Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 1982)

A PLAYWRIGHT FROM THE CANADIAN PAST: W.A. TREMAYNE (1864-1939)

Murray D. Edwards

The author reveals recently discovered details about the life and career of WA. Tremayne, a prolific playwright from Canada's past.

L'auteur révèle des details recemment découverts concernant la vie et de la carrière de WA. Tremayne, un auteur dramatique du Canada passé.

The remarks about William Andrew Tremayne in A Stage in Our Past concentrate on his career as a playwright. Further research has revealed more about him, his playwriting and his amateur theatrical activity in Montreal, which this paper will briefly outline.

Tremayne was born on 26 November 1864 in Portland, Maine,1 and died in Montreal on 2 December 1939.2 His father was a 'Prominent citizen of Quebec and his mother a daughter of Professor Andrew of the University of McGill and Aberdeen,' 3 so his place of birth was, we imagine, an accident as he was born while his parents were on a visit to the States. Details about his early school days are elusive, but we are safe in assuming that his education took place in Montreal where he also acquired his first job with the Grand Trunk Railways' Stores Department.4

It was not until he was in his early thirties that his inclination toward the stage began to show. According to Basil Donn, a close friend and colleague, Tremayne was busy acting in stock and touring companies in the late 90s, and at the same time trying his hand at writing film scripts for the Vitagraph Motion Picture Company. He was under contract to 'supply a weekly comedy script, and many of these were to form the basis of the comedies which made John Bunny and Flora Finch so famous.' 5 Incidentally, although John Bunny's past remains a mystery, we know that Flora Finch was born in England in 1869 and died in Los Angeles in 1940: sometime in between she may have resided in Montreal.6 Some of the 'shorts' in which she appeared between 1910 and 1914 were The New Stenographer, Her Crowning Glory, Love's Old Dream and Polishing Up. There is, so far, no way to determine Tremayne's contribution, but it is fun to think that he had a part in this early medium and was associated with a film star who, toward the end of her career, took parts in well-known American movies, namely, When Knighthood was in Flower (1922) and The Scarlet Letter (1934).

Tremayne's first produced play was The Notary, but unfortunately the script has disappeared. It was a one-act play written in 1893 for Felix Morris, who apparently used it off and on during his life on the road. Although I have searched diligently, I have so far been unable to find it listed among any of his performances. But I have discovered that he was a busy and fairly successful actor-manager about whom George Odell remarked in 1894: 'a good but rather mannered comedian whom I used to try to like when he supported Rosina Vokes.' Morris was playing in Kerry, The Vagabond, and Moses at the time.7

From approximately 1895 Tremayne appears to have turned his attention wholly to the stage. In collaboration with Logan Fuller he wrote Lost 24 Hours, which was produced in 1895 at Hoyt's Theatre, New York by Robert Hilliard, a young actor-manager who had his professional debut in New York in the week of 18 January 1886. 8 On 17 January 1898, the play was produced at the Criterion Independent Theatre and was billed as A New Yorker.9

During the late 90s Tremayne met Robert Bruce Mantell, and from that association came The Secret Warrant (1897) and The Dagger and the Cross (1900). Those are adequately described in A Stage in Our Past so require no further comment here. Other plays produced in this early period, include The Rogue's Daughter, written in 1898, and A Free Lance, which was considered a great success when it was performed in England in 1901.10 The Triumph of Betty played the Russell Theatre in Ottawa in 1906, with Miss Adelaide Thurston in the lead. The Black Feather was first produced at the Toronto Grand Opera House in 1916 by the actor-manager Albert Brown, and later presented in Montreal with Tremayne's old friend, Basil Donn, taking the lead role of Dick Kent. The Alien was staged at the Russell Theatre in Ottawa on 13 and 14 September 1918, Donn playing the 'heroic son', and was produced by A. Pacie-Ripple with Paul Cazeneuve and his wife, Orpha Alba, in the lead roles. The producers intended to tour the play through Western Canada, but 'the awful Spanish influenza epidemic cut plans short'.11 A Romance in Bohemia (which according to Donn, was in three acts) was produced in Trinity Hall, Montreal in January 1927. Donn recalls that Tremayne thought it a 'sentimental comedy'; B.K. Sandwell, in The Weekly Tatler wrote that it was

a piece of considerable merit in which interest and the sympathetic appeal of the story are well maintained throughout, the dialogue is neat and at times brilliant, its situations well contrived. The whole affair carried out with an expert knowledge of stage craft.12


Over these early years, Tremayne established himself as a playwright for the professional stage by recognizing the needs of the time in the commercial theatre. As A.E. Wilson points out in Edwardian Theatre,

