It was on the twelfth of October, 1877, that I was hired to join what back then was known as Hunter's Ltd, for one Malcom Hunter was the imperious director of all the productions we put on for gentry and whomever had the money to see us. On that first day I worked harder than I ever had before, doing odd jobs, fetching and carrying whatever the actors needed, and running to call the actors onto stage. It was that evening that I truly witnessed the greatness of performance. They were putting on Shakespeare's Macbeth for the Queen herself and each of the actors impressed her with the way they gracefully slipped into character. And all the while, Hunter was standing beside me in the back-staging, nodding his head as if in time to some haunting melody.
The next day I began my work as a training extra. The days were long, the hours hard, and the pay almost nothing; but I was able to travel and to do what I enjoyed the most in the world, to act. In the first year I was part of only three productions, my parts limited to movement, sound and expression, but, as I grew, so did my opportunities. I began to be given stronger parts, as Hunter learned of my style and what suited me better. He trusted me to learn my lines quickly- placing so must trust on my values that, in one small production, I was given the lead. I thought that, at only seventeen, I had finally climbed the ladder.
Then, in the summer of 1880, Hunter was killed in a carriage accident, his spruce life taking so vulgarly. We were left without a director and so, as theatre companies do without a leader, we began to flail. It was then that Margaret Hemmingway marched her way in. A former actress of a London theatre, so she said, one that didn’t have to travel as we did, but who waited for the audiences to come to her, she knew exactly what she wanted, but paid little heed to what was needed in our dire time. Full-figured and with a nasty temper, she suddenly tipped Hunter’s Ltd. on its head. An influx of actors meant that we who had strived those last years to rise up to better parts were pushed back down as Margaret's ‘favourites’ took our places. That title was known to all of us, and she herself never denied that she had certain actors as more than acquaintances. Rumours spread in dressing-rooms; I was disgusted to hear of the affairs she was supposed to have had.
Nevertheless, we gained popularity under this new director, even if some of us were not so satisfied with the jobs that we had regressed to have.
Margaret worked us harder than ever before, pressuring us to perform in a way that Hunter had never done. Whilst he had trusted us to develop our characters in a way that we could achieve through our wits, and had used gentle persuasion to get what he needed done, Mrs. Hemmingway was ruthless and determined to get her way.
What was the worst was the way the company was when she had stopped spreading her fingers over its workings. She had spent her time finding the strangest of plays for us, scripts of which had yet to be finished; and so, we were forced to learn our lines in a matter of days, when she finally got hold of first drafts, complete with continuity errors and mistakes.
I noticed the changes to our company especially. The hours became longer; I would get up before sunrise to work on staging for the evening, and then spend the day acting, before we went on stage to perform a play double the length of those we did ten years ago. I don’t think it was before midnight that we finally settled down some days. I also began to notice, having been placed back into my meagre parts, that the audience was becoming comprised of middle-class people; fees were dropping, and so were our standards.
The biggest change, however, was one that would probably have affected all who worked for Hunter’s, be it back-stage or music or lighting. ‘Musical Theatre’ they called the horrendous new genre that we were being forced to do, rowdy and pretentious.
Musical Theatre was coming to Victorian England.