For your Bookshelf: “What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage?” by Alan Stockwell

Today a guest post by Alan Stockwell, author of What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era, as he tells us a bit about his new book. I shall add this to my TBR file – it has all the makings of a Regency era soap opera of the highest order, all the better because it is all true! Please comment below if you have any questions for Mr. Stockwell…


What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage?
A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era

The lives of eminent London actors of the Regency period – Kean, Mrs Siddons, Kemble, Cooke, Macready, Grimaldi et al, are more than amply recorded. This book ploughs a more unusual, rarer, furrow.

It reveals the theatrical lives of a family of provincial players who tramped the highways and byways bringing the latest London hits and classic plays to unsophisticated audiences in tiny country theatres and large manufacturing towns. The author offers not a specialist tome for theatre historians – although they will find previously unknown material and new revelations here – but a beguiling story of a family of three thespian siblings, their spouses and their children.

This is a Regency world far removed from the novels of Jane Austen. There are highs and lows, riches and poverty, twists and turns, and extraordinary events as in the script of any modern television saga.  The marked difference being that – for the Jonas and Penley Company of Comedians – this was real life.

In Georgian and Regency times even the tiniest country town had its theatre visited regularly by travelling players. These companies were usually family based and my book is an account of one such troupe – more adventurous than most – the Jonas & Penley Company, grandiloquently self-styled “His Majesty’s Servants of the Theatre Royal Windsor”. The troupe under their indefatigable leader Sampson Penley comprised three siblings, their spouses and two dozen children.


This picture from the Garrick Club shows Edmund Kean the brightest star of the Regency stage.  The man in pink on the left is Sampson Penley Jr of the once well-known Penley family of provincial players.
[Source: ]

I purposely divided the text into discrete biographies, allowing the narrative of each to flow. However, the subjects all being closely related, the parts form an inter-connected whole. So that their separate stories are easy to read, and are not interrupted by notes etc, all such things are grouped in appendices, which can be ignored if you are not interested in the research necessarily compiled for such a project as a historical biography. Although the book revolves around the theatre of the time there is much information on other aspects of social history – wages, transport, childbirth, postal system etc, which all impinged on the everyday life of players. Authors of Regency fiction may find such things of professional interest. Below is a brief look at the family members described:

  • Sampson Penley & his brother-in-law John Jonas and all their trials and tribulations setting up a circuit of theatres in south-east England during the Napoleonic Wars while touring with ever-enlarging families. Events include becoming lessees of the Windsor theatre and playing to the royal family; leasing a London theatre (a failure); the first English company to tour the continent in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon; the first English company to play in Paris since Elizabethan times and the riot that ensued; imprisonment for debt and bankruptcy.
  • Mr & Mrs William Penley who were Sampson’s brother and sister-in-law. For several years Mrs W P was the leading tragedy queen in the Jonas & Penley company while her husband was at Drury Lane theatre for ten seasons. Of outstanding interest is that George III’s queen “adopted” their six-year old son, had him educated at public school and provided £300 to facilitate his joining the Indian army where he ended up a major.  William became affluent and two of his sons became artists – Aaron of sufficient eminence to paint Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
  • Sampson Penley Jr who was a leading man at sixteen, joined Drury Lane where he was a principal member of the company for many years in spite of receiving the most consistently damning of reviews. He wrote several plays but only one success. He supported Edmund Kean in many plays and when he lost his place in London he became a manager in Windsor, Newcastle and Leicester. He fell in love at first sight and married after a whirlwind courtship, fled to Paris to avoid debts and died there far too young.
  • The three acting daughters of Sampson, Rosina, Phoebe and Emma Penley relate their careers in tandem. Rosina was the most important and she was the first British actress to be hailed by the intelligentsia of Paris for her Shakespearean performances. Rosina’s peregrinations as a respectable single woman travelling throughout the land, playing a multitude of parts in many towns and circumstances is very different from the typical lives of other women of the period whether rich or poor. Her sisters Phoebe and Emma played the same repertory of parts and on many occasions pairs of sisters acted together.
  • Sampson’s son Montague Penley who was an artist and drawing teacher (a pupil was Princess Augusta) as well as an actor, scenic artist and manager. He acquired the lease of the Lyceum theatre in London which resulted in a swift financial debacle and yet another Penley fleeing to France.
  • Belville Penley was Sampson’s youngest son who as a child acted in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo and afterwards with his family visited the battlefield. He did not become an adult actor but was a theatre manager. His wife was a singer whom he impregnated prior to marriage causing press condemnation. Belville went into partnership with the actor James Anderson at Leicester, Cheltenham and Gloucester. The partnership ended with another bankruptcy. Mrs Belville Penley went on to be a well-known singer of oratorio and religious works and her husband became lessee of the Roman Baths at Bath.
  • Cousins Maria Jonas and Frederick Jonas who also had substantial theatrical careers.



