Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

HISTORICAL FACTS: THE CHARLES KEAN COMPANY IN VICTORIA

ALAN HUGHES

The local businessmen who invited Charles Kean to perform in Victoria in 1864 hoped to use his prestige for their own political purposes. This paper shows how George Coppin, Kean's Australian business manager, met friends in Victoria who introduced him to local politics. He used his own political experience and theatrical talents to help Amor de Cosmos win a decisive election.

Les hommes d'affaires de Victoria qui avaient invité Charles Kean a venir s'y produire sur scène espéraient profiter de son prestige pour leurs propres fins politiques. Cet article raconte l'arrivée de l'imprésario australien de Kean, George Coppin, qui eut vite fait de retrouver à Victoria des amis qui l'initièrent à la politique locale. Coppin se servit ensuite de ses connaissances en politique et de son propre talent dramatique pour aider Amor de Cosmos à gagner une victoire électorale décisive.

'What is a historical fact?' E.H. Carr asks. 'What is the criterion which distinguishes the facts of history from other facts about the past?'1 Perhaps the best answer is that a fact becomes historical when historians interpret it as a significant fact, one which is important in itself or more commonly, has a significance broader than itself when combined with other historical facts. Facts alone are not history: if they were, the Guinness Book of Records would be as much a work of history as Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

The fact that Charles Kean visited Victoria in 1864 appears at first glance to belong in some theatrical Book of Records as the first visit by a major British star to the west coast of what was soon to become Canada: curious, but probably pointless, not a historical fact. At second glance, Kean's brief visit appears even less significant than it does at first, at least in terms of Canadian theatrical history, because it was almost without influence. For a few weeks afterwards, theatrical activity actually decreased, perhaps because the public had exhausted their entertainment budgets in attending his performances at special, high prices. But there is no sign of any change in choice of play or production methods after business recovered: it was as though Kean had never passed through. In any case, such theatrical impact as he might have made really belongs to the theatrical history of California, whence came most of the troupes which played Victoria.2

Kean's visit turns out to be a historical fact, nonetheless, and a fact of Canadian history to boot. Indeed, it was an event of some significance, but in the political rather than the theatrical history of the west coast. Theatre does not take place in a vacuum, and its historical significance may only appear when it is examined in the context of the real world. In this case, the major clues have turned up in an apparently unlikely place: Melbourne, Australia. Kean had toured Australia before sailing to North America, and he brought with him an energetic Australian business manager by the name of George Selth Coppin, who was also an actor and an inveterate politician. Coppin's diary and accounts have ended up in Australia; and while he was in Victoria, he wrote several lonesome, anxious letters home to his young, pregnant wife in Melbourne. These, and sources in the Provincial Archives of British Columbia, show that Kean's visit played a small but significant part in the political struggle that led to the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, a step which helped to bring B.C. into Confederation in 1871.

When Charles and Ellen Kean gave up the management of the Princess' Theatre in London (1850-59) they had prestige but no money; so they toured to turn the latter into the former, for their retirement. By the autumn of 1862 the Keans were wearing out their welcome in the British Provinces, but Civil War made America a poor alternative. Kean wrote to Coppin, who booked engagements in Melbourne, Sydney and the gold diggings. The tour kept the Keans and their three supporting actors in Australia from October 1863 to the following July.

Encouraged by their success, Coppin booked an engagement in San Francisco and accompanied the party to California. But receipts were disappointing. While the Civil War had little direct effect on the west coast, politics did: Kean opened a month before a Presidential election. Lincoln was standing for a second term, and theatre could not compete with the excitement of the campaign. 'Last night there was a torch light procession, upwards of 15,000 people,'Coppin wrote. 'This of course completely settled our house.'3 Besides, for Americans the Keans lacked sentimental appeal. British colonists were ready to forgive a man of 53 for playing Hamlet because he came from home and they remembered him when he was young, but to many Americans he looked a trifle ridiculous. When the Keans were not playing, Coppin took the theatre on his own account, presenting his favourite characters, but the audience found his material alien, his humour too British:

I do not think I made a hit. The pieces never went so dull with me before ... strange to say The Wandering Minstrel and my song was a failure, no laughing and very little applause. They are just as coot to Mr. and Mrs. Kean. No Enthusiasm.4

On election night (Nov 8), Kean's receipts fell to $318.50, but by that time Coppin had arranged to take the company to Victoria, where homesickness and a British sense of humour might compensate for want of numbers, and even generate enthusiasm.

Kean had not meant to visit Vancouver Island. While Victoria was the largest settlement north of California, it was nothing but a trading post transformed by the Fraser Valley gold rush into a small frontier city. Now the gold was running out and the miners were gone, leaving a European population of about 6000. Besides, it was 1500 km. of wintry sea from San Francisco: Kean usually skipped such places, but times were hard.

The Kean company had been invited to visit Victoria by Thomas Ward, lessee and manager of the 600-seat Victoria Theatre. The invitation was backed by a Committee of twenty-one citizens prominent in the press, politics and business. All four newspapers were represented by their editors or proprietors; there were three MLAs and the Mayor; but the vast majority were businessmen, mostly 'commission merchants' (importers) with offices on Wharf Street.

Some were shady characters. In 1870, W.S.S. Green would 'skedaddle' out of town, 'just in time to avoid a criminal charge.'And just when the Kean Committee was being formed, its Hon. Secretary, George Cruickshank, resigned his post at the Bank of B.C., embezzling $5000 as he went. Arrested in July, 1865, he was acquitted on a plea of temporary insanity.5

Conspicuous by their absence were the leading reform MLA, Amor de Cosmos (subsequently first Premier of the united British Columbia), and his ally Leonard McClure, editor of the most important paper, the British Colonist. An editorial by McClure had actually suggested the Kean invitation in the first place. There can be little doubt that his exclusion and that of De Cosmos from a Committee largely composed of their political opponents was deliberate.

To understand why a committee established to organize a theatrical event had political significance, it is necessary to look briefly at the local issues of the time. Three forces were struggling for power: in the Legislative Assembly, Amor de Cosmos led a minority of reformers; their opponents were conservative businessmen, chiefly importers. The Governor, Arthur Edward Kennedy, opposed the aspirations of both parties on issues such as responsible government and colonial civil servants' salaries, but the reformers supported his position on tariffs and colonial union. The Assembly was sharply divided on the issue of union of the colonies, which Kennedy had been sent to effect. Conservatives opposed union because one of its conditions would be abolition of Victoria's status as a free port. In other words, normal tariffs would be payable on imports. Without tariffs, it was cheaper to import manufactures and even food than to manufacture or grow them locally. The conservative importers who controlled both the legislature and the Kean Committee were doing very well indeed out the free port, and wanted it retained. The Governor and De Cosmos saw that imports were draining the Colony's wealth and inhibiting local manufacturing and agriculture: thus, they favoured tariffs and union with B.C.6

Kean became a political football because of his prestige; any group which could 'capture' him would enhance its own prestige and influence, and the conservatives appeared to have pulled it off. Of course the Keans were entirely unaware of the political hothouse they were entering when they arrived on Friday 9 December. The weather was unseasonably cold. Coppin wrote to his wife, 'The snow falling very thickly. I am in my bed room with my fingers so cold I can scarcely hold my pen, but I cannot help writing to let you know how lonely I am in this strange country.'7 Coppin would not feel a stranger for long; despite the cold, this was familiar territory because it was a British colony, where he found that he knew the social rules and the political setup. He even found that he had friends.

So did the Keans. At first they too thought the place strange: Ellen Kean wrote, 'Victoria looks like a toy capital. Funny looking little wooden houses - and wooden roads - and wooden cottages and villas all about.'8 The theatre was wooden too, a draughty converted warehouse which had been part of the old Hudson's Bay Company fort. But all of them quickly came to feel at home with the people: they were British. Coppin rejoiced to find himself 'once more upon English soil,' and Kean wrote, 'It is such a relief to get away from those dreadful snuffling, spitting, chewing Yankee's [sic], with their boasting impudence.'9 The visitors quickly entered the life of the colony, choosing associates, passing judgements, and taking sides in disputes, instinctively guided by the familiar English caste system. Inevitably, the Keans and Coppin parted company: in America they had clung together, united by their Britishness, but here they were divided by class. Kean respected Coppin as 'a good business man,' but considered him 'a common man' who gave 'short and curt answers' under pressure.10 Coppin distrusted the social circle into which Kean's Eton schooling and his celebrity gave him entry.

The Governor turned out to be an old friend of the Keans and, declining all other invitations, they promptly got themselves 'taken up' by the Kennedys. Coppin sulked: 'I was invited [to dine with the Keans and the Governor] but declined because I do not feel comfortable in their company.' Ellen wrote that Mrs. Kennedy and her daughters made themselves 'very amiable and agreeable.' Kean's niece Patty Chapman, who played young heroines, was 'in Heaven,' Charles Kean wrote: 'the Governor's wife ... drives her about in an open pony chaise and she has had one ride on horseback with the Governor himself and his second daughter.'11 In short, the Keans promptly and instinctively aligned themselves with the Governor, unconsciously throwing all the weight of their prestige into his side of the political conflict. The Committee who had invited them must have been furious.

