London life was bustling in the 1820’s. The Napoleonic war was over and literary salons, theatres and opera were bright with talent. Mary Russell Mitford was a well-liked member of the social scene, writing poems and small dramatic sketches. Then in four years she wrote four full-length plays which were performed at Covent Garden and other London theatres, and transferred successfully to America.
Famous actor/managers like Kemble and Macready were eager to appear in her works. She had turned to writing for commercial productions when her family became very poor and moved to live in a small cottage in Three Mile Cross. She had to provide their sole income. Her plays were termed ‘poetical tragedies’, generally set in five acts and based on historic characters. The final versions of the plays were settled through discussions with the main actors and Mary spent many days in London attending and directing rehearsals. There was a renewed interest in southern Europe after the wars, and Macready encouraged her work on the first play, ‘Foscari’, a Venetian Doge. In 1821 it was ready to go into production when Byron announced that he too had a play about Foscari. Both works were shelved.
Mary had to turn to another subject and by 1822 her second play ‘Julian’ was written and accepted at the request of Macready. In 1823 it was performed at Covent Garden. Mary was paid £200, to her great relief. Next she wrote ‘Rienzi’ which had enthusiastic audiences and for which she received £400 for the production, and also the profits from the sale of thousands of copies of the printed play. She then wrote ‘Charles I’. This tragedy was thought to be too near to current politics by the Lord Chamberlain, who refused to give it a licence. Meanwhile it had been realised that Mary’s ‘Foscari’ covered a different scenario to that of Byron’s play, which had been considered inferior and had been withdrawn. Kemble promoted Mary’s play, and her version was produced on stage in 1826.
Mary’s influential friends wanted ‘Charles I’ to be seen on stage, and in 1834 it was produced at the Victoria Theatre, south of the Thames and outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain. Again Mary supervised rehearsals, working with the leading actors to prepare the final version of the text. This was Mary’s last stage effort because by then she was earning more money and fame from her articles in The Lady’s Magazine.
Patricia Green Jan.2019