What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? is a hardback of 420 pages with an ISBN 978-0-9565013-6-3. You can visit my website for more information

And what is the significance of the title? It is a quotation from an anecdote you will find on page 28!


About the Author: Alan Stockwell MBE was a professional puppeteer for over forty years. Latterly, he has devoted much of his time to writing, and is the author of several books and many articles on the theatre, magic, circus and puppetry. He is a long-time member of the Society for Theatre Research and the Irving Society [that would be Henry, not Washington].  And has written on Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens (see website for more information).

Thank you Alan for sharing about your book! – Readers, please reply below if you have any comments or questions.

You can purchase the book here:

c2016 Jane Austen in Vermont

In Search of Austen in London ~ Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

[Image: Wikipedia]

A visit to the Globe Theatre in Southwark is an essential stop in London.  Close to its original site, re-built through the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, the Globe had its official opening season in June 1997.  Tours are conducted year-round and the museum housing the Globe Exhibition is a must-see – I have taken this tour a few times but have never been in London during the show season, usually late April to early October [  click here for this year’s offerings ] – so I was thrilled this trip to finally see a performance, and a play I have neither read nor seen:  All’s Well That Ends Well!

London 1611, John Speed map. Genmaps.


The best way to get there is to walk across the Millenium Bridge:

Millenium Bridge from the Globe – 2010 rainy visit!

Globe Stage

We had fabulous seats, front row of the first balcony with the railing to lean on, looking down onto the stage and the lowly “pit-dwellers” [and cautioned to NOT drape anything or hold drinks over the rail for fear of droppings on the standing-room only crowd below] – and one piece of advice – either bring your own or rent a cushion – offered for £1 and worth every pence!]

The Seats! - the Globe Tour, Feb 2010, hence the coats

What an experience! – transported back into Shakespeare’s day –
the language, the costumes, the comedy! Though there was no such
Globe Theatre during Austen’s day, Shakespeare was produced in the
theatres and Austen was a regular theatre-goer when visiting Henry
and Eliza in London. Austen and Shakespeare is, however, book not
blog post material! – there are numerous allusions to Shakespeare in
her letters and writings [ Richard III, Macbeth, King John, Hamlet,
Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice for starters…], but as heard in this
dialogue between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park,
we can perhaps get a sense of Austen’s true feelings about Shakespeare:

 Crawford: “… I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

And Edmund replies:  “No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.”

[Mansfield Park, Vol. III, Ch. 3, p. 338]

But back to All’s Well That Ends Well:  I turn to my trusty Shakespeare
text from college [we were using the G. B. Harrison text of 1952 in 1967!
yikes!] – now, I confess, quite torn and tattered, one of the few books I vigorously attacked with marginalia and underlining – but alas!, AWTEW remains pristine, a glaring anomaly, and I wonder what my professor had against this play?!  This must be one of Shakespeare’s duds – a comedy
without humor, a romance without a hero.  Indeed, this textbook says
[dated though it is!): 

“The play seems never to have been popular. Scholars have found no contemporary mention of quotation.  There is, therefore, no external fact by which the date of writing can be determined, nor is there any topical allusion or other clue within the play itself.  The style is uneven, but in the best passages, both verse and prose, there is a maturity which shows that the play was written in the latter half of Shakespeare’s career…. [thus] a date is assigned somewhere between 1601 and 1604.” [Harrison, p. 1018.]  It first appeared in print in the First Folio of 1623, after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

First Folio - AWTEW - Wikipedia


Its original source was from Boccaccio’s Decameron, likely from William Painter’s collection of Italianate tales, The Palace of Pleasure (1566), Shakespeare following the tale of Giglietta de Narbone and Beltram de Rossiglione quite closely, with his usual added subplots of fools and

Basic story:  Bertram, a young Count whose father has just died, leaves
home to attend the Court of the ailing King of France.  Bertram bids adieu
to his mother, the delightful Countess* of Roussillon, and her ward, Helena,
the daughter of a well-respected physician. Helena is in love with Bertram,
but as she is of a lower class, her affection is not, cannot be reciprocated [though Bertram does carry Helena’s handkerchief with him for the entire play, all the while eschewing her love].  Conveniently the King of France is dying; Helena offers to cure him with the knowledge she has learned from her father; her prize if she is successful to choose a husband from his courtiers; the Countess sends her off to Paris, and the fun begins.

