The Stage Rustic

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rural audience was important for provincial theatre companies.  Indeed, Roger Kemble, the father of Sarah Siddons, the famous actress at around the turn of the nineteenth century, managed a company of strolling players. They toured the countryside and Roger was said to ‘have gone forth to proclaim the play at the doors of different farmers, accoutred in a smock frock and a grenadiers’ cap, and has been delighted to regale himself with a pint of ale at a hedge-side inn…’

This affinity with the countryside seems to have changed by the 1880s, when the comic character of the rustic seems to have been well-established in popular Victorian theatre.  As we saw with Lily Langtry, the act of wearing a smock frock could immediately suggest certain things about a character to the audience.  For example, simple, uncouth behaviour, being unsophisticated and probably uneducated, a typical country ‘bumpkin’, a term in usage during the nineteenth century and of sixteenth century origin, though the similar term ‘yokel’ was nineteenth century in origin.

This was helpfully summed up in an article entitled ‘The Stage Rustic’ from 1891:

There is the indispensable smock frock as well as the indispensable gaiters upon the melodramatic stage.  The old dodderer has them, and so has the young; so has the benevolent squire; so has his rascally son; so has the supposedly well-to-do (but about to be bankrupt) farmer; so has the gamekeeper, very honest, or very much the reverse, without whom no good rustic play can be concocted.

So along with the smock, the gaiters, which were protective coverings for the lower legs as seen in the photograph below, formed a coherent visual picture for rustic characters.

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As the article comments:

The wardrobe of rural drama is, it will be seen, very simple.  It has not many varieties, and it is delightfully cheap, for the same articles can be made to spread over a large period of years, which is good for the actors.  No parts are as easily dressed as those of the rustic school.

Characters were moving outside the vagaries of fashion and wearing similar costumes.  Although the article is slightly tongue in cheek, perhaps fitting with the comedy or farce that could be generated from yokels in smock frocks and gaiters, the simple character of the rustic had become stock for playwrights and for those in variety and music hall.  Its popularity now appeared to chime with audience across the country despite the often mocking caricature.

Roger Turnip was one such parody.  In 1879, a case of theft was reported in a Hastings newspaper, when the portmanteau of Mr J. D. Hunter, a comedian, was stolen.  The report lists the costume that he lost and includes garments for his rustic character ‘Roger Turnip’.  His costume was three pairs of trousers, a velveteen coat, smock frock and leather gaiters, so fitting with the report above.  Hunter had been performing at Margate and left the articles in his dressing room when they were stolen.  They were later found and a man sentenced for their theft.  Hunter himself, remained a comedian, associated in particular with the Pier Pavilion, on the pier at Hastings, where he was the manager as well as a performer, by the 1880s.  He played alongside such acts as the immensely popular comedian Arthur Lloyd and his wife Katty King when they visited the theatre, for example, ‘The Rival Lovers’ in 1888.  The character of the rustic in his repertoire had served him well.

The White Farm

Smock frocks came in various colours: blue, green, brown, buff and black, as well as the ubiquitous white we tend to think of smocks as being today.  Their whiteness was a quality appreciated by contemporaries who remarked poetically, for example, about their cleanness, implying a shining whiteness, using adjectives such as ‘snowy whiteness’. Those kept for Sunday best, and thus cared for and so subsequently preserved down the generations for us, tended to be white.  White was the hardest colour to keep true.  The appearance of being clean needed time and therefore money to be achievable.  Smocks were given to women to wash either in the home or to the local laundress for a small fee.  Cleanliness was next to godliness, the clean smock respectable clothing to wear to church, at least at the beginning and end of its path through history.

The idea of this whiteness being taken to extremes caught my attention.  Dating from the 1890s, when smock frocks were starting to be seen as signifiers of a halcyon rural past and craft items themselves, only worn by elderly men in rural southern England, Lord and Lady Alington put on an entertainment for their visitors.  Lord Alington (1825-1904) was a well-known society figure of the day, the 1st Baron Alington of Crichel House, Dorset.  He was a race-horse owner and member of the Jockey Club for over fifty years, as well as MP for Dorchester and was supposedly called by Disraeli, ‘the Champagne of the House’ due to his wit and geniality.

On 10 February 1892, he married for a second time, Miss Evelyn Henrietta Leigh, at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, a fashionable society wedding reported in the pages of the press at the time.

On the 29 August 1893, the Bury and Norwich Post reported that they were entertaining at their country estate for the first time since their marriage.  Their ‘particularly charming Home Farm’ on the estate had been renamed ‘The White Farm’, and everything was white including the buildings and decorations.  The men and women running the farm wore white smocks or frocks and every ‘beast and bird’ was also white:

From the huge prize bull to the rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs, of four-footed creatures, and even the poultry all are white.  The prettiest thing I saw when there was a baby white donkey and three Persian kittens like snowballs.

The elaborate amusement was complete down to the last detail, including the snowy white smock frocks.  It was not noted in the report who was entertained then but the Prince of Wales and his daughter, Princess Victoria, certainly visited the estate at a later date, as seen in photographs at:

The excesses and extravagance of the White Farm are almost paradoxical to the very notion of white as a symbol of simplicity and purity. The entertainment seems to be a show of aristocratic fin de siècle exuberance in countryside where the smock frock had once been commonly worn. Located on the edge of Cranborne Chase in Dorset, its landscape was also part of the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novels, where the smock frock put in an occasional appearance.

