Volume XXVII · Winter 1973-1974 · Number 2
A Chapter of the London Stage: The Clement Scott Papers
--ALMA J. BURNER
Clement Scott, now scarcely remembered, was an influential critic and well-known figure in the theatrical world of the 1880s and 1890s. He was born in 1841, in the north-London district of Hoxton, the son of William Scott, a Church of England clergyman who was also a well-known journalist and Anglo-Catholic polemicist. Young Scott was educated at the newly-founded public school, Marlborough College, from 1851 to 1859. In 1860, at age nineteen, he entered the War Office as a clerk, and retired in 1879 with the accustomed pension and the rank of junior clerk.
Scott had long had an interest in the theatre from those occasions in his childhood when he had been taken to see The Lady of Lyons at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Christmas and Easter pantomimes at the Lyceum, and later the Shakespeare productions of Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells. Encouraged to write by the humorist Tom Hood the younger, who also was a clerk in the War Office, Scott contributed to Era, Weekly Dispatch, and to Tom Hood's own paper, Fun. He became the dramatic writer for the Sunday Times in 1863, but held the position for only two years owing to the intemperance of his published opinions.
In 1871 he began his long association with the Daily Telegraph, which lasted until 1899, first as assistant to the drama critic Edward L. Blanchard, then as chief critic for the paper. As well as criticism, Scott wrote plays adapted from the French of Sardou, accounts of holiday tours, and sentimental verse, which was published in Punch by his friend the editor, Frank Burand. By his position on the Daily Telegraph and with the support of its proprietor, J. M. Levy, Scott was able to pioneer the essay-style review of drama, which came to replace the earlier bare notices. He enjoyed great popular influence; his column of notes and reviews was eagerly read throughout the country as well as in London, and later, Theatre, his own magazine, achieved wide circulation during the heyday of his fame.
At the beginning of his career, Scott was a supporter of the realistic "well-made play" of T. W. Robertson, which was then an innovation in the English theatre. His own plays, especially those he wrote with B. C. Stephenson, were in much the same style of "cup and saucer" sentimental drama. Several of these were produced by the Bancrofts, the producers of Robertson's plays. By the end of the eighties, however, Scott had been left behind. He detested Ibsen, and objected to the treatment in the theatre of themes that he considered disgusting and about which he felt silence should be maintained in public. His method of journalistic composition involved writing his impressions as soon as he had seen the piece, and publishing them without revision. This habit, taken with his hasty temper and his dislike of the modern movement of Critic William Archer, the chief English supporter of Ibsen, combined to involve him in frequent and prolonged controversy.
This long life and these many activities in the theatre are variously reflected in the Clement Scott Papers at the University of Rochester Library, acquired on the Wilson Family Fund in 1969 and augmented with smaller groups of letters in the succeeding years. The collection consists of more than 2800 items, comprising correspondence from 315 individuals, manuscripts of verse, newspaper clippings, photographs, and memorabilia. There are major series of letters from Sir George Alexander, Sir Squire and Lady Bancroft, Wilson Barrett, Sir Francis Cowley Burnand, Sir John Hare, Will Terriss, John Lawrence Toole, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir Charles Wyndham, and Sir Arthur Wing Pinero.
One of the earlier letters in the series, written by James Ferguson in 1862, gives the young Scott advice on how to write for a newspaper, and holds out a promise of a sub-editor's post: "The prestige of being sub-editor on a first-class London paper will be a stepping stone to something better." As a matter of fact, Victoria Press was anything but first-class and was shortly out of business, but Scott was indeed stepping up. He was soon immersed in the ordinary business of the newpaper critic: he had a column to fill. Comedian J. L. Toole, in a series of 230 letters, writes to report his progress on provincial tours, while other actors and actresses ask for notices, send tickets and thanks for favorable reviews, and aspiring unknowns write to ask for introduction to the managers. Scott became one of the powerful London critics, though his correspondence shows that the victim of an unfavorable notice might venture to answer back, especially if he were a prominent manager in his own right, such as Sir Charles Wyndham of the Criterion Theatre. Scott was never afraid of a little controversy; he welcomed the chance to defend the virtues of decency. As early as 1872, he was corresponding with W. N. Dryburgh, his editor at Zigzag, concerning litigation over statements he had made, echoing Richard Lee of the Morning Advertiser, that Charles Reade's play Shilly-Shally contained coarse and indecent passages. The courts disagreed with the reviewers and awarded Reade damages, but Scott was not intimidated and was in court in defense of his opinions again and again during his career.
Much of the correspondence in the years 1880-1889 deals with the founding of Theatre and with the editorial and production details involved in securing and preparing a minimum of fifty-six pages of copy for each monthly issue. Charles Dickens Jr. writes concerning the printing bill, while Genevieve Ward agrees to sit for her photograph, which will adorn one of the early issues. Each number of Theatre contained essays, gossip, reports on the continental theatres, and a short biography of a leading actor, featuring a mounted photograph produced by the Woodburytype process.
In addition to his ambitious journalistic production, Scott wrote plays. Sections of the correspondence touch upon The Vicarage, The Cape Mail, Anne Mié, Odette, and The Great Divorce Case. Wyndham and Scott, after some haggling, agree on terms for The Great Divorce Case -- Scott is to have £52/10 upon delivery and £ 1/1 per night from the 50th to the 100th night. As the owner of the play, Wyndham apparently felt that he had the right to give advice on the details of the plot, as when he instructed Scott that "in farcical comedy we must condense always and not allow one word to remain that can possibly be dispensed with." Other managers' correspondence discloses that they, too, maintained the same artistic and literary as well as proprietary interest in the Scott plays they had purchased. Even Mrs. Bancroft sent Scott several pages of dialogue to insert in The Vicarage.
Besides the mass of material dealing with details of Scott's professional life, there is everyday correspondence which reflects a great social change in the theatre. It was becoming respectable. The great middle class had begun to attend the theatre, with the queen's encouragement. Many of the prominent actors of the day had middle class origins, and even those representatives of old theatrical families, such as the Websters and the Terrys, had by Scott's day become solid citizens who paid their bills and lived as quietly as their neighbors. In the collection are social notes from many of Scott's theatrical friends: invitations for dinner and luncheon, plans to meet at the club, the Bancrofts inviting him to join them in the south of France for a holiday. It was Scott's dearest wish to be elected a member of the Garrick Club. Eventually, in 1892, there is a letter from the secretary of the Club, inviting him to join.
Scott spent his working life and his private life in the theatrical world, and the collection amply reflects this fact. Yet little research has been done up to this point concerning his place in the Victorian theatre. The Clement Scott Collection in the Library presents a fertile field waiting to be worked.