Monday, September 12, 2011

Mrs. Mary Anne Keeley (1805-1899)

Mrs. Mary Anne Keeley was the most famous of all interpreters of ‘Jack Sheppard.’ The boys’ role was usually played by a woman (much like the later ‘Peter Pan’). Other women who took on the role were Allie Sloper cartoonist Marie Duval, and Nellie Farren. 

Mrs. Keeley’s role was part of the reason, I suspect, that so many penny bloods and penny dreadfuls featured women dressing in men’s clothing   obviously Victorian male readers were sexually attracted to the idea.

Walter Goodman was a portrait painter who used his time with Mrs. Mary Anne Keeley to probe her memories of the ‘Jack Sheppard’ play of 1839. He compared the experience of seeing Jack Sheppard for the first time to his first kiss, his first school-fight and his first cigar. He was too young for the first version in 1839 but Mrs. Keeley returned to the part in 1852. In his own words: 

“After witnessing ‘Jack Sheppard’ for those twelve consecutive nights and the extra performance, I became so familiar with the fascinating drama that at last I could repeat, almost line for line, everyone’s part in it.” 

Luckily Mr. Goodman left an enthusiastic account of the play, just as it appeared, in the second chapter of his book, and a lovely illustration of Mrs. Keeley in the boys’ role. If his account be true, Mary Anne Keeley was the first true Method actor ever to appear on a dramatic stage.

From ‘The Keeleys on the Stage and at Home,’ By Walter Goodman, 1895.

Chapter II. ‘For a Limited Number of Nights.’

Those who can remember Mrs. Keeley, the actress, and ‘Jack Sheppard,’ the play, will not need to be told what each was like individually and both collectively. But as the majority of my readers may not have seen either the one or the other, I propose to run through such portions of the drama as relate to the popular hero and to the equally popular creator.

In the original version, as performed at the Adelphi in 1839, an entire act is devoted to certain stirring events which take place at a time that Jack Sheppard and his friend, Thames Darrell, are babies in arms, and in the opening scene Mrs. Sheppard is discovered nursing the infant highwayman. But when the play was produced at Sadler’s Wells, it began with the second act, which is supposed to have taken place some twelve years after the first, and this was, I believe, the way the piece commenced when revived in 1852.

The scene at the opening is a carpenter’s shop in Wych Street, Drury Lane, kept by Owen Wood, who has adopted young Sheppard and taken him as an apprentice. Upon the rise of the curtain, little Jack is seen standing on a box placed over the work-bench, in the act of putting the finishing touches to his name, which he has been carving upon a wooden beam. He is at present in his shirt-sleeves, with a carpenter’s apron rolled up to his waist, a long drab waistcoat, knee-breeches, high-heeled shoes, and a red handkerchief tied loosely round his neck. When more fully attired, he sports a brown coat of the period of George II., and a three-cornered hat, cocked carelessly over his short-cropped hair.

While engaged in carving his name, to the neglect of his proper duties, the young scamp gives evidence of his criminal tendencies by singing an old cracksman’s song of the last century, beginning:

When Claude Duval was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone.
Quoth a dubsman who gazed on the shattered wall,
‘You have carved your epitaph, Claude Duval,
With your chisel so fine, tra, la!’

Having finished the song and his name, Jack springs nimbly from the box, and seating himself on the bench, says: ‘There, that’ll do. Claude Duval himself couldn't have carved it better. I’ve half a mind to give old Wood the slip and turn highwayman.

WOOD (who has overheard him and comes forward): The devil you have! What, you’ll rob the mail, like Jack Hall, I suppose, eh, you young dog? (Cuffing him.)

JACK: Yes, I will, if you beat me in that way.

After further conversation to the same effect, Jack promises to be a good boy for the future, and in evidence of his intentions to be industrious, he takes up a carpenter’s plane and goes to work with energy.

The planing business in this scene was always received with a round of applause, as the audience liked to see real planing done on the stage, especially by a woman. And it was no pretended work, either, for the actress was quite expert at the business, and the curly chips seen by the audience were the result of bona-fide hard work at the bench.

The same close attention to details was shown in the next important scene, or ‘illustration,’ in which Jack quarrels with his friend Darrell over the latter’s sweetheart, and offers to fight him. Mrs. Keeley here placed herself in the orthodox boxing attitude, and her sparring movements clearly suggested that she had some knowledge of pugilism, and must certainly have been coached in the art, which, indeed, was actually the case.

