WHO WOULD BE your nomination as Australia’s most successful playwright? Ray Lawler? Patrick White? David Williamson? Alex Buzo?
How about an Australian who had some thirty plays produced over three decades with the finest actors and directors of the day? The great majority were staged in the West End of London at a time when Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Pinero and Harley Granville Barker were in their prime. Many were admired hits on Broadway. Six were made into silent movies in Hollywood. And several were staged in his home country.
Would that be someone whose work might be performed on Australian stages, taught in Australian universities and schools, known to and discussed by educated Australians? Well, apparently not.
Haddon Chambers is best known now not for his plays, but for his relationship with Nellie Melba. Even weighty tomes like The Oxford Literary History of Australia and Penguin’s New Literary History of Australia entirely fail to mention him.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers was born in the Sydney suburb of Petersham on April 22, 1860. Named after the Baptist “Prince of Preachers”, C.H. Spurgeon, he was educated at Marrickville and then at Fort Street School, alma mater of so many distinguished Sydneysiders. His Ulster-born father (Chambers referred to him as a “Scotchman”), John Ritchie Chambers, worked in the New South Wales public service, and his mother, Fanny Kellett, was from Waterford in Munster. Leaving school at thirteen, he worked as an insurance clerk, then in the Department of Mines, then as a boundary rider near Camden.
In 1880 he visited cousins in Ulster, going on to London for the first time, then returning to Australia on a ship which was carrying the Montague-Turner Opera Company. He worked with them in Sydney in the management of the company. This was one of the earliest touring troupes in Australia, run by two Americans, soprano Annis Montague and her tenor husband, Charles Turner. In July 1883, the company was in Mackay, Queensland, where a young and lonely Mrs Charles Armstrong (later to become Nellie Melba) befriended them.
By then Chambers was already back in London, determined to make a career as a writer. To make ends meet, he took odd jobs and wrote stories and sketches, mostly about Australian life, for Australian and British publications. He wrote “London Letters” for the Bulletin in Sydney and helped its proprietor, W.H. Traill, to recruit the young English cartoonist Phil May. In May 1886, a Chambers article, “Franz Liszt”, appeared in the Argosy. The elderly pianist-composer had just come on his last visit to England.
Chambers’ first two (one-act) plays, One of Them (1886) and The Open Gate (1887), were only moderately successful. They were followed by a forgotten adaptation (with J. Stanley Little) of Rider Haggard’s novel Dawn, under the title Devil Caresfoot. This played at the Comedy Theatre in London, with the gifted young Janet Achurch and her husband Charles Charrington in the lead. The Charringtons took it as part of their repertoire when they introduced Ibsen’s The Doll’s House to Australia in 1889, stirring up intense controversy around Achurch’s “New Woman”, Nora. That same year, Devil Caresfoot played in New York with an American cast.
THE TIDE TURNED in 1888 with his fourth play, Captain Swift. Chambers was quite casually recruited by one of the leading actor-managers of his day, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree had created a new company at the Haymarket Theatre and was in search of a hit. In his memoir, “Thirty Years of Playwriting”, published in the New York Times in 1918, Chambers described the courtship thus:
One day, when walking in the neighbourhood of the Haymarket Theatre, I encountered Beerbohm Tree. We were slightly acquainted and we stopped to speak. After a short discussion on the weather, he fixed me with his pale blue eye and asked me why I didn’t write him a play … Although I had never written or attempted to write a four-act play, I hastened to assure him that I would provide him with one within the next few months … I hurried home to my rooms over a milk-shop in the suburb of Bayswater and started to work out a play that very night. I am looked on, I understand, as being a rather lazy person; but in my opinion a man who builds and writes a four-act play in four months, and turns out half a dozen magazine articles meanwhile to keep the pot boiling, must be looked on as not wholly without industry … I duly sent in a manuscript to Mr Tree at the Haymarket Theatre … I awaited the result with a lively interest, but many weeks passed without any developments. Then I began to haunt the stage door of the Haymarket, and, to cut a long story short, I ran Tree to ground one day and secured an appointment the following day for a reading the following afternoon. I kept my appointment, but the elusive Tree did not. He had gone to the Leicester Square Turkish Baths. Thither I followed him, and in the hot room and the cooling room I read him my play.