Romance, sentiment, good dialogue, witty epigrams, dash and adventure, high flown speeches and gallantry - that was the kind of thing the majority of people, pittites as well as stallholders, wanted.13


If not exactly what Tremayne achieved, this is certainly what he strived for. He was also attuned to his time when it came to writing plays that would have a fair chance of being produced. There was one preferable route - to write for an actor-manager:

It was the actor-manager, the star who chiefly drew the audience rather than the play. Playwrights, of course, had their following and many of them were "draws". But they wrote round their players and designed them parts in which to exhibit their familiar and admired characteristics. The general demand would be not "who wrote the play?" but "who is in it?" And if the answer was "Alexander" or "Tree" or "Waller", the playgoer knew very much the kind of play he might expect.14


In Tremayne's case, the names were Mantell and Brown who were the attraction, and the plays in these actor's repertoires were designed to embellish their style. Barrett H. Clark reminds us that these types of plays were 'acted in accordance with the taste of the day, and were acquired by actors not because of their intrinsic qualities but because they were useful as a means to an end.'15 Tremayne's plays were 'useful' in that sense and served the actor-managers who toured mainly in Canada and the United States.

Tremayne was not seeking identity as a Canadian playwright; he was interested in the larger market, and to a degree, he succeeded in finding it. He was honoured by being included in Morgan's The Canadian Men and Women of the Time (1912) where he was noted as 'a young man of merit with some wonderful conceptions.' Four years later, a reviewer for Saturday Night ranked him as 'the most successful of all Canadian playwrights.' We should note, however, that he adds, '. . . in spite of his inactivity in recent years.'16

From approximately 1916 Tremayne started to fade from sight, but he remained in the theatre and continued to work hard. However, his focus changed. He spent more time as a director of Canadian amateur groups, and playwriting seemed to slip to a part-time occupation. The reason is clear. As the actor-manager faded from view, so did the playwright, W.A. Tremayne. He was not able, it appears, to change his style to become part of the new modes of the twentieth century.

During the years he was actively pursuing his career as a professional playwright, he was also starting to make his mark as a director and actor with various amateur groups in Montreal. Basil Donn notes that he was appointed Stage Director of the Trinity Players in 1911, that his first production was Esmeralda and 'some thirty-three productions later he resigned in favour of the writer (Donn) in May, 1925'.17 Playbills for that time show that he also directed for The Weredale Players of St. Stephen's Church, the Emmanuel Church Players, The Xmas Tree League Players of St. Lambert, The Y.N.H.A., The Court Players, The Dickens Fellowship, Community Players and The Little Theatre Players.

By the 1930s things were not going well for Tremayne. He continued to work but managed very little income; as a result, he existed on handouts from actor friends.18 But he did continue to write. Some of his later plays are now in my collection,19 and a number of others also from the latter part of his life, found their way to the United States.20

None of them are masterpieces by any means. The stories are frequently contrived to suit the 'tableau' curtain and the exacting structure of a three or five act play, but with proper casting, they would have compared favourably with his earlier works, such as Lost 24 Hours, the Rogue's Daughter, and The Black Feather, which did find acceptance with the general public in his day.

Changing Times, one of these later three-act comedies was written for women characters only which would seem to indicate that he was not writing strictly for the professional stage. Few professional companies then, as now, were comprised entirely of one sex. But at the school, college and Little Theatre level, the chances of the director's being faced with the problem of finding plays for a cast predominated by female was, and is, always present. It seems appropriate to assume that Changing Times was written with this market in mind. Yet, we can see from his description of the set that it may have been directed to the attention of possible buyers in the United States. He points out that 'The scene is laid near any large city in the U.S. not too far from the South.'

The curtain rises on Miss Leigh's study and private sitting room which we know from the description of the characters to be part of the Primrose Academy. Miss Leigh is the President and, as the plot unfolds, we discover that she is trying desperately to hold onto the past and has, as she thinks, surrounded herself with like-minded assistants. They are Miss Parker, her head assistant, and Lois Watts, a private secretary, and a cook, Hortense LaFleur. Her students, Cynthia Ross, Lucia Calvert and Marguerite Jonesby are in rebellion against the idea, but as good students in a private school, are made to toe the line. The only modern contrivance in the set is a telephone brought in because of the school's remote setting. The parents have insisted, because of the possibility of fire or robbery. It seems out of place but, as Miss Parker says, referring to the fact that it must have hurt Miss Leigh to have been forced to give in to this matter, 'Times are changing, Miss Watts. I am afraid there are other things that she will have to give in to.' These lines are, of course, prophetic.