The next interesting event occurs when Jack and Darrell are imprisoned in the Roundhouse, the latter having been falsely accused of theft, and the other of complicity in the supposed act. It is here that the actress’s wonderful animal spirits and keen sense of humour are seen at their best, while her close imitation of the gaoler, Mendez, who speaks a sort of Dutch-English with a ‘dash’ of Welsh in it, was most amusing and created roars of laughter. In scenes of this kind, Mrs. Keeley always impressed one with the idea that she was enjoying the joke quite as much as the audience, and yet was unconscious of being the cause of their merriment. This gave a spontaneity to everything she did or said, making her acts and words appear perfectly natural, or unstudied.

Of course Jack effects his escape and that of his friend from the Roundhouse. But the filing of his friend’s handcuffs and his own, the picking of the lock of their prison-door, and all the other business necessary for their freedom, are done gradually, impressing the spectator with the belief that the bolts, bars, and manacles are no theatrical shams, but genuine articles of the kind. Jack sings and talks to Mendez while freeing himself from his fetters, and the audience are almost as much deceived by this singular case of art concealing art, as the gaoler himself is supposed to be.

‘I knew I could file off your ruffles,’ at last says Jack to his comrade, and they are heard to fall with a heavy thud behind the iron grating of the room where the lads are confined.

‘Vat’s dat?’ says Mendez, with some alarm.

JACK: My fellow-bird trying to get off his ruffles.

MENDEZ: Ho! Ho! Dat is no easy matter.

JACK: No, dat it ain’t. (Holding up the handcuffs aside to the audience, who, of course, shout with laughter.)

The escape from the Roundhouse brings the curtain down on Act I., and when it rises again, after a supposed interval of nine years, we are introduced to a ‘Flash Ken’ in the Mint, where Blueskin and his pals are assembled, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Captain Sheppard, as he is now called. Jack has just made his escape from Newgate, and after a hearty welcome from his friends and his two wives, Poll and Bess, silence is proclaimed by Blueskin, and the company are told to ‘clear their pipes for a chorus’ to a song which the Captain has been invited to sing.

It is here that Mrs. Keeley essays the famous ditty by Herbert Rodwell, of ‘Nix My Dolly,’ the first verse of which is:
In a box of the stone jug was I born,
Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn.

BLUESKIN: Fake away!

JACK: And my noble father, as I’ve heard say,
Was a famous merchant of capers gay.

BLUESKIN: Nix my dolly, pals, fake away.

Towards the end of the fourth verse of this favourite song, which was always enthusiastically applauded and uproariously redemanded, all the characters dance to the tune, including Jack, and while doing so Mrs. Keeley afforded, by the grace, lightness and refinement of her movements, another striking example of her versatility. She showed, however, to even greater advantage in the last act, where Jack Sheppard makes his final escape from Newgate; so much so that when the little hero, who has been sitting peacefully for his portrait in the prison-cell, leaps up after sitting, and exclaims, ‘Now for an achievement compared with which all I have yet done shall be as nothing.,’ the prophetic words were quite as applicable to the actress as to the scene about to be represented.
Before describing this, it may be as well to refer to one or two incidents bearing upon it. Jack Sheppard goes to the house of the thief-taker in the Old Bailey, disguised as Arnold Quilt, and he arrives there at the moment in which Wild and Sir Rowland Trenchard are plotting the murder of Thames Darrell. As soon as the sham Quilt enters, Wild says to him, in reference to the capture of Jack:

‘Well, Quilt, have you succeeded?’

JACK (In Quilt’s voice) (which the actress so well imitated.): All’s right - he’s safe in the hold again.

JONATHAN: My excellent Quilt, the reward is yours; remain with him in the hold till I come to you; it is not safe to turn your eyes from him. (Shuts the door upon Jack.) That’s all right; he can’t elude me, daring and active little devil as he is.

But the daring and active little devil enters again softly, and, concealing himself behind a cloak suspended by a nail on the wall, overhears the story of his high birth and that of his friend Darrell, and learns by it that their respective mothers were the sisters of Sir Rowland, and rightful heiresses to the estate. He also sees Jonathan take from his pocket a packet of papers, one of which contains an account of Jack’s birth. These important documents the Captain determines to possess himself of , and taking advantage of a moment in which Sir Rowland and Wild are whispering together, he comes forward, and diving his hand nimbly into the pocket where the papers are deposited, withdraws them, and then quickly returns to his place of concealment.