Some twenty years after Chambers’ memoir, Beerbohm Tree’s biographer, Hesketh Pearson, concluded: “Chambers had not rounded up refractory cattle in the Australian prairies [sic] merely to be defeated by the whims of a London actor … The manager consented to do the play.”
According to Pearson, there were problems in rehearsal, springing from Chambers’ salty dialogue:
[An] old actor, Pateman, wanted something changed in his part: “Excuse me. Mr Tree, but must I say that line?” “What line is that?” “The line ‘After all he was only a common bastard!’ Isn’t it a bit thick?” “What would you rather say?” “I think ‘a common love-child’ would sound better.”
Pearson claims that Captain Swift “put the new [Haymarket] management on its feet”. Tree, he writes, “liked the author as much as the play”, and Pearson gives a pithy character sketch of Haddon Chambers at that time, “a light-hearted, devil-may-care fellow, with a breezy attitude to life which gave a tang to his work”.
Captain Swift opened triumphantly in a matinee at the Haymarket on June 20, 1888, listened to with “rapt stillness”, said the Pictorial Review. As the Captain, Herbert Beerbohm Tree became, for the first time in his career, a matinee idol, with “mobs of women waiting at the stage door”, wrote Pearson. “All London came to the matinee,” said Chambers. “By all London, of course, I mean the large section of well established and well-known persons who were interested in artistic events.”
What kind of play is Captain Swift? At one level, it is a conventional drawing-room melodrama. At another, the arrival of the Australian bushranger is used by Chambers to puncture the narrow assumptions of polite English society at that time.
Wilding, a retired, now-closet bushranger “with the manners of a gentleman”, has come to London escaping from his disreputable but exciting life in Queensland. Also from that part of the world comes Gardiner, a wealthy squatter (the voice of reason in the drama), who was once bailed up there by a masked Captain Swift, but was allowed to escape. A third Australian, the detective Ryan, has come to London in order to find and apprehend the bushranger. The scene is set in the home of Mrs Seabrook, whose niece-ward, Stella, finds herself falling in love with Wilding. Stella’s aunt had had a “love-child” earlier in her life, the result of an affair with a man who died. The baby was fostered out and as a boy ran away to Australia. This boy, of course, became Captain Swift, the notorious bushranger, and, in due course, Wilding. A vivid contrast is drawn by Chambers between the gentleman-bushranger, Wilding/Swift, and the prissy, jealous young Englishman, Harry, who is in love with Stella, but rapidly losing her to this intriguing intruder. The butler, Marshall, recognises Wilding and betrays him to Ryan. Confronted with the imminent revelation to the world of his own past and that of his nowdiscovered mother, Mrs Seabrook, Wilding does the decent thing and shoots himself.
Complicated? Certainly—but with one very memorable line: “Probably in the quotation books of the twenty-first century will be found ‘The long arm of coincidence’,” predicted the Westminster Gazette in 1899.
Constant reference is made to the tough life of outback Australia. As Wilding says to Mrs Seabrook: “The terrible part of it was that we had no water. The rivers and creeks were all dried up—the heat was fearful—the ground was hard and dusty. Very soon our faces were scorched, our tongues were parched and swollen, our lips were cracked—we could scarcely drag one foot after the other.”
Just before his suicide, Wilding assesses his situation: “That’s the essential thing to happiness— respectability. I tasted it once for a week—I lived in it—it breathed around me—I worshipped at its shrine. But I was never of it … I’m a robber to the last, you see.”
Following its success in London, Captain Swift opened at the Madison Square Theatre in New York. “I was fortunate in being represented by a splendid cast,” wrote Chambers. “Maurice Barrymore—father of three dear friends of mine, and conspicuous ornaments on the American stage, Ethel, Lionel and Jack [John]—was Captain Swift, and, although it is so long ago, there must be some thousands of New Yorkers who remember what a magnificent Swift he was.” The play’s success in New York led eventually, in 1914 and again in 1920, to Hollywood and silent movies.
In February 1889 it opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Of its opening at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in August, Table Talk concluded: “There can be but one opinion of the literary merits of Captain Swift, which is that it is beautifully written, dramatically consistent, and constructed with the keenest regard to both effect and probability.” However, as The Theatre of Australia observed: “Australians refuse to believe that Captain Swift was ever a bushranger.” They expected him to be altogether rougher, tougher, not the gentlemanhighwayman of romantic tradition. Perhaps it was not helpful that the part of Swift was taken in Australia by the English actor-manager Charles Warner.
Hesketh Pearson summarises the “moral” of Captain Swift as “the bushranger who is converted from evil to good, from irresponsibility to duty, from heartlessness to love, by staying in a nice English home”. My own understanding of it is quite contrary to that reading: I feel that Chambers’ Swift is an outsider, able to follow his own path in life without the constraints of polite society, who, forced to run, chooses to end it all rather than succumb. Variants on this very Australian theme were to run through Chambers’ work over a thirty-year period.
“One would have imagined that after this felicitous event [the success of Captain Swift] the placing of my second play with a good management would have been an easy task,” wrote Chambers, “but it did not prove so by any means.”
HIS NEXT PLAY, The Idler, was turned down by Beerbohm Tree and another leading actormanager, John Hare. “I was beginning to think that playwriting was not all it was set up to be as a career,” wrote Chambers, “when one day a brilliant and charming lady from America, Miss Elizabeth Marbury, requested a sight of the manuscript, and within a few weeks I was making my first of my thirty visits to New York.”
So The Idler was premiered not in London, but in New York—at the Lyceum Theatre on November 11, 1890, under the management of the impresario Charles Frohman. Frohman assembled a first-rate cast of American actors and Chambers directed the piece himself. It was his second major success, opening four months later at the St James’s Theatre in London, where it ran for 176 performances, the first new play produced by George Alexander at the start of his long tenure at that theatre. It was given in Sydney at the New Garrick by Charles Cartwright and Olga Nethersole in 1891, and in 1894 by the Brough-Boucicault company
“Throughout the play there is no parade of false sentimentality,” wrote Punch’s critic in London, “no tawdry virtue, no copy-book morality, no vicious silliness.” The New York Times thought it “cannot fail to interest anyone who is interested in the art of playmaking”. Certainly it is more tautly plotted, without all the superfluous complications or coincidences of Captain Swift.
In The Idler a respected English baronet, Sir John Harding, has spent time as a young man in the American West as “Gentleman Jack”, a goldminer and gambler who accidentally shot a man. He has returned to England, burying his past and marrying, only to be tracked down by the man’s brother, Simeon Strong. Mark Cross, the idler of the play’s title, covets and blackmails Harding’s wife, who attempts to resolve the situation, but leaves behind an incriminating fan (a device used by Oscar Wilde the following year in his first successful play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, a fact leapt upon by the critics). Harding challenges Cross to a duel, but becomes persuaded of his wife’s innocence.
Interviewing Haddon Chambers ahead of opening night, the New York Times described him: “The author is a slim and particularly youthful-looking man. He appears to be about twenty years of age, while, as a matter of fact, he is ten years older.” Chambers heaped praise on American actors and their stock-company system. “I could get a finer performance of a play in London if I had a free choice of artists in casting it,” says Chambers. “Imagine Mr Irving, Mr Terry, Mr and Mrs Kendal, Mr Beerbohm Tree, Mr Willard, Mr Alexander, Mr Forbes-Robertson, and—but, of course, such a thing is absurdly impossible.”
A previously unnoticed play by Chambers, Love and War, an adaptation from a French original, was given at the Garden Theatre in New York in March 1891. “Malignantly virtuous,” was how the New York Times described it. “It will not excite enthusiasm in the neighbourhood of Broadway.”
That same year Chambers brought together several of his Australian pieces, publishing them as Thumbnail Sketches of Australian Life. This was followed by a series of relatively unsuccessful plays—The Honourable Herbert (1891), The Old Lady (1892), The Pipe of Peace (1892) and a comedy he wrote (with W.O. Tristram) specifically for the Prince of Wales’ mistress, Lillie Langtry, The Queen of Manoa (1892). Whether any of these are worth reviving, I have yet to discover.
