Cup and saucer drama
Marie Wilton introduced a new young playwright, Tom Robertson. He had devised a new kind of play which became known as 'problem play' because it dealt seriously and sensitively with issues of the day.
Robertson's work was considered so revolutionary in style and subject that no established management would touch him. 'Danger' said Mrs Bancroft 'is better than dullness' and she went on to produce a string of successful and profitable hits by Robertson, such as 'Society', 'Ours', 'Caste', 'Play' and 'School'.
Caste was about marriage across the class barrier and explored prejudices towards social climbing. People talked in normal language and dealt with 'ordinary' situations and the performers didn't 'act' but 'behaved' like their audience - they spoke, they didn't declaim. In Ours a roly poly pudding was made on stage and this caused a major furore as people were not used to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. In The Vicarage the characters shocked the audience by making tea (hence the reference to 'cup and saucer dramas').
The Bancrofts were also responsible for making fashionable the 'box set' which Eliza Vestris had first used at the Olympic in the 1830s. They constructed rooms on stage which they dressed with the care of an interior decorator with sofas, curtains, chairs, carpets on their stage floors. Instead of painted flats they had real doors with real door handles and the actors wore well-made fashionable dress not the trappings of a dusty theatre wardrobe.
The drawing-room drama became much loved by the Victorian educated middle classes and the Bancrofts redesigned the theatre to suit their audience. The cheap benches near the stage, where the rowdiest elements of the audience used to sit, were replaced by comfortable padded seats, carpets were laid in the aisles and the pit was renamed the stalls.
The Bancrofts encouraged ensemble acting. Though they were the stars they employed talented actors realising that their own talents would shine better in a strong cast. They paid their actors well and took the wages to the actors rather than have them queue up like factory workers. They lavished considerable funds on their productions, risked new plays, and yet in 1885, after only 20 years in management, they retired with a fortune.
While the Bancroft's revolutionised the style of presenting social dramas, Robertson's plays ultimately affirmed the social order. It was left to writers such as George Bernard Shaw to challenge it.
Scene from The Vicarage
This photograph is of the 1877 production of The Vicarage, described by Squire Bancroft as 'a fireside story'. Marie Wilton played Mrs Haygarth, the Vicar's wife, Arthur Cecil (right) was the Reverend Noel Haygarth and William Hunter Kendal played George Clarke, the old friend who disturbs for a while the peace of the rural vicarage by persuading the Vicar that his life there is too dull and narrow and that it is his duty to travel.
Squire Bancroft and Marie Wilton
Photography was a novel and exciting development in Victorian days. Most actors and actresses had studio photographs taken in everyday dress or theatrical costume for 'cartes de visite' and later 'cabinet cards'. Both were albumen prints made from glass negatives, attached to stiff card backing printed with the photographer's name. 'Cartes de visite', the size of formal visiting cards, were patented in 1854 and produced in their millions during the 1860s when it became fashionable to collect them. Their subjects included scenic views, tourist attractions and works of art as well as portraits. They were superseded in the late 1870s by the larger and sturdier 'cabinet cards' whose popularity waned in turn during the 1890s in favour of postcards and studio portraits. This photograph comes from a large collection of 'cartes de visite' and 'cabinet cards' removed from their backings and mounted in albums by Guy Tristram Little (d. 1952) who bequeathed them to the V&A. A collector of greetings cars, games and photographs, Guy Little was a partner in the legal firm Messrs Milles Jennings White & Foster and the solicitor and executor of Mrs Gabrielle Enthoven, whose theatrical collection formed the basis of the Theatre Collections at the V&A.
Marie Wilton in Good for Nothing
Marie Bancroft is seen here as the 'unruly girl' Nan, who leads her two 'well meaning but erratic guardians' a merry dance in Good for Nothing. This had been a favourite part since her earliest days on stage, before her marriage, when she was known as Marie Wilton. In 1879 she played Nan in a mixed bill alongside WS Gilbert's Sweethearts, in which she played Jenny Northcott. As her husband, Squire Bancroft (he dropped his last two names, White Butterfield, when he went on the stage) recalled: 'The audience could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw the delicate-minded and silvery-toned Miss Northcott turned into [Nan] the dirty-faced, touzle-headed little reprobate, whose knowledge of the Cockney vernacular was so absolute and complete'. As one paper reported, Good for Nothing was 'associated with the familiar process of playing the audience in, or out, as the case may be'.