The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. It’s what theatre workers onstage and backstage are supposed to be addicted to – more often, as the 1965 Bricusse-Newley musical had it, it is the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I know, because I was part of it – a touring stage manager for fifteen years man and boy, completely seduced by the glamour of barnstorming one night stands in everything from provincial theatres to wooden village halls.
I am not alone. Kingsbury Jameson, youngest son of my 3x great uncle William Kingsbury Jameson the indigo merchant, was hooked. And he remained, despite tragedy and comedy in his own life, a hands-on devotee of the theatre until his death.
Rev Kingsbury Jameson (1856-1943)
actor, stage manager
Kingsbury is a fascinating man and worthy of much more research than I have given him. As a young man he became chaplain of the English Church in Bordighera, a small town in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. It was in Bordighera that he met his wife, and through her that I believe he found his love of theatre.
His bride was Grace MacDonald, daughter of George MacDonald, the theologian and fantasy novelist who inspired C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The MacDonald family, plagued by illness, sold their London home The Retreat in Hammersmith to William Morris (who renamed it Kelmscott House) in 1877 and moved to Italy in search of better, healthier air. In 1880 they settled in Bordighera where they built Casa Coraggio, their winter home for more than twenty years.
Casa Coraggio, Bordighera, Liguria, survives to this day
The house became, according to one report, “the centre not only of the British community but also of the social and cultural life of the town, open to everybody. Concerts, recitals, parties, entertainments, and biblical lectures were given in a large salon on the first floor, which was provided with five pianos and a chamber organ.” In 1880 Kingsbury Jameson must have been an early guest.
He probably saw one of the early performances of an extraordinary piece of theatre, the MacDonald family’s amateur stage version of John Bunyan’s Pigrim’s Progress. It was an adaptation in 1877 by George’s wife Louisa Powell and the cast included all of George and Louisa’s eleven children. Kingsbury Jameson must have been taken with Grace’s performance, and he married her in Rome a year later in 1881.
Now, as a MacDonald son in law, he too got involved in the play. On several occasions he took acting parts to cover for the illness of MacDonald’s second son Ronald – Ronald’s principal role was as Feeble-mind! Pilgrim’s Progress was performed on tours of Britain as well as in the private homes of friends and acquaintances in England and Liguria in the course of twelve years up to 1889.
Props and costumes from Pilgrim’s Progress, displayed in the town museum in Huntly, George MacDonald’s northeastern Scottish birthplace
(picture from www.george-macdonald.com)
(picture from www.george-macdonald.com)
Jameson may also have used his own family influence to get bookings for the play. It is known to have been performed at the home of Mrs Russell Gurney, whose late husband (he died in 1878) was a first cousin of Kingsbury’s mother Mary Anne (Gurney) Jameson. (I’ve written about Russell's pivotal role in the Treaty of Washington here before now.)
With the MacDonalds’ deep Christian convictions the amateur production was as much an missionary project as a theatrical one. Hardened drama critics such as Laura Ragg were unimpressed: “the team seemed to me wholly inadequate to a very difficult task." But audience members including Lewis Carroll, a family friend, were captivated. One, Joseph Johnson, wrote that “all who came … went away feeling that no performance could be more unpretentious and reverential.” Carroll particularly admired the family’s diction.
L:George MacDonald (1824-1905), Strong-heart in Pilgrim’s Progress
R: Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), who admired the MacDonald troupe’s “perfect clarity of diction”
The family felt it was engaged in good and useful work. The move to Italy had been at least partially effective – George MacDonald’s health was much improved. Kingsbury had fallen in love with Grace and the theatrical arts. All in all it was a very happy time. And although some of that happiness would evaporate in only a few years, Jameson never lost his enthusiasm for the stage. More about Kingsbury and the theatre here in Part 2!