The King is cured, Helena chooses Bertram [the selection process is very funny!], he declines due to her low social status [he is a man on the way UP],
the King insists, they marry, and Bertram sends her home without a wedding night. He then heads off to war in Italy to make a name for himself, writing Helena that he will remain her husband in name only unless she can get the
ring from his finger and prove she is pregnant with his child [difficult with no wedding night…].  Helena leaves immediately for Italy, with full approval of
her now mother-in-law The Countess who loves her as a true daughter, and she discovers Bertram making merry with the young Italian lasses, one in particular named Diana.  Helena tells her tale of woe to Diana and her mother and they agree to the infamous “bed-trick” whereby Helena will secretly appear to Bertram as his lover Diana – she requests his ring, she, or course, is left with child, her identity is revealed, Bertram confesses his true love after all, and as the saying goes, “all’s well that ends well”!  [This very brief summary gives
short shift to the subplot of Bertram’s right-hand man, Parolles, a coward and
a traitor, blindly followed by Bertram until his true colors are revealed – and
all up to humorous par with Shakespeare’s other such braggarts.]

Helena (Ellie Piercy) & Bertram (Sam Crane) - Globe website

The play has been rarely acted, and has no glowing reviews, as the following example of Samuel Johnson attests:

 The play has many delightful scenes, though not sufficiently probable, and some happy characters, though not new, nor produced by any deep knowledge of human nature. …I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram, a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who marries Helen [sic] as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.

[Samuel Johnson, Notes on the Plays of Shakespeare, 1765] –
in Harrison, p. 1019.

But enjoyable it was, despite the hero being a bit of a jerk [does “Bertram’
have a familiar ring as a hero sorely lacking??!] – he does every thing to hurt Helena, is obsessed with his social status, chooses friends who are scoundrels, whines, whines and whines again,  lies his way into the beds of maidens, and in the last five minutes, is, as Johnson says, “dismissed to happiness.”

But who needs a dashing romantic hero when one has The Globe in one’s periphery and a play with much lively wit in prose and verse [the King’s
timely “I am wrapped in dismal thinkings” nearly brought the roof down, though alas! no roof in sight! – I shall now use this phrase repeatedly and annoy all my friends!], and it all ends with a lengthy round of dancing – all characters participating in the raucous festivities where one is finally able to see Bertram as a more lively and affectionate lover.  My traveling companion and I agreed – all plays should end in such a way! [we later in the week saw Wicked and were much disappointed that the characters came out only for a bow and did not break into ten minutes of dancing!]

Musicians for AWTEW


* an Austen 6 degrees of separation stretch but worthy of note!:

The Countess is played by Janie Dee, who is also cast as Adam Dalgliesh’s lovely Emma in P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders and The Murder Room – Emma of course being the perfect mate for her Austen-loving detective and recipient of a very Wentworth–worthy letter of Dalgliesh’s professed love!

Helena and the Countess (Janie Dee) - The Telegraph

A side note:  the program guide is worth the price of admission! – with a short history of the Globe, Shakespeare in London, the background and history of the play to include its contemporary contexts all with pictures, photographs of the actors in rehearsal, extensive biographies of the cast, excellent ads, and the latest news at The Globe, a very exciting bit being the new indoor Jacobean Theatre which will allow winter performances.  Hurray! 

If you are in London this season, I can only emphatically say, get thee hence to The Globe! – this season’s offerings besides AWTEW are Hamlet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Doctor Faustus, Anne Boleyn, The Globe Mysteries, and The God of Sohosee the link here for more information.   

From The Globe Exhibition:

Elizabeth I dress


FurtherReading: [a very brief smattering of Shakespeare] 

[All photographs by Deb Barnum, @2010 and @2011 unless otherwise noted]

Copyright @2011 by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont