Hisses, Uproar, and Confusion: Mr James Fennell’s Riotous Nights at the Theatre Royal, 1788

An angry group of Edinburgh theatre patrons targeted an actor, Mr James Fennell, for systematic abuse as he attempted to perform his role in ‘Venice Preserv’d, or a Plot Discover’d’ at the Theatre Royal on 9 July 1788. The unruly group had

entered into a most unwarrantable and illegal combination and conspiracy, to interrupt the pursuer in the legal exercise of his employment as a performer on our Theatre, and…by hisses, uproar, and confusion, the moment he should appear on the stage, to drive [him] from the stage, and thereby to deprive him of the means of subsisting upon a lawful employment, and which has ever been held high in estimation by the elegant and polite of all ages, and in every civilized country…

The riotous theatre-goers were named in a Session Paper composed by the advocate Robert Sym as

John Wilde, Esq., Advocate; John Clerk, Esq, Advocate; James Gibson, Esq., writer to our signet; Mr James Campbell, writer in Edinburgh; Thomas Cuningham, Esq. Advocate; William Dallas, Esq., writer to our signet; David Cathcart, Esq., Advocate; Mr William Anderson, writer in Edinburgh; John Hagart, Esq, Advocate; Mr James Young, writer in Edinburgh; Mr William Inglis, writer in Edinburgh; Mr George Robertson, and Mr Alexander Cuningham, writers in Edinburgh, among with others their associates…

This group of lawyers formed a somewhat unlikely gang of hooligans. They represented 163 advocates and writers including the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Henry Erskine who objected to the recently-arrived Fennell switching roles with local favourite William Woods. Originally contracted to play Pierre, Fennell took the role of Jaffier in Otway’s tragedy instead.

A letter arrived at the theatre the next day addressed to ‘Mr Fennell, Theatre Royal from ‘The Public’. ‘The Public’ explained that Fennell had only been ‘permitted by Us, to perform Jaffier last night, not on account of your own merit or of your behaviour…but merely out of regard to Mrs Siddons, and that the company might not be disappointed in seeing her Belvidera’.

Mrs Siddens as Belvidera (1783)
Print, ‘Mrs Siddons as Belvidera’, engraved by Heath, London, 1785, Harry Beard Collection. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Although ‘The Public’ claimed that they bore Fennell no malice, in fact, ‘on the contrary, we esteem you as a young and rising performer: but we cannot with indifference see you unduly preferred to parts which have been long and most worthily in the possession of Mr Woods, who is in every way intitled [sic] to our favour, and whose well-known merit WE will protect’. The message ended with a threat that if Fennell persisted in playing the role of Jaffier, the unruly audience would return to repeat ‘the distressing situation of last night’.

Another letter soon arrived from ‘A Gentelman’ [sic]. This short missive bluntly threatened Fennell with bodily harm.

Sir, by g-d if you Take any more, of Mr Woods Parts, you wold better not be in Edinr, for by him that made you a gentelman as you Call yourself, I, will Brick every Bone in your Bodey, & use you like a Scounderll, as you are, and in the Men time I am yours A GENTELMAN. {I should have nade an appolgay for the Peppr and writing by any thing is good anauf for a Villin.}

Royal Theatre manager John Jackson also received a message from ‘The Public stating that ‘nothing but respect to Mrs Siddons could have procured a tolerance for last night’s performance. Be not therefore rash enough to try the experiment…we will not suffer your ignorance or ill-will to force upon us abilities as best doubtful, in place of those which we have so often witnessed with universal applause. If any such attempt is made in future, dread the vengence of “The Public”.

‘Candidus’ offered Jackson a critique of Fennell’s performance as doing ‘nothing but puff it away with mere ranting’. ‘Candidus’ also threatened that ‘the next time such a preference is given, or supposed to be given, the Play will be stopp’d, and you and your favourites hissed from the Theatre’ before offering a postscript saying, ‘By every means that are proper, encourage a young man, but never to the prejudice of older and better actors’.

Fennell had taken up acting after running up gambling and other debts at university. His father paid the debts but cut him off from all future funds. Jackson first hired him as an amateur in 1787 – as Othello – and contracted him as a professional in 1788. Jackson thought Fennell was a suitable performer to play alongside Mrs Siddons who he was delighted to welcome to Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal.

Jackson did not back down and Fennell continued to appear in plays in the coming days. His performances were greeted with ‘hisses, groans, and other marks of disapprobation’ from the unruly legal cohort who continued organising riotous protests.

On 15 July 1788, Jackson received a letter signed by a large portion of Edinburgh’s legal community.

SIR, We are of opinion that Mr Fennell’s late deportment to the Public, and your conduct as Manager with regard to that same matter, require a very ample apology from both, testifying your deep regret for having failed in the respect due to them; and if Mr Fennell refuses to make such an apology, you ought immediately to dismiss him. And we take this method of intimating to you, that if this opinion is not complied with, either by making the apology suggested on Wednesday evening, or dismissing Mr Fennell, that neither we nor our families will henceforth frequent your Theatre, or shew you any countenance as Manager, except that from our high regard to Mrs Siddons, we shall postpone executing our resolution till her engagement expires.

The first signatory was ‘Robert Dundas, Esq; our Solicitor-General for Scotland’. Fennell must have had some difficulty finding someone who had not signed the letter to represent him in court. Fennell refused to apologise and sued all of the signatories of the letter of 15 July for £15,000 for the damage they had caused him in his profession plus £500 for costs.

Fennell’s legal team advised him to drop the suit after several months with the warning that it might take up to six years to resolve the court case. Fennell agreed to accept £500 if the lawyers withdrew their names from their complaint letter objecting to him. Fennell was also invited to perform at a benefit to raise at least another £500.

An Apology for the Life of James Fennell, p. 273

He appeared as Othello to some acclaim. Fennell went on to enjoy a theatrical and literary career in London and in Philadelphia. His best role was Othello and he was known for his tragic parts.

Portrait of Fennell from An Apology for the Life of James Fennell (1814)

Sources:

Fennell, James, An Apology for the Life of James Fennell (1814)

Joseph Knight, ‘Fennell, James (1766–1816)’, rev. Nilanjana Banerji, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9285, accessed 19 March 2017]

Robert Sym, Legal statement for James Fennell (November 1788) [includes the letters sent to Fennell and Jackson]

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