Portable Theatres

Today we would call them pop-up theatres but in the late 1700s and early 1800s they were referred to as portable theatres or ‘portables’. Portables were mainly family run travelling theatres that toured towns and cities often coinciding with local fairs. The entertainment offered was mainly a variety of circus acts including: clowns, musicians, tumbling, high-wire walkers and mind reading horses.

portable theatres
A travelling theatre family

The portable structure was comprised of timber and canvas and they varied in size according to the popularity of the act and the success of the business. It wasn’t uncommon for several portables to be in competition in the same town and they would each take to the streets in costumes to drum up business, hand out leaflets and frequently decorated the exterior of their booths to ensure that it stood out.

By the early Victorian period a new generation of family members were starting to perform plays, ‘the drama’, in portables, one such family were the Wild’s and Samuel Wild, son of the proprietor, went on to take over Old Wild’s portable theatre but recalled the first time that his parents included plays into their repertoire.

“Our first launch into theatrical life was during one of our visits to Halifax. An old actor, Henry Douglas, a friend of my father’s, persuaded him to try the sock and buskin [comedy and tragedy]. He agreed and Douglas joined us. We lodged then in a house…and in that house our first scenery was painted by a native of this town call Wilson. We had three scenes – a street scene, a room or parlour, and a wood or shady grove. With such fertility of scenic resources we could play a great many pieces. We were indoors, out of doors and in a wood directly.”

Old Wild’s first performance was William Macready’s The Village Lawyer. Sam himself appeared ‘behind the footlights’ when he was 10 or 11 years old and described the portable structure as:

“The size of it at the time was if I can remember some 80ft long and 45ft wide…Along the outside were painted shutters with canvas for the roof. The inside was lined with green baize. Our footlights were candles…At one end of the booth was the stage and immediately before it a circle brilliantly illuminated…in the shape of a chandelier of forty candles…On one side of the booth was the pit, upon the other side the boxes, the seats of which were carpeted.”

Sam recalled that performances usually started about 8pm but Old WIld’s opened their doors at 6.30pm to avoid any unpleasant jostling and they finished about 10.30pm or slightly later. “I think we treated our audiences well and gave them their money’s worth.”

portable theatres
Portable theatre for sale

Portables were run along the same lines as other theatres, there was a company of performers, scene painters, costumiers and musicians that travelled with the theatre sleeping in caravans or local lodgings. During the Spring and Summer months the company might travel 200 miles in all stopping at towns and villages for a week or two before moving on. During the winter months they would find a more permanent place to stay or, in later years, would lease a building.

The repertoire consisted of popular and contemporary plays of the period by authors such as Bulwer-Lytton, Sheridan and Knowles, and of course Shakespeare. However, very few of these plays were presented in their entirety, dialogue was cut short and only the most dramatic or comical scenes were included, which meant that within 2 or 3 hours an audience would be treated to music, song a tragedy and a comedy.

For Old Wild’s the shift away from circus acts to the drama took place in earnest upon the death of Sam’s father in 1838. At that time Sam’s mother took over the management of the portable theatre and continued to do so until her ill health forced her to hand over the management to Sam in 1850.

Following a failed partnership with his elder brother, Tom, Sam became the sole proprietor of Wild’s in 1856 “I did not at all time confine myself to things dramatic. The performances of the acrobat on some occasions came in for a fair share of attention.”

Sam wanted to create a spectacle and give his audiences something they couldn’t see elsewhere. He had always trained dogs to be part of the performance and even commissioned playwrights to devise plots that would that would give him the opportunity to demonstrate what tricks the dogs had learned. In the early 1850s he also purchased two camels, that had been brought back from the Crimean War, knowing the stir that they would generate as they led the procession of caravans into town. By the time the theatre was erected and the doors were open the queues had formed and a full house was guaranteed.

These stunts didn’t always have the desired effect. On one occasion an actor known for being drawn to the river led by a gaggle of geese was whipping up excitement in the town as the geese pulled him along as he sat in a bathtub on wheels. A crowd quickly gathered for the finale, which should have been to watch the geese slip into the river followed by the actor in his bathtub. In anticipation a great crowd had gathered on a bridge spanning the river but the bridge collapsed under the weight killing around 50 people.

The company of actors that Sam employed were often in scuffles with the local authorities or the owner of another establishment threatened by the presence of the portable theatre in town. These were part and parcel of life within a travelling theatre company but one incident left them all stunned.

