of newspaper reports on the Great Exhibition, in which collection could you find a Great Exhibition commemorative razor blade?! eBay can also be a great source for genealogists, who can search for the name of a particular ancestor – you might just be lucky. A cousin of mine once found a set of nineteenth-century beer tankards on eBay, featuring the name of our ancestor who was a prolific London publican in the Victorian period!

While I absolutely believe that eBay is a brilliant and underrated tool for research, it does require some caution to use it in this way. Firstly, we need to recognise that our sources are someone else’s livelihood, and it is important to be respectful of this. I wondered how dealers would feel about historians using their listings and images for research. With these questions in mind I spoke to Robert Clay, a dealer in theatrical postcards and ephemera. Robert has been dealing since 2001 and was kind enough to share his thoughts on this matter with me. Taking Robert’s thoughts into consideration, I have come up with some health warnings and top tips for historians and researchers who might consider using eBay as an archive:

Top Tips for Historians using eBay as an Archive

  1. Do not use sources or images for profit

 Robert feels that most dealers wouldn’t have an issue with historians using their materials, so long as they do not use them for profit. This is pretty self-explanatory; don’t use any images in publications without contacting the seller to discuss this. Robert says, “I have many people who purchase from me but sometimes are outbid or miss the auction and ask if they may have a high quality scan. Theatrical people, costume designers, historians, students and relatives of the performers, I am always happy to help them.” Understandably, though, Robert says that if someone was regularly requesting images from him without making a purchase, then of course he wouldn’t be happy about this. He is, after all, running a business and not an archive! Robert also makes the point that it is possible other dealers might feel differently about researchers using their images. If in doubt, heed my next point…

  1. Communicate with the seller

If in doubt about using an image, ask the seller. Similarly, ask permission before attempting to publish or post an image online. Robert says he is happy that his customers display his images on Flickr, for example, providing that they make him aware of this.

  1. Beware of fakes

Robert tells me that he has started to watermark all of his images, as he has previously had his fingers burnt. There are people out there who steal images from dealers like Robert, and print them on aged paper to pass them off as genuine antiques. Robert once found somebody selling his images on like this for as little as £1.50! This is a criminal offence, and you don’t want to end up with any fakes in your collection or your research. Less sinister dealers might also sell reproductions of antique prints, which can be misleading, so make sure you read descriptions carefully. Exercise caution and judgement; a dealer’s reviews can be a good gauge. This point leads me on to my next one…

  1. Don’t be lazy!

If you find a print that is useful to your research and the dealer has included the name of the book or newspaper where this originated, don’t take their word for it! Whenever I find a relevant print or page from a newspaper, I often follow it up and try to find the original source in a library or archive. This obviously provides me with a better context and understanding of the source, but, more importantly, it helps to verify the image I have found on eBay. Unscrupulous dealers could very easily falsely attribute a print or fake to a generic publication like ‘The Times’. Think critically!

  1. Support the trade

As I have said, it is essential to remember that your sources are someone else’s livelihood. It is important to support the trade wherever possible! Many fascinating items are very affordable; I have purchased antique books and prints for as little as 99p. These materials could also make brilliant teaching resources, offering students a chance to read and handle original sources themselves, rather than relying on digitised materials. Many prints also look beautiful in frames; I love having framed reminders of my research on display at home. Antique prints and books also make unique and thoughtful presents; my partner is a Welshman obsessed with Africa, so one Valentine’s Day I brought him a gorgeous six-volume set of Denbighshire boy Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa. Far better than a cuddly toy!

I would like to thank Robert Clay (@RobertClay62) for his help with this post. Robert sells wonderful theatrical prints on his website: He also trades on eBay.

BBC’s Queens of Heartache: A Response

I’m not a fan of music documentaries, but BBC’s Queens of Heartache caught my attention as its subjects are five of my very favourite artists; Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin. What really piqued my curiosity, however, was what a random grouping of women this is. Wildly different genres, different cultures and even different eras; what do these women have in common? The contention of this documentary is that all of these women lived sad lives and sang sad songs; they were all “Queens of Heartache.” Whilst it may be true that each of these women experienced tragedy in their lives, I found this premise made for a very unintelligent and extremely reductive examination of their careers. By painting these women as tragic heroines and grouping them together in this arbitrary way, this film did these singers a disservice. It glossed over their originality, talent and sheer hard work, while ignoring some of the more compelling themes that could have tied these women together in a far more interesting way. My own work is on male opera singers, so ‘singers’, ‘gender’ and ‘celebrity’ are themes I spend much time thinking about. While I found this documentary particularly unimpressive, an analysis of just why I found it so poor made me think about these issues in a different way.