As a footnote, the Crichel Estate gave its name to a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’, established post-World War II.  These set out guidelines for landowners when government compulsory purchase of land is undertaken, the after-effects of land usage during the Second World War.  See:

Lily Langtry and the Smock Frock

Smock frocks do turn up in the most unusual places and on the most unusual people.  Lily Langtry for example, famous for being an actress and mistress of the future Edward VII.  It is amazing where they can lead you, here into the world of Victorian drama, although I have to declare an interest having a great uncle on stage around the same time as Lily although I don’t know whether he wore a smock frock or indeed knew Lily.

Lily was born in Jersey in 1853. She married Irish landowner Edward Langtry in 1874, shortly after coming to London where she captivated high society and sat for various artists including Millais, partly because her simple plain black dress marked her out as different.  The rest of the 1870s and early 1880s were tumultuous, including her affair with the Prince of Wales, the birth of her daughter and her husband’s bankruptcy.

On the advice of her friend Oscar Wilde, to support herself, she took up acting, making her professional debut in December 1881 at the Haymarket in London in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’.  She was popular with the public forming her own touring company in 1882 which covered the country.  American impresario, Henry Abbey, organised a tour of the United States which she completed in 1882-3 to wide public success if not critical acclaim.  In 1883, she registered for six weeks intensive training at the Paris Conservatoire to improve her acting technique.

She then returned to touring the provinces, as the Bucks Herald reports, ‘Mrs Langtry is everywhere attracting enthusiastic houses in her provincial tour’.  Her new play was widely reported, partly because it required the renowned beauty to dress in boy’s clothing. As the Spirit of the Times in New York reported on 20 June 1885:

Two new plays of Interest have been recently produced in London, but the cable has failed to give us any account of their reception. One is A Young Tramp, written by W. G. Wills, for Mrs. Langtry, in which, for the first time since her Rosalind, the British beauty appears in boy’s clothes.

It certainly aroused worldwide curiosity, even if communications could not provide all the desired information.  The play was noted in Daily Alta California, Volume 38, 7 June 1885 and in the New Zealand Herald, Volume XXII, I25 July 1885, where it was described as ‘A light vein of high comedy mingles with the romantic pathos of the drama’.  W. G. Wills was a well-known Irish play writer of the period who produced over thirty plays and worked regularly with Henry Irving.  He wrote this play in 1884, its full title ‘A little tramp: or, Landlords & tenants. A comedy drama in prologue and three acts’, although it was also called ‘A Young Tramp’ too.

The smock frock reference came with its performance at the Prince’s Theatre in Bristol on 12 September 1885 where Lily ‘looked very charming disguised as a boy’. [W.G. Wills: Dramatist and Painter, Freeman Wills, 1898).  As the Bucks Herald noted on 19 September 1885, ‘Her appearance in boy’s clothes…excited great enthusiasm; but her assumption of the loose smock-frock and easy fitting breeches of the Yorkshire yokel was hardly what was anticipated’. I am not sure if the writer disapproved of the assumption of male dress and perhaps the disguise of her famous beauty or whether it is the smock frock in particular, a working garment solely for men with a disreputable reputation especially at that time, before it reached the folk status we associate with it today.  The writer does conclude that her ‘acting…improves every month’ so at least he was grateful for that.

As the Otago Witness of 14 November 1885, reported:

Probably everyone is by this time pretty tired of hearing that Mrs Langtry is or is not to   appear in breeches in Mr Wills’ play ‘A Little Tramp,’ but independently of Mrs Langtry there is a peculiarity about one particular scene. The little tramp disappears — his supposed corpse is found in a river, and he attends his own funeral. This story, according to the New York Herald, is founded upon an actual adventure which occurred to Miss Ellen Terry, who   once disappeared for a few days without letting her friends know where she had gone. The body of a woman who resembled her was found in the Thames and was being duly buried in   her name, when to the astonishment of all she burst in upon the scene as gay and bright and full of life as ever.

The play was obviously gaining some notoriety, both for the cross dressing and the relationship to the disappearance of Ellen Terry.

The play continued to be produced, in 1889 in a tour around America although I cannot find any further references to costume nor, sadly, any photographs so I am not sure if the smock frock went too.   The Rock Island Argus, Number 7, 26 October 1889, eulogised:

The play was a grand success, the critics of the great metropolis praised it with one accord, the superior quality of its material, its faultless construction, its dramatic force, the     originality of the plot and purity of language in which the story is told. ‘A Little Tramp’ has enjoyed a highly successful career throughout England. The nature of the plot is such, and it is unfolded so delicately, so gracefully, that to publish the entire story would be to rob the   audience of many pleasant surprises. …’A Little Tramp’ has the elements to satisfy the most genuine patrons of dramatic art.

A popular dramatic realisation of the true lives of the tramps such as those that we saw in the previous blog, sanitized just enough for the Victorian theatre-going audience.