ARETURN TO FORM (and to box office success) came with The Fatal Card. Chambers wrote this with the English dramatist-lyricist B.C. Stephenson (1838–1906), the first of several plays written with various partners in the late 1890s.
It premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in London on September 6, 1894, running for seven months, young Austen played by William Terriss. Production in New York, again under the management of Charles Frohman, opened on New Year’s Eve, with the veteran American actor J.H. Stoddart as a much admired Austen père. It was staged in Australia by Bland Holt’s company. A silent movie was made of it in Hollywood in 1915.
The Fatal Card opens in a mining camp in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then relocating to London. George Forrester has been caught cheating at cards and is about to be lynched when Gerald Austen appears and rescues him. The ace of clubs is torn in two, with each taking half, so that they may know each other in the future. Many years later, in London, Forrester, posing as the respectable Marrable, leads a gang of professional bond robbers. They target a stockbroker, Austen’s father. Austen meanwhile is in love with Marrable’s daughter, Margaret. The gang are at work when they are interrupted by Austen senior, who is promptly murdered. Warned by Margaret, young Austen eavesdrops on the gang, is discovered and is next in line for liquidation. He is bound and gagged and left with a ticking time-bomb, when … the two halves of the playing card are produced and Marrable discovers that he is about to despatch the man who saved his life.
In a recent essay (“A tale of two Australians” in Playing Australia: Australian Theatre and the International Stage, 2003), Elizabeth Schafer has argued persuasively that “[Chambers] created … substitutes for Australianness, most notably in his use of American characters and settings. Chambers’ use of American material may have been simply judicious, given the great commercial success he was enjoying in the United States.”
Chambers’ follow-up, produced in November of the same year, was John-a-Dreams. Directed by Beerbohm Tree at his Haymarket Theatre, the main parts were taken by Tree himself and the legendary Mrs Patrick Campbell. The play gets its title from Hamlet’s “like John-a-dreams unpregnant for my cause” (from his “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy). Successful in London, it then opened at the Empire Theatre in New York in February 1895, produced by Charles Frohman, with Henry Miller and Viola Allen in the leading roles.
The grouchy critic of the New York Times complained: “[Chambers] upholds the abnormally false idea that a courtesan who repents has just as much right to a conspicuous place in social life as any other woman.” If that judgment proves anything, it must be that American society was as moralistic then as now.
The outsider, Kate, this time female, lives amongst a wealthy yachting crowd. She has been a genteel prostitute, a profession undertaken to support her ailing mother, but has retired from that occupation and settled down with an opium addict, the John-a-Dreams of the title. In addressing the social issues arising for women “with a past”, John-a-Dreams was preceded by Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and followed by George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession.
Having seen John-a-Dreams on its opening night, Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas: “It was not bad, but oh! so badly written … How strange to live in a land where the worship of beauty and the passion of love are considered infamous.” The worship of beauty was not at all one of Chambers’ artistic aims. Perhaps Wilde was still smarting from the mauling he had received from critics over perceived plagiarism of The Idler in Lady Windermere’s Fan. It was a matter of months before Wilde was imprisoned.
Chambers himself clearly felt that his control of style and dialogue had grown and developed over the years, and in his New York Times memoir of 1918, he cites an example from John-a-Dreams as evidence of this: “Think of leaping into fame before a delighted world,” says the heroine to the hero, to which the hero replies: “Think of leaping out again before an equally delighted world.” It’s quite a notion for our celebrity-driven times.
The Adelphi Theatre staged Haddon Chambers’ next two plays in London (both written with Comyns Carr), Boys Together in 1896 and In the Days of the Duke (based on the Duke of Wellington) the following year. Neither was successful. Both featured the celebrated William Terriss in the lead. Three weeks after In the Days of the Duke closed, Terriss was brutally murdered at the stage door by a deranged young actor whom he had helped to find work and supported financially, Richard Archer Prince.
REACHING ROUGHLY the mid-point of his working life, it is evident how little is known about Haddon Chambers’ personal life. One witness is Elizabeth Marbury, who wrote in her memoirs:
A more delightful companion than Chambers could not be found. He was universally popular. No matter what his income might be he always lived beyond it. When he was down on his luck only those who enjoyed lending him money ever guessed it. His clothes were perfect … Trips to the Riviera and to St Moritz he took as a matter of course.
However, there is one relationship we know a good deal about, our knowledge enhanced by Ann Blainey’s diligent research for her newly-published biography of Nellie Melba (I am Melba). It was in 1896 that Haddon Chambers first met the woman who was to become for the next eight years very important in his life. Their first meeting is described by the opera impresario and singing teacher Henry Russell
One afternoon he came to read me one of his plays and asked me whether it would make a good subject for an opera … I remember we discussed the singers of the day. He was a great admirer of Melba, who had just conquered London, but had never met her. He had noticed with regret her lack of dramatic power. “What a pity,” he remarked, “that she is so cold. Her voice is the most divine thing in the world, and if someone would only teach her to act, she would be perfect.” I had asked her to supper and begged him to stay and meet her. He accepted with joy, and it proved to be a most amusing evening.
“Few people knew more about the stage at that time than Haddon, and Melba realised at once how much she could learn from her talented compatriot,” wrote Russell. “The friendship grew and the diva undoubtedly benefited from the care that Haddon bestowed on every new role she learnt, teaching her gradually to be an intelligent actress.” She was thirty-five, he a year older.
The first significant fruit of Melba’s coaching by Chambers was Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She made her debut in the role in 1897 in Philadelphia, “perhaps the biggest triumph of my career”.
By the summer of 1897, Haddon was a frequent guest at her house at Marlow by the Thames. “He fitted easily into her life,” writes Ann Blainey, “was welcomed by her friends and family, and yet still managed to maintain a charming unpredictability.”
Melba’s affair with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans and son of the pretender to the French throne, had ended, and his engagement to the Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Austria had been announced. Haddon Chambers was to fill that gap in her life, but without all the press brouhaha that had attended her affair with Philippe.
The following year: “At her Thames-side house they were often seen together, strolling in the garden, taking tea under the cedars or boating on the river,” writes Blainey. “In London, he was present at fashionable luncheons she gave at the Savoy.” Both of them were careful not to flaunt their relationship too openly—and this may account for its longevity. She continues: “While in private he called her Nellie, in public he referred to her as Madame Melba.”
Photographs testify to the circle of friends that joined Melba and Haddon at Marlow the next summer, amongst them Bertram Mackennal, the Australian sculptor who was engaged on a marble bust of the diva for Melbourne.
In 1900 she was finally divorced by her estranged husband, Charles Armstrong. Melba was reported as saying: “It is what I have longed for … As for me, I will soon marry Haddon Chambers … I have already bought a house at Great Cumberland Place, London, where I expect to be very happy as Mr Chambers’ wife.” This she quickly denied and in a letter to her sister Belle, she sought to scotch the whole idea: “I shall never marry again, I could never put up with a man bossing me—I should kill him.”
A minor detail is that Chambers was in fact married throughout the time of his affair with Melba. He had wedded the widowed Marie Duggan (born Mary Dewar in London in 1851) on September 6, 1892. He was thirty-two, Marie forty-one (though the marriage certificate says she was thirty-one). She had two children from her first marriage and with Haddon a baby girl, Margery, born in 1890. Margery was therefore a “lovechild”, a theme central to both Captain Swift and the later Passers-By. She was to become an artist in adult life. Elizabeth Marbury—who was his New York agent and had facilitated the premiere of The Idler in New York—wrote in her memoirs (My Crystal Ball Reminiscences, 1932):
His first marriage was a mistake, but Chambers never consented to any divorce. I have always thought that this fact was due more to self preservation than to principle. His freedom might have proved very embarrassing. The consciousness that there was a legal Mrs Chambers in the background gave him a great sense of security … He was always a devoted father to his one child, a daughter.
In 1901-02 the Paris-based Australian artist Rupert Bunny painted a sumptuous portrait of Melba. It seems likely that his lively sketch portrait of Chambers was accomplished at the same time. Together in April 1902, Melba and Chambers visited another of her Australian artist protégés in Paris, Hugh Ramsay.
UNFORTUNATELY, although his next play, The Tyranny of Tears, was substantially Chambers’ most successful and critically applauded play, constantly re-staged over decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty, at the heart of which is the leading man’s relentless patronising of his wife. As Elizabeth Schafer puts it:
The Tyranny of Tears featured a married couple renegotiating their marriage as the wife is pressured into behaving more acceptably. Initially she exerts “tyranny” by crying prettily and using emotional blackmail to alienate her husband from his friends and keep his focus relentlessly on her, to the detriment of his writing … I would want to ask, more stringently than the play allows, what precisely would make a woman employ such “tyranny” in the first place?
My own assumption is that the Hampstead writerhusband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed it may be that this tightlycomposed domestic comedy is based on his own marriage, the wife Mabel on his own wife. While her manipulative tears might indeed drive a man to distraction, it never seems to occur to Parbury that he might be part of the problem. Being constantly positioned by him as an inferior being, a “dear little woman”, might well promote in a wife feelings of anger, even revenge. His self-perception (always being, by right, in the right) would be irksome, to say the least. Any modern staging would be bound to re-balance the roles—as happens so often with contemporary productions of The Taming of the Shrew.
One wonders whether Chambers’ relationship with such a powerful woman as Melba—so much more direct and self-confident than the Mabel character— might not have sharpened his sense of the problems in his own marriage. Another side of Chambers is embodied in a second male character, George Gunning, the unmarried outsider who disturbs the “harmony” of the marriage. Mabel Parbury says to him that she thinks his alarming influence over her husband is “the ridicule of the untamed for the tamed”. “Say of the disreputable for the respectable,” responds Gunning.
The Tyranny of Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus on April 6, 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and the “adored” Mary Moore as the wife. “I did not expect that he would ever take this keen interest in ordinary human character,” wrote Max Beerbohm in the Saturday Review, “nor that he would ever write dialogues so pointed and witty.” Chambers drew a 10 per cent royalty from the play, which gave him £160 a week, equivalent to around $A30,000 a week in current money, supplemented by the royalties he was earning from a revival of Captain Swift, running at the same time in London.
Again Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented it at the Empire in New York in September. It became a star vehicle for John Drew as Parbury. Drew was to become a “close pal” of Chambers. In Australia it was toured by Robert Brough’s company in 1902.
IN THE EARLY YEARS of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears with a series of adaptations from European originals—The Awakening (1901), A Modern Magdalen (1902), The Younger Mrs Parling (1904), The Thief (1907), Suzanne (1910) and Tante (1913). Did he turn to adaptation because he felt his own creative powers waning?
Of these, The Awakening did best and aroused most comment. The guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and translator of Ibsen), William Archer, paraphrased it as follows in Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship of 1912:
[It] turned on a sudden conversion—the “awakening”, in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer [Jim Trower], a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he “awakens” to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the audience to be assured of the fact?
Although it is said to be adapted from the French (of what I have yet to discover), The Awakening seems to me paradoxically to be the most autobiographical of Chambers’ work, and the ambivalence that Archer senses in the “lady-killer” may well reflect ambivalence in the playwright himself. In a letter to a friend Chambers admits that he was “weak enough to be persuaded into making [an] alteration”, going on to say that “when the play is done in America it will be exactly as written, as the balance was disturbed by a regretted attempt to whitewash Jim Trower”.
It opened at the St James’s Theatre in London in February 1901 with George Alexander as the philanderer and Fay Davis as the “country maiden”. “He uses his innate sense of the theatre, not for striking out unscrupulously theatrical effects, but for creating effects of real life across footlights,” wrote Max Beerbohm in the Saturday Review. The following month Chambers directed H.V. Esmond’s The Wilderness at the same theatre. Although Frohman purchased the American rights for The Awakening, I have yet to discover any performance there.
A Modern Magdalen was adapted by Chambers from a Danish play, Familie Jensen by Edgar Hoyen. Here Chambers returns to an earlier theme—the woman with a past and her subsequent rejection by society. It opened in New York at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for seventy-three performances, and was filmed in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore.
