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British Bravery, or Tars Triumphant: Images of the British Navy in Nautical Melodrama

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2009


In recent years, melodrama has increasingly been recognized not only as an important element in popular theatre studies, but for the intrinsic importance of the form itself. Less considered has been the relationship of the material of melodrama to the ‘real life’ it reflected in a highly conventionalized yet ultimately (for its audiences), recognizable fashion. Here, Jim Davis looks at one major category, nautical melodrama, setting the images of the navy and of sailors that it created alongside factual and critical accounts of life at sea in the first half of the nineteenth century. He conveys both the pressures that existed for redress of abuses, and the consequent balance between coercion and subversion in the melodramas themselves – drawing in particular on the memoirs of Douglas Jerrold to explore aspects of the ambiguity to be found in contemporary attitudes. Jim Davis, who is the author of several books and articles in the area of nineteenth century theatre history, is presently teaching in the School of Theatre Studies at the University of New South Wales.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1988

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Notes and References

1. Quoted in Warner, Oliver, The British Navy (London, 1975), p. 114Google Scholar.

2. Howarth, David, Sovereign of the Seas: the Story of British Sea Power (London, 1980), p. 276Google Scholar.

3. Robinson, William, Nautical Economy (London, 1836), p. 21Google Scholar.

4. Quoted in Warner, p. 115.

5. Rahill, Frank, The World of Melodrama (Pennsylvania, 1967), p. 152Google Scholar.

6. Disher, M. Willson, Blood and Thunder (London, 1949), p. 53Google Scholar.

7. Ibid., p. 94.

8. Morley, Henry, The Journal of a London Playgoer (London, 1891), p. 164Google Scholar.

9. Daniel, George, Introduction to Haines, J. T., The Ocean of Life in Cumberland's British Theatre, XI (London, 1829)Google Scholar.

10. Quoted in Wilson, A. E., East End Entertainment (London, 1954), p. 64Google Scholar.

11. The first significant sailor in post-Restoration English drama was probably Ben in Congreve's Love for Love. His use of nautical metaphor, bluffness, and openness certainly seem to provide a prototype for his successors, although they are never so coarse or as sexually direct as Ben. The novelist Smollett, who had been a ship's surgeon, introduced nautical characters and language into his Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle, as well as into The Reprisal: or, The Tars of Old England, performed at Drury Lane in 1757. In 1760 Isaac Bickerstaffe's play Thomas and Sally; or, The Sailor's Return included a scene in which the heroine is saved from the importunity of the local squire when the sailor-hero turns up to rescue her in the nick of time. Cross's, J. C.The Purse; or, The Benevolent Tar (1793)Google Scholar and Arnold's, SamuelThe Shipwreck (1797)Google Scholar each contain a sailor character who talks in nautical metaphor. Will Steady, in the former continually declares ‘Shiver my timbers’ and describes his wife as ‘a trim little frigate’. The background to this figure and to nautical melodrama itself is usefully discussed in the following works: Booth, Michael, English Melodrama (London, 1965), p. 99117Google Scholar; Rahill, The World of Melodrama, p. 152–60; Clinton-Baddeley, V. C., The Burlesque Tradition in the English Theatre (London, 1952), p. 98107Google Scholar; M. Willson Disher, Blood and Thunder, p. 53–6; Forbes, Derek, ‘Water Drama’ in Bradby, , James, , and Sharratt, , eds., Performance and Politics in Popular Drama (Cambridge, 1980), p. 91108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. A Collection of Songs, 3rd edn, (London).

13. Statesman, 11 November 1809.

14. Sovereign of the Seas, p. 267.

15. Quoted in Warner, The British Navy, p. 121–2.

16. A Mariner of England, ed. Childers, Colonel Spencer (London, 1908), p. 111Google Scholar.

17. Ereira, Alan, The People's England (London, 1981), p. 140–1Google Scholar.

18. Quoted in Warner, The British Navy, p. 103.

19. Robinson's book was published anonymously under the pseudonym of Jack Nasty-face.

20. Nautical Economy, p. 1.

21. Ibid., p. xi.

22. Ibid., p. 39–40.

23. A Mariner of England, p. 292–3.

24. Ereira, The People's England, p. 144–5.

25. Quoted in Lloyd, Christopher, The British Seaman (London, 1968), p. 241Google Scholar. This statement seems to be partially based on a description in Robinson's Nautical Economy.

26. Robinson, Nautical Economy, p. 109.

27. Ibid., p. 119.

28. Jerrold, Walter, The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold (London, 1859), p. 32Google Scholar.

29. Ibid.

30. Robinson, Nautical Economy, p. 112.

31. A Mariner of England, p. 120.

32. Ibid., p. 106.

33. Ibid., p. 161–2.

34. Ibid., p. 309.

35. Robinson, Nautical Economy, p. 85.

36. Boucicault's play, an adaptation of The Cricket on the Hearth, was first performed in New York in 1859 and in London in 1862.

37. Nautical Economy, p. 29–30.

38. From ‘Statement of Certain Immoral Practices in H.M. Ships’, quoted in Lloyd, The British Seaman, p. 246–7.

39. Nautical Economy, p. 60.

40. Lewis, Michael, The Navy in Transition (London, 1965), p. 153Google Scholar.

41. Disher, Blood and Thunder, p. 53.

42. Quoted in Rahill, The World of Melodrama, p. 155–6. Although Rahill demonstrates the appropriateness of this statement to emergent tendencies in nautical melodrama, Scott was originally referring to earlier forms of melodrama, such as the adaptations of Kotzebue's plays.

43. Cumberland's Minor Theatre, XI (London, 1828).

44. Ibid., IX.

45. Ibid., V.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Jerrold, The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold, p. 19.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid., p. 20.

54. Ibid., p. 36.

55. Ibid., p. 36–7.

56. Thirty Five Years of a Dramatic Author's Life, I (London, 1859), p. 164.

57. Austen, Jane, Persuasion (London, 1818), Chapter 24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58. From George Cruikshank's Table Book (1845), quoted in Clinton-Baddeley, The Burlesque Tradition in the English Theatre, p. 105.

59. Nautical Economy, p. 105.

60. Ibid., p. 105–6.

61. Ibid., p. 108.

62. Ereira, The People's England, p. 151.