Everything in Rafael Sabatini’s earliest years pointed him toward theatre, musical theatre in particular. His earliest memory of his mother is of her singing opera. Not any opera. It was Verdi’s Rigoletto, and that impression was to have a lasting impact, showing its influence over and over again in Rafael’s work until he was 53, fifty years after he had heard Rigoletto.
There are many instances of the power of early impressions on Rafael’s mind to influence subject matter and treatment in his writing. He did not become an opera singer like his parents, or a composer, not even a producer of operas. But more than one reader from his early work onwards has discerned an element of the theatrical in his story-telling.
Rafael was happy with his career as writer of stories. He prospered by it. Yet deep inside ran a current not always controlled by reason and good sense, as some of his actions and words testify. It was the passion for theatre. A passion for writing drama strongly marked by the characteristics of grand opera – itself a style long overtaken by verismo and the ‘modernist’ opera that Verdi would have balked at. That was Rafael’s weakness, and he seems never to have grappled with it, which is my justification for an earlier remark.
What is the evidence of Rafael’s passion for drama, for making his own contribution to the theatre?
1903: Stephanie Baring, possibly from the Baring family of bankers, (who could afford to finance her forays into acting and writing/collaborating in minor stage works), undertook to ‘collaborate’ with Rafael on the dramatisation and staging of his highly operatic short story, The Fool’s Love Story, as KUONI THE JESTER. In mid-June it saw what may have been its single performance at the Grand Theatre, Luton. (It might have done worse; at the Palace Pier in St. Leonard’s on Sea.) Did it provoke ridicule? It might well have done! And it reads so much like the short story that I wonder how much was contributed to the script by Miss Baring.
1904: Undaunted, Rafael himself dramatised his story, The Sacrifice. It is not a story that lends itself to such treatment, in spite of a dramatic opening sentence. To open a story, or a novel, with an arresting line of speech is a long journey away from developing a play that catches and holds the attention. He did realise that his play could at best be a curtain-raiser, although Ben Webster, the actor, suggested that he develop it into a full play. In any event, not a single trace of this play remains, whose writing was recorded in his diary for 1904-05, the only diary found so far. Rafael’s script was shown to Webster by the former’s close friend, Harold Lee. Lee may have been responsible for introducing other theatre people to Rafael.
1909: The Stage Year Book describes as a ‘dramatic sketch’ FUGITIVES, that Rafael wrote, most probably from the story with the same title. Yorke Stephens, the gifted Irish actor who was the first Bluntschli, bought it in January 1910, agreeing to pay £5 a week for the duration of its run. Since Rafael was paid £25, we may conclude that it ran for five weeks, at the Kilburn Empire Theatre, from 26 June 1911.
Rafael’s friend, Francis Pryor, an occasional writer of plays, bought the option for dramatising Saint Martin’s Summerin collaboration with Rafael, 75% of profits to be Rafael’s. Part payment (£50) was made and that is the last known of it.
1910: In this year the subject begins to be interesting. Lewis Waller, the actor whose admirers included women swooning at the sight and sound of him, had somehow become known to Rafael some years previously, after the publication of Bardelys the Magnificent. By this year Rafael was well acquainted with important persons in the theatre; Oscar Asche and his wife, Lily Brayton were his friends. That would be a connection to Matheson Lang, who acted Tristram to Brayton’s Iseult and Asche’s King Mark in 1906, a connection which bore fruit later. It may be how he and Henry Hamilton came to collaborate on BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT, commissioned by the impresario Tom B. Davis. (Yet, in the end, it was not performed in Davis’ Apollo Theatre.) George Locke has a typescript (price £650) done in August 1918 and full of amendments in Rafael’s hand. Was it intended for publication? Is that why Rafael, perhaps, sought to restore the balance in his favour? For Hamilton was billed ahead of him and most probably did most of the writing, which is why this play was such a success. Hamilton was dead the next month. Waller had died in 1915. But in 1910 the play, with a fifty-year-old Lewis Waller as Bardelys, fruitfully toured the British Isles. In February, the play was staged in London, at Charles Frohman’s Globe Theatre, with Waller and Herbert Jarman (playing Louis XIII) as co-producers. It ran for a very respectable 53 performances. When it was commissioned, Rafael was paid £50 on account; his half-share of the earnings was close on £400 – as much as two years’ worth of the salary he was entitled to at the end of his ten years as a correspondence clerk! South Africa rights bought by Matheson Lang (who went on tour that year) for nearly £20, and India rights, about which Locke says no more, added to this sum. Reviews were favourable, too. It was most gratifying to Rafael. Too much so, perhaps. It convinced him that he was himself a successful playwright. . . . Yet, he was conscious of his debt to Henry Hamilton, to whom he dedicated his new novel, The Lion’s Skin. Their warm friendship continued.
1911 July: Francis Pryor bought the option on The Trampling of the Lilies to be a collaboration between him and Rafael, the latter to get three-fifths of the proceeds. Nothing came of it.
1912, July: Rafael sold to Ethel Warwick, the actress, for£25, a played called MILADY’S SECRET, which might have been a dramatisation of the story My Lady Roxton. That is all we know.
