Women on Stage and in Society : 1850 – 1915

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

On Wednesday 6th April the yearly exhibition by second year students of the British Theatre History module launched. Whilst this has been an annual event for several years, this time the students faced a bigger challenge than ever: the size of the Templeman exhibition space. This is only the second exhibition to be held in the new space, and asking first time exhibition makers to fill it was initially concerning, but the students rose to the challenge admirably.

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales, currently on display

This module offers students the opportunity to learn about a hugely varied period of theatre history in Britain, ranging from Victorian pantomime through to suffragette plays. What’s unique about this module in particular, is that the student use Special Collections and Archives material to really come to terms with the time period, utilising Kent’s extensive Victorian and Edwardian theatre collections. The students look at a range of original material, such as playbills, play-scripts and theatre documentation, to learn about this exciting time.

The British Theatre History student exhibition

A section about living as an actress

This year was different than previously in other ways too. Firstly, the students usually work in groups to produce sections of a general exhibition on British theatre history. This time,

The exhibition launch

The exhibition launch

however, the students were challenged to work individually, and they did not disappoint! The other difference is that this time the students worked on a very specific theme: women. Within this theme the students looked at gender roles in pantomime, the representation of women in melodrama, influential female playwrights, theatre managers and actresses, and theatrical women as a political force. The result is a very well rounded, coherent exhibition, which catches the eye and the interest of passers-by.

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection


The module draws heavily from theatre collections housed here at Kent. Firstly, the Melville Collection, which tells the story of a theatrical dynasty of actors and theatre managers. The Melville’s owned many theatres around the country, but particularly the Lyceum in London, from which we hold music, takings books, and administrative documentation concerning productions put on there, as well as publicity material and scripts.

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon



Secondly, the students use the Boucicault Collections. Dion Boucicault was a playwright and actor who worked both here and in America in the 19th century. He was particularly well known for his melodramas, most famously the Octoroon, a controversial play concerning race and slavery. One student has produced a detailed section concerning this play.

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook



Many of the students use sections from the Milbourne scrapbook. This scrapbook contains photographs (and some signatures) of famous actors and actresses of the time period, and also accurate depictions of costumes worn in theatrical productions. The costume images were originally black and white, but the scrapbook’s owner attended the productions featured in it, and faithfully coloured in the images to represent what was being worn on the stage.


Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Finally the students used our Pettingell Collection. Frank Pettingell was an English actor in the 20th century. He obtained the collection from Arthur Williams, who was an actor and playwright in the 19th century. The collection is made up of a huge selection of printed and handwritten play scripts, many of which were used as performance prompt copies. There are also a handful of theatrical scrapbooks in the collection, one of which is on display.


The exhibition is up until the 25th April.

A melodramatic celebration

Can you believe it? We’ve just passed 100 posts on the blog! Over the last two and a half years, we’ve been bringing you all the exciting news and updates from our treasures in the Templeman; I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts so far. I am honestly surprised that it’s been quite so long, but they do say that time flies when you’re having fun.

To mark this impressive milestone, I thought I’d tell you about some new additions to the archival materials we now have available online. The eagle-eyed amongst you may already have noticed (if you’ve happened to type ‘Melville’ into our Special Collections search), that it’s not just digital images of playbills which now accompany our catalogue records. Type ‘Bad Woman’ into the search box, and you will now be greeted by images of black and white publicity postcards from the melodramas of the Melville family.

The Beggar Girl's Wedding publicity postcard

Publicity postcard, c.1908

You’ve probably read about the Bad Women dramas here before; they are one of the most popular parts of our Theatre Collections, but also sadly underresearched. Created by Frederick and Walter Melville, two brothers from the theatrical Melville dynasty, the Bad Women plays were stock melodramas, dealing with all kinds of concerns of their day, the early 1900s. The majority follow an upright hero and an innocent heroine (a ‘good’ woman) whose honourable intentions are usually impeded by a villain and the trademark villainess, the ‘bad woman’ of the title.

During my time in Special Collections, we have been able to purchase a number of these postcards which still survive, resulting in a gradual increase in our understanding of these unpublished plays. Every time we get a new delivery, it feels a little bit like Christmas to open the envelope and take a close look at the wonderfully posed and illustrative scenes from each individual play. Our latest acquisition increased the number of cards we have from ‘The Female Swindler’ from two to eight, opening up this little known play without reading the whole text.