My first issue with this documentary is that its subjects have been selected solely because they are all seen as somehow tragic. All of the women featured in Queens of Heartache died prematurely; Maria Callas lived the longest, dying at the age of 53. Perhaps it is the early death of these women that gives them a tragic reputation, but many male musicians died equally prematurely; as have very many artists, actors and writers of both genders. Is there something about female singers that makes them especially tempting to view as tragic heroines? Maybe not – but can you imagine a male equivalent of this documentary? Kings of Heartache maybe? Who would the subjects be? Instead of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier? Louis Armstrong instead of Billie Holiday? Mickey Rooney in place of Judy Garland? Giuseppe Di Stefano instead of Maria Callas and Janis Joplin swapped for Jim Morrison, perhaps? I don’t think this would ever happen. While each of these males experienced tragedy in their own way, I believe they are very unlikely to be grouped together as tragic ‘heroes of heartbreak’. While I could imagine a documentary grouping men by genre, perhaps focussing on bluesmen, or male rock stars who lived fast and died young, I don’t believe that men would be grouped together across genres in the way that Queens of Heartache chose to group women. Does this mean we are less inclined to see men as tragic heroes? Do we like seeing women in this way and, if so, why? Or does this mean that women are only considered worthy of an hour long documentary when they come in groups? Do we like categorising female artists and putting them in neatly labelled categories? Does this mean that men have more artistic freedom?

Perhaps the worst conceit of this documentary is the way that each of the five subjects are given a tacky ‘nickname’, with which their segment was introduced; Edith Piaf “Urchin Queen”, Billie Holiday “Jazz Queen”, Judy Garland “Showbiz Queen”, Maria Callas “Drama Queen” and Janis Joplin “Wild Queen”. These ridiculous epithets are incredibly reductive, and reminiscent of the Spice Girls’ nicknames (which, at least, were vaguely descriptive!) Again, these names are completely arbitrary; while Piaf’s “Urchin Queen” refers to her appearance, Billie Holiday’s “Jazz Queen” refers to her genre. The other three names are equally nonsensical, but again suggest the instinct to categorise and, therefore, confine women. This has to be ‘dumbing down’ at its worst.

Although this documentary grouped these women together because they are all seen as ‘sad’ in some way, there were many far more compelling similarities between them that were left completely unexplored. Billie Holiday and Maria Callas longed for children. Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin had significant body image issues. Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday had dysfunctional childhoods, exposed to prostitution. Judy Garland and Maria Callas were estranged from their mothers. All of these women had complicated relationships with men and, in the cases of Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, with women too. At least four of the five abused drugs at some point in their lives, and each of them struggled profoundly with fame. While the documentary acknowledged the majority of these facts, there was absolutely no attempt to discuss the recurring themes and question whether there is anything about the nature of female musical celebrity that makes these similarities and issues more likely to occur. The documentary is arranged chronologically, dealing with each of the women in turn and making no attempt to connect them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why obvious recurrent themes passed unexplored? My PhD is arranged thematically, and this documentary confirmed for me the advantages of exploring singers in this way.

Queens of Heartache suffered, like so many music documentaries do (especially on the BBC?) with singularly uninteresting ‘talking heads’, Lauren Laverne and Katherine Jenkins being prime examples. The real insight came, unsurprisingly, from those who knew and worked with the subjects. John Levy, a bassist who worked with Billie Holiday, made perhaps the most insightful comment. He explained that it was only after Holiday’s death that she became truly popular, noting that “after you’re dead and gone then you’re the greatest thing that ever happened, but at the time you’re doing it you get a lot of criticism – it’s the system.” Again, this idea went unexplored – how does the image and representation of a musical celebrity change after their death? This would have made for a compelling discussion. Was it only after these women’s premature deaths that they were painted as tragic heroines? Is it easier for the public to embrace a troubled woman after she is dead? How would these women be remembered if they had lived long and happy lives?

The real failure of this documentary, however, was the disservice it did to its subjects. Each of the women it featured are unique and interesting in their own right, and entirely worthy of their own hour-long documentary. By painting them as victims this film did not tell their true stories. Edith Piaf rose from absolute poverty through sheer grit and determination, becoming the voice of the French Resistance. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was released 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement was established, and helped its mobilisation by shining a harsh light on racial inequality in America. Maria Callas achieved her success through relentless training and became an icon because she was expertly media-savvy. Janis Joplin had the courage to sing African-American music in small-town Texas at a time when this was an outrageous prospect for a young white girl, and went on to become a pioneer in a music scene utterly dominated by men. Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, stated decisively that her mother was not a victim. She said, “What [Garland] hated was [when] people thought she was this tragic figure. She had tragedies in her life, but she wasn’t tragic. She was funny and gifted.”

While tragedy may have touched these women, it did not and should not define them. They were talented, original, hard-working and courageous women who we should not be tempted to label and talk about in a reductive way. We should recognise their achievements and individuality, instead of merely grouping them together simply because they are all women. I would love to see documentaries about each of these women that give them the attention and recognition they deserve – because they do deserve it.