1913, March: Charles Frohman entered into a contract with Rafael for a dramatisation of his long story, The Avenger, paying him £50 on account with 2% of the takings when staged. There is no more known about this play – or do we have a clue? In June 1914 an article by Robert Birkmyre was published in the Bookman. Birkmyre states that Rafael is then engaged in collaborating with Henry Hamilton on a new play. It does open a possibility. Frohman sank with the Lusitania in May 1915. If he had the script with him, it was lost. But surely there would have been copies with Rafael – and with Hamilton, if it was indeed the collaboration that Birkmyre mentions? Nothing has been found. That is a pity, because the story has merit and Henry Hamilton would have done much to make it presentable on stage.
1913-1914, January: Once again, Francis Pryor paid Rafael a total of £100 on account for a play titled THE SEA-WOLF, which they were to write together; with a promise of the larger share in profits after it was produced. But was it? Not a whisper, a hint, a scrap is to be found that might lead to news of a production, or of a script. There was at least one play produced by that name, on the London stage, but not by either man, nor with anything to connect them to it.
1918: From his short story, Intelligence, Rafael made two versions of a play: SECRET SERVICE and INTELLIGENCE. All that is known about them is that they were written and that Locke has the typescripts for sale!
It is a pity that George Locke not only paraphrased Rafael’s diary of 1904 to September 1905, but published only select bits, which – since he was not well informed and lacked a scholar’s mind – were randomly chosen with no idea of the significance of what he left out. (Locke refers to “a man called X” when the name is of a person who was well known; he does not recognise that “Hugh” is Hugh Dixon; he also misreads Rafael’s handwriting far too often.) As a result, there is no knowing why Rafael wrote to Lewis Waller about his novel The Tavern Knight, which he did in mid 1904. Waller liked it, but when he got it assessed by an acquaintance it was found unfit for dramatisation. This was in October. However, Waller asked for any new work, and was sent a duplicate of the manuscript of Bardelys the Magnificent. Understandably, the busy actor could not make his way through Rafael’s handwritten novel and returned it in February 1905, but remarked that he would be interested in any dramatisation of it. This is what lay behind his enthusiastic involvement with the play in 1910.
The name Harold Lee appears frequently in Rafael Sabatini’s diary for 1904-September 1905. He owned a houseboat on the Dee, and was a member of the Liverpool Junior Reform Club. Rafael dedicated his novel, Saint Martin’s Summer, to Harold Lee, with the words: “in some earnest of my regard for his attainments, of my gratitude for his encouragement, and of my affection for himself.” It seems likely that the unnamed friend in Rafael’s account of how he came to offer his first story for publication was Harold Lee. It also seems likely that he was a publisher/printer in the firm Lee & Nightingale of Liverpool, which was also a News Service and an Advertising Service.
Lewis Waller (1860-1915) had a background with many similarities to that of Rafael Sabatini: born in Spain; intending a career in commerce, studied languages in Europe; from nineteen to twenty-three worked as a clerk. After finding his true vocation as an actor, Waller became a theatre manager and manager of a company as well, touring with it all through the British Isles tirelessly, in addition to making full use of his popularity on the London stage. He also toured the U.S. Canada and Australia. He was good looking, had presence, and a voice that Hesketh Pearson said “rang through the theatre like a bell and stirred like a trumpet.” He played Shakespeare as well as romantic plays in costume and with much action that included duelling. However the introduction came about, it is easy to see the attraction that Rafael’s novel, Bardelys the Magnificent, would hold for Waller. It may have been his doing that brought about the collaboration between Henry Hamilton and Rafael on dramatising the novel. He was fifty when he took on the role of Bardelys, and it was at least partly his great popularity which made it such a success on tour. He wore himself out with tireless touring and acting, dying of pneumonia just before he turned fifty-five.
Henry Hamilton (ca. 1854- 1918) had been an actor before he became a playwright, adaptor of plays (mostly from the French), writer of songs, and critic. He was well known and his work was successful. Among his adaptations was Messager’s Veronique - which an out-of-sorts Rafael was not impressed by! – and Sardou’s La Tosca.
Earnings from BARDELYS:
Ethel Warwick (1882-1951) was a woman of parts, one of them being acting. She was alluring in appearance and manner, was brushed by scandal over her earlier time as a nude model for artists, - and in 1912 was still married to the actor Edmund Waller, son of Lewis Waller. This may have been how Rafael came within her orbit.
Francis Robert "Frank" Pryor (1862–1937) was an English playwright with only one success, Marigold (1914), in collaboration. It was also filmed, and apparently turned into a novel. He was an angler, and it was perhaps from a fishing trip ‘North’ in 1912 that he brought back a tale of English pirates on the Barbary Coast, or at some time going south-west into Devonshire he heard a tale that, passed on to Rafael, sent him sailing from Falmouth in search of the Sea-Hawk.
Charles Frohman (1856–1915), U.S., was a producer of plays. Frohman also acquired theatres, in England and the U.S. and discovered and promoted stars, chiefly of the U.S. stage.
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