Little Lord Fauntleroy: Theatrical Productions (Late 1880s-1910s)


Figure 1.--Ray Maskel was a popular child actor who often played Little Lord Fauntleroy before the turn of the century.

Little Lord Fauntleroy proved to be a sensation in the theater as well as in book form. Soon after the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the enormous popularity of the book virtually ensured that the story would appear on the stage. It not only appeared, but proved enormously successful, not only in the United States, but on the London stage as well. Productions on the Continent soon followed. We have little information on these Continental productions. Along with the income from the book, it changed Mrs. Burnett's life for ever. As much as people now make fun of the play, it had an amazing run. Most plays have one run and are then forgotten. Fauntleroy not only had a long initial run, but it constantlt reappeared throughout the 1890s and 1900s before World War I. Even after the War, moie versions began to appear.

The Authoress

Francis Eliza Hodgson was born on November 24, 1849, at Cheetham Hill on the edge of Manchester, England. She was the eldest daughter in a family of two boys and three girls. Their father, a wealthy iron monger and silversmith died when she was only 3 years old. The family experienced financial problems after the death of her father. They moved to America and Frances dedicated herself to regaining the family's lost social and financial status. The theme of poverty or a orphaned child would figure prominently in her future writing. The parallels with Charles Dickens are quite strong. The book and stage plays brought Mrs. Burnett the freedom she had been seeking her entire life.

The Book

Francis Hobson Burnett originally conceived of the Little Lord Fauntleroy story as a way of entertaining her children. She published the book in 1886. She was at the time a well respected writer, contributing to many publications--but it was Little Lord Fauntleroy. The book was an enormous popular and critical sucess. It was not a child's book, but widely read by adults of the day. It had an appeal to Americans that is hard to understand today. Editions published in England and the Continent were also highly successful.


Figure 2.--Silent film star Buster Keyton as a boy of 10 played Little Lord Fauntleroy. He is shown here on tour in New England.

Stage Plays

The popularity of the book Little Lord Fauntleroy was aided by a adaptation which followed the book's publication. The stage play brought Cedric and his travails to life for audiences in England as well as in the United States. Burnett wrote the play herself, and made a considerable amount of money from the venture, despite a disagreement with her publisher and producer over who controlled a property which the New York Times called "more valuable than any other on the American stage." ["Who Controls Fauntleroy?," New York Times, February 5. 1889, p.8, col. 2.]

Mrs. Burnett was becoming a wealthy lady, energetically entered into the job of producing stage productions of her work. A play based on Mrs. Burnett's play opened in London during May 1888. Little Lord Fauntleroy was first performed in London's Prince Albert Theater on February, 1888. Cedric was played by Vera Berringer. This was, however, a pirated version not authorized by Mrs. Burnett.

Early Productions

The first two productions of Little Lord Fauntleroy were in Boston an New York. Thre were followed by many authorized and unauthorized productions.

Boston

Mrs. Burnett's first production of her book opened in Boston during September 1888 under the name of The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy. Cedric was played by Elsie Leslie, who was only 7 ywars old at the time--the first of many girls to play the part.

New York

When the play moved to Broadway in New York during December 1988, the role was split between Elsie and Tommy Russel. [Vivian Burnett, The Romantick Lady, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927), p. 166-173.] A New York reviewer wrote, after seeing the preview, "As an ideal picture of child life as Little Lord Fauntleroy has never been supposed." "Of child actress Elsie Leslie, another reviewer wrote, "She is a lovely figure in Cedric's dainty costumes and her photograph in character will be in the shop windows before too long." The same writer continued, "Every mother will like the pretty play, the children will be taken to see it, and few fathers will object to it."

