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Franceschina, John. 'Introduction to Elizabeth Polack's Esther.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 October 2000. 11 pars. <http://www.etang.umontreal.ca/bwp1800/essays/franceschina_esther_intro.html>


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1.

In her chapter on "Women Pioneers" in Feminism and Theatre, Sue-Ellen Case comments on the lack of biographical information available for pre-twentieth-century women writers and concludes that "the invisibility of their biographies suppresses valuable knowledge about the experience and models of women in theatre. Though 'firsts' seem to be important in dominant histories, 'first women' do not" (44). Such sentiments are especially resonant in the case of Elizabeth Polack, the first Jewish woman melodramatist in England.

2. Little is known of the private life of Elizabeth Polack. The actual dates of her birth and death are unknown but, accepting 1830-1838 as the limits of her professional career, it is likely that she was born early in the first decade of the nineteenth century. It is also likely that she was a member of the Polack family of the Whitechapel district and conceivably a close relative of Joel Samuel Polack who, in 1831, emigrated to New Zealand where he lived until 1837. In May 1837, while Elizabeth was busy establishing herself as a playwright in the east-end theatres, Joel returned to London and lived with a sister on 87 Piccadilly through July, 1838. Although it is tempting to suggest that Elizabeth was that sister, the evidence is far from conclusive.
3.

Elizabeth Polack is credited with the authorship of five plays, only two of which survive: Alberti; or, The Mines of Idria, Angeline; or, The Golden Chain (both lost), Woman's Revenge (attributed to John Howard Payne), and the melodramas Esther, the Royal Jewess; or The Death of Haman, and St. Clair of the Isles; or, The Outlaw of Barra. I have been unable to locate any references to Alberti or Angeline other than an advertisement of the plays on the title page of Duncombe's edition of Esther [1835]. A French play called Angeline; or, La champenoise by Armand d'Artois appeared in 1819 and Angeline by John Thomas Haines was published in 1837, two years after Polack's play was advertised. Neither of these involve a golden chain, either literally or metaphorically, in the dramatic action. On the title page of St. Clair of the Isles published by James Pattie in 1838, Miss Polack was cited as the authoress of Woman's Revenge along with Esther, the Royal Jewess. Because a holograph copy of Payne's manuscript in existence in the Harvard collection corresponds exactly to the Lord Chamberlain's copy of Woman's Revenge, in a copyist's hand, it is difficult to dispute Payne's claim to authorship. Was Payne's play, produced thirty times at the Olympic Theatre beginning 27 February 1832, borrowed from Elizabeth Polack, or did Miss Polack try to capitalize on a familiar title? The fact that Woman's Revenge was not advertised with the publication of Esther in 1835 almost certainly implies that it was written later than Payne's play, for thirty performances at the Olympic during Madame Vestris's management would definitely have attracted some attention.

4.

The "Eastern Melodrama" Esther was produced on 7 March 1835 at the Pavilion Theatre, one of the more notable theatres of London's "East End," famous for "Virtue-Victorious-and-Villainy-Vanquished" melodrama throughout the nineteenth century and at the turn of the century becoming the permanent home of "Yiddish" drama in London (Ellis 173). Converted from a clothing factory opposite the London Hospital, Shoreditch, the Pavilion Theatre opened on 10 November 1828 under the management of Wyatt and Farrell. In an elaborate proclamation heralding their enterprise, Wyatt and Farrell announced that

Every attention has been paid to the accommodation of the public—elegant and commodious boxes have been constructed and adapted for respectable Family Parties and which the Proprietors flatter themselves are fitted up in a manner to give satisfaction and ensure Patronage. The Decorations and embellishments are by the first masters. Centre Chandelier of beautifully Variegated Cut Glass designed and executed by Mr. Simonds illuminated with splendid gas light. (Wilson 68-69)

Because of its proximity to the Jewish quarter of London, the theatrical fare at the Pavilion was designed to appeal to a proletarian working-class audience whose tastes—gravitating to the sentimental, patriotic, and moral—seemed much less "sophisticated" than that of audiences patronizing the more fashionable West-end theatres. A.E. Wilson quotes an anonymous critic writing in 1843 about the hazards of attending plays at the Pavilion:

A night walk through Whitechapel...is not exactly similar to an evening stroll through Regent Street. At every step we meet Jew brokers, shops filled with an indescribable assortment of second-hand trumpery, locomotive fish stalls, baked 'tater establishments and penny-pie warehouses. After threading our way through the crowds of Israelitish-looking people...we at length reached the Pavilion Theatre. The play we found was Pizarro in which the actors did their best to enact their parts in a manner quite in keeping with the turgid bombast they had to deliver. (Wilson 74)

The implied anti-Semitism of the critic's remarks is not untypical of the period. Figaro in London especially was fond of denigrating Jewish managers and the Jewish sector during the years 1835-1836. In fact, the advertisement for Polack's play in the 21 March 1835 issue read: "The Pavilion and the Garrick [another East-End theatre] are running a race to gain the favour of Petticoat Lane and Rosemary Lane [the Jewish sector], by the production of 'Esther' and 'Ahasuerus.' We cannot but anticipate a sublime treat in seeing 'the ould closh' in all their glory, and shall attend the spectacle" (52). The following week, Figaro in London dismissed the production of Polack's play in a single paragraph: "We disgraced ourselves by a visit to the Pavilion the other evening. Such trash as Ahasuerus, and such actors and actresses are below notice, and actually degrade the profession. Richardson would not allow such men to parade his show front in Bartholomew Fair, in Smithfield" (54).

5.

The actors and actresses condemned by the review included several luminaries of the minor London theatres: Charles Freer (Haman), Mrs. Wingrove (Vashti), Cobham (Mordecai), Mrs. Harvey Lewis (Esther), and George Dibdin Pitt (Ahasuerus). Although there are few contemporary accounts of the performance, Lloyd's Miniature Portraits in King Ahasuerus show the actors in elaborate eastern costumes sustaining archetypal melodramatic postures. That these should be especially singled out for scorn is due perhaps to a growing critical aversion to melodrama rather than an indictment of specific actors' abilities.

6.

In many ways, Elizabeth Polack's Esther is the quintessential "Eastern" melodrama. It is filled to the brim with exotic detail, as the stage directions for the first scene of the play suggest:

The Grand Tent of Ahasuerus, the whole of the Stage occupied, having the appearance of a splendid Marquee, erected on golden and silver Pillars; The Draperies of white and purple. Splendid Banners, &c. A magnificent Banquet, in the Eastern style; the Vases, Cups, &c. of the most costly appearance....Trumpets and Cymbals. A Grand Ballet, in which the Performers at intervals salaam to the King, and present the Guests with wine. Grand Flourish. (5)

What follows in three acts is a fairly historical account of the story of Esther, the Jewish bride of the Persian King Ahasuerus. Through her nobility of soul (as well as her physical beauty) she saves her people from the evil machinations of the villain, Haman, the king's favorite. It is interesting to note that the play appeared at a time when Jews were beginning to take a great part in English public life. In 1830, Jews were allowed to become Freemen of the City. In 1835, Sir David Salomons, a founder of the Westminster Bank, was elected one of the two City Sheriffs. Since Salomons was a Jew, Parliament had to create a law to permit him to take office without swearing a Christian oath ("Sheriff's Declaration Act"). Later that same year, Parliament permitted Jews to vote without swearing a Christian oath and, in 1837, the University of London was founded to admit students regardless of their religious beliefs. The Gentleman's Magazine also records that in May 1835, a "panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem" had been painted by Mr. Burford (3:522) and that later in November, an "operatic drama, entitled The Jewess...was received with great enthusiasm" (4:644).

7.

What sets Esther apart from other melodramas of this genre is the centrality of Jewish (rather than Turkish) ritual and the emphasis on a woman as hero of the piece. Both of these elements converge in the final speech of the play—typically reserved for the male hero, or masculine symbol of restored order—where Queen Esther exalts in her victory as well as her people:

Blessed be this hour! happy be my king! and prosperous be the Jews of every land and clime! May the sacred tree of liberty never lose a branch in contending for religious superiority; but all be free to worship as he pleases. Let that man be for ever despised who dares interfere between his fellow man and his creed. Oh, people of my own nation, may the heart promised home you've sighed for present you golden hours of freedom; and down to posterity may the sons of Judah in every clime celebrate this time in happy Purim! (30)

A transparency descends illustrating the word, "Purim!" and the curtain falls on a grand tableau. Although Miss Polack's play is not the first English drama to treat this story, it is the first to emphasize Jewish ritual. Thomas Brereton's Esther; or, Faith Triumphant, a translation of Racine's Esther, published in 1715, and John Collett's Esther, printed in 1806, were both Christian interpretations of the Bible story. Neither were performed.

8. Esther became so popular at the Pavilion during the month of March 1835 that two separate editions of the play were published by Duncombe. Lloyd's Miniature Portraits of characters from the play were also issued before 1860, and the text of the play was published as Volume 120 of Lacy's Acting Edition of Plays in 1884. In one of the early editions of the play, Polack acknowledged her debt to John Farrell, playwright and manager of the Pavilion, by dedicating her play to him. Farrell was no novice to the melodramatic genre or exotic spectacle play. His Maid of Genoa; or, The Bandit Merchant had been produced successfully in 1820 and An Arab's Faith; or, The Seven Towers of Jaba had been performed in 1822. While not a writer of the first rank, Farrell had a keen ear for regional dialect and a sharp eye for theatrical effect. The Yiddish dialect used by Levy as a kind of comic relief and the heavy employment of musical punctuations throughout the play are devices reminiscent of Farrell's melodramas and may certainly represent his influence over the younger, less experienced playwright.
9.

