Dickens and Dog-Drama: the Walworth Dog meets the Uncommercial Traveller
This post has been contributed by Dr Ann Featherstone (University of Manchester).
Dickens is well-known for his love of theatre, whether it was Christmas treats at Drury Lane or a bloody melodrama at the Victoria Theatre in the New Cut. But in the guise of The Uncommercial Traveller roaming the ‘shy’ neighbourhoods of London and its environs, he reveals a playful familiarity with one of the stalwarts of the minor drama, the dog-drama, and one of its canine stars. ‘I have the pleasure to know a dog in a back street in the neighbourhood of Walworth,’ he writes, ‘who has greatly distinguished himself in the minor drama.’ When he describes the dog’s appearance on playbills and having witnessed his performance at a theatre in a Yorkshire town, it is clear that the Traveller is no stranger to dog-drama (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’).
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, even into the 1850s, dramas such as The Forest of Bondy or, the Dog of Montargis, Mungo Park, Cato! Or, the Slave’s Revenge and the Dogs of the Plantation and Bruin the Brave, or the Woodman and this Dog could be found in smaller theatres throughout London and in many other cities such as Leeds and Manchester. They were short pieces, often only a couple of acts, adapted from existing plays with scenes re-written or inserted to feature dog performers. And they were often very indifferent ‘minor dramas,’ with a thin plot and stock characters. But the audience had not come to hear the commonplace tale of romance or inheritance or injustice. Or see the realisation of a desert island or medieval castle. Or even appreciate the acting. They had come to see the dog.
Certainly dog-dramas had improved since Carlo, star of Frederick Reynolds’ The Caravan or, the Driver and his Dog, was performed at Drury Lane in 1803. The Caravan was a slight Gothic melodrama with a predictable plot: a rascally Spanish Governor has designs upon a virtuous married woman and threatens the life of her husband and child if she will not succumb to his demands. She rejects him and, in the single unexpected moment in the play, he orders her young son to be thrown into a lake. Ordinarily this play would have made little difference to the fortunes of Drury Lane Theatre (which was going through one of its regular bad patches). But Carlo, a dog reputedly owned by the keeper of an a la mode beef house in Long Acre, was featured leaping into the Drury Lane stage lake where he rescued the child and brought it, dripping and sobbing, to dry land. He was a sensation. Richard Sheridan, the beleaguered manager, claimed he was his guardian angel – actor, author and preserver of Drury Lane Theatre! Carlo set the standard, a dog-star was born and dogs trained specifically to perform in dramas soon followed.
Like the dog recalled by the Uncommercial Traveller, Carlo was a Newfoundland, the breed of choice for the stage, notable for its extraordinary sagacity, its size and handsome appearance – white with patches of red, particularly on the ears and tail, features which are clearly visible in the playbills. Although, as the Traveller notes, those images on the playbills are not specific to individual dogs, the woodcuts representing examples of canine tricks clearly are. He notes that the Walworth dog’s playbill shows him ‘in the act of dragging to the earth a recreant Indian, who is supposed to have tomahawked, or essayed to tomahawk, a British officer.’ (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’) In other words, the dog is performing ‘the seize,’ a compulsory trick in the canine star’s repertoire. The dog leaps at the villain, dropping him to the floor and then worrying his neck, apparently to savage him to death. Despite all efforts to free himself, the villain succumbs and the dog is triumphant. It was a defining moment in the performance and, done well, produced a thrilling effect.
The trick used to achieve ‘the seize’ was known to audiences as well as performers: the actor (often the owner of the dog) wore a padded handkerchief around his neck in which was secreted a piece of meat. Having been trained to jump and fell the actor at a given signal, the dog then hunted out the meat (often a tasty morsel of liver) whilst the actor feigned resistance. Stage dogs were often sold complete with the facility to ‘take the seize.’
There were other stage feats. Sam Wild, who travelled a portable theatre throughout Yorkshire in 1850s, owned a stage dog, Nelson, who had an impressive catalogue of stage tricks in addition to standard ones of taking the seize, carrying lanterns, unlatching gates and leaping through windows. Nelson’s tricks included taking an egg out of a bucket of water without breaking it, carrying a canary in his mouth without killing it and, spectacularly, climbing a 40 foot ladder, firing a cannon at the top and coming down again (Wild, 76). Every dog had its own specialities, but some were more talented than others.
John Mathews, a noted dog-man, trained his Newfoundland dog Devilshoof not only to perform tricks on stage but also to jump hurdles and swim against the sea tide, when he would match him against all-comers for a wager (Mathews, n.p.). In this way, Devilshoof saved his master from penury many times, but in general, theatrical dog-men distanced themselves from what they regarded as mere circus tricks. Doubtless this was partly due to the enduring sense of superiority felt by theatricals over their circus brothers, but it also seems to be about the difference between tricks for the sake of tricks, and those which were part of the theatrical performance.
For there seems to have been an opinion, devoid of irony, that some dogs could act. Unlike the Uncommercial Traveller, who is clear that the Walworth dog performer ‘is too honest for the profession he has entered,’ some witnesses to dog performances believed that dogs did indeed create a dramatic ‘character’ (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’). Nelson, the stage dog belonging to Sam Wild, was a case in point. In The Dog of Montargis, the way in which he roused the keeper of the inn and dragged her to the grave of his murdered master, scratching the earth and revealing the dead body was said to reveal how he ‘accomplishes his “characters”’ (Huddersfield Chronicle). John Mathews says of Devilshoof that ‘his acting of the dog Quid in the Black Caesar was unapproachable’ (Mathews, n.p.)
In 1836, the audience at the Covent Garden Theatre was also waiting to see The Dog of Montargis when the Stage Manager, Mr Bartley came before the curtain to announce that Dragon, who was supposed to have played The Dog, was ‘suddenly indisposed’ and unable to appear. But, unwilling to disappoint their patrons, ‘the Management have prevailed on Mr Partridge’s celebrated dog, Neptune,’ he said ‘to read the part’ (Era, 1874). Dragon’s indisposition appears to have been Neptune’s lucky break, as he performed well and went on to play, convincingly, a ferocious wild animal, ‘sewn up in a leopard’s skin,’ in the spectacle Thalaba, the Destroyer (Era, ibid).
But even Neptune had his lapses and there were, apparently, occasions when, left in the wings, ‘he occasionally forgot his assumed character’ (Era, ibid). And there was the rub. It was not simply the novelty of a sagacious canine that attracted audiences, it was the distinct possibility that they might revert to kind. This was the case, the Uncommercial Traveller claims, with the Walworth dog: he did not and could not measure up. In short, he was ‘too honest for the profession he has entered’ (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’). He summons, tongue-in-cheek, the old prejudice against the acting fraternity: dishonesty. Because the dog cannot pretend, it follows that he cannot act. And that battle with the dog’s natural inclinations, the root of all those accounts of comical stage mishaps, provides endless entertainment for 19th century stage commentators.
The dog breaking out of ‘character’ but true to its nature is the origin, says John Mathews, of the ‘Dog Hamlet,’ the canine-drama versions of Shakespeare’s play (often only 30 minutes long) where the black dog star, which has accompanied the melancholy Prince throughout, rounds upon Claudius in the final act and seizes him by the neck. Mathews claims that he was performing in a penny theatre in a programme which featured an all-human, reduced version of Hamlet in which he played the Dane. This was followed, in the usual way, by a comic after-piece which starred his Newfoundland dog, Devilshoof. Waiting in the wings to start his own performance, Devilshoof was watching the final scene of Shakespeare’s play where Hamlet demands of Claudius, “Give me the cup, by heaven I’ll have it!” Seeing the struggle between Hamlet (his master) and Claudius (the stage villain) for the poisoned chalice, Devilshoof ‘lost all sense,’ says Mathews, rushed onto the stage, seized the cup and ran off with it, perhaps felling Claudius in the process (Mathews, n.p.).
Given the many examples of dog-centred blunders, it is very possible that part of the attraction of dog-drama was the likelihood that, despite years of training and the biddable nature of the breed, the dog-star could at any time revert to its basic instincts. Which is doubtless why The Uncommercial Traveller recounts, with enormous relish, how he saw the Walworth dog, who was supposed to track the stage villain through a mazey stage forest, instead forget his training and ‘[trot] to the foot-lights with his tongue out; and there [sit] down, panting, and amiably surveying the audience, with his tail beating on the boards like a Dutch clock.’ And how, when he finally responded to the murderer’s summons (‘“CO-O-ME here!”’) and sauntered over to tear him limb from limb – in other words, to perform ‘the seize’ – he made the trick ‘a little too obvious … by licking butter off his [the murderer’s] blood-stained hands’ (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’).
When Sam Wild’s dog Nelson died in 1860 aged 17, the Era printed an obituary for this ‘well-known stage favourite,’ reminding its readers that he was one of the best performing dogs in England and he had pieces written for him ‘by several minor authors, who developed his sagacity in pieces suited to his canine talents’ (Era 1860). A true canine celebrity.
‘The Uncommercial Traveller,’ All the Year Round, 26 May 1860; 3, 57.
Era, 11 November 1860.
Era, 4 October 1874.
Huddersfield Chronicle, 28 December 1850.
John Mathews, Life and Theatrical Career of John Mathews (self-published, n.d.)[Sam. Wild], The Original, Complete, and Only Authentic Story of “Old Wilds”…Ed. ‘Trim,’ Society for Theatre Research, 1989 (1888).
Illustrations reproduced by kind permission of Leeds Library and Information Services, www.leodis.net subject to broadcaster agreement.