Jane Hope was the daughter of John Hope who was the band leader and scene painter for the company. Jane was a dancer and actress with the company and married a young actor called William Banham who promptly deserted her when he emigrated to America. Jane Banham then met a young tailor in Manchester called John Hannah. Hannah was 10 years younger than Jane and they had three children together although Jane continued to work at Wild’s which involved travelling around. The strained relationship turned sour when Jane refused to live with Hannah in Manchester and then denied him access to their children. Wild’s were in Halifax in September 1856 and Hannah made the journey from Manchester to make one more attempt at reasoning with the mother of his children. At Halifax, Hannah was met by Jane’s father who said he would arrange for his daughter to meet Hannah at the nearby Malt Hill Inn. Jane arrived at the time arranged and the couple retreated to the parlour room to discuss matters in private. Words were exchanged, voices raised and the crashing of furniture brought patrons in to see what was happening. They found Hannah with his hands around Jane’s throat which he then slashed with a razor. She survived two hours before dying from her injuries. Hannah was found guilty of murder and hanged in front of 5,000 spectators a week before Christmas.

Wild’s was one of the most successful portable theatres in the country and its reputation guaranteed full houses wherever the travelling company turned up. However, Sam Wild’s first passion was performing animals:

“The horses was, like the love of the drama, nothing short of a national characteristic and to be able to alternate scenes in the circle with the attractions of the stage was, I imagined, to be equal to the production of an entertainment which could be no less than a consummation perhaps not devoutly, but certainly to be wished by the pleasure-seeking public; and that was sure to open a new and shorter path to fortune for the person could so provide it.”

As such Sam commissioned a portable amphitheatre to be constructed and set about organising the transition of his company through the purchase of new horses and the termination of employment for a number of the actors.

By 1860 Sam took delivery of his amphitheatre, the only portable one that anyone had ever seen. For months he had been training horses and putting together a schedule of entertainment that showed the very best of his animal’s skills that would alternate with the most popular scenes and acts from the drama.

Audiences didn’t respond well to the change. Bad weather and ill luck were how Sam put it but within a few months he realised that his venture was an expensive mistake, by the time he decided to resurrect the old portable and return to the repertoire that audiences had come to expect, he had lost £1,000, a huge sum given that a full house would gross £27 a night.

Mr Charles Matthews

With his savings depleted and nothing to invest in the business the once glorious spectacle of Old Wild’s started to look faded and passed its prime. What’s more, by the 1860s theatre buildings were being constructed that offered more comfort for the players and audience alike. Having struggled on for two more seasons Sam had a semi-permananent wooden structure built in Huddersfield for the winter season and called it Wild’s New Theatre. It cost £125 to build but by then Sam’s finances were so depleted that he had to pay in instalments. He prepared some publicity material and promised to employ ‘star’ talent to make guest appearances at the New Theatre and for a few months had some success. The biggest star that was booked was Charles Matthews and his wife and both were due to appear at Wild’s New Theatre in May 1863. However when Mr and Mrs Matthews turned up for rehearsal they realised that the theatre was in fact a wooden structure and not a new theatre building as they had been led to believe. They duly withdrew despite all tickets having been sold at double the usual price and their withdrawal proved to be “nothing more or less than the death blow to Old Wild’s.”

Without audiences it wasn’t long before Sam fell behind with his instalment payments and had little choice but to sell the structure for the value of its timber, which still left him with a debt of £54.

Ever the optimist Sam hit the road again with his portable, but bricks and mortar theatres were in the ascendancy and it wasn’t long before Sam sold his business to a competitor for “£70 or £80” and found himself an employee rather than a proprietor. Living hand to mouth Sam and his wife got by until his debt of £54 was called in. He simply didn’t have the money and was escorted to the debtors prison in York.

Sam only spent a few months in prison and was soon back on the road looking for employment as a player but the portable theatres had all but disappeared and although Sam picked up work here and there he relied on the generosity of his friends and admirers to make ends meet. Samuel Wild died 26th May 1883 aged 67 years having spent his last years living with his daughter.

Sam Wild leaves a legacy, portable theatres brought the drama to towns and villages long before built theatres were established. It was the portables and the families who ran them that created the demand for the ‘sock and buskin’ and the spread of theatres and theatre companies beyond the big cities. Portables were also a training ground for young actors and a way to truly understand the workings of a theatre. 

Share this post:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

Dear Mr Beckett

I am currently reading Dear Mr Beckett, a wonderful book of letters from Barney Rosset, Beckett’s American publisher, to Beckett spanning over 35 years.

Dear Mr Beckett

The letters start flowing in the early 50s and we can see that the two developed an affectionate relationship over the years.

However reading a reply from Beckett to Rosset in 1958 regarding the rights to Krapp’s Last Tape did make laugh.

‘I must write even more stupidly and confusedly  than I thought about rights and business. But if you redirect all your ingenuity on my Krapp letter I believe you will find it to mean what follows.

You (B. Rosset) have all the exclusive publication and performance rights in the US, Canada and wherever else you normally exercise them.

You are therefore free, without consulting anyone, to publish Krapp and have performed in US, Canada etc, when, where, how, with whom, by whom, under whom, and before whom you please. If that is not clear, I’ll give up drink.’

Rosset. B. ‘Dear Mr Beckett’ (2015) Opus Books p142

Share this post:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+