Vivien Leigh & John Braham’s Lost Theatre

This year the 5th of November marks not only Guy Fawkes Night, but the one hundredth birthday of my favourite actor – Vivien Leigh.


Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With The Wind, 1939

I find that research is often a serendipitous experience. On so many occasions I have been researching someone or something, when another person I have an interest in has appeared unexpectedly in the picture. This happened recently when working on John Braham, a nineteenth-century opera singer I have been researching for my thesis. Little did I expect that Braham would have any connection to Vivien Leigh…

In 1835 John Braham built the St James’s Theatre in King Street, Westminster. It was designed by Samuel Beazley, whose notable work includes the Lyceum and Adelphi theatres. The exterior to St. James’s was neo-classical, with an opulent Louis XIV interior. Despite several financial and personal issues that delayed the building process, Braham opened his theatre on the 14th of December 1835. The first performance was the operetta Agnes Sorel, in which Braham himself starred. Things appeared to be going well for a short while, but ultimately the theatre was to prove a disastrous speculation for Braham. Facing bankruptcy, he was forced to sell up in 1838.


The interior of St. James’s Theatre, watercolour by John Gregory Crace

Happily, the theatre went on to thrive under new management. Queen Victoria attended several performances and the theatre presented works from Charles Dickens, W. S. Gilbert and Henry Irving, amongst many other luminaries. In the 1890s St. James’s was associated with Oscar Wilde; The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at the theatre in 1895.This successful era continued into the middle of the twentieth century – which is where the serendipity comes in.

In 1950 who should take over the management of the theatre but Laurence Olivier and… Vivien Leigh. Olivier and Leigh had many successes at St. James’s; a particular highlight being their production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which was part of the Festival of Britain.


St. James’s Theatre

This was all to come to an end, however, in 1957 when the theatre was scheduled for demolition. Olivier and Leigh led a nationwide campaign to save the theatre, culminating in a protest march through the West End. In an episode that was reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh even addressed the House of Lords. Reporting on this incident, Time Magazine wrote:

Sweeping into the distinguished visitors’ gallery of Britain’s House of Lords, high-spirited Cinema actress Vivien Leigh listened impatiently to debate on the proposed demolition of London’s 122-year-old St. James’s Theatre (which Actress Leigh had protested two days before by marching down the Strand ringing a handbell). Fuming as Baron Blackford described the St. James’s as “simply an obsolete, Victorian, inconvenient, uncomfortable playhouse with no architectural or historic value,” she leaped to declaim: “My lords, I want to protest against St. James’s Theatre being demolished!” While their lordships sat in stunned silence at this breach of protocol, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod gravely put the arm on the interloper: “Now you will have to go, Lady Olivier.” Said Lady Olivier ruefully after her ejection: “None of the lords moved a muscle. It was what, if I had been on stage, I would describe as a dead audience.[1]


Vivien Leigh marches to ‘Save the St. James’s Theatre’

Sadly, the campaign was to prove fruitless. The theatre was demolished in 1957, and a dreary office block now stands in its place, with only a sad-looking plaque to suggest its former glory. In 1958 Leigh wrote the forward to a book about the history of St. James’s, written by W. Macqueen-Pope. She wrote:

By the time this book is published, the St. James’s will have been pulled down. One of the oldest and most celebrated of London’s theatres will have disappeared, after close on a century and a quarter’s faithful and honourable service to the public. […]

Mr. Macqueen-Pope’s book is thus, alas, a memorial or obituary volume. It will remind readers today of much that was memorable in London stage history from the reign of William IV to that of Elizabeth II; and it will surely fill readers of the future with nostalgia and astonishment—nostalgia for the past, and astonishment at the apathy and levity with which our generation disposes of London’s landmarks. For the death, or more correctly, the murder of the St. James’s Theatre must be seen in the wider context of the ruin spread throughout the West End in the years since the First World War. One more building of historical and architectural importance is gone, one more place devoted to entertainment and the arts shut down. […]

All that now remains of the St. James’s is the traditions and the memories of those who went to see plays there, and of those who put them on or acted in them. In his affectionate and carefully detailed book, Mr. Macqueen-Pope has collated these memories and records, from the first days when Charles Dickens’s friend Braham opened the new theatre for the Christmas season of 1835.

Although this story ended sadly, these words demonstrate that Leigh was someone who cared passionately about culture and heritage. Of course, she herself is now part of our cultural heritage. Earlier this year the V&A acquired Leigh’s archive, which includes a staggering 7,500 letters between her and Olivier, as well as diaries, photographs and film scripts. A rotating selection of these items will be on display in the Theatre and Performance Galleries at the V&A; a fitting tribute to our finest actor.

[1] Time Magazine, July 22nd 1857