The workmanlike manner in which this business was effected afforded one more striking example of the actress’s close attention to details. The abstraction of the documents from Jonathan Wild’s pocket was so rapid and dexterous as to appear the accomplishment of a practised hand at pocket-picking. Indeed, it looked so like the real thing that the audience were afraid lest the unwary thief-taker should turn round and catch the young culprit in the act, and there was quite a sigh of relief when Jack had safely landed the rightful proofs of his birth.
The pickpocket incident was the result of careful study on the part of the actress, assisted by some instruction from an expert in the way of thieves. The actor of Jonathan Wild seldom, if ever, felt the small, flexible hand of Mrs. Keeley as it dived neatly into his pocket, and was hardly aware that the trick was done.

In spite of Jack Sheppard’s many delinquencies and his fame as a notorious highwayman, the sympathies of the audience are with him in the drama from first to last. This is due in some measure to the knowledge that he is of high birth, and to the fact that he has been driven to misdeeds by the force of circumstances over which Jonathan Wild has had no inconsiderable control. The audience therefore regard the lad -- for he is only one-and-twenty in the last act -- as simply a young reprobate or gentleman scapegrace, and the painstaking actress assisted them in this impression by representing their hero with a certain picturesqueness of manner and refinement of speech, which caused his lowest slang and most depraved ditties, if perfectly true to nature, to be wholly without vulgarity. So the moral of the stage story appeared to be, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go,’ and don’t drive him to do wicked things.

But the hero of Buckstone’s piece has also a good heart, and proves himself besides a stanch friend to those in need of his assistance; while the occasional loving references to his unfortunate mother show him to be possessed of some filial devotion, though it must be confessed that his regret for all that she has suffered on his account comes somewhat late in the day. At the opening of Act III. Jack is discovered lying on his recently departed mother’s grave, attired in a black coat and white waistcoat, and his little soliloquy, earnestly delivered by the actress, was not without its appeal to the hearts of the audience.

‘Oh, Jack, Jack!’ he cries, ‘you have broken your poor mother’s heart, and here she lies buried by her last request in Willesden churchyard. Poor mother! when I heard Wild tell Sir Rowland you were in Bedlam, and driven there by my misconduct, neither he nor I knew you had been three days dead! They tell me she forgave me before she died -- bless her ! Oh, villain, outcast, condemned felon that I am!’

There was not a dry eye in the house when the actress gave out these semi-pathetic lines; and certainly not at the back of the pit, where the present writer was doing his best to set the example.
Jack Sheppard has now made up his mind to turn over a new leaf, and he proposes to retire from the business of housebreaking by setting off for a foreign clime, there to begin life afresh as an honest lad. It is not too late, he thinks, and if the law will only give him another chance, he will never again act as a charmingly picturesque and delightfully fascinating young villain - at any rate, upon the stage, greatly to the regret, be it said, of the audience.

But unfortunately the law, in the shape of Jonathan Wild, won’t let him, the more so because the thief-taker has sworn a terrible oath that he will bring Jack to the gallows, as he did with his father before him. So Wild makes one last attempt in this direction, and he is so far successful that, after an affecting scene between the hero and his new-found cousin, Thames Darrell, whom Jack has been instrumental in restoring to his rightful estates and his sweetheart, the young highwayman is seized and eventually overpowered by no less than half a dozen well-armed constables, who, with the greatest possible difficulty, accompanied by rounds of applause from the sixpenny gallery and shilling pit -- to say nothing of the two and three shilling boxes -- hurry him off to Newgate.

Safely landed in his old quarters, Jack is strongly handcuffed and chained to the stone floor. But he has presently to endure that which to some persons would be considered as a form of slow torture, for he has been prevailed upon to sit for his portrait to no less an artist than Sir James Thornhill, the picture being destined to figure in the collection of no less a person than King George II. The great Hogarth also takes a sketch of him at the same time, while Gay, the poet, and Figg, a prize-fighter, look on and pass critical remarks.

Of course, sitting for a portrait on the stage is a very different thing to the same performance in a studio, and as the audience were well aware of this, their sympathies for Jack Sheppard’s sufferings were not reawakened on this account. But to pose for your likeness with manacles upon your wrists and heavy rings of irons on your legs is quite another matter, and it was doubtless for this reason that when the scene shifted and the ‘notorious highwayman’ was discovered in the act of having his head taken off on canvas as a preliminary exercise to be followed by hanging by the neck, there was more than one suggestive shudder among the spectators.

How little did one spectator, who contemplated the performances from the back of the pit, imagine that the time would come when the impersonator of the notorious one would be sitting to that spectator for her portrait in a far more realistic fashion than she ever did upon the stage, and that it - the picture, not the highwayman - would be hung on the line at the Royal Academy! But, in the words of the novelist, let us not anticipate.
It is immediately after his artist-friends and teacher of boxing leave the stage that Jack pulls himself together, and prepares for the ‘achievement compared with which all that he has as yet done will be as nothing.’

By way of beginning, he sets free his hands from the handcuffs that have hitherto clasped his wrists - and really clasped them, for the scrupulously particular actress used from first to last a pair of genuine manacles, the exact facsimile of those worn by the real Jack Sheppard, and they were not only placed in orthodox fashion upon her slender wrists, but properly locked into the bargain. All the same, Mrs. Keeley contrived every night to squeeze her flexible fingers and palm clear of them, though how she did it I did not precisely know till many years after I had witnessed the somewhat painful operation.

While so engaged, to the breathless excitement of the audience, Jack sings:

Though with neither a chisel, a knife, or a file,
Yet the dubsman shall see that I do it in style!
He continues to sing while taking off his shoes and dancing in his fetters, till he suddenly stops as his foot comes in contact with a painful but serviceable nail. Then he laughs, and again sings:
Oh! fortune ne’er played me so pleasant a trick
As to drop me a nail my lock to pick!

Which the prisoner is soon busy in doing. First he picks the padlock of the floor, which releases the chains attached to it; then he twists the chains round till the centre link snaps and after this he draws the fetterlock up his legs, binds the broken chain round one leg with a scarf from his neck, and fastens another to the companion leg with his pocket-handkerchief.

All this time Jack is singing cheerily, and the business looks so real that the audience are kept on tenter-hooks to know what next he will do. But their suspense is of brief duration, as the gaol-bird presently takes up a blanket from a recess at the back of his cell, and, going with it to the chimney, is soon seen ascending that convenient aperture for prisoners in want of a practical loophole for escape.

The scene is then shut in by a ‘front cloth,’ representing a room in Wood’s house, where Thames Darrell and his sweetheart, Winnifred, meet and are made happy, and when poor Jack is next visible the scene has changed again to the highest leads of Newgate. Here Mrs. Keeley is seen in the act of descending a wall by means of a blanket, which has been securely fastened to a nail. Jack is now pale and exhausted, and when he alights safely upon the leads he leans somewhat feebly upon an iron bar which he has brought with him.

At length the runaway, who is still burthened with his fetters, grows weaker and weaker as he flees from one street to the other, till in the last scene but one he staggers in without his faithful bar, and says :

‘It’s all up! They unkennelled me from Wych Street. I’ve darted from them, but now where can I run? I’m surrounded on every side. Yes, it’s no use - it’s all up with Jack. Very hard, though, after the bold tug I’ve had for it. I’ve lost my best friend, and now my heart seems breaking. I can do no more - they must come and take me! To-day will end my life - my short and wretched life! For let guilt be as bold and as brave on the outside as it may, all is surely misery - bitter misery - within! The poor London lads will, I hope, be warned by me and my fate, for here is the end of sin!’

But this highly respectable moral speech is not quite the end of the drama, as in the next and last scene of all we are shown the exterior of Newgate in the Old Bailey, with Jonathan Wild’s house occupying most of the stage. The thief-taker has been imprisoned in his own house for some days, along with his accomplice, Mendez, and Blueskin has sworn to make them pay dearly for their various acts of villainy, should Jack Sheppard be captured and taken to the gallows. So, finding that their beloved Captain has been run to earth and is already on his way to Tyburn, Blueskin and his pals carry out their threat by setting fire to Wild’s domicile. this being done, the wretched inmates of the burning house meet with a fate which completely satisfies the audience, who have all along been thirsting for their blood; for Wild and Mendez are buried alive in the smouldering ruins when the interior of the house falls, and this last episode, of course, brings down the other house and the curtain.


  1. John

    Another great effort! Thanks again.
    Ms Keely was quite a looker!
    I was wondering is the Drury Lane you mention the one mentioned in the old song "The Muffin man?" ;)

  2. I've never heard "The Muffin Man" but the Drury Lane was probably one and the same.

  3. John

    I'm surprise you never heard it!
    An old childrens song, goes like this;
    Do [or "Oh, do"] you know the muffin man,
    The muffin man, the muffin man,
    Do you know the muffin man,
    Who lives in Drury Lane?

    Yes [or "Oh, yes"], I know the muffin man,
    The muffin man, the muffin man,
    Yes, I know the muffin man,
    Who lives in Drury Lane.