Subsequent Productions

The stage productions of her book were extremely successful financially for Mrs. Burnett. The "Fauntleroy" mania by Spring 1889 had spread throughout the country. In June, there were two New York productions, three companies in Boston and two in Chicago, in addition to at least a dozen more touring companies. Eventually "Little Lord Fauntleroy" played for nearly 4 years in New York and 2 years in London. The play soon moved from the London stage to Paris, Berlin, and other Continental cities. Productions of the story were popular sucesses even into the 1900s. ["The Theatres," New York Times, December 2, 1888, p.3, col. 2; "Little Lord Fauntleroy," New York Times, December 4, 1888, p.S, col. 2.; and "Children of the Stage," New York Times, June 16, 1889, p.16, col. 3.]

Success

The success of the book and play aforded Mrs. Burnett the financial security she had always sought. At the peak it was earning the authoress $1,500 weekly, which added to the book revenue made Mrs, Burnett a very wealthy lady. This was somewhat complicated by the appearance of unauthorized productions. She had to enter a law suit in London to prevent another dramatist from producing a pirated version of the story. In the end the legal fuding made Little Lord Fauntleroy more famous than ever.


Figure 3.--Little Lord Fauntleroy was played by both boys and girls. This is Elsie Leslic, the first American Fauntleroy, on stage in the New York production.

The Costuming

The costuming of Mrs. Burnett's production was quite elaborate for Little Lord Fauntleroy. It is interesting to follow the transition from the Birch drawings in the first edition of Mrs. Burnett's book to the stage costuming.

Little Lord Fauntleroy in the stage productions wore velvet kneepants suits, elaborate lace collars, and ringlet curls. Many other produtions, and there were a substantial number, also had elaborate costume for the story's hero. In many cases the lace trim on his velvet suit was extremely elaborate. A few productions had less elaborate costumes, even short hair or Eton collars.

Early productions of the story, especially the ones produced by Mrs. Burnett, used classic Fauntleroy styling with small velvet jackets worn with frilly blouses and enormous lace collars. The classic ringlet curl were often worn. Later productions tended to have larger jackets worn closed with various types of collars.

The Actors

Little Lord Fauntleroy made theatrical history. The play is claimed to be the first play written for children and the first to make extensive use of child actors, for Cedric's was not the only juvenile part. The child actors playing Little Lord Fauntleroy were mostly boys, but some girls also played the part. Some of the more well know boys were Tommy Russell and Ray Maskell. The most well-know boy to play Little Lord Fauntleroy was Buster Keyton who at 10-years of age played the part. Little Lord Fauntleroy was also played by several girls.

Chronology

Productions of Little Lord Fauntleroy wildly popular in the late 1880s and 1890s. The productions continued into the 1900s and did not begin to decline until World War I. The interest in the story did not end even in the 1920s and 30s as the Mary Pickford (1921) and Freddy Bartholmew (1936) films demonstrate.

Audiences

Many children were indeed taken to see it. Many boys presumably attired in the popular velvet suit fashion. Most audiences reprtedly included large numbers of children, a phenomenon that more than one reviewer noted. Perhaps many mothers thought reading the book or seeing the play would have a salutory impact on their sons. It does seem that sons and daughters were taken to see the play. One can imagine that some mothers must have outdid themselves in an effort to make sons taken to see the play to dress them as much like the main character as possible. One reviewer writes, "Every mother will like this pretty play, and the children will be taken to see it, and few fathers will object to it. One momment we are laughing with gladness; a little cloud ome accross the scene, and there is a tear, or some thing like tear in ??? eyes--and ??? the sun again and the face of the world is bright." [New York Times quote in an undated playbill.] What HBC does not fully understand is how common it was at the time to take children to plays. We rather think that until Little Lord Fauntleroy that it was not common to take children to the theater. It seems to have been more of an adult activity and it wasn't until their teen years that children might be taken to the theater. But this needs to be confirmed. A HBC reader reports, "Better off children were certainly attending theatres in Edwardian times. Note the enormous popularity of Peter Pan." What we are not sure about was how common it was to take childrn to the theater before Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Movies

Mrs. Burnett lived well into the 20th Century. I'm not sure if she took any interest in the movie productions that were made of her book. The Mary Pickford movie, for examlple, was made in 1921, a few years before Mrs. Burnett's death.





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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: January 22, 2003