Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Adventure of the Abbey Troupe - some Devon Amateurs & their 1922 Sherlock Holmes Play.

                                      [Hartland Abbey, North Devon]

This is a post in celebration of Howard Ostrom's "A-Z of Sherlock Holmes Performers", Baker Street Babes (SEE) of all Sherlockian ages, and amateurs everywhere.

Poised to hit 5000 entries, the A-Z hosted by Ross. K Foad (HERE) chronicles many an amateur rubbing shoulders with professional interpretations of Conan Doyle's detective worldwide, on stage and in all media, ancient and modern. Too often, performances are lost to history, save for an inch or two of newsprint. Sometimes, even when that is all we have (as here), a little research can be surprisingly revealing. Not only do we find a new "Original Baker Street Babe" playing Sherlock Holmes, but a cast unexpectedly illustrious, acting for charity one September night in 1922.
[Hartland & West Country Chronicle 27 Sept 1922]

                              [North Devon Journal 21 Sept 1922]
The venue for the entertainment was not the spacious 1,100 seat Exeter cinema of that name but Bideford's tiny namesake, little more than a hall, converted in 1919 from the stables of the Heavitree Arms. Today, it is the Palladium Club, holding 150 people. Throughout the 1920's it was in regular use for concerts, whist drives, dances and the like, with occasional travelling cinema shows. On Thursday 14 September, 1922, the Abbey Troupe presented an evening of entertainment and dancing here in aid of Hartland Nursing Association.


Members of two families composed the core of this troupe that appears to have come together, suitably named, for this unique occasion, and it will pay to identify them before commenting on the centrepiece of that evening, their Sherlock Holmes play.

The Stucleys.

The participation of four Stucleys explains the troupe's name. Mrs. H. Stucley, who appears in two tableaux vivants, is the wife of Sir Hugh Nicholas Granville Stucley (1873-1956) of Alfreton Castle, Moreton & Hartland Abbey. (SEE). Little Bo-Peep is her 11 year old daughter, Priscilla (1911-1999) (SEE), joined in the Nut Tree item by her cousin, Lewis, who performs in the play alongside his brother, Peter. The boys were 12 and 13, sons of the (deceased) brother of Sir Hugh, Major Humphrey St. Leger Stucley (1877-1914) (SEE). 

Today, the 6th Baronet (also a Hugh Stucley) continues a Hartland tradition of hosting film and theatre arts at the Abbey. Summer theatre performances outdoors (SEE) hark back to Stucleys who staged Milton's "Comus" by searchlight in the grounds of Moreton Hall in 1932 and his "Paradise Lost" with a massive cast in Hartland's old church of St. Nectan three years later. The Abbey Estate has featured as a location for several films (SEE) most notably the BBC's "Sense and SensibilIty".

The Dashwoods & Family.

Where Austen's novel told of fictional Dashwoods, the Abbey Troupe offered real ones. The gentleman who regaled the audience between scene and costume changes with tales of East Africa was Major Arthur Paul Dashwood, OBE, of the Royal Engineers (1882-1964), the third son of the 6th Baronet Dashwood.
A seasoned traveller, he built the naval docks in Hong Kong Harbour and met the lady he married in July, 1919, after making the acquaintance of her mother and younger daughter on a return visit to England.
Like the Major and the Stucleys, Mrs. Dashwood was of aristocratic stock but her fame rests on her literary reputation, because Mrs. Paul Dashwood was the author often dubbed 'the second Jane Austen', whose pen name was E.M.Delafield (1890-1943). Her classic "Diary of a Provincial Lady" (1930) has never been out of print. Emil Otto Hoppé photographed her in 1922:

                        This is the face of 'Violet Stonin' 

It is thought her publisher suggested 'Delafield' for her publications to avoid confusion with her mother. In a reverse of Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield/D'Urbervilles, Edmeé Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture was anglicised.
The Dashwoods had gone out to the Malay States soon after their marriage but were back living in mid-Devon by January, 1922, largely at the behest of the budding novelist

                    [E. M. Delafield's Parents]

Delafield's mother was Mrs. Henry de la Pasture (1866-1945), the famous novelist and dramatist (SEE). She married Comte Henri Philip Ducarel de la Pasture, who died in 1908. They had two daughters who appeared together in the Abbey Troupe as 'Violet Stonin' and 'Sherlock Holmes'. In 1910, their mother remarried into the Clifford family. Sir Hugh Charles Clifford (1866-1941) was a colonial administrator (SEE), whose first wife died in 1907. In 1915 he was photographed with his second wife. The sitters include all three children from the first marriage AND the younger de la Pasture daughter, seven years before she played Sherlock Holmes (back row behind her father).

                   [Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery]

 An Original Baker Street Babe.

Bettine Marie Yolande de la Pasture (1892-1976), known in the family as Yoé, was a medical student at Bristol University in 1922. There are news reports of her acting in several university drama club productions in the early twenties. Little is known of her ensuing life except that she became a doctor and married an Austrian called Friedl in Vienna in 1936.

                      [This is the face of Sherlock Holmes]


There are, as Holmes would say, some points of interest regarding the play that September evening, clearly a version of The Speckled Band. Given the limited cast, time and staging it seems likely the two 'acts' correspond to portions of Conan Doyle's play: 1) the Baker Street visits of Enid and her stepfather in Doyle's Act 2, scene 2 AND 2) the climactic Act 3, scene 2, in Enid's bedroom.

Doyle himself changed some of the short story's names for the stage version. Helen Stoner became Enid Stonor; the deceased Julia was re-christened Violet; Dr. Roylott re-emerges as Rylott. Deliberately or not (or a news reporter's error?), the Abbey Troupe field yet another variant cast: Mr. Raylett and Violet Stonin (for Helen/Enid). It may be suspected such name changes, along with the play's masking title, are made to minimize the attention of copyright holders. But I think it just as feasible the names are merely misremembered and the title aptly chosen, arising from Helen's account in the short story:

"I suddenly heard in the silence of the night the low whistle which had been the herald of her [Julia's] own death." [SPEC]

In 1922 the phrase "Death Whistle" had two additional connotations. Richard Marsh (1857-1915) (SEE) published a very popular thriller with that title in 1903. The literary de la Pastures would very likely have read it.

More darkly, the phrase conjured memories of a rumour rife during the recent war which alleged that German doctors carried a single-shot pistol, disguised as a working whistle on the battlefield with which they murdered their own wounded. Here is, for example, the Rugby Advertiser on 29 June, 1915:

Delafield would know this barbarous tale of a whistle sounding as prelude to the death of one's own kind, having been a voluntary aid nurse in Exeter from 1914.

There remains the unanswered question : who wrote the script for "The Death Whistle"? My money is on a combined sisterly act of creation. Perhaps somewhere in the archive of the Stucley family or that of E. M. Delafield there's a well-thumbed, unpublished MS of an amateur Sherlock Holmes play.

[FOR MORE on E. M. Delafield I recommend  the starcourse website HERE]



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