In Getting into the Act, Ellen Donkin reports that, while a theatre manager's approval was necessary for any author, male or female, to get a play produced, among women, "the sense of debt appears to have extended well beyond the practicalities of editing and producing, and to have worked its way into the creative mechanism itself" (26-27). This appears to have been the case between Polack and Farrell. But at a time when mentoring between managers and playwrights was marked by "conflict, disobedience, or adversarial behavior" (Donkin 27), a display of public gratitude such as the dedication of a play must have been most advantageous to the author's career. It is quite tempting to infer some sort of romantic liaison between the male manager and female playwright but I have not been able to document any non-professional relationship between them. It is especially important to note, I think, that Elizabeth Polack exemplifies the pattern suggested by Ellen Donkin for escaping the "impostor syndrome" in which a woman writer feels completely dependent upon the manager's creative support (27). Miss Polack had a play produced successfully and went on to reap the fruits of her reputation. Unlike other women writers discussed by Donkin, Polack appears never to have experienced difficulty in maintaining a psychological distance from her mentor because her career as a playwright was never tied to a single theatre, and thus never controlled by a single individual.

10.

Three years later, Elizabeth Polack produced a Scottish Historical melodrama entitled St. Clair of the Isles; or, The Outlaw of Barra, based on the 1803 novel by Elizabeth Helme, and produced for three weeks beginning 16 April 1838 at the [Royal] Victoria Theatre. In this Gothic play, the Jewish exoticism of Esther is replaced by tournaments and Scottish tartans but the theatrical splendor and dialect humor of both plays suggest Farrell's continuing influence on Polack's work. Evidently the production of the play at the Victoria was below standard. George Rowell argues that between 1834 and 1842, the Royal Victoria was only barely surviving: managers were in constant flux, established actors were hard to come by, and litigation from the Patent Houses was a constant threat (33-34). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Miss Polack's play was outfitted in dirty costumes and performed by third-rate actors in front of dilapidated scenery. Critics were kind to the authoress but the play was never revived.

11. Nothing is known about Elizabeth Polack following the production of St. Clair of the Isles. Perhaps she married, came into money, or was forced to assume familial responsibilities due to the death of a relative (in 1839, Solomon Polack was listed as dead in the Kensington register; in 1840 the death of Moses Polack was announced in the Whitechapel register). Although it is tempting to speculate on the causes, the first Jewish woman melodramatist suddenly disappeared from public life leaving us two pot-boiler melodramas and a great many unanswered questions.

John Franceschina
The Pennsylvania State University

John Franceschina, associate professor of theatre history at the Pennsylvania State University, is the author of Sisters of Gore, Gore On Stage, Homosexualities in the English Theatre from Lyly to Wilde, Duke Ellington's Music for the Theatre, the Dramatic Works of the Marquis de Sade, and the forthcoming Women and the Profession of Theatre 1810-1860, and Against the Grain: a Social History of Theatre.

Works Cited:

  • [Anon.] "Fine Arts: Panorama of Jerusalem." The Gentleman's Magazine 3 New Series (January—June 1835): 522.
  • [Anon.] "New Royal Pavilion Theatre." Illustrated London News 6 November 1858: 430.
  • [Anon.] "Theatrical Register: Drury Lane." The Gentleman's Magazine 4 New Series (July—December 1835): 644.
  • [Anon.] "Theatricals." Figaro in London 21 March 1835: 52.
  • [Anon.] "Theatricals." Figaro in London 28 March 1835: 54.
  • [Anon.] "Theatricals." Figaro in London 4 June 1836: 92.
  • [Anon.] "Theatricals." Figaro in London 27 August 1836: 144
  • Alderman, Geoffrey. London Jewry and London Politics 1889—1986. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Booth, Michael R. English Melodrama. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965.
  • Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New Directions in Theatre Series, ed. Julian Hilton. Houndmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire and London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.
  • Donkin, Ellen. Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776—1829. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Ellis, Anthony L. "The East-end Jew at his playhouse." Pall Mall Magazine 41 (1908): 173—179.
  • Helme, Elizabeth. St. Clair of the Isles. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1867.
  • Polack, Elizabeth. Esther, the Royal Jewess; or, The Death of Haman! London: J. Duncombe, [1835].
  • ———. St. Clair of the Isles; or, The Outlaw of Barra. London: James Pattie, [1838].
  • Rowell, George. The Old Vic Theatre: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, A.E. East End Entertainment. London: Arthur Barker Ltd., 1954.