In pursuit of Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon

Recently I’ve being trying to find out everything I can about a rather obscure pair of playwrights. They are Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon, authors of Are We Downhearted? and A Sailor’s Love, both staged in 1915. Rollo Balmain alone is credited with A British Soldier, a topical play that hit the stage in September 1914, just six or seven weeks after the declaration of war.
My research is part of the Recovering First World War Theatre project, organised by Dr Helen Brooks of the University of Kent. She and her assiduous team have gone through the vast store of plays in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain (His office read every play about to performed in a public theatre in Britain, and allowed or disallowed the scripts, or demanded cuts and changes. This system of pre-censorship persisted until 1968.) They have noted all the scripts applying for licenses between 1914 and 1918, and have discovered that a large number of these deal with the war. In each of the years of the war, at least a quarter of the scripts make some dramatic use of the war (and a huge number of them are spy plays).
I have joined the crowd of volunteers who are now trying to find out about the performance histories of the plays, and about the lives of the playwrights. For the purposes of the project, the most crucial fact is the date of the playwright’s death, because this determines whether or not the script is in the public domain, and can therefore be legally published online by the project.
I was struck by the exotic names of Rollo Balmain and Rosa Mignon, and I liked the Lord Chamberlain’s reader’s summary of Balmain’s play, A British Soldier, licensed in September 1914:

This is a crude and violent military melodrama of the day. Its hero is a gallant trooper who, while acting as secretary to a Colonel, just before the declaration of war, is falsely accused of the usual plan-theft, really committed by a German spy. The trooper, permitted to go to the front to redeem his honour, performs prodigies of valour in Belgium on behalf of the girl he loves and in defiance of her other admirers, the German spy, under whose orders her grandfather is shot in accordance with the new rules of Prussian warfare. Of this latter there is much denunciation in the newspaper style of the moment. There comes a moment when the eloquent Britishers and suffering Belgians seem likely to come to a disastrous end, which is, however, averted through the bravery of the hero in summoning, at peril of his life, a British ‘armoured train’ which, in the nick of time, saves the remarkable situation. The play is sound in patriotic purpose if weak in dramatic execution.

I wondered who Balmain and Mignon might be, and also wondered about their reasons for writing this play so early in the war. Was it an outpouring of patriotism, or a shrewd cashing-in on topicality? Or a bit of both? And I also wondered why I couldn’t find references to performances of this play, but could find an account of Are We Downhearted? by Balmain and Mignon, presented in Manchester in February 1915, but seemingly absent from the Chamberlain’s archive of plays examined. What follows is an indication of my findings so far; it is a work in progress, and I may well be updating it as time goes by and I discover more.

I started hunting for the pair in online sources. I discovered that David Frederick Balmain was born in Wolstanton in 1856. I’ve not yet discovered when he became ‘Rollo’. So far the earliest theatrical reference I’ve found (though I shall be searching further back) is in 1886. At Sanger’s Ampitheatre on the Westminster Bridge Road (a theatre mostly used for circuses and spectaculars) there is a performance of a play that originated in America: Hazel Kirke. Sara Mignon plays Hazel, and Rollo Balmain her father. The plot is classic melodrama: Kirke casts his daughter out of the house because she will not marry the man of his choice, then regrets it when he goes blind. He wants reconciliation, but it is too late – she dies. The Stage reviewer admired the dignity of Rollo Balmain’s performance: ‘[His] acting is of the highest order where, hearing his daughter’s drowning voice, he struggles to go to her rescue, but is unable to do so through his blindness’
Sara Mignon was only a few years  younger than Rollo Balmain, but here, as often in her career, she is cast as his daughter. Sara Mignon was not her real name. She was born Sarah Elizabeth Prosser in 1868, so would have been about eighteen when she took the part of Hazel Kirke. Here is a photo of her that was probably taken early in her career. Is she prettiest playwright in the Recovering First World War Theatre database? I’d bet money on it.

Rosa Mignon

In 1887, Rollo Balmain and Rosa Mignon married.
Melodrama was Rollo Balmain’s favoured genre; In 1887, he was acting in Sunderland, in Secrets of the Police,  which has a promising plot: The son of police superintendent commits a murder, for which an Innocent man sent to gallows. There is a condemned cell scene, and things are saved by a last-minute confession. It’s a plot that would work well in one of our present-day melodramatic TV crime serials, like Line of Duty.
When the production went to Scotland, a Glasgow paper ‘The Chiel’ condemned the play as ‘malignantly immoral’ and containing frequent abominations’. Balmain sued for libel, suggesting an attack on his personal morality. (Maybe sensitive because a member of his company had been charged with molesting an eleven year old girl in Birmingham?)  I haven’t been able to find out the result of the court case.
Balmain was an actor-manager, and one show of his that I would really like to have seen was Esmerelda. This was a musical spoof of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring the great music-hall star Little Tich as Quasimodo. The show featured a burlesque centrepiece which required Little Tich to dress as a ballerina and sing “Smiles” and “I Could Do, Could Do, Could Do with a Bit”. Little Tich was an extraordinary performer. Here is a film of him on the music hall stage, doing his celebrated Big Boots dance.

Rollo Balmain’s career was certainly busy and varied. In August 1892 he was presenting Offenbach’s operetta The Princess of Trebizonde in Northampton. In November of that year, he took over The Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street, London, which was known for its melodramas. His first production there sounds very obnoxious: Charles Hermann’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Combination. This was a musical/comic version of the story that played the cruelty for laughs and made fun of the black characters.

He continued in this varied vein through the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. Usually he is an actor, sometimes an actor-manager. Sometimes he is running a theatre. In 1901 The Stage announces that The Victoria, Walthamstow will re-open as the King’s, under the direction of Rollo Balmain. The 1901 census shows him and his wife Sara living at Hatherley Road Walthamstow.

At Walthamstow he presented melodramas with titles like  like The Fatal Card, but
I’m not sure how long he stayed there. 1903 finds him and Sara touring in a one-act play that formed part of a music-hall bill (a step down in status for the actor manager used to running his own theatre?). The play was Purgatory, and sensational (too sensational for some tastes).
In it, Rollo Balmain played a Catholic priest, Father Sebastian, who in his less holy youth had ruined a woman. The play shows him visited by Pearl Valette, (played by Sara Mignon) a notorious demi-mondiane. She tempts him to sin, but he resists her. She poisons him, and it is revealed that she is what became of the innocent girl he ruined.
The play caused controversy. After its first performance at Collins’s Music Hall in London, the manager withdrew it on the grounds that it was ‘immoral’. Balmain took this as a slight on his character and sued; he won £21 damages.

Though the early years of the twentieth century, his career remained varied. He can be found managing a theatre in Barrow-in Furness, and mounting pantomimes like Cinderella, but he was also (in 1913) acting in Troilus and Cressida at Stratford-upon-Avon under the direction of William Poel, the director who, with Granville Barker, was pioneering a new direct style of presenting Shakespeare, free from the clutter of Victorian scenic effects. There are cheeky comments in the the theatrical gossip column of the magazine Judy, by ‘Call-Boy’, referring to his broadening figure and calling him ‘Roly-Poly’. He seems to have moved into character parts rather than straight dramatic ones.

Rollo Balmain even appeared in a couple of early films, the most notable of which seems to have been Humanity: or Only a Jew. This tells the story of a Jewish gambler who saves a man from suicide; when the rescued man then shoots his friend and seduces his wife, the Jew shoots him. Strong dramatic stuff. As well as acting in the film, the resourceful Balmain seems to have dabbled in the production side of the cinema as well. The Stage tells us:  ‘John Lawson’s Humanity has been filmed, the arrangements being carried through by Mr Rollo Balmain, who has secured a number of well-known plays and novels to be produced as “exclusives”’

The first evidence I’ve found of Balmain as a playwright is in December 1912, when the Woolwich Theatre presented Monte Cristo by Rollo Balmain ‘a new stage version of Dumas’ novel, in eight scenes, by Rollo Balmain.’ (In this production Balmain himself acted the part of the imprisoned Abbé who gives  the hero the secret of the Monte Cristo treasure).

So he had tried his hand at playwriting, or at least at adaptation. But how did A British Soldier come about? How, especially, was he able to respond so quickly to the declaration of war, getting a ply on stage just six weeks later?
Gordon Williams, in his British Theatre in the Great War: A Revaluation (London: Continuum, 2003) provides an answer. He explains that this play was a symptom of the theatre of 1914’s ‘… wild scamper after topicality, and sometimes a lack of scruple about how it was achieved’:

Rollo Balmain’s A British Soldier, given at Walsall as a piece treating recent events on the Western Front, was virtually Hal Collier’s play of the same title written during the Boer War, which Balmain had ‘produced and toured’ at that time.

A British Soldier may have been presented at Walsall, but I’ve not found any reviews of it yet. What I have found is a review in The Stage for Feb 4th 1915, of Are We Downhearted? by Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon at the Junction Theatre, Manchester. This title does not appear to be included in the scrupulously researched spreadsheet of the Recovering First World War Theatre project, so what is happening? The answer, I think, is that this is even more scampering after topicality. The Stage review gives a plot description which is recognizably that of A British Soldier, but the play has not only gained a new author, it has been given a new title to tie in with the great popular hit song of the time. (The new title is justified by the last moments of the play, when the lovers are re-united and the curtain falls to the defiant cry of ‘Are we downhearted?’ Did the audience answer ‘No!’ in unison? I hope so.)
In theory, any changes to a play script should have meant a re-submission to the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Maybe Balmain and Mignon thought they could get away with it if the changes were slight; or maybe there is something in the Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence files that would shed more light on the matter. I’ll have to see what I can discover.

The Stage’s reviewer thought the company presenting the play ‘most competent’ and decided that it ‘should run successfully during the period of the War.’
The play did have a stage career, but not without being changed yet again. A couple of months later we read another Stage review of Are We Downhearted?:

From the practised pens of Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon. Produced in seven scenes at the Junction Manchester on February 1, this piece, with dialogue written up considerably since the original production by means of references to events that have occurred quite recently, is being presented in three acts, twice nightly, at the Elephant this week, where the final scene of a British victory, with the hero shouting out the inspiriting title, has its effect enhanced by the brave show of khaki provide on stage by the gallant lads stationed in South London.

At a time when there was a certain resistance to actors appearing in khaki on stage, and when white feathers were often displayed in the Stalls to young men whom some audience members considered should have been at the Front, the use of genuine ‘gallant lads’ (probably Kitchener recruits in training?) as extras would have forestalled criticism. Once again, any changes to the script should have been passed to the Lord Chamberlain for approval. Were they? I’ll try to find out.

By September, Balmain and Mignon had yet another topical melodrama on the stage, this time offering to deal with the Eastern campaign that had caught the public’s imagination because it seemed to offer an alternative to the bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The play was A Sailor’s Love: A Story of the Dardanelles, and it premiered in Plymouth, a naval town where enthusiasm for the Senior Service was likely to go down well.
The review in The Stage notes that the plot is ‘conceived on lines which are familiar to followers of sensational drama’ – a polite way of saying that the play squeezes in most of the standard tropes of the nautical melodrama. Not even the title, A Sailor’s Love, is original. Frederick Mantell soon wrote to The Stage, complaining:

‘I would be obliged if you would give publicity to the fact that a playlet by this name was written and produced by me at the late Royal, Kilbride, as far back as 1901, and was duly noted in your paper at the time. The piece in question (with Miss Louie Freear in the principal part) was toured by me all last year […] and on many occasions previously.’

Judging from the Stage review, the story of the play is roughly this: Commodore David Wayne, wounded, is recuperating, and visits Torbay, where he renews his acquaintance with the lovely Dora, the daughter of a wealthy shipowner. He proposes and is accepted. He does not know that she has also aroused the passion of Captain von Luff, a German commanding the Turkish navy, who has donned the disguise of a yachtsman while directing the activities of submarines in the Irish Channel. Dora has scornfully rejected von Luff, which of course only inflames his desire.
Dora’s father wants to man the star of the East, a ship heading to the East, but in wartime finds it hard to raise a crew. Von Luff steps in to help, and provides him with sailors who are in his own evil employ.
David Mayne is commanded East to the Dardanelles, and takes a berth on Dora’s father’s ship. Dora, as is natural to a heroine of melodrama, wants to accompany him. Her father refuses her request to travel on the Star of the East, so she and her maid dress up in naval uniform and get aboard as wireless operators.
When the ship is clear of port, von Luff shows his hand and takes over the ship. Dora’s father is placed in irons, and Mayne is condemned to death by a mockery of a court-martial. He is made to walk the plank.
Then follows what must have been the dramatic highlight of the piece. Tom Bateson (a sailor still loyal to the owner) the Stage describes it:
Notwithstanding that his hands are bound, suceeds in getting himself free, seizes a sword from one of the alien crew, fights his way to the ship’s side, jumps overboard sword in hand, comes up with Commander Mayne, severs the cord that binds him, which enables him to swim, and both are picked up by a British submarine which happens to be passing at the right moment. Upon their rescue the first act closes.
The second act happens somewhere near the Dardanelles. Captain von Luff takes Dora and her maid to his eastern wife, Cosima. She is told that they must not escape. The setting presumably evokes the idea of a harem (‘A Eunuch’ is listed among the dramatis personae) Von Luff  has not, of course, told his wife of his lecherous designs upon Dora. When Dora tells Cosima the story of her capture, the eastern beauty’s heart melts, and she decides to help her. Hearing that her father is imprisoned in the Ruined Mosque, Dora goes to try to free him. Von Luff returns, realises that Dora has escaped and that his wife has betrayed him, and strangles her.
Dora frees her father, but they realise that their enemies are in pursuit. Von Luff’s men surround them, and fighting ensues. Dora’s father has just one bullet left in his pistol, and decides to use it to shoot Dora, so that she will be spared a fate worse than death.
But just in time Commander Mayne appears, and all ends well.
The Stage describes the play as ‘ by no means lacking in exciting incidents’, and records that’It certainly found favour with the audience that filled the house from floor to ceiling at the opening performance’
Yet I’m having trouble finding details of further performances, and after this Balmain and Mignon seem to have co-authored no more plays.
I suspect that history may have been to blame. The play was presumably written in the summer of 1915, during the height of enthusiasm for the Dardanelles campaign. By September there were signs that it was faltering badly, and before the end of the year the retreat had begun.
This is the trouble with writing topical plays; you can be overtaken by events.

While Balmain and Mignon seem to have attempted no more large-scale topical melodramas. Balmain continued to express his patriotism in the theatre. In 1916 The Stage records:

Rollo Balmain, the well-known actor, is at the bottom of the Empire, Shoreditch bill this week, and is meeting with great success with his recital of a satire entitled ‘Germany’ and a patriotic sequel called ‘Real British Grit’. Both pieces have been written by John F. Lambe, to music arranged by J.W. Johnson, and are spiritedly rendered by Mr Balmain to a series of cartoon slides by Will True. The act, which is presented by J.T.P. Roach, is one that should be highly successful in these stirring times.

I’ve found references to further performances of the monologues, so they presumably answered the public taste.
Rollo Balmain was a busy actor. In 1916 he appeared as an Anglican bishop in Israel Zangwill’s playlet ‘The Moment Before’ , a ‘psychical melodrama’ that formed part of a variety bill, first at Plymouth, then at the London Palladium and elsewhere. In 1918 and 1919 he was busy presenting a production of The Misleading Lady (a comedy in which he played the part of Boney, a lunatic who thinks that he is Napoleon).

Rollo Balmain died in 1920, aged 63. Sara Mignon followed him in 1922.

Here is the brief notice of  Balmain’s death that appeared in The Stage:

balmain death notice

A similar notic appeared in the American showbiz magazine Billboard, as well.

Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon must have given entertainment to vast numbers during their careers. But theirs is the kind of theatre that rarely makes it into histories of the drama. Bernard Shaw’s collected reviews in Our Theatre in the Nineties cast scorn on all sorts of inadequate and hackneyed theatrical performances, but Rollo Balmain’s name is not in the index. Following their career shows the life of busy professional actors, generally in work, mostly in the provinces, needing to be versatile and opportunistic, taking all kinds of work in all kinds of places.

So were their plays signs of opportunism or patriotism? The former was definitely a factor, as they grabbed topical opportunities to present melodramas given new urgency by the times, even though they made no connection with the war’s actuality.  Yet I’d wager that patriotism was there as a motive, too. Just as modern actors often  like to think they are making a political statement by the parts they play, so too Balmain and Mignon would have been able to argue that by boosting morale they were doing their bit for the war effort. Their son Augustus, by the way, who trained and qualified as  a doctor, was a lieutenant in the RAMC.

This is a work in progress, and I shall be adding to it. Any further information about the Balmains or their work will be gladly received.

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