Chapter Four 1
Chapter 4 – page 2
Mr. Wills and Billy Barlow
Mr. Wills seems to have slipped into obscurity along with many Billy Barlows of the eighteen-thirties. Mr. Wills did appear at the Tremont Theatre in Boston in 1838, singing a song about a man who gets around a law preventing the sale of alcohol without entertainment, by exhibiting a striped pig. The song had its name used for a political party with a brief existence that named itself, “The Striped Pig Party”. The sheet-music for this forgettable song proclaims that it is the only “correct one published” and it is as Mr. Wills sang it with great applause.
That there were even worse versions of this stupefyingly awful song is a fascinating idea.
John Reeve ~ The Earliest Named Actor to Play Billy Barlow
The Billy Barlow sheet-music with Mr. Wills on the cover tells us that he sings Billy Barlow “as sung by Jack Reeve”. Jack Reeve is also named as the singer on a copy of the song All Around My Hat, a song that was rediscovered in the 1960s and accepted at that time as “traditional”. It does have what appear to be old folk-elements within it, so it’s possible that it’s one of those songs that once was sung in some form in English folk-communities. The way it was written down from the singing of Jack Reeve and others in the 19th century, and sold as a broadside, shows the signs of a composed comic song. It is in Cockney dialect. Another song-booklet of a song called The Man Wot Sweeps a Crossing shows a drawing on the front cover that is probably meant to be Reeve. He is young, with a handsome face and very plump figure. Is the fact that he wears one boot and one shoe significant?
Englishman John Reeve, sometimes called Jack, was a contemporary of the poet Keats and the botanist John Joseph Bennett. They spent their early school years together with Reeve exchanging his skills as a fighter for help from Bennett with arithmetic. Bennett was born in 1801, so Reeve may have still been in his teens when he joined the Adelphi Theatre Company in London in 1819.
The Adelphi, called originally The Sans Pareil, was in the heart of London on The Strand. A rebuilt Adelphi still stands there. Little theatres like The Adelphi were given a lower rating than the “legitimate” theatres like Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and had restrictions placed on them as to the type of entertainment they were allowed to offer. There had to be a large percentage of musical content. This led to some interesting dramaturgical experiences, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frankenstein as musicals. Many hundreds of pathetic melodramas were presented with intermitting songs which didn’t always have anything to do with the story. Animal performers –teams of trained terriers and horses — filled out the bill alongside magicians, tumblers, dwarfs, and giants.
It was in this world that Billy Barlow danced and sang. We know this by the many actors who played in these smaller theatres who mentioned, usually just in passing, that they “did” Billy Barlow. His name is not mentioned in the records from the Adelphi, which have been carefully copied and preserved.
None of the names of characters are there unless they are part of a play’s cast-list, but it is certain that at least by 1836 John Reeve included Billy Barlow among his many characters. He must have worked up the Billy character some time before his American tour. There is the possibility that it was Reeve who was the first Billy Barlow actor.
The Adelphi’s audience was made up of all classes of people, right up to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, but the humour was aimed at the working class. At one point The Strand was widened to permit the royal carriage to pass through to the Adelphi. “Bertie” was known to prefer the farces and “low humour” of the “illegitimate theatre” but it is not clear whether or not the Queen was amused.
It gives me no end of amusement and pleasure to contemplate
the possibility that Queen Victoria met Billy Barlow.
Reeve spent most of his acting life in this little theatre, although he also appeared at The Haymarket and Drury Lane, and in 1835-1836 toured America. He specialized in comic characters, although he played many parts, usually including a leading role, in most of the plays that were performed at the Adelphi from 1819 until his death in 1838, except for the above-mentioned year of his American tour.
In addition, he usually had his own solo act on each program, where he did impersonations of prominent people of the time, especially actors, and sang comic songs. He was also a dancer – as were all of the comedian-singers and the Sailors’ Hornpipe and clog-dancing were a necessary part of his routine. Was he one of those graceful plump dancers who appear to be light on their feet? Audiences loved Reeve, and admired the way he was able to give them many characters in quick succession in his one-man shows. It is noted that for one season he performed a whole play alone. The play has a cast-list of ten characters, including men and women of various ages, a school boy, and “an unchristened child in cradle”. He was a master of improvisation, but there is ample evidence that he was unable to learn lines. This mattered only when he had a tight script to follow, which was not usually the case.
At that time it was the custom, in theatres like The Adelphi, as also in street-theatre, to provide actors of melodrama, farce, and pantomime with a bare outline of the play and the type of character they were to perform, and leave them to it. It was also common for stock characters like Harlequin, Columbine, and Clown to appear in the most unlikely plays, and their parts were well-known. Reeve could work up a character in this way with a high degree of skill, but when he had lines to memorize, the critics had much to say about his lack of talent.
Memory was not a problem with a fellow-performer in 1829. The Adelphi always fitted their animal actors into their plays if they could, leaving us with the intriguing images of men shipwrecked on islands with teams of faithful hounds and the like. When The Elephant of Siam and the Fire Fiend was presented, the stars were John Reeve as the male lead, and Mademoiselle d’Gelk as his female counterpart. Mademoiselle was a real elephant. She played her part perfectly and was much praised by the critics, unlike Reeve, who was given scathing reviews.
The audience didn’t care, and Reeve and Mademoiselle played to full houses for the season. Shortly afterwards Mademoiselle, true to her kind, remembered an incident long forgotten by her human friends, when she had been stabbed with a pitch-fork by one of her handlers. She took her revenge and killed the handler, having waited two years for her chance. Best not to ask how Mademoiselle conducted her defense without speech but perhaps she used mime. The coroner fined her five shillings, which she could well afford on her substantial wages, and the show went on.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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