On the evening of Wednesday, 25 May, 1842 the Garrison Amateurs under the management of Charles Dickens staged three light comedies at Montreal's 1,500-seat Queen's Theatre:
A Roland for an Oliver by John Madison Morton (1811-1891) with a cast of eight, Dickens playing Alfred Highflyer;
Past Two O'Clock in the Morning, a one-act interlude adapted from the French by Charles James Matthews (1803-1878). with a cast of two, Dickens playing Snobbington;
Deaf as a Post, a one-act farce by John Poole (1786?-1872) with cast of nine, with Catherine Dickens speaking some two dozen lines as ingénue Amy Templeton, and her husband tackling the role of Gallop).
The private audience of 600 composed largely of the Coldstream Guards' officers and their wives included the political luminaries in full-dress uniform Sir Charles Bagot and Sir Richard Downes Jackson, the former being the Governor-General of British North America between 1841 and 1843, and the latter the Administrator of Canada East and Canada West (i. e., Upper and Lower Canada or Ontario and Quebec) in the same period. This seems to have been Catherine's first performance outside the Hogarth family home and Charles's since the Dickens family's theatricals in Bentinck Street, London, nine years earlier.
Playbills for public (left) and private (right) performances at The Queen's Theatre in May 1842.
The whole project of amateur theatricals in the previously walled and still occupied city of Montreal, the largest settlement in British North America at the time of Dickens's seventeen-city tour, appears to have been hatched on board the steamship Britannia when the Dickenses, over the course of the nineteen-day voyage from England to Boston, struck up a shipboard friendship with senior British officer the Earl of Mulgrave. "It must have been at his instigation, or certainly on his urging, that they stayed until the end of the month" of May (Ackroyd 367), rather than heading straight for home at the end of April. One can only speculate that opportunity to play the part of William Macready, the lion of Drury Lane and one of nineteenth-cebtury Britain's greatest actor-managers, must have been too great for the thirty-year-old author to pass up. No sooner had he arrived upon Montreal's granite wharfs than he began to drill his company of amateur thespians for the three plays that would make up a full evening's entertainment for a select private audience of the Coldstream Guards' officers and their wives on 25 May, and on 28 May for the public when professional actresses replaced the "ladies" of the amateurs for the sake of propriety. The program for the former performance which John Foster reproduces in his Life of Charles Dickens has been hand-annotated ("keyed") by Dickens himself, so that we—unlike the populace of Montreal reading the Gazette the day before—know the identities of the actors who took the various roles. The production involves "ladies of the garrison," wives and daughters of British officers (Mrs. Torrens, Mrs. Perry, Miss Griffin, and Miss Ermatriger), several officers (Mulgrave himself, the Hon. W. Methuen, Capt. Willoughby, and Capt. Granville). Catherine had a minor role in the concluding farce, whereas her husband acted in all three. To play Snobbington in Past Two o'Clock, Dickens had ordered a special wig from New York in advance, but the letter he mailed to Forster on 12 May suggests that the afterpiece had yet to be determined. Although the bill had been discussed by Dickens and Mulgrave back in January, and the first two plays determined, the day after Dickens' arrival in the city three plays were still in the running for the shank of the evening: The Young Widow, Deaf as a Post, and (as Dickens originally seems to have hoped) Love, Law, and Physick. In this last play, prior to his "authorship days" (Forster I: 174) Dickens had enacted the role of Flexible, and apparently still remembered it all. So well was he made up as Snobbington that Sir Charles Bagot, sitting in the box nearest the stage, "had no idea" who had played the part "until the piece was over" (I: 175), which indicates that the precise identities of the actors were not announced to the private audience.
The playbill for the public performance beginning at 7:30 on the Saturday evening, however, lists all the actors and actresses, naming Mrs. A. W. Penson as Maria Darlington, Mrs. Brown as Mrs. Selbourne, and Mrs. Henry as Mrs. Fixture in Roland for an Oliver, for example. The actors in the first two plays are the same (Dickens, Methuen, Mulgrave, Willoughby, and Granville), but for the concluding piece High Life Below Stairs (a title which seems to anticipate Tom Robertson's Caste and Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta) has replaced "Deaf as a Post." Although the actors are largely drawn from the Garrison Amateurs, the professional performers from the initial play are again in evidence, with the addition of Mr. Thomas, Mr. Hughes, and Miss Heath.
Since Dickens is not once again listed as the stage manager, it is possible that the third play on the evening of the 28th was directed by the resident theatrical impresario of the Garrison Amateurs, perhaps the second Earl of Musgrave, George Augustus Constantine Henry Phipps (1797-1863), himself.
