Review from 'The Irvingite' November 2016
Review from Issue 85 September 2017
Review from Volume 71 Number 1
THIS METICULOUSLY RESEARCHED BOOK, drawing on a mass of contemporary newspaper reports and reviews, playbills and other ephemera, as well as family history, tells the story of the Jonas and Penley Company of Comedians. The performing dynasty’s tale begins in the 1780s and finally ends in 1893 with the death of Mr Belville Penley - described in the obituary column of the Manchester Courier as “an actor who had faced the footlights prior to the Battle of Waterloo”.
Alan Stockwell has produced a hugely entertaining and exhaustive history of the company and the families who ran it and performed in it throughout the entire Georgian and Regency eras. Packed with information and anecdotes, it will appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of British theatre.
Alan Stockwell, has written a four hundred-page book about the Jonas & Penley Company of Comedians who
acted during the first four decades of the nineteenth century and handed on the torch to later generations. . . . . . .
In the late eighteenth century Mary Penley married John Jonas, a puppeteer and actor who performed at
Bartholomew Fair for nearly a decade and probably appeared also at Astley’s Amphitheatre. Mary’s two brothers joined the newly-wed couple to form a Company when the Licensing Act of 1788 allowed local magistrates to open licensed theatre for sixty days a year. . . . . . .
When the war ended the author records how Sampson Penley made ‘an astonishing decision’ and took the Jonas & Penley Company to Amsterdam in a Dutch ship with a cargo of treacle. In 1822 they played “Othello” in Paris without much success. . . . . . . . .
After the death of the elders, in his ‘Act Four’ Alan Stockwell gives a detailed ‘eye-opening’ story of the young women in the family, especially Rosina Penley who had played Lady Teazle with Charles Kemble in the Theatre Royal Cheltenham and later played Gertrude to his Hamlet when he was now pensionable.
The book contains excellent reproductions of many playbills and includes a number of black and white drawings of the theatre of the time. There is much to learn and much to read – a good accompaniment for lengthening winter evenings.
Alan Stockwell's What's the Play and Where's the Stage? provides a remarkably detailed history of the Jonas & Penley Company of Comedians and their descendants who, "dragging themselves up from obscurity, became established as one of the most reputable theatrical families in the provincial Georgian and Regency theatre". Starting in the 1790s, the book traces the fates and fortunes of various Penleys across six chapters (or "Acts") as they travel between country towns and over the sea to Europe, building successful theatres, facing anti-theatrical prejudice, performing before receptive royalty as well as abusive French crowds, making occasional fortunes and spending time in debtors' prison. Outside the core chapters is additional material: a family tree; a "Curtain Call'' with brief biographies of the less well-documented Jonas children; and three appendices, comprising a table of known Jonas & Penley Company seasons and lists of the productions presented in 1814 at the German Theatre in Amsterdam and at the Theatre du Parc, Brussels.
Stockwell's work contains a considerable degree of historical context and covers the impact of major events upon the theatre industry at both local and national levels. These include the Napoleonic Wars (and their aftermath), the 1788 Theatrical Representations Act and the 1843 Theatres Act, as well as often-overlooked material factors, such as the workings of the pre-1840 postal system and the nature of public and private transportation systems. When combined with concise explanations of common features of nineteenth century theatre (star visits, benefit nights, magic lanterns, marketing ploys, acrobatic feats, etc.), What's the Play does, as promised in the "Overture", successfully “focus ... on the particular" to "illuminate the general". There will, perhaps, be frustrations for researchers looking to use this volume for their own studies. While the content is entertaining and the writing style engaging, humorous but historically dubious anecdotes are prevalent throughout and, as references are few and far between, it can be difficult to discern fact from the author's inference.
What stands out to the reader, however, is not only the depth of archival research carried out by Stockwell, but also the extent to which he is able to bring his subject alive and establish a clear narrative. Especially valuable are the accounts of performers' movements abroad and the developments of individual careers through the various provincial circuits and Theatres Royal. As longitudinal studies of "country" actors are still comparatively rare, this volume is a useful contribution to academics seeking an overview of the period, as well as to the general reader.
Alan Stockwell, the author of the book reviewed here, has unique and specialist knowledge on the subject of theatre and . . . studied the lives and work of a fascinating family of theatre actors and managers who trod the boards during the Regency era for this book. It explores the history of the two families who established the Jonas and Penley Company. The history of the company has been meticulously researched, tracing the experiences of the many family members throughout their befittingly dramatic lives.
The book is arranged in chronological 'scenes' following the company's flops and fortunes, with scene one opening in Wapping in 1782, to the earliest incarnation of the company. This was founded by Sampson Penley and his brother-in-law, after his sister, Mary Penley, married John Jonas. The family expanded rapidly with Penley and Jonas couples adding over half a dozen children each to the troupe. A useful family tree is illustrated within the first few pages of the book, which helps to keep track of the vast cast of characters as they are introduced.