His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling, ran for thirty-six performances at the Garrick Theatre in New York with Annie Russell in the lead role. It was from Le Détour by Henri Bernstein, and again took up the cause of the “fallen woman”—“a mixture of Ibsen and Dumas fils,” said the New York Times.
Chambers adapted Suzanne from a Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, by Frantz Fonson and Ferdinand Wicheler. It was produced at the Lyceum in New York by Charles Frohman, opening in December 1910, with Julian L’Estrange, G.W. Anson and Billie Burke (Suzanne) in leading roles. It ran for sixty-four performances.
The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened at the Empire in New York (running for 281 performances), with the English actor Kyrle Bellew as Richard Voysin. Bellew had toured Australia twice with the radiant Mrs Brown Potter in the 1890s, and had prospected (and acted) on the goldfields of Victoria twenty years earlier.
The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a bestselling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production at the Empire in New York, it ran for seventy-nine performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist Madame Okraska, and was made into a British film, The Impossible Woman, with Constance Collier in 1919. The New York Times described it as a work of “exceptional adroitness” with “splendid characterisation”.
IN 1904 HADDON CHAMBERS’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a peremptory halt. In his memoirs, Henry Russell says: “For reasons that I never understood and which he never explained, he suddenly ceased to be persona grata to her.” He goes on to speculate that Haddon “found her a trifle too exigent from time to time”, seeming to imply that he dropped her, which I doubt. Exigent had been a word he had used in The Tyranny of Tears to describe the manipulative wife. “His infatuation lasted longer than hers, and she had a lot of trouble in getting rid of him,” wrote Melba’s early biographer Percy Colson.
One possibility is that the breach stemmed from difficulties surrounding the royalties committed to Chambers by Melba from her early recordings (one shilling per record sold in America). Melba’s first recordings, made at her home in Great Cumberland Place in March and April 1904, came after long periods of separation from Haddon and this may be a second issue. He was at the carriage door at Euston Station as she left in July 1902 for her first tour of Australia after sixteen years in Europe. A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904. And, of course, his philandering may have something to do with the breakdown. Intriguingly, a single “copyright” performance of a play called The Prima Donna was given in London in September 1908, author and leading man Haddon Chambers. What might that reveal to us if it were ever found?
He wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, between 1903 and 1906, neither enjoying great success. Athird, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with Paul Kester, an American who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.
The Golden Silence was presented in London in September of 1903, closing after a short run at the Garrick Theatre. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh and Arthur Bourchier, who also directed. Bourchier had a cool reception from the audience and at the close Haddon Chambers came forward, bowed, and was received with a chorus of groans.
Sir Anthony opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York in November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only sixteen performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston immediately. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later, Max Beerbohm commenting on “the extreme fidelity with which Mr Chambers has painted the class of people who are his theme … the lower-middle and middle-middle classes”. Perhaps Chambers’ satirising of British snobbery found a readier response in London than it had in New York. Among the cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault. The London staging was produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.
Chambers was reportedly writing a musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden in 1910, but this does not seem to have come to anything.
TWO OF CHAMBERS’ LAST three play plays, written immediately before and during the First World War, were admired and also successful at the box office. The basic idea for Passers-By of 1911 came to Chambers when he and a friend, the Gaiety actor Paul Arthur, were walking home from the theatre on a foggy night in London. He collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own “lovechild”, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre in April with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to become the most successful play of the season.
The theatre critic of the Times gently mocked the proceedings: “Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the ‘sympathetic’ personage in a sentimental play.” Passers-By opened in September at the Criterion in New York, produced by Frohman, running for 124 performances. “Richard Bennett need not fear comparison with Gerald du Maurier,” wrote the New York Times critic, “he has the variety, charm, naturalness, ease”. It was twice made into silent movies in Hollywood (in 1916 and 1920), the earlier version with Chambers’ close friend Charles Cherry. Cherry was also in the American stage productions of Tante and The Great Pursuit.
