Watkins in England

06 Oct 2013

Posted by naomi

Harry's diary abruptly ends mid-sentence in 1860 while he is in England. As frustrating as this is, it presents an exciting challenge -- where did he go? What did he perform there? And how was he received? This summer (thanks to an award from the Society for Theatre Research), I visited several collections in England to try to find out answers to these questions. After consulting The Era and the collections of the V&A (Theatre Collection), Bristol University (Mander and Mitchenson Collection), and Oxford University (John Johnson Collection), it turns out he was remarkably busy, but not always as well-received as his wife...

As the diary reveals, Watkins and his wife arrived in Liverpool in 1860 before securing an engagement at the Lyceum, London. In 1861, they announced in The Era that they were embarking on a provincial tour and proceeded to perform in Liverpool, Sunderland, London, and Penrith, falling short of their claim to perform over 50 different plays. In the subsequent year they appeared in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, London, Birmingham, Plymouth, and Portsmouth, racking up an impressive number of miles. Another tour announced in 1863 saw them traveling to Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham (among other cities). Throughout these various tours, their reviews demonstrated a consistent pattern.

After his initial performance at the Lyceum in Pioneers of America with his wife, Watkins was described as "possess[ing] the elements of success" (Era, 19 August 1860). Subsequent reviews reveal how he was were received, being described as "decidedly one of the best delineators of Negro character" "possess[ing] more than ordinary merit," and "tremendously funny as Wool, the slave-holder’s faithful laquey [sic]" (Era, 7 December, 29 August, and 21 December 1862). Indeed, whenever he performed in his signature role, he was remarked upon in most favorable terms. In other roles, however, the response was much more tepid, with little more being noted than he was in the production; even in a passage praising various actors, Watkins simply gets "Mr H Watkins will appear" (see for example, Era 17 August 1862).

Meanwhile, Harry's wife was appearing under her maiden name (Miss Rosina Howard) alongside her husband to great acclaim. This "accomplished Actress and Vocalist" created a "furore of enthusiasm" among her fans on many occasions (Era10 February 1861, 3 August 1862). In addition, she was often engaged for performances without her husband, appearing at the Haymarket without Harry, for example.

In part the differences in their reception may have been due to the fact that a number of American performers were in London before Harry, removing the novelty. Rose, meanwhile, was British-born and had established a reputation before moving to the US. In any case, in 1863, they packed their bags and returned to the US -- presenting another challenge and another chapter in Watkins's story to be pieced together...