The company was an extraordinary family enterprise of travelling actors, who visited and managed theatres in Kent and the south east. The ensemble brought the popular theatre sensations from London to audiences of small provincial and manufacturing towns. In 1822 the company further extended their efforts across the Channel to Paris with a disastrous performance of Othello, vividly described by Mr Stockwell in scene fourteen. The play was severely scorned by French audiences due to tense public feeling following the recent Battle of Waterloo.
Mr Stockwell sets the scene of the period with detailed descriptions of the architecture of theatres and set designs of the times, and even describes the form and production of playbills. The book describes how the parish clerk of Cranbrook, who printed playbills for the company, would spread the freshly printed papers out on tombstones in the churchyard to dry. The changing reputation of actors is also described, with actors and actresses having usually been considered 'rogues and vagabonds’. Their status was altered slightly following the Licensing Act of 1788, which brought ‘if not respectability, at least acceptability’.
A small collection of letters written by Penley and referred to in the book, are currently held at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. The letters demonstrate the familial nature of the business, with Jonas and Penley referring to a conversation with their sister in a letter requesting a theatre licence from the mayor of Folkestone to be granted at short notice [Fo/JQ7/1]. The letters hint at the uncertain nature of the company's existence, the troupe constantly moving from one place to another with no guarantee of licenses or audiences. This precarious way of life is exceptionally well-researched by Mr Stockwell for this book, which would be a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in stage history, or more generally in the Regency era. Macaulay Bristow, Kent History and Library Centre
The book concerns two families in a theatre which was very different from ours. The Penleys were linked through marriage to the Jonases and both formed one Company of Comedians which operated for many years.
We are given a vivid account of seeing a play where all classes of society were perched on backless benches in an overpowering atmosphere from candles and oil lamps in small theatres. Gallery audiences were often rowdier than would be accepted now. Getting there and back had its hazards from thieves and footpads in unlit, unpaved and muddy streets.
Most theatres in their circuit were small in towns like Tenterden, Dover, Rye, Battle, Folkestone and elsewhere. The Penleys leased the Windsor Theatre for many years, but the seasons were short at the behest of the Eton School governors who allowed the theatre to open only during the holidays. The Company played mainly in the south but made occasional forays to Coventry and Newcastle and they spent some time in European theatres. The threat from Napoleon kept platoons of soldiers stationed on the south coast where Penley and Jonas’s theatres were well patronised by the militia even though theatre-going was relatively expensive.
Family members did well elsewhere. Sampson Junior played at Drury Lane for many years and staged his plays there. William also acted there. Montague was an actor and scenic artist. Rosina was engaged by many of the better provincial houses but never made the capital.
The content of Alan's book, with illustrations, is highly detailed and it is difficult to give it proper justice in a short review. The amount of research is breathtaking. It is an easy, ‘chatty’ read in bite size chapters, far removed from being dry or stuffy, but tells human stories with a touch of humour. It is aimed at the general reader although theatre enthusiasts will learn much from it. We know much of the Shakespearean theatre, but little after that until the mid 1800s.
This volume constitutes an important piece of jig-saw which helps us to understand the theatre’s progression into the better known mid/late Victorian period. It is a work of much significance and will richly entertain and inform all those who read it.
A brilliantly researched book which brings to life an amazing family and the period in which they lived and worked. A must for anyone who works in theatre and is interested in how it used to be. To be honest, some of the trials and tribulations still go on to this day! Actually this is a must for anyone who enjoys a really good read. Highly recommended - well done Alan Stockwell.
Imagine – no cars, no trains, no roads (in the modern sense of the word at least). A husband, a wife and a small army of children, all ones worldly goods, plus costumes, scenery & a miscellany of props and other ephemera; this whole entourage travelling town to town on an annual ritual. But not just one family, oh no; multiply this scenario numerous times, and there one starts to understand the hectic existence of a Georgian theatrical troupe.
A book written in such detail you could almost be living the highs, the lows, the successes and the failures. How these folk managed the sheer logistics of their existence would challenge most 21st century folk, even with our modern appliances, infrastructure & transport. An era when local theatres could only open for short periods at a time, and where licences had to be obtained in advance from local administrators. Today I guess we would simply pick up the phone or send an email, but back then even the postage stamp hadn’t been invented, and travelling ahead to a new destination would take days rather than hours.
I hope that in 300 years time someone will write about my career in showbusiness as meticulously as Alan Stockwell has done about the Jonas & Penley families. A brilliantly researched and thoroughly enjoyable read.