I must confess that I haven’t read very many of the Bad Woman dramas (much as I would love to spend the time doing so!) Aside from the exciting theatrical read-through which we did with the Melodrama Research Group, to my knowledge these plays haven’t been performed for around 100 years, so the postcard images are a valuable insight into performance styles, set and costume at the turn of the century. It’s also always a bit of a challenge to look at our whole stock of cards for any given melodrama (the most we have for one play is currently eleven for ‘The Bad Girl of The Family’) and try to piece together the narrative. Of course, we don’t know whether we have a complete set of any of these, we can only build them up as we go, which means that the order in which the postcards are catalogued doesn’t necessarily reflect the story!

The Bad Girl of the Familt publicity postcard

Publicity postcard c.1909

We are also lucky enough to be involved in the Melodrama Research Group which specialises in cross-faculty research on this performance style and has broadened our understanding of where the Melville melodramas fit into the popular tastes of the time. Linking quite neatly with this, we do have some (non-Melville) filmic postcards available in the Templeman Gallery space advertising the Melodrama Group and its activities – do feel free to pop in and pick one up!

As for the Melville postcards, it’s a delight to be able to share them with you, and I hope that they will inspire some new interest in melodrama and the Melvilles, who have been sadly forgotten today.

Bad women or victims? A Girl’s Cross Roads

Although it was a little while ago now, I’d like to take the opportunity mention the exciting event which I was involved in a couple of weeks ago: a read through of one of the Melville melodramas.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll probably have noticed how I keep talking about the Melvilles – a theatrical dynasty who reached the peak of their success around the turn of the nineteenth century through to the 1930s. Two of the Melville brothers, Walter and Fred, were immensely successful in running theatres and producing (and often writing) hugely popular plays. One of the genres they specialised in was melodrama, and they created their own niche in this type, with the ‘Bad Woman’ dramas.

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

As part of UoK’s Melodrama Research Group, I was asked to provide something for one of the evening discussion sessions; although the majority of the group are film specialists, this time we looked to the stage for inspiration, and decided to do a read-through of one of these once popular but now largely forgotten plays.

I chose ‘A Girl’s Cross Roads’ by Walter Melville as our piece, largely because it wasn’t too long (so it should fit into the two-hours allotted), and because we had already created a surrogate of the manuscript for teaching purposes (this means that we can provide access to the text without further damaging the original). The play was first performed in 1903, although we do not know where this performance too place. It has, as far as we know, never been published (like most of the other Melville plays in our collection) and has been subject to very little academic study. While I suspect that this play was revived later by the Melvilles, I felt privileged to know that this would probably be the first time the play had been read-through in around 100 years.

Publicity image from 'Stageland', September 1905

Publicity image from ‘Stageland’, September 1905 (0600336)

It’s a gripping plot, heavily reliant on past misunderstandings, mistakes made in life and no small amount of coincidence, but proved to be an exciting read. The story centres around Jack Livingstone, who has married and lives a comfortable life until his wife, Barbara, with secrets of her own, begins to suspect that he does not love her. Through a range of conversations at the beginning of the play, it transpires that Jack is not in love with Barbara after all, and now regrets not marrying his childhood sweetheart Constance. Of course, the plot does not stop there: the villains Cuthbert Lumley and Tilly Vane, the ‘bad woman’ of the piece, discover that Constance is ignorant of her inheritance and plot to steal it by marrying her to Cuthbert. With Barbara struggling to cope with the knowledge that her husband wishes he had never married her and past problems with alcohol, Tilly hopes that once Constance is married, she will be free to marry Jack herself.

Publicity image for the play from 'Stageland', September 1905

Publicity image for the play from ‘Stageland’, September 1905 (0600336)

The play unfolds with surprising speed and with a significant amount of humour, not to mention a vast array of characters which our 7 strong cast managed by doubling and tripling up to cover all the parts! The read-through proved just how humourous the play was written to be, which is much clearer when reading it aloud in parts. Although there is a lot of slapstick which the small room and the limited acting experience of our group couldn’t quite do justice to, the script itself has some unexpected laugh-out-loud moments.

