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A Theatrical Heritage

Gunn’s mother’s maiden name was Barbara Elizabeth Johnstone. She was born in Liverpool on July 22, 1849 and at an early age went to America as a member of the burlesque troupe, the “British Blondes”, where her stage name was Bessie Sudlow. Led by the famous English dancer, comedian, actress and producer, Lydia Thompson, it was one of the most popular entertainments in New York during the 1868-1869 season at the Tammany Grand Theatre; what had begun as a 6-month tour lasted 6 years.

Although in the announcement of her return to England (September, 1874) she was listed as a member of Thompson’s Troupe, Bessie seemed to have been free to appear in other productions during her stay in America. For example, during both 1872 and 1873 she played the part of Dove Eve, an Indian Maiden, in Scouts of the Plains, which starred Buffalo Bill Cody as himself. While in Indianapolis, Cody proposed some sort of affair with her while on-stage! She responded by hitting him over the head with one of the war clubs lying about and when he fell to the floor, she sat on him until her anger abated enough for her to leave the theater. All of this was reported in the local press the next day.

She continued her stage career in England as a comic opera soprano. Contantine Curran, who was born in Dublin in 1883, later wrote how “her glorious apparition in ballroom splendour remained long in the memory of our parents.” She also seemed to have had an extraordinary memory as demonstrated on an occasion where she was called in on 24 hours-notice to play a part at the Gaiety theatre that she did not know. As described by one of her co-actors – She sang songs she did not know to tunes she had never heard, wedded to words improvised as she went along. When the notices came out, she found herself famous; the opera was an English adaptation of La fille de Madame Angot that had achieved great success in Paris several years earlier.

In 1876 she was the principal soprano for the touring Comedy Opera Company where she met Michael Gunn who was its manager at the time. They married in 1877, after which she made only one more appearance on the stage, although she kept the name Bessie.

The Comedy Opera Company was run by Richard D’Oyly Carte. Gunn and Carte were close friends, Gunn serving as Carte’s “concert and dramatic agent,” as well as being his “silent partner.” Together they convinced Gilbert and Sullivan to create Trial by Jury, a new