Sunday, January 30, 2011

February 19, 1882 --- Dining with the Prince

The Prince of Wales is host at Marlborough House to a large party honoring favored representatives of the West End theatre community. The guest list includes the great actor-manager, Squire Bancroft, who had earned the Prince's everlasting thanks by casting his former paramour, Lily Langtry, in her first professional role.

Lily had opened in a play called Ours at the Haymarket Theatre on 19 January and the Prince had already been to see the it twice. Written by Tom Robertson, the play is a rather dated effort about the Crimean War; in her memoirs, Lily recalled the play as " silly & old-fashioned." Reviews are kind; the critic from The Illustrated London News is typical, gushing: "most charming ... I unfeignedly believe she will succeed."

Separated from her recently bankrupt husband, Lily's search for a suitable career is motivated by her need for an income. Her first impressions of the theatre life are unfavorable and she soon began "deploring the urgent need of money that had obliged me to abandon my previous mode of life." As one of London's reigning "Professional Beauties," the 26 year old Lily is no ordinary ingenue. Prime Minister Gladstone frequently joined Lily for pre-performance suppers, imparting advice on dealing with critics, "Bear them, never reply." Oscar Wilde wrote the play Lady Windermere's Fan for her although she thought she was too young for the title role.

Despite the reputation of the acting set, the Prince's good friend Lord Carrington thought the dinner was rather a "dullish evening" enlivened only briefly by the well sozzled actor William Kendal "who distinguished himself by singing a very vulgar song which was not favorably received in high quarters."

Squire Bancroft was to be knighted by the ever grateful King Edward VII.  He never regretted bringing Mrs. Langtry before the footlights, recognizing that she had "achieved success far beyond that derived from mere curiosity."

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