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Playwright Henry James Byron: Lost Victorian favourite makes a comeback

Lewis Hartland and Susan Tracy in the Finborough’s current production of Cyril’s Success. Photo: Scott Ryalnder
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Henry James Byron is not the first Victorian playwright to come to mind, but he was a big hit in the mid-19th century, as Nick Smurthwaite finds. To mark its 150th year, the Finborough is reviving his play Cyril’s Success

The demands of Victorian theatre were so voracious that successful playwrights of the time often found themselves churning out plays like a butcher with sausage meat.

When the Theatre Regulations Act of 1843 ended the monopoly of the so-called ‘patent theatres’ – the system whereby only particular theatres were licensed to present legitimate drama – there was a surge in demand for popular entertainment, whether it was melodrama, Shakespeare, light comedy or burlesque.

By the mid-1850s the range and variety of theatre on offer in the capital was mind-boggling, and an increasingly affluent middle class liked nothing better than seeing their lives reflected on stage.

Henry James Byron

Enter Henry James Byron, failed doctor and lawyer with a love of all things theatrical, who began writing burlesques – panto-like comedy pastiches of well-known operas or classical plays – in his early 20s. By the time he’d written his third, Fra Diavolo, he’d hit the box office jackpot and was being commissioned by two or three managements simultaneously.

There was an insatiable appetite for burlesque in the mid-19th century, and the epicentre of the trend was the Strand Theatre in the heart of the West End. As one commentator observed: “You might call it rubbish, buffoonery, vulgarity, but your temperament must have been abnormally phlegmatic if you could resist the influence of that riotous mirth and not be carried away by it.”

Despite his prodigious output, the years have not been kind to Byron’s literary legacy – he never scaled the critical heights of Arthur Wing Pinero, John Galsworthy or George Bernard Shaw, even with his more considered efforts – but drama buffs are getting a rare chance to reappraise one of his most popular plays, Cyril’s Success, at the Finborough Theatre, as part of its 150th-anniversary season.

“It was a huge hit in its day,” says Neil McPherson, the Finborough’s artistic director and a keen student of Victorian theatre. “The original cast list was massive so we’ve conflated a few characters, but we’re doing it very much as it was written. It stayed in the repertoire for 30 or 40 years after his death, then fell out of favour, but its situation and characters are completely recognisable today.”

McPherson and director Hannah Boland Moore read some 30 plays produced in 1868 – the year the Finborough was built – before deciding Cyril’s Success was the one they wanted. It concerns a successful and ambitious young playwright whose wife leaves him when she suspects he is having an affair. It was widely thought to be semi-autobiographical.

“There is no cynicism about it,” says director Boland Moore. “I liked the fact it was openly emotional – some would say sentimental – and there is something timeless about a young married couple learning to appreciate each other for the long run. It is about the joy and pain of putting your work out into the world and then being criticised for it, which is the same now as it was 150 years ago.”

Cyril’s Success review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘a good-natured revival’

Though he was on the receiving end of harsh criticism all his working life, Byron was content to laugh all the way to the bank. But Cyril’s Success gave him a rare opportunity to hit back, portraying his critics as petty and waspish. “I am somewhat tired of being termed a droll, a punster and so on,” he wrote in the preface to the published edition. “I beg to remind anyone who may care to recollect that Cyril’s Success is original and a comedy and, even in these vicious dramatic days, in five acts!”

He went on to write Our Boys (1875), the most popular play of its time, which ran at the Vaudeville for a record-breaking four years. Similar to a lot of the drama of the time, it was concerned with troubled family relationships, class divisions and financial gain. It may not have been Pygmalion or A Doll’s House but it showed Byron had the capacity to write about real feelings and thoughts in a meaningful way.

In the Daily Telegraph, a critic observed, “The bulk of the people who went to see Our Boys saw there the life, or something like the life, that was familiar to them. They chuckled over their imperfections.”

Our Boys proved as popular on tour, playing across Europe and the US. Byron made no money from the overseas productions because there was no international copyright agreement.

Whatever else he was, Byron was not a purist. He saw his purpose in life to entertain and amuse, whether it was through the medium of legitimate drama, extravagant burlesque, posturing melodrama or pantomime. Indeed he was instrumental in creating some of the panto characters we take for granted today, such as Widow Twankey and the Ugly Sisters.

A bon viveur and man about town, Byron liked to give the impression of dashing off plays in his spare time, between visiting the club and going out for dinner. It is evident from the testimony of his friend Edward Sothern, an actor of the time, that he relished the process of writing: “Dialogue comes to him more naturally than he can scribble. I once asked him why he did not use a short-hand reporter. He replied that the scratching of his quill upon paper was like music to him.”

Cyril’s Success is at London’s Finborough Theatre until February 20

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive