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Louisa Lane (Mrs. John Drew)

This is the third week of my year-long blogging project. See here for more details.

Mrs. John Drew, c. 1896

Mrs. John Drew (Louisa Lane Drew, 1820-1897) was a doyenne of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century stage, as celebrated for her lengthy stage career as for her role as matriarch of the Drew family, one of the US’s oldest surviving theatrical families. Her son John Drew was a matinee idol in the 1890s and early 1900s and her grandchildren, John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, went on to become major stars of the twentieth-century stage and screen. Mrs. John Drew’s legacy continues today in the work of her great-great granddaughter, the contemporary film star/producer Drew Barrymore.

Louisa Lane's granddaughter Ethel Barrymore, c. 1901
Louisa Lane’s granddaughter Ethel Barrymore, c. 1901

My interest in Mrs. John Drew derives less from her famous family than from her own experiences as a child performer moving along transatlantic trade routes in the 1820s and 1830s. In her 1899 memoirs, Autobiographical Sketch of Mrs. John Drew (published posthumously), she presents a vivid account of her earliest performances and travels throughout North America and the Caribbean. In fact, what I found surprising in reading her memoirs was how frequently Louisa Lane and her family traveled along the Atlantic seacoast in pursuit of new theatrical opportunities. Drawing from the pages of her autobiography, my post today offers a summary of Louisa Lane’s early years, including her tragic visit to Jamaica with her mother and stepfather in 1830.

Louisa Lane was born into a theatrical family on January 10, 1820 in Lambeth Parish, London, England. Her father, Thomas Frederick Lane, was “an actor of considerable provincial fame” and her mother, Eliza Lane (Trenter) was a “very pretty woman and a sweet singer of ballads” (5). Louisa made her stage debut at 12 months of age, when her mother took her onstage to play the part of “crying baby.” However, young Louisa refused to follow direction: “at sign of the audience and the lights,” she writes, she “gave free vent to my delight and crowed aloud with joy” (6). From this auspicious debut, she went on to play all of the “ ‘children’s’ parts in the plays then usual.” She recalls that her parents or a stage hand used to keep her quiet backstage by feeding her cherries but that when she was onstage with actors like Mr. Macready, she would be awed into silence (7, 9). Louisa’s earliest speaking roles at age five included the part of the “rightful heir” in the melodrama Meg Murnock; or, the Hag of the Glen, and the brother of Frankenstein in an adaptation of the Mary Shelley story alongside T.P. Cooke in the role of the monster.

The celebrated American actor Edwin Forrest

Louisa’s father died when she was five years old but her mother continued to work in the theatre alongside her daughter at various theatres, including Cooke’s amphitheatre in London, popular for its equestrian drama. When Louisa was seven, Mr. John Hallam, the “accredited agent for Price & Simpson, of the old Park Theatre, New York,” engaged Eliza and Louisa to travel with him to North America along with other members of a newly formed acting company. Louisa recalls that the four-week journey onboard the packet ship Britannia was “exceptionally fine” and the company landed in New York on June 7, 1827, after which they traveled to Philadelphia for a stint at the Walnut Theatre (17). During this period, which also included a stop in Baltimore, the Lanes performed alongside and came to know most of the major American stars of the day, notably Junius Brutus Booth (Louisa played the Duke of York to his Richard III) and Edwin Forrest (Louisa played Albert to Forrest’s William Tell in the play of the same name).

Louisa Lane, age eight, playing the five characters from Twelve Precisely, 1838
Louisa Lane, age eight, playing the five characters from Twelve Precisely, 1838

Not long after their arrival in the United States, Eliza Lane married her second husband, Mr. John Kinlock, “a stage manager, and a very capable actor and manager” (26), always eager for new business opportunities. Noting the popularity of child actress Clara Fisher, Kinlock decided to promote his stepdaughter as a second “Clara” (28-29). Louisa made her debut as a “prodigy” as “Little Pickle” in The Spoiled Child, a play that was an established part of Fisher’s repertoire, and “from this time to the latter part of 1830 [she] played as a star with varying success (financially)” (29). Like Fisher and other child stars of the era, Lane specialized in playing multiple characters in a single play; this included seven characters in Winning a Husband, six characters in Actress of All Work (another Fisher staple), five characters in 72 Piccadilly, and all four of the Four Mowbrays.

Painting of a shipwreck by the British artist Thomas Hart (1830-1916), similar to that described by Louisa Lane
Painting of a shipwreck by the British artist Thomas Hart (1830-1916), similar to that described by Louisa Lane

In late 1830, the entrepreneurial Kinclock, “bitten with the idea of management” (32), partnered with a Mr. Jones with the goal of taking a company to Jamaica. But his dream of theatrical gold quickly dissolved when the boat the company was traveling on was struck by a hidden rock, “a case of ignorant carelessness,” Drew opines, “as it was a most beautiful moonlight night” (34). The boat was close enough to shore for the passengers to safely disembark but since they were nowhere near “any settlement,” the company was had little choice but to “settl[e] ourselves to stay for some time” (36), making strategic use of shingles and staves from the ship’s deck.

For six weeks, the company remained in their makeshift shelter while the captain and another crew member traveled forty miles (or thereabout) to San Domingo for help. During this period, Louisa celebrated her eleventh birthday. After a lengthy delay, the captain returned with help and the company made its way to San Domingo and thence to Kingston, where they apparently delighted the audience. But success was short-lived. Not long after arriving in Kinston, John Kinclock and Louisa’s infant sibling contracted yellow fever and died. Louisa’s mother Eliza also became very sick and the company retreated to Falmouth at the northern part of the island so she could recuperate. When “rumors of insurrection” in the region became “alarming” (38) Louisa and Eliza returned with the company orchestra leader to Kingston, and then continued on to New York.

I have many, many questions about Louisa Lane’s early career and her experiences in Jamaica. What roles did she play there? Who did she meet? Who supported the family during their time of need? How did their visit prop up colonial hierarchies? And what about those “rumors of insurrection”? I haven’t yet had a chance to look for any newspaper articles from San Domingo or Kingston but I hope to do this in the coming months. I have a feeling that there’s a lot more to this story…

Works Cited

Drew, Mrs. John (Louisa Lane). Autobiographical Sketch of Mrs. John Drew. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.