A Comic Play: Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs

Black-Eyed Susan on the bill of the Theatre Royal, Jersey, in December 1829

Black-Eyed Susan on the bill of the Theatre Royal, Jersey, in December 1829

Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs is a comic play in three acts by Douglas Jerrold. The story concerns a sailor, William, who returns to England from the Napoleonic Wars and finds that his wife Susan is being harassed by her crooked landlord uncle and later by his drunken, dastardly captain, who tries to seduce her. He is court-martialled for attacking a senior officer. All turns out well in the end. Much of the humour in the piece centers on the sailor’s nautical dialect. The play is a nautical melodrama (with all its stock characters) that praises the patriotic British tar (sailor) while critiquing authoritarianism in the British Navy. Aspects of the story were later parodied in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).

The play was Jerrold’s first big success, premiering on 26 January 1829 at the Surrey Theatre and running for a new record of over 150 performances. Britain at the time was recovering from the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars and was in the midst of a class war involving the Corn laws, and a reform movement, which resulted in the Reform Act of 1832 aimed at reducing corruption.

Black-Eyed Susan consisted of various extreme stereotypes representing the forces of good, evil, the innocent and the corrupt, the poor and the rich, woven into a serious plot with comic sub-plots. Its subject was very topical, and its success was enormous. T. P. Cooke starred as William, the nautical hero, becoming a star, and the producer, Robert William Elliston, became rich. The piece played simultaneously at Covent Garden Theatre for part of the original run, and soon after it closed at the Surrey, it was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for a total run of over 300 nights, which was extraordinarily successful for the time. After this, it was frequently revived.

The play was revived at the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon in December 1986, and the same production played for a week at the Playhouse Oxford in February 1987. It was directed by Ted Craig and designed by Michael Pavelka. The cast consisted of Simon Slater, Rita Wolf, Frank Ellis, Sidney Livingstone and Burt Caesar. The piece was given a 2007 revival at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. The play was made into a 1914 film directed by Maurice Elvey. Among the numerous Victorian burlesques and later parody versions of the play was an 1884 version by F. C. Burnand called Black Eyed See-Usan, first produced at the Alhambra Theatre.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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