When a young gentleman of leisure, Peter Waverton, invites a tramp, Samuel Burns, out of the fog into his Piccadilly apartment for supper, his butler, Pine, complains at the upsetting of social hierarchy. Out of the fog comes a distressed young unmarried mother, Margaret, the father of whose child, unbeknown to him, is Waverton. Haddon Chambers’ proto-feminist attitudes can be gauged from the unmarried mother Margaret: “You needn’t be embarrassed for me, Peter. I’m not ashamed and I’ve no remorse. He’s my child. I’ve won him and he’s mine only.”
Less successful, The Great Pursuit of 1916 was put on at the Shubert Theatre in New York as a vehicle for the English actor W. Graham Browne, with his much starrier wife, Marie Tempest, taking a small role. It ran for twenty-nine performances.
Finally, The Saving Grace of 1917 was a hit in London, running for 200 performances at the Garrick Theatre with Sir Charles Hawtrey in the lead role and the young Noel Coward as the juvenile lead (his first “grown-up part”). In New York (at the Empire again), it was played to ecstatic reviews (“amazing subtlety and distinction”) by the English actor Cyril Maude. Chambers himself directed and the play ran on Broadway for ninety-six performances.
The central figure is Blinn Corbett, a penniless English army officer, who has run off with his commanding officer’s wife. Written past the mid-point of the war, millions of casualties having been sustained, but set at its outbreak, it seems astonishing that the enthusiasm to join up was still uppermost in men’s thinking. Nevertheless The Saving Grace is tautly plotted, with crackling, witty dialogue.
“Haddon Chambers’ best,” said the New York Times of its American premiere. Reviewing his long career, the piece continued:
He has to his credit one of the small number of perfect comedies of manners in the language, The Tyranny of Tears, and a character romance of distinguished charm, Passers-By. The present play blends the acute actuality of the one with the kindly feeling of the other
In his memoirs-article written at that time, the fiftysix- year-old playwright described his sadness at losing over recent times so many of his closest friends, naming particularly Charles Frohman (who had drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree and George Alexander.
The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On October 29, 1920, he married the musical comedy star Pepita Bobadilla. He was fifty-nine, she twenty-eight. Although she was advertised as having been born in Ecuador, her real name was Nelly Louise Burton, born in Hamburg, the illegitimate daughter of an English mother and a German officer father. Haddon’s health declined and she took care of him until his death in London from heart disease on March 28, 1921. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie.
Pepita had his last unfinished play completed in 1922, acting in it herself at the Savoy Theatre in London. He had written The Card Players for her, but it was not a success. She was later to marry Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies”.
Somerset Maugham wrote a bitchy remembrance in his notebook following Haddon Chambers’ death:
At the first glance he looked a youngish man, but presently you saw that in reality he was old, old … He had the reputation of a Don Juan, and this he valued much more than any that his plays had brought him … The only art in which he seemed at all interested was music … It exasperated him to have his best play, The Tyranny of Tears, ascribed to Oscar Wilde … I see him lounging at a bar, a dapper little man, chatting good-humouredly with a casual acquaintance of women, horses and Covent Garden opera, but with an air as though he were looking for someone who might at any moment come in at that door.
WHY HAVE Haddon Chambers’ plays not (thus far) survived, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons.
Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in England and America.
Australian audiences have in modern times found it hard to take English high-society plays—though it must be said that Robert Brough, “the greatest actor-manager Australia had known”, made a career of just this, introducing audiences to Arthur Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome—and Haddon Chambers.
The fact that he constantly satirised English attitudes from a fundamentally Australian stance seems to have been overlooked.
Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.
Rejecting the so-called “cultural cringe” enthusiastically has cut Australians off from important parts of their cultural heritage. Haddon Chambers is just one casualty.
IT IS CLEAR THAT, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were swept from British stages with the arrival of “kitchen sink” in the 1950s. It took several decades before managements would risk them again. Gradually there has been a return, with actors and directors finding ways to make these plays speak to us now, prominent amongst them Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells” and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House.
A small hopeful sign is that two of Haddon Chambers’ best plays, The Tyranny of Tears and Passers-By, have been republished recently by Kerringer in the USA.
Time for The Awakening?
Roger Neill is an Oxfordshire-based arts historian who has written extensively on Australians in London, Paris and New York at the fin de siècle.