Briefly, the plot is this: Lois Watts belongs to a gang that is planning to rob the old lady of her money and jewels, which, naturally, she refuses to put in the bank. She is saved by her niece, Patricia Lee, who, some years before had left, against Miss Leigh's advice, to find her own way in life. Disguised as Patrick Johnson, a member of a private detective agency, she returns to the house, apprehends the culprits and, in a scene in which she dramatically discloses her identity to her Aunt, is tearfully welcomed back. The scene dramatically points out that times are indeed changing for women.

During his stay at 368 Sixth Avenue, Verdun, Quebec, Tremayne wrote another comedy in three acts called The Ruling Passion. 21 It is set in England which may suggest that he was attempting to equal the London success of A Free Lance in 1901. The plot revolves around the attempt of Sir George Hargrave, a retired barrister and eminent K.C. and Job Winter (his personal servant) a retired detective from Scotland Yard, to protect the interest of young Hillary Clive who is in love with Sir George's niece Doris Hargrave. It seems that young Hillary is to inherit a tidy sum within two years if he is able to avoid being arrested or tried for any criminal offence. The villain, a solicitor called Hector Colway, also Hillary's employer, arrange to have his wife's jewels stolen. He then accuses Hillary, expecting that the inheritance will pass to Hillary's cousin, Vivian Crawley, and thereby into the solicitor's pocket. Of course, Sir George and Job (with more than a little help from Doris, the modern girl) outfox the villain.

The last full-length play in my possession is Phra the Phoenician which traces the character Phra, who dies in 60 B.C. and repeatedly comes back to life in three successive historical periods ending in 1586. He is accompanied by various other characters including his beloved, so we see that the sustaining force which enables this seeming extension of life over death is love.

Philosophically Tremayne's groping for 'eternity' reflects the work of poets like Rossetti and Mathew Arnold. Tremayne was seeking dramatic form for his poetic expression:

And shall my sense pierce love, - the last relay
And ultimate outpost of eternity. 22

No photographs of Tremayne have emerged to date, so it is difficult to imagine what he looked like, and almost equally difficult in the absence of other information to tell what sort of man he was. Apparently fairly straight-laced, he lived his later days in straitened circumstances as a bachelor in a single room at 362 Milton Street, Montreal, recalling his earlier triumphs. The destruction of much of his writing, as revealed by Charles Rittenhouse (see note 18) is but a sad epilogue to Tremayne's final days.

Tremayne certainly deserves to be remembered. He remains one of our most prolific playwrights. His work in Montreal must inevitably prove to be of importance to any history of that city's theatrical history and, the play scripts that have been rescued will provide scholars with material for further study in Canadian theatre at the turn of the century.

Notes

A PLAYWRIGHT FROM THE CANADIAN PAST: W.A. TREMAYNE (1864-1939)

Murray D. Edwards

1 Main State Archives, Augusta, Maine copy of 'an old record of birth'
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2 Burial Certificate: Mount Royal Cemetery Co., Montreal
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3 Saturday Night 9 September 1916
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4 Ibid
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5 Letter from Basil Donn, 28 March 1960
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6 Evelyn Mack Truitt, Who Was Who on Screen New York, 1974 p 110
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7 George C.D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage Vol XV, 1891-1894 New York, 1949, p 781
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8 T. Allston Brown, A History of the New York Stage New York, 1903, Vol. II, p. 441. (A cast list is given)
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9 Ibid, Vol III, p 554
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10 Saturday Night September 1916
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11 Letter from Basil Donn, 28 March 1960
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12 Ibid
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13 A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre London 1951, p 41
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14 Ibid, p 18
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15 Barrett H. Clark, "The United States," A History of Modern Drama ed Barrett H. Clark and George Freedley, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947, p 644
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16 Saturday Night 9 September 1916
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17 Letter from Basil Donn
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18 In a taped interview with Charles Rittenhouse (May 1981) I was grateful to discover a few personal details about Tremayne's last days: 'In the 30s, Billy was becoming increasingly weak. He lived with his sisters in Verdun and they died and he had to move with a kindly landlady on Milton Avenue. There he lived a most precarious existence - sometimes he would get together some of his pals and they would put on a benefit show and he would rush together some kind of a one-act play and then go out and collect the money and come back and divide it up amongst the actors, and they'd go off. But pretty soon, he wasn't doing even that. Also, in the early 30s he kept body and soul together by writing scripts for Rupert Kaplan, a serial on Jimmy Ballantyne, and he used to hand the scripts to Jerry Rowan, who was a very fine actor of the day, and in anything that Rupert Kaplan ever did for radio, Jerry was always there, and Jerry would take the scripts and often brush them up and they would go on. It was only once a week and he didn't get much money for it, but it helped to keep Billy alive, but the main source of his income was handouts from the many actors he had played with around Montreal. He had been a member of the stock company of the Orpheum, and he had utility parts, and was very much liked. I don't know why he was liked because I never met him, but evidently he was a friendly outgoing soul. He could be crabby and cranky in his old age, but people liked him. Jerry used to collect money and give it to Walter Wakefield, and Wakefield had instructions just to give it to Billy once a week, because he had a habit of taking the money and drinking it up. So that way they kept the old boy going. He became sick, I don't know what from, and Jerry got a call from the landlady to come. He called Walter and they went, and Billy died in their presence. Jerry paid for the funeral expenses, and Walter said he would look after his possessions. After the funeral, Walter came back to this rooming house on Milton, burrowed down in the basement, and came across an old, battered trunk, which Billy had use on his tours, his most famous ones being, of course, the tours with Robert Mantell. It had various stickers on it and names on it, and I don't know how Walter got it open - I think he said something about finding a key to open it - and when he opened it, his nostrils were assailed by the smell of decaying paper, which can be quite a smell, and he looked in, and there was a mass of old manuscripts, and play books. That was all that was in it. It was quite a big trunk, and there was a great deal of material covering everything that he had probably written. I don't know what was in it, and neither really did Walter, but there was what looked like manuscripts and play scripts. Walter decided it was too decayed to be worth anything. He never thought there would ever be a market for plays that were now sort of old fashioned and out of date, so he took it out in the backyard and burned it. End of the writings of Canada's most prolific playwright!'
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19 My collection is now on microfilm and deposited in the library at the University of Victoria:
Phra the Phoenician, historical romance in five acts
The Ruling Passion, a comedy in three acts
Changing Times, a comedy in three acts

ONE-ACT PLAYS:
The Viper
A Matrimonial Advertisement
Nance
The Wife of a Diplomat (or, A Lesson in Diplomacy)
A Mad Marriage (two copies)
A Cowboy's Conversion (two copies)
A Little Tragedy
Puck in Petticoats
Find the Thief (two copies)
How Kitty Went to the Play (two copies; a play for children)
The Wrong Apartment
Her Last Chance (two copies)
Title Unknown (A Woman's Way)
Title Unknown (His Birthday)
Title Unknown
Title Unknown (Uncle Joe)
Title Unknown
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20 Patrick O'Neill, Mount St. Vincent University, has identified the following plays with copyright in the United States:
The Cavaliers A Comic Opera in Three Acts, U.S. Copyright, 1932
A Question of Clothes A Comedy in Three Acts, U.S. Copyright, 1933
Find the Thief U.S. Copyright, 1933
The Man Who Went U.S. Copyright,1918
Find the Thief Minneapolis: Northwestern Press, 1933
A Legal Puzzle New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1911
The Man Who Went Boston: Baker's Plays, 1918
A Question of Clothes Minneapolis: Northwestern Press, 1933
A Runaway Couple New York, Fitzgerald, 1910
A Woman's Wager Philadelphia: Penn. Publ.,1926

Tremayne and Irving L. Hall, The King of Tramps New York, 1902
Tremayne, Robert Hilliard and E.H. Peple, The River of Chance and Change U.S. Copyright, 1912
The Flower of Italy U.S. Copyright, 1907
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21 We are fortunate in this instance that Tremayne wrote down his address on the cover. A check into Lovell's Montreal alphabetical director notes that Tremayne lived here in 1935. His other addresses are:

Tremaine, W.A., Clerk G.T.R., 369 St. Urbain (1894-95)
Tremayne, W.A., Editor, 488 St. Charles, Borromee (1897-98)
Tremayne, W.A., Journalist, 174 Elgin (1899-1900)
Tremayne, W.A., Author, 135 Colonial Avenue (1913-14)
Tremayne, Wm. A., Author, 1551 Jeanne, Mance (1919-1920)
Tremayne, Wm. Arthur, Author, Apt.C - 174 Selby, Westmount (1923)
Tremayne, William A., Author, 753 Moffat Avenue, Verdun (1933-34)
Tremayne, W.A., Stage Director, 368 Sixth Avenue, Verdun (1935-36)
Tremayne, W.A., Stage Director, 795 Third Avenue, Verdun (1937-38)
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22 Rossetti, "The Dark Glass," The House of Life, Sonnet 34
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