Roger Neill

Roger Neill

Roger Neill is a UK-based arts historian. He curated the exhibition Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett for the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000. He helped Sam Wanamaker to re-build Shakespeare’s Globe in London. His most recent book is DIVAS: Mathilde Marchesi and her Pupils. With Tony Locantro he co-produced the 4CD set From Melba to Sutherland: Australian Singers on Record for Decca Eloquence.

ROGER NEILL concludes his two-part article on the life and works of Australian-born Charles Haddon Chambers, commemorating 100 years since the death of a playwright who deserves better recognition in the country of his birth.

High point: The Tyranny of Tears

Although Haddon Chambers’ next full-length play, The Tyranny of Tears of 1899, was substantially his most successful and critically applauded play, re-staged over several decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty. At the heart of it is the relentless patronising of his wife by the leading man. 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 writer-husband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed, it may be that this tightly composed 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, for example, 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 Dunning, 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 6 April 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and his wife, the ‘adored’ Mary Moore, as Mrs Parbury. ‘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.’ It ran for 115 performances and Chambers drew a ten 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 the revival under Beerbohm Tree of Captain Swift, running at the same time at Her Majesty’s in London. Tyranny was revived in January 1902 at Wyndham’s and in February 1914 at the Comedy (52 performances).

Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented The Tyranny of Tears in New York in September at the Empire. 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 1900 (and later 1902) with Mr and Mrs Brough in leading roles, first opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 12 May. After Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, the company went on to Calcutta.

Tyranny was followed in 1901 by The Awakening, which did well and aroused much comment. A guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and first 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?

The Awakening seems to me to be the most autobiographical of all 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.’

Initially postponed following the death of Queen Victoria, it opened at the St James’s Theatre in London on 6 February 1901 (running for 59 performances) with George Alexander as the philanderer James St John Trower, A.E. Matthews as Cecil Bird, H.B. Irving as Lord Reginald Dugdale and Fay Davis as the ‘country maiden’ Olive Lawrence. ‘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. It was given a decade later by an amateur company at the Palace Theatre in Sydney (December 1912).

In the early years of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears and The Awakening (1901) with a series of adaptations from European originals—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?

Chambers’ next three productions all had their premières in New York. A Modern Magdalen was refashioned 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 in March 1902 at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for 73 performances.

An apparently different play, specifically written (it was claimed by George Musgrove) by Haddon Chambers for the Australian musical comedy star Nellie Stewart, called Dolores, made its première at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in July 1903. Not lasting long there, it was toured throughout Australia. In reality, Dolores was A Modern Magdalen. Clearly, Nellie Stewart was not enamoured of Mr Chambers, complaining in her memoirs that an agreement was made with the playwright for a series of new plays for Nellie, none of which was forthcoming. She described him as a ‘casual Australian’. Perhaps Haddon was not amused. Around the same time, there were reports that A Modern Magdalen had been translated into French for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, but this does not seem to have come to anything. A Modern Magdalen was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore and Cathrine Countiss.

His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling opened at the Park Theater in Boston in November 1903 with Annie Russell in the lead role, and then ran for 36 performances at the Garrick in New York. 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. Mauled by the American critics, it never reached the stage in London.

The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened in September 1907 again at the Lyceum in New York (a major hit, running for 281 performances), with the English actor, Kyrle Bellew, as Richard Voysin and Margaret Illington as his wife. 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 version of The Thief which ran at the St James’s Theatre in London (opening 12 November 1907 with George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh) was by Cosmo Gordon Lennox. Haddon Chambers’ adaptation was not performed in England until June 1927, when it was given by the repertory company at the Playhouse in Broadstairs, Kent.

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 Billie Burke (Suzanne), Julian L’Estrange and George W. Anson in leading roles. It ran for 64 performances.

The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a best-selling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production, it was tried out at the Apollo in Atlantic City in October 1913 before opening at the Empire in New York, where it ran for 79 performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist, Madame Okraska. The New York Times described it as a work of ‘exceptional adroitness’ with ‘splendid characterisation’. It opened at the Haymarket in London as The Impossible Woman in September 1914 with Lillah McCarthy (running for 89 performances) and under that title was made into a British film with Constance Collier in 1919.

Breaking with Melba

It seems that Haddon Chambers’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a halt at some time during the period around 1906-08. Some saw it as an abrupt break. 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 of 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 and she toured frequently in the succeeding years.