Of course the Keans were still unaware of the political impact they were making: they were busy playing Shakespeare and the 'higher melodrama' to overflowing audiences of nostalgic colonials, receiving the enthusiastic reception they had vainly sought in California. Their first week in Victoria made more money than any week of the San Francisco engagement. But while they were busy at the theatre, manager Coppin was getting mixed up in local politics. In the Australian colony of Victoria he had been Member for Geelong in the Legislative Council, where he fought for so many reforms and liberal measures that Australian conservatives thought him a dangerous radical. His sympathies would inevitably be with the reformers, led by De Cosmos, who was regarded by the Colonial Office as 'a thorough Democratic ruffian.'12 Mutual friends drew them together. Coppin found that this strange, cold town was full of Australians, many of them old acquaintances. During his first stroll, he wrote in his diary, 'I was stopped in the streets by four or five Australians that knew me.' As luck would have it, three of these men were in a position to initiate him in the politics of Vancouver Island.

Most of the Australians in Victoria seem to have arrived in 1858, when the gold rush drew former '49ers' from California. Certainly that was the case with Alexander Aaron Philips. Born in London, he emigrated to Sydney where he lived until California beckoned in 1849: in 1858 he opened Victoria's first soda-water factory, and by 1864 he was prosperous -and conservative. He was a crony of Selim Franklin, MLA, who represented the interests of the Wharf Street importers in the Legislative Assembly. Coppin opposed such interests all his life.

Dr. James Trimble had been a Navy surgeon when Coppin met him in Adelaide. In 1849 he resigned his commission to seek gold in California, moved to Victoria in 1858 and was now an MLA. He tended to align with De Cosmos and the reform party. Trimble got the actor honorary membership in his club and introduced him to De Cosmos and his ally, Leonard McClure, editor of the British Colonist.

But it was a third Australian who most influenced Coppin. Ben Griffin was proprietor of the Boomerang Inn. After meeting him in the street, the actor wrote in his diary that he had met 'Ben Griffin of Maitland [New South Wales] who wrote Billy Barlow.' This was one of Coppin's favourite characters, 'an apparently daft but shrewd commentator upon the idiosyncrasies of the sane.'13 Billy's songs and satirical jokes changed to match current social and political circumstances, and Griffin had written material relevant to events in Australia. In short, Coppin had met his old gag writer, just the man who could provide him with a monologue for Victoria. Billy Barlow was no longer in his repertoire, but his place had been taken by Paul Pry, 'an interfering busybody, snooping into other people's affairs with an apologetic air of injured innocence.'14

On Wednesday December 14th Coppin declined an invitation from Phillips and Franklin, dining instead with Ben Griffin. He was Griffin's guest at the Boomerang again on Sunday the 18th, and local politics was certainly one of the topics of conversation. Next evening, the MLAs gave their patronage to Kean's King Lear. 'After the performance,' Coppin wrote, 'the MLAs [presumably the reform Members] and myself kept it up talking politics. They wished me to deliver a lecture upon political economy.'15 This was not idle chatter: a by-election was brewing and the reformers saw that Coppin could help their campaign. In the Assembly, Charles Bedford Young led the Wharf St. importers who opposed union of the colonies because it would bring tariffs and damage their business. In January 1865, De Cosmos would challenge Young; both resigned their seats and stood for re-election with running-mates. Young and his partner were thoroughly defeated by De Cosmos and Leonard McClure. Ben Griffin was a member of the Committee to elect McClure, which made the Boomerang its headquarters. Under his guidance, Coppin was to play his part in the campaign and the victory which gave the reformers the majority they needed to effect the union.

Kean's engagement ended on Wednesday 21st December, but he stayed in town to attend a ball in his honour on Thursday. Coppin took this opportunity to book the theatre for two nights, appearing in his best parts. His diary shows that almost 600 attended the first night, a better house than most of Kean's, albeit at lower prices: 'Mr. Kean much annoyed at my good house,' he gloated. The British Colonist reported fully: as Paul Pry he delivered a comic speech on 'political economy,' no doubt with the aid of Ben Griffin. 'Mr. Coppin made some excellent political hits. He alluded jocularly to our large importations of provisions when we had facilities for raising our own produce.'16 This was an attack on Wharf Street's position on tariffs. He also attacked the conservative opposition to the incorporation of Victoria as a City, which would increase merchants' taxes, and against free education: Selim Franklin had argued that the poor would prefer to do without education or pay for it themselves rather than 'have their pride hurt by accepting the benevolence of others.'17 Supported by Trimble, De Cosmos led the fight for free education: it became law in April 1865, after the by-election had given McClure a decisive vote.