Under the heading "Theatre Royal," the next week the Montreal Gazette ran the following (generally complimentary) review, which sheds considerable light on the audience's reception of novelist Charles Dickens's acting and of the overall quality of the second evening's performances given by the male cast members from the Garrison Amateurs and the female cast members drawn from a Mr. Latham's professional company:
On Saturday evening last the Garrison Amateurs, assisted by Mr. CHARLES DICKENS, performed before a crowded and fashionable audience, in the Theatre Royal, the favourite petite comedy of "A Roland for Oliver," the amusing interlude of "Half Past Two O'Clock in the Morning'', and "High Life Below the Stairs.''
The whole of the three plays were admirably performed, as was sufficiently evident by the vehement applause that burst repeatedly from the audience. We have seldom, indeed, seen these three pieces performed to greater advantage. Where all was so good, it is difficult, without making distinction apparently invidious, to polarize any of the parties engaged. Nevertheless, we cannot refrain from noticing the admirable way in which the Honourable Mr. Methuen, as Bottom the Weaver has it, the part of the burly, hearty old English Baronet, Sir Mark Chase. There was little of more acting in the work—the actor apparently having thoroughly identified himself with the character, and being acquainted with the genus to which it belongs. Nevertheless, should Mr. Methuen again undertake it, we would recommend him to dress a trifle better—the fine old English gentleman should not be made to look, as if he had rigged himself out at a rag fair, at the sale of his defunct gamekeeper's wardrobe.
Mr. DICKENS, Highflyer was a spirited performance, and in many of the outré situations of the character, he elicited much applause. Captain Willoughby as Fixture, and the Earl of Mulgrave, as Mr. Selbourne, were all that could be desired in their respective parts. The lady performers were of Mr. Latham's company, Mrs. Penson. who represented the gay and graceful Maria D'Arlington, made a very favourable impression with the audience, which we think, will be improved on further acquaintance. The gem of the evening was Half Past Two in the Morning. This is an adaptation from the French, one of the most mirth-provoking things ever written, and well did Mr. Dickens and Captain Granville use their materials. We are sure that there was not a dry eye in the house during the whole representation—from excessive laughter, however. The helpless hypochondriacal Cockney, fond of his little creature comforts: methodical as a Quaker, and regular as the Horse Guards lock, who is disturbed in his night's rest and put to a1l kinds of shifts and inconveniences by the boisterous inroads of the Tom and Jerry sort of a stranger, who installs himself, bourge maigre, in his quarters, was performed to the life by MR. DICKENS. His style is sort of a mixture of the late Charles Matthews and Mr. Buckstone's, and would do no discredit to either of those eminent performers. Captain Granville's stranger was exactly what was wanted—forcible contrast, in its turbulent, fiery and destructive character, to the quiet placid and conservative lodger on the second floor front. The two pieces we have named were represented on Wednesday to a large private party, by the same amateurs, with the assistance of several ladies, with much success, but on the last occasion, after we had reconciled ourselves to the absence of the ladies, we thought that we observed a manifest improvement, in consequence, of the gentlemen being better acquainted both with the stage and their parts. The farce of High Life Below The Stairs wound up the evening's entertainment, and was well performed throughout. We would particularly notice Dr. Griffin's Lord Duke, Captain Willoughby's Sir Harry, and Mr. Dickens [sic] Philip. Mrs. Penson as Kitty was a principal support of the piece and mainly contributed to its success.
Morley mentions the notices run by the other papers, The Times, The Herald, and The Transcript, and quotes extensively from The Times (26 May) and The Transcript (May 28). So effective were Dickens's makeup and imported wig that the reporter for The Transcript failed to recognise the novelist as Snobbington in Past Two O'Clock in the Morning, crediting Captain Granville in error:
Mr. D. possesses great power of modulating and disguising his voice, and we believe there were many who hardly suspected who the Stranger was until nearly the close of the piece. (The Transcript, 28 May 1842, as given in Morley 42)
Moreover, so well was Dickens made up as Snobbington that Sir Charles Bagot, who had just met Dickens and was sitting in the box nearest the stage, "had no idea" who had played the part "until the piece was over" (Forster I: 175), an error which indicates that the precise identities of the actors were not announced to the private audience.
Yet another item of interest is attached to Mr. Snobbington. The interlude of French origin had been adapted more than once for the London stage. Boz seems to have tinkered with the piece, taking the name of Snobbington from Mrs. Charles Gore's adaptation called, "A Good Night's Rest." In the version by Charles Mathews the character was named Mr. Newpenny. (Morley 43)
Other sections of Dickens in Montreal
- The Queen's Theatre, Montreal: Site of the Garrison Amateurs' Theatricals with Charles and Catherine Dickens, May 1842
- Dickens's Montreal: What he could have seen in May 1842
Last modified 6 November 2007