A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904, so ironically he was at last legally free. And, of course, his reputed philandering ways may have had something to do with the breakdown. Ann Blainey suggests that Melba’s affections switched to the Australian flautist, John Lemmoné. In March 1904 Haddon copied out in his own hand a triolet (eight-line verse) that rehearses whimsically the heroic absences of men and the inconstancy of women:

‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

   Said the lover to his lady:

Noble words were those, I trow.

   ‘Glory calls me – I must go.’

Back he came: another beau

   Toying with her tresses shady:

‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

   Said the lover to his lady.

In fact, the verse was not by Chambers, but had been first published in the 24 November 1883 issue of The Bulletin in Sydney as the work of VJD (Irish-Australian poet, Victor Daley). Clearly, it had some enduring meaning for Haddon.

Sadly, Haddon Chambers is not mentioned either in the first biography of the diva (Melba: A Biography of 1909 by Agnes G Murphy), which was virtually dictated to the writer by Melba, or in her ‘official’ autobiography, Melodies and Memories of 1925, which was ghost-written by Beverley Nichols.

Between 1903 and 1906 Haddon wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, neither of them enjoying any great success. A third, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with the American, Paul Kester, who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.

The Golden Silence opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 22 September 1903, running for 78 performances. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh (Countess of Arlington) and Arthur Bourchier (Augustus Mapes), who also directed. At the première, 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 on 19 November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only 16 performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later (28 November 1908, 48 performances), and Max Beerbohm commented 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 more ready response in London than it had in New York. Among the London cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault, and the Wyndham’s staging was co-produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.

Another Chambers project from 1905-06 that seems not to have reached the stage was a musical comedy, Mr Flame, created with the composer Bernard Rolt. Young and handsome, Rolt was primarily a composer of drawing-room ballads. He had become a close friend of Nellie and Haddon Chambers. The three of them had vacationed together with others in Italy in July 1904—first at a house party at Henry Russell’s villa at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, moving on to Venice, where Melba studied Madama Butterfly with Puccini, a role she never sang. In 1906, Haddon was living in ‘my new little house in Waverton Street’ in Mayfair.

On 19 September 1908 Haddon Chambers participated in a ‘copyright’ performance of a new American operetta by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, The Prima Donna. Haddon read the lead male role. This happened at the Knickerbocker Theater in New York on 30 November with Fritzi Scheff as the prima donna.

In 1910 Chambers was reportedly writing another musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden, but this too does not seem to have come to anything.

Late works

Two of his last three 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 on a foggy night from the theatre in London. Chambers collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own daughter, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre on 29 March with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to be one of the most successful new plays of the season with 163 performances.

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. Also out of the fog comes a distressed young 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.’

Irene Vanbrugh wrote in her memoirs: ‘I was to be Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady, an experience I had always wanted. This was in Passers-By by Haddon Chambers, a play with true sentiment, and Gerald’s special, very flexible, sensitive approach to his art delighted me … and kept the scenes between us alive.’ The theatre critic of The Times had a different view on the proceedings: ‘Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the “sympathetic” personage in a sentimental play.’

Passers-By opened on 14 September 1911 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.

The rights for Australasia having been signed by J.C. Williamson, Passers-By toured extensively there from January to September 1912. The production opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Hilda Spong as Margaret. Spong had previously appeared in Haddon Chambers’ The Fatal Card in Sydney seventeen years earlier in 1895. This was her first return to the Antipodes since that time, having established her reputation as a fine actor in Britain and America.

After Melbourne, the Passers-By company went to New Zealand (Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington), returning to His Majesty’s in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, the Town Hall in Kalgoorlie, His Majesty’s in Perth, the Princess in Bendigo, Her Majesty’s in Ballarat and finally the Theatre Royal in Sydney. In Melbourne and Sydney, Waverton was played by Harcourt Beatty, but on tour the part was taken by the American William Desmond.

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 starrier wife Marie Tempest taking a small role. It ran for 29 performances.

Haddon Chambers’ last finished play, 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’). Haddon was at this time living (with valet Hogg) at 4 Aldford Street, off Park Lane, Mayfair—‘tiny but charmingly furnished … every room differently and delightfully decorated,’ according to John D. Williams. In New York (at the Empire again), The Saving Grace 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 96 performances.