But the most important issue was union. Even Ellen Kean had noticed the effect of Victoria's free-port status: 'They import their grain and fruit and vegetables.,18 To anyone who understood 'political economy' as Coppin did, the public good was clearly being sacrificed to the commercial self-interest of the Wharf Street importers. He did not record the names of the MLAs who invited him to lecture on the subject, but the odds are that De Cosmos, supported and perhaps accompanied by Trimble and McClure, saw that the Australian was an experienced colonial political reformer who understood the issues. With the aid of Griffin, and in his peculiar way, Coppin obliged - not by direct assault at a political rally, but in a theatre packed with voters. 'Speech in Paul Pry a great Hit,' he wrote in his diary. He told his wife, 'many went to the theatre first and the ball after and they say my speech was the talk of the Ball room.'19 Coppin had declined to attend the Ball: no doubt he 'kept it up' at the Boomerang Hotel instead. But at the Ball, Governor Kennedy had no great occasion for dissatisfaction: if the 'democratic ruffian' had found an ally, it meant that his mission to unite the colonies found support in an unexpected quarter. And beside him, still oblivious of the effect he was having, stood the Great Actor, luxuriating in the adulation of the colonial elite and shedding the light of his prestige on his patron the Governor. The only losers were the 'commercial gentlemen' who had hoped to use him for purposes of their own, and were now hoist by their own petard.

KEAN AND COPPIN'S VICTORIA SEASON


 
Receipts Attendance
Mon 12 Dec Henry VIII $1061 614
Tue 13 Dec Louis XI 773.50 (439)
Wed 14 Dec Hamlet 895 (518)
Thu 15 Dec Merchant of Venice 930 (538)
Fri 16 Dec Macbeth 1089.50 (630)
Sat 17 Dec Othello 677.25 (392)
Mon 19 Dec King Lear 278.50 (161)
Tue 20 Dec Iron Chest 268.75 (156)
Wed 21 Dec Richard II 379.25 (219)
Thu 22 Dec Coppin 560  557
Fri 23 Dec Coppin 374.50 382

All figures are drawn from Coppin's diary. Attendance figures in parentheses are estimates based on receipts.

NOTES

1 What is History? Harmondsworth: Penguin 1964 p 10
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2 WILLIAM WINTER The Life of David Belasco Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970, I p 10, claims that the young David Belasco appeared with Kean as the little Duke of York in Richard III and as a 'super' in Pauline with Kean during his Victoria engagement. Belasco lived in Victoria at the time - his parents kept a tobacco-shop on Yates Street - but neither play was in the bill: see Table KEAN AND COPPIN'S SEASON
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3 MS letter to his wife, 2 October 1864 State Library of Victoria (hereafter SLV)
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4 Ibid
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5 British Colonist 22 June 1870; 21-22 July 1865; 11 February 1868; North Pacific Times 12 November 1864; Weekly Chronicle 17 May 1864
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6 For a more detailed discussion of the political issues, see ALAN HUGHES 'Charles Kean in Victoria: Touring Actors and Local Politics in 1864' B.C. Studies 74 (Summer 1987), 21-32
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7 MS letter, 11 December 1864, SLV
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8 J.M.D. HARDWICK Emigrant in Motley London: Rockliff 1954 pp, 216-17
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9 Ibid p 205
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10 Ibid pp 170-71
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11 COPPIN MS letter 11 December 1864, SLV; HARDWICK pp 204-06
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12 H. ROBERT KENDRICK'Amor De Cosmos and Confederation' in GEORGE W. SHELTON ed. BC and Confederation Victoria: Morriss-University of Victoria 1967 p 71
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13 ALEC BAGOT Coppin the Great Melboume: Melbourne University Press 1965 p 26
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14 Ibid p 12
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15 Diary 19 December 1864, SLV
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16 British Colonist 23 December 1864
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17 Ibid 5 May 1864
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18 HARDWICK p 218
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19 MS letter 2 January 1865, SLV
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Alan Hughes
University of Victoria