Most interesting to me, however, was that the play was not so stereotypical and one dimensional as the title (and stage melodrama’s posthumous reputation) led me to believe. Admittedly, there was little character development and little subtlety, but the plot was strong and the actors, particularly in the female roles, were given great opportunities to exercise their character talents. One character was developed throughout the play is that of Barbara (admirably played by Dr. Helen Brooks), who fluctuates between a victim of circumstance and of the hero, Jack, an obstacle to be overcome and a woman whose inability to maintain strict Edwardian control over herself led her to destruction.

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Cutting from an unidentified newspaper (0599996/1)

Far from being a moral diatribe on how women should behave, this play used the three female characters to explore very different choices made in life. These choices prove to be the girls’ cross-roads in life, although it’s never made clear to which girl the title refers. Tilly Vane in particular, the villainess, has several monologues in which she regrets her life and the outcast which her choices have made her. All three women find their lives shaped by men, whether or not they want to be, and this offers a rather more complex message than that of Walter Melville as a ‘woman hater’, as he was accused.


There’s more information and some discussion about the read through on the Melodrama Research Group’s blog, and we do hope to have some more read-throughs in the future, now that we’ve been well and truly bitten by the Melville bug. It just goes to show that, even after 110 years, the Bad Woman dramas can still intrigue and entertain us, as they were written to do.

Newflash: Melville melodrama lives!

Just when you thought you’d reached the end of the weird and wonderful activities with which Special Collections gets involved, think again!

We are delighted to announce an upcoming read-through of a Melville melodrama, courteousy of the University’s Melodrama Research Group. This event is open to all – no matter how much or how little you think you know about the subject! We would be delighted to have a wide variety of interests and specialisms with us on the night, to make the most of the event.

The Group, set up by Dr. Tamar Jeffers McDonald and sponsered by the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Film and the Moving Image, is a cross-faculty research group which meets each Wednesday in term time to discuss melodrama on stage and screen. One of the most pertinent questions is, of course, what is melodrama, a question which seems to provide a different answer depending on the source material.

As part of this exploration of the genre, the Group will be hosting a read through of A Girl’s Cross-Roads, one of the Bad Women dramas from Walter Melville on Wednesday 5 June from 5-7pm in Jarman 7. Scripts will be provided on the evening, so join us to rediscover what the popular stage had to offer in the early years of the twentieth century and let out your inner thespian!

For more information, take a look at the Melodrama Research Group blog.

Women and warfare

A couple of days ago, on Tuesday 14 May, we were delighted to host the launch of the new Templeman exhibition, Wild Woman to New Woman: Sex and Suffrage on the Victorian Stage.This has been curated by Alyson Hunt and brings together the Mary Braddon Collection of Canterbury Christ Church University, costumes from the Gulbenkian costume store and parts of our own Victorian and Edwardian Theatre Collections.

wildwomen1The launch was started with a lecture by Professor Kate Newey from the University of Exeter, who spoke about the subtle protest in suffragette parlour dramas and the deliberate inversion of the female stereotype by campaigners for womens emancipation. The event then moved to the gallery space in the Templeman Library, where everyone enjoyed this rare opportunity to see such different collections side by side.

In the course of preparing for this exhibition, Alyson discovered a few treasures in our own archives – such as a copy of Ibsen and the Actress inscribed to George Bernard Shaw by playwright, actress and activist Elizabeth Robins, as well as Robins’ own, annotated copy of Both Sides of the Curtain

wildwomen2This exhibition really is an intriguing and entertaining look at the way in which perceptions of women and society as a whole were being challenged a century ago and is only on until 31st May, so please do come and have a look around when you’re next in the Templeman.

HB lecture pub001


Not content with supporting this new exhibition, Special Collections also has the last in its annual series of lectures next Thursday, 23 May. Keeping the theatrical theme, our focus changes as Dr Helen Brooks discusses Theatre of the Great War (1914-1918), her initial findings in a research project which will span the centenary of World War One. Much of Helen’s work thus far has focussed on our very own Melville Collection, looking at rarely used and sadly undiscovered materials. Do join us to find out more!

The talk will start at 6pm, with refreshments provided from 5.30 in the Templeman Library, TR201. All are welcome – please note that visitors can park in the University car parks for free after 5pm.

We hope to see you there!