It was brought to Sydney by Robert Courtneidge’s company, opening at the Tivoli in October 1920. Brisbane followed, where on 21 November, according to the Northern Herald: ‘A serious panic at His Majesty’s Theatre was narrowly averted … when about 150 university students raided the building and startled the audience … Many people thought there was a fire.’

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 première. 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.

And assessing the whole Haddon Chambers oevre, Michael R. Booth (in his English Plays of the Nineteenth Century) wrote:

From the French they [English dramatists] absorbed the planned management of plot structure, the elimination of irrelevant material, and the careful subordination of means to ends. In Pinero and Jones French skills are generally applied to plays with many characters, a substantial plot, and an elaborate social setting. The Tyranny of Tears [and The Saving Grace] goes further: the characters are remarkably few in number; the plot is slight; and the setting is many miles, both literally and figuratively, from Mayfair.

In his memoirs-article of 13 October 1918, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, the fifty-six-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 May 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in 1917) and George Alexander (in 1918). He also mentioned in passing ‘certain war activities that I had been engaged upon.’ What these were remains unclear.

If Nellie Melba had been Haddon Chambers’ closest woman friend, his closest male intimate in New York and London over a quarter of a century had been Charles Frohman. Around 1900 Chambers introduced Frohman to Marlow, which the producer fell in love with, regularly staying at the Compleat Angler inn by the river. Following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 in which Frohman was one of the 1,198 who died, Haddon said to the New York Times:

Up and down [the High Street] Mr Frohman used to love to walk, dodging in and out of the stores, where he would purchase unconsidered trifles as an excuse for chatting with the shopkeepers.

Chambers made the journey to the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland, in order to identify and retrieve the body, writing to his sister Agnes in Sydney:

I went over to Queenstown with Lestocq, his London manager, to get Frohman’s body. We crossed the Irish Channel at night with all lights out on account of the German submarines … It was the saddest quest I was ever upon … We bore him to Liverpool and sent him to New York … Just before the ship went down he said to a girl friend of mine, who was fortunately saved, that ‘after all, death was only a beautiful adventure.’

Pepita

The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On 29 October 1920 he married the musical comedy star, Pepita Bobadilla. Haddon was 59, she 28. 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, apparently from stroke and heart disease, at 61 in London on 28 March 1921. There was a funeral service at St George’s Hanover Square in London—among the congregation Sir Arthur Pinero, Charles Hawtrey, Lady Wyndham and Lady Tree. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie and with Charles Frohman.

There is no evidence that he ever embraced the ministry of his Baptist parents or of the ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, after whom he had been named. The British playwright-actor Seymour Hicks (performing in Melbourne in 1924) discussed the death of Haddon Chambers with Melba at her house, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream:

For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man … Long after I had finished telling her all I could about her mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies.

Pepita had his final play, unfinished at his death, 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. It opened on 26 April, running for 29 performances with Pepita (as Eileen Ashfield), produced by Dot Boucicault. The following year, she was to marry Sidney Reilly, the celebrated ‘Ace of Spies’—on his part bigamously (or even trigamously).

Haddon had died intestate, effectively leaving everything to Pepita, although how much remained is unclear. In his biography of Reilly, Richard B Spence asserts that she inherited ‘an income of at least £2,000 a year’. This may have been true initially, but if it was based on ticket and book royalties, that amount would have declined rather precipitously as the years went by. Without any substantial supporting evidence, Spence also speculates that Pepita may have met Reilly earlier than she disclosed and that there may have been foul play involved in the sudden death of Haddon Chambers.

Haddon’s friend, the American theatre director John D. Williams, in an appreciation of Chambers’ life in Century Magazine (December 1921), wrote that Haddon

… publicly entertained two generations and privately fascinated hundreds of men and women of two worlds. He was irresistible as a companion, the chairman of the committee on fun, wherever he was, a fascinating magician in epigrams … a citizen of the world, at home wherever he found himself, but especially at his best as the play-boy of England and America.

The younger writer Somerset Maugham wrote a less glamorous, somewhat bitchy remembrance in his A Writer’s 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 in performance, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons. Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in Britain and America than in Australia. 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’, had made a career of just this in the late nineteenth century, introducing Australian audiences to Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome … and Haddon Chambers. Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor long-term career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.

It is clear that, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were finally 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.

It remains ironic that, while eight of Haddon Chambers’ plays are now in print (2021),1 his work remains unexplored and unperformed. What of the remainder of the scripts? Most, if not all, reside in typescript form in the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship archive at the British Library.

 

1. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace

 

Appendix: Plays by C. Haddon Chambers

One of Them 1886 (one act); The Open Gate 1887 (one act); Captain Swift 1888; Devil Caresfoot 1889 (adapted from Rider Haggard’s Dawn); The Idler 1890; Love and War 1891 (adapted from the French); The Honourable Herbert 1891; The Collaborators 1892; The Queen of Manoa 1892 (with WO Tristram); The Old Lady 1892; The Pipe of Peace 1892; The Fatal Card (with RC Stephenson) 1894; John-a-Dreams 1894; Boys Together (with J Comyns Carr) 1896; In the Days of the Duke (with J Comyns Carr) 1897; The Tyranny of Tears 1899; Blue Roses 1901 (staged privately); The Awakening 1902 (adapted from the French); The Golden Silence 1903; The Head of the Family (with Paul Kester) 1903 (incomplete? not staged); A Modern Magdalen (adaptation) / Dolores 1902; The Younger Mrs Parling 1903; Sir Anthony 1906; The Thief 1907 (adapted from the French of Henri Bernstein); Suzanne 1910; The Best Girl 1910 (musical comedy with music by John L Golden) (incomplete? not staged); Passers-By 1911; Tante 1913 (adapted from novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick) / The Impossible Woman; The Great Pursuit 1916 (revision of The Idler?); The Saving Grace 1917; The Card Players 1922

 

References

Stephen Alomes, When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Ann Blainey, I am Melba: A biography, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008

Elleke Boehmer (ed), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Michael R. Booth (ed), English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: III Comedies, Oxford University Press, London, 1973

Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The Performing Arts as Cultural History, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1967

Kate Carew, ‘Charles Frohman opens his heart at Kate Carew’s private confessional’, New York Tribune, 25 August 1912

C. Haddon Chambers, ‘The American Producer who Lived at Marlow’, New York Times, 17 October 1915

C. Haddon Chambers, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, New York Times, 13 October 1918

Percy Colson, Melba: An Unconventional Biography, Grayson & Grayson, London, 1932

Noel Coward, Present Indicative, William Heinemann, London & Toronto, 1937

Maisie Dubosarsky, ‘”Interesting, and unlike other people”: 19th-century popular Australian writers Haddon Chambers and Rosa Praed abroad’, BA honours thesis, University of Sydney, 2009

Sarah Engledow, ‘Suave’, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2010

John Hetherington, Melba: A Biography, Faber and Faber, London, 1967

Seymour Hicks, Night Lights: Two Men Talk of Love and Ladies, Cassell, London, 1938

Eric Irwin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1985

Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, John Lane / The Bodley Head, 1915

W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook, Heinemann, London, 1949

Nellie Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1925

Moran, William R (ed), Nellie Melba: A Contemporary Review, Greenwood, Westport CT, 1985

Agnes G. Murphy, Melba: A Biography, Doubleday Page, New York, 1909

Roger Neill, Legends: The Art of Walter Barnett, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2000

Roger Neill, ‘Bertram Mackennal, patronage and the performing arts’, Bertram Mackennal, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2007

Roger Neill, ‘Melba: Melba’s First Recordings’, Historic Masters, London, 2008  

Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter, Methuen, London, 1956

Margot Peters, Mrs Pat: The Life of Mrs Patrick Campbell, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1984

Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: A Historical and Critical Survey from the 1830s to the 1970s, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973

George Rowell, The Victorian Theatre: A Survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1956

Russell, Henry, The Passing Show, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1926

Elizabeth Schafer, ‘A tale of two Australians: Haddon Chambers, Gilbert Murray and the imperial London stage’ in Playing Australia: Australian theatre and the international stage (Vol 9 Australian playwights), Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2003

Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002

Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands, Sydney, 1923

J.C. Trewin, The Edwardian Theatre, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976

Irene Vanbrugh, To Tell My Story, Hutchinson, London, 1948

Pamela Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Phoebe, Melbourne, 1996

J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, 1910-1919, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, 2014

Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography, Methuen, London, 1993

John D. Williams, ‘A Play-Boy of Two Worlds’, Century Magazine, New York, December 1921

A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker, London, 1951 

 

Acknowledgments

With grateful thanks for help of all kinds:

