Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Theatrical Lillies

Among the notes left by my father, John Blackwell, on the family history research he did in the 1980s, I was surprised to find photocopied pages from Who Was Who In The Theatre 1912-1976 (Gale Research, 1978). I didn’t remember ever hearing about a theatrical connection in the family. I thought the Lillies were strictly medical and seafaring types, the Blackwells businessmen. Two entries are circled: Chudleigh, Arthur (Lillies) and Lillies, Leonard. In the margin by the Leonard Lillies entry, my father has scribbled in pencil, “JHB’s great uncle.”

Leonard and Arthur, who took Chudleigh, his home town, as a nom de théatre (he was an actor first, a manager later), were the younger sons of George William and Charlotte Lillies, great great grandparents to baby-boom Blackwells and Breens. Their eldest son, Herbert, a physician, emigrated to Australia, where the Lillies and Blackwell lines intersected.

The younger Lillies sons had extensive careers in the late Victorian and Edwardian London theatre. Arthur, the more flamboyant and theatrical, studied medicine first, but either it didn’t suit him or he failed at it. His first appearance as a West End actor, at the Globe, came in 1883, when he was 25. He played Gilbert in The Flowers of the Forest, a long-forgotten 1847 play by the equally long-forgotten John Baldwin Buckstone.

It must have been a bit part. Extant reviews don’t mention him – not such a terrible thing as they were mostly unkind. According to one paper, “had it been written in the present day its anachronism, its lack of realism, and its inflated dialogue would scarcely have survived the ordeal of a first night.” The Scotsman’s reviewer described the experience this way: “…for the first quarter of an hour the audience smiles at the absurdities of the old-fashioned piece, and during the rest of the evening is profoundly bored.”

Arthur Chudleigh Lillies in later life, by Harry Furniss (National Portrait Gallery)

Arthur’s biography in Who Was Who In The Theatre mentions one other part played in 1883, but it appears he was not destined for a brilliant acting career. By 1888 – the year of Jack the Ripper – he had remade himself as a theatre manager. He was joint proprietor of the Court Theatre at Sloane Square, with Mrs. John Wood, an actress and manager who was born Matilda Charlotte Vining and had acted on Broadway as well as the West End. The Court survives today, in a 1950s reincarnation, as the Royal Court Theatre.

The new Court Theatre, opened 1888, the year Arthur Chudleigh took over as manager (courtesy of

Mrs. John Wood, Arthur Chudleigh's co-proprietor at the Court Theatre

Arthur went on from the Court to manage the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street. The theatre was declared a heritage site in 1972 and then renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre in 2011. Among the successful Comedy Theatre productions under Arthur’s management was the 1906 première of Raffles, a play based on E.W. Hornung’s stories about the roguish AJ Raffles. Gerald du Maurier, father of author Daphne du Maurier, played the title character for the 351-performance run. 

The Comedy Theatre (aka Royal Comedy Theatre)

Still from one of great great Uncle Arthur's most successful productions

Costumes for Raffles production at Comedy Theatre, 1906

According to Who Was Who, Arthur’s preferred recreation was “motoring,” his address, “Garrick Club, Garrick Street W.C.2.” The 1978 volume was compiled from various editions of Who’s Who In The Theatre.  It’s not clear in which year the Lillies biographies were written, but certainly pre-1920. The editors have  updated the original, adding a note that Arthur died on February 5, 1932, aged 73.

Leonard, the younger of the two theatrical Lillies, appears to have been more involved on the business side and rode on his brother’s coat tails. His biography says he was “previously engaged in the insurance business” but “has always been associated with his brother’s theatrical enterprises.” He was business manager at the Court, later at the Criterion and, from 1905 to the date of publication of the original biography, at the Comedy. He died August 2, 1923, aged 63.

A footnote to this theatrical episode in the family’s history. Anyone who knew my father would agree there was often something bombastic and theatrical about him – he loved to declaim. But we did not know, or I did not know, that he actually trod the boards himself, albeit while at school. Check out the cast picture from a 1938 production of A Safety Match, put on by the Dramatic Society of Melbourne Grammar School. It’s posted as part of an historical archive at the school’s website. John is in the front row, standing, ninth from left. You might have to click on the picture to enlarge it before you'll be able to see him in all his theatrical glory.

Melbourne Grammar School Dramatic Society cast photo for production of A Safety Match (1938)

My old man the drag queen!

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