Elisabeth Kumm of Theatre Heritage Australia; Pamela Botha, Melbourne; Christine Chambers, great-niece of Haddon Chambers, Little River, California; Maisie Dubosarsky Fieschi, Paris; Christine Egan, Fort Street School Archives, Petersham; Kathryn Johnson, the British Library; Tony Locantro, Barking; John Wilson, Cheltenham; Sophie Wilson, King’s Sutton; Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, Sydney; Theatre Museum, University of Bristol

© Roger Neill 2021

 

This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission), https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/07-08/haddon-chambers-and-the-long-arm-of-neglect/

2021 marks 100 years since the death of Australia-born Charles Haddon Chambers, a playwright who enjoyed considerable success on the stages of London and New York. His plays were turned into Hollywood films and he mixed with some of the most celebrated men and women of his day, but as ROGER NEILL points out, he is still largely unknown in the country of his birth.

Charles Haddon ChambersCharles Haddon Chambers; photograph by Alfred Ellis, London. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Who would be your nomination as Australia's most successful playwright? Ray Lawler? Dymphna Cusack? Patrick White? David Williamson? Alex Buzo? Maybe Tim Winton?

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 Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Synge, John Galsworthy and Harley Granville Barker were in their prime. Most were admired hits on Broadway. Six were made into silent movies in Hollywood. And many were staged in Australia and New Zealand.

Would that be someone whose work might be performed on Australian stages, taught in Australian universities and schools, known to and discussed by theatre-loving Australians? Well, apparently not.

Haddon Chambers is best remembered now (if at all) not for his plays, but for his lengthy relationship with Nellie Melba. Even weighty tomes like The Oxford Literary History of Australia and Penguin’s New Literary History of Australia fail to mention him entirely.

Childhood to jackeroo

Haddon’s protestant Ulster-born father (Chambers referred to him as a ‘Scotchman’), John Ritchie Chambers, was descended on his mother’s side from William Ritchie, who was born in 1756 and was a shipbuilder at Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast in Scotland before establishing in 1791 a pioneering shipyard in Belfast, where he became recognised as the ‘father of shipbuilding’ in Northern Ireland.

John was born in 1824 and came early to Sydney, where he worked in the Lands and Survey Offices for New South Wales. In 1855 he married Fanny Kellett, who was originally from Waterford in Munster in the south of Ireland. John was said within the family to be ‘very handsome although crippled’. What the source and extent of his disability was, I have yet to discover.

John and Fanny had six children, three of them—Charles Haddon Chambers, Agnes Chambers and Harry Kellett Chambers—surviving to write plays. In Sydney, Haddon’s older sister Agnes became a prominent pianist, organist and teacher (her play, The Love Affairs of Mr Boyd, was performed by an amateur company in 1909); his younger brother Harry Kellett, after an early career as a journalist in Australia (Daily Telegraph in Sydney) and America (San Francisco Examiner), went on to New York, where some half dozen of his plays were produced, none of them going on to have long runs.2 He was constantly referred to in the American press as the ‘brother of Haddon Chambers’.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon Chambers was born in the Sydney suburb of Stanmore on 22 April 1860. Named after the Baptist ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, he was educated at Petersham, Marrickville and then at the Fort Street School, alma mater of so many distinguished Sydneysiders, where at fourteen he won a prize for an essay on cruelty to animals. Leaving school at fifteen, he worked in the Lands Department, then as an insurance clerk and later in the Department of Mines, before seeking a more adventurous life as a stockrider, jackeroo and station hand, near Camden, southwest of Sydney.

In 1880 he visited his Chambers and Ritchie cousins in Ulster, before going on to London for the first time. He returned to Sydney on a ship which was carrying the Montague-Turner Opera Company and worked with them in Australia 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 befriended them and decided that a career in opera would be preferable to a life as housewife and mother. She was later to become both operatic prima donna and Haddon Chambers’ partner―Nellie Melba.

London and Captain Swift

In 1882 the twenty-two years old Haddon Chambers came back to 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, WH 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 play to be performed was the two-act farce One of Them, which was given out of town at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Kent, by Sarah Thorne’s local company, opening on 10 September 1886. According to The Era, the piece ‘evoked considerable laughter, was generally well received, the author being loudly called for.’

His second, also a farce, but this time in one act, was The Open Gate, which had its première at the Comedy Theatre in London on 28 March 1887. It ‘gives promise of considerable things,’ the Sporting Life decided:

The author, Mr C. Haddon Chambers, is almost a boy, and if in the fulness of time he does not develop into a prominent dramatic author, he ought. He has talent, ability, much poetic feeling …

The Open Gate was repeated at the Broadway Theater in New York in December 1890, Haddon Chambers already having his eye on the American market. According to The Sun, it was ‘acted with a perfection of natural, unexaggerated manner that made it delightful.’

The two farces were followed by a now forgotten adaptation (with J. Stanley Little) of Rider Haggard’s novel, Dawn, under the title Devil Caresfoot. This played at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, opening on 12 July 1887 with the gifted young Janet Achurch and her husband Charles Charrington in the lead roles. It was the play that brought Janet Achurch to public attention. The Charringtons took it to Australia as part of their repertoire when they introduced Ibsen’s The Doll’s House there in 1889, stirring up intense controversy around Achurch’s portrayal of the ‘New Woman’, Nora. Devil Caresfoot opened in February 1891, first at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane, followed by the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne.

For Haddon Chambers the tide turned decisively in 1888 with his fourth offering, 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 on 13 October 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 matinée at the Haymarket on 20 June 1888, listened to with ‘rapt stillness’, said the Pictorial Review. As the bushranger, Herbert Beerbohm Tree became, for the first time in his career, a matinée idol, with ‘mobs of women waiting at the stage door,’ wrote Pearson. ‘All London came to the matinée,’ 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.’ It was added to the evening bill on 1 September 1888. Beerbohm Tree brought Swift back to the Haymarket stage in November 1893, then in May 1899, this time at Her Majesty’s with the American star Genevieve Ward as Mrs Seabrook.

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 Detective Ryan. Confronted with the imminent revelation to the world of his own past and that of his now-discovered 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.’

By 1889 Chambers was living at Notting Hill in London (48 Clanricarde Gardens) with his partner Marie (they married three years later), and by the census of 1891 there was also a baby daughter, Margery, a cook and a nurse.

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 silent movies in Hollywood.

In February 1889 Swift opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Of its subsequent opening at the Princess 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 gentleman-highwayman of romantic tradition. Perhaps it was not helpful that the part of Swift was taken in Australia by the English actor-manager, Charles Warner.

In October Charles Warner took Captain Swift touring in New Zealand, where it was better received, opening at the Princess Theatre in Dunedin, followed by the Theatre Royal in Christchurch, the Opera House in Wellington, the Theatre Royal in Napier and finishing at the Opera House in Auckland.

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 Haddons’ work over a thirty-year period.

In her Sydney University thesis of 2009, Maisie Dubosarsky concluded, regarding the dramatic power of Chambers’ depiction of his flawed colonial outsider in America:

Swift was the tragic hero of his day and on Broadway—in a country famous for its large-scale immigration and particularly sensitive to the outsider/insider opposition—marked a ‘Pyrrhic victory’ for [Maurice] Barrymore who had been on the cusp of retirement.

‘One would have imagined that after this felicitous event [the success of 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.’

Following Swift

His next, The Idler, started out as a play for Lillie Langtry entitled The Bouquet, but she rejected it and Haddon sued her. In arbitration, he was awarded damages. Next it was turned down by Beerbohm Tree and another leading actor-manager, 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 the first of my thirty visits to New York.’

So The Idler was premièred not in London, but in New York―at the Lyceum Theatre on 11 November 1890―under the management of impresario Charles Frohman. Frohman assembled a first-rate cast of American actors―with Herbert Kelcey in the title role―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 starred Alexander and Marion Terry (younger sister of Ellen).

The Idler was given in Sydney at the New Garrick by Charles Cartwright and Olga Nethersole in 1891 and was toured in Australia and New Zealand in 1893-94 by the Brough-Boucicault company (with both Broughs and Dot Boucicault). A friend of Haddon, Cartwright successfully toured The Idler in Britain and Ireland on his return from Australia.

‘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 dead man’s brother, Simeon Strong. The idler of the play’s title, Mark Cross, 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 gleefully 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.’

In 1891 Chambers brought together several of his Australian magazine pieces, publishing them as Thumbnail Sketches of Australian Life. This was followed by a series of relatively unsuccessful plays—The Pipe of Peace (1891), The Honourable Herbert (1891), The Collaborators (1892, a one-act ‘dramatic joke’ at the Vaudeville, nine performances), The Old Lady (1892) and a comedy he wrote (with Outram Tristram) specifically for the Prince of Wales’ former mistress, Lillie Langtry, The Queen of Manoa (1892). Whether any of these are worth re-surfacing, I have yet to discover.

A return to form (and to box office success) came with The Fatal Card (five acts). Chambers wrote this with the English dramatist-lyricist, B.C. Stephenson, the first of several plays written with various partners in the late 1890s. Asked how they worked together, Stephenson responded: ‘We divide the labour. I write all the vowels and Mr. Chambers all the consonants.’    

The Fatal Card opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 6 September 1894, running for seven months there, young Austen played by William Terriss. Chambers’ reputation as a writer was clearly on the up and up. The Sketch of 5 September wrote:

Everybody wants him just now, actors, managers, and all sorts and conditions of men, for he is bringing out a new play at the Adelphi tomorrow, and is busy every moment of the day.

At that period, when in London, Haddon would stay at the Bath Club in Dover Street, Mayfair, but much of the time he was living away from the bright lights of the West End at the St Mildred’s Hotel at Westgate-on-Sea in Kent (of ‘no fixed abode’, as he wrote), divulging in the interview that he habitually wrote at night and that The Fatal Card was …

… the first play that I have written in the daytime. I have never written before except at night, when the world is dead … I find it very difficult to write while others are riding, swimming, or walking about.

The production of The Fatal Card 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. A silent movie was made of The Fatal Card in Hollywood in 1915.

It was staged in Australia at the Theatre Royal in Sydney by Bland Holt’s company in March 1895 with (among others) the twenty-year-old Hilda Spong as the affectionate daughter, Margaret. Born in England, Spong had had her childhood in Melbourne. The scenery was created by her father, the artist W.B. Spong.

The Fatal Card opens in a mining camp in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, later re-locating 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 junior 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.

Leslie Rees, in his The Making of Australian Drama of 1973, wrote:

Chambers did not write for Australian audiences nor was he concerned with interpreting Australian aspects or values (other than in a minor way in Captain Swift) to English audiences. One has therefore no obligation to discuss him further.

I believe that Rees’s reading of Chambers is profoundly wrong. Indeed, the reverse is much closer to the mark. The fact that Chambers constantly satirised English attitudes from a fundamentally Australian stance seems to have been completely overlooked by Rees.

In an 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.’ Intriguingly, Schafer draws close parallels between the plays of two Australian playwrights working in London at the same time—Chambers and Gilbert Murray. Murray’s work was primarily in translating Greek tragedies (particularly Euripides) into performable English, becoming the standard in this area for a generation.3 However, Schafer concludes:

… both these playwrights not only identified as Australian but in their playwriting continued to discuss Australia, empire and colonial life, even though they did this indirectly, obliquely, sometimes even in disguise.

Chambers’ follow up to The Fatal Card, opening on 8 November 1894, was John-a-Dreams, directed by Beerbohm Tree at his Haymarket Theatre. The main parts were taken by Tree himself, Charles Cartwright 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 in Act 2). The National Observer wrote of Mrs Pat’s performance:

Mrs Campbell brings to it all the subtle undefinable charm, the intensity of subdued emotion, the absolute spontaneity and avoidance of conscious effect, that promise to make her the Eleonora Duse of the English stage.

Successful in London (71 performances), John-a-Dreams then opened at the Empire Theatre in New York on 18 March 1895, produced by Charles Frohman, with Henry Miller and Viola Allen in the leading roles. It opened in July at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, given by the Brough-Boucicault company, then touring in Australia and New Zealand before arriving at the Lyceum in Sydney the following January, the cast including George Titheradge, Dot Boucicault and Beryl Faber as Kate Cloud.

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 judgement proves anything, it must be that American society could be as narrowly 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 fro m critics over his alleged plagiarism from The Idler in Lady Windermere’s Fan. It was a matter of months before Wilde was imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’.

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 is quite a notion for our celebrity-obsessed times.

The Adelphi Theatre staged Haddon Chambers’ next two plays in London (both written with Joseph Comyns Carr and commissioned by the Gatti brothers): Boys Together opened on 26 August 1896—a run of 91 performances, an ‘enormous success’ wrote Clement Scott in the Illustrated London News—and In the Days of the Duke (the duke being Wellington) the following year (9 September 1897, 70 performances). 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, Richard Archer Prince, whom he had helped to find work and supported financially. The ghost of Terriss is said to haunt both the Adelphi Theatre and Covent Garden’s nearby underground station.

A curious moment in Haddon’s life came on 17 March 1898 at a benefit for the fiftieth birthday of the celebrated English actor-singer, Nellie Farren, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The whole event was some six hours long, starting with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, with a star-studded cast including W.S. Gilbert himself, Comyns Carr, Dot Boucicault, Charles Wyndham, Nellie Stewart, Grace Palotta, Ellen Terry, Mary Moore, Florence Young, Irene Vanbrugh and many others—and with Haddon Chambers as one of the Counsels.

With Melba

At roughly the mid-point of his working life, it is evident how little is known about Haddon Chambers personal life thus far. 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 research for her biography of Nellie Melba (I am Melba, 2008). It was in 1896 that Haddon Chambers first met the woman who was to become for the next ten years or more very significant in his life. Their meeting is described by 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 each 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 1898, Haddon was a guest at the house she rented that year, Fernley, near Marlow by the River 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 … at her Thames-side house they were often seen together, strolling in the garden, taking tea under the cedars or boating on the river’.5 And ‘in London, he was present at fashionable luncheons she gave at the Savoy,’ and at the Hotel Cecil. Both of them were careful not to flaunt their relationship too openly – and this may account for its longevity. Blainey continues: ‘While in private he called her Nellie, in public he referred to her as Madame Melba.’

Melba’s affair with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans and son of the pretender to the French throne, had ended, and the duke’s 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. Although Nellie and Haddon were effectively ‘partners’ for several years, they seem not to have actually lived together, maintaining separate homes, even when they were in Marlow. 

Photographs testify to the circle of family and friends that joined Melba and Haddon at Marlow, 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 in the American press 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 soon 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 not revealed by the above is that Chambers was in fact married throughout the time of his relationship with Melba. He had wedded the widowed Marie Duggan (born Mary Dewar in London in 1851) on 6 September 1892. He was 32, Marie 41 (though the marriage certificate says she was 31). She had two children from her first marriage (to Joseph Francis Duggan) and with Haddon a girl, Margery, born in 1890. Margery was therefore a ‘love-child’, a theme central to both Captain Swift and the later Passers-By. She was to become an artist in adult life. It seems that Haddon’s mother Fanny came to London from Sydney for the wedding, her husband John having died in Sydney ten years earlier.

In the census of 1901, his wife Marie Haddon Chambers was living (without Haddon) at 18 Sunderland Terrace in Bayswater with their now eleven-year-old daughter Margery and a single servant. Elizabeth Marbury – it was she who was his New York agent and had facilitated the première 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 and may well have been conceived as a possible ‘pair’ with the one of Melba in anticipation of their marriage. Together in April 1902 Melba and Chambers visited another of her Australian artist protégés in Paris, Hugh Ramsay.

Around that time there were mentions in the British press of a new one-act play by Haddon Chambers, Blue Roses—a three-hander ‘of delicate texture’ dealing with the familiar story of the neglected wife. A new play by Chambers entitled Grace Mary was given a copyright performance at Her Majesty’s in London in June 1899, and this seems to have mutated into Blue Roses. While there is no evidence that it was ever performed publicly, a later report said that there had been ‘a tentative but extremely interesting performance from a band of amateurs organised by Madame Melba at her up-river residence [at Marlow] some time ago.’  

Among the ways that Melba’s and Chambers’ lives were intertwined was the fact that it was he who negotiated Melba’s remarkably generous contract in 1904 with The Gramophone Company, including within it a share of her royalties to go to Chambers himself.

 

TO BE CONCLUDED IN THE NEXT ISSUE

 

1. These omissions might be thought comparable to writing a History of English Literature and failing to mention the plays of Shakespeare or Wilde or Shaw

2. Plays by Harry Kellett Chambers: Abigail (1905); A Case of Frenzied Finance (1905); The Butterfly (1906); Dan’l Peggotty (1907, London); An American Widow (1909); Betsy (1911); The Right to be Happy (1912)

3. Leslie Rees ignores the existence of Gilbert Murray in his The Making of Australian Drama

4. The following summers (1899-1904), Melba took Quarry Wood Cottage on the south bank of the Thames opposite Marlow

5. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace

 

This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission), https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/07-08/haddon-chambers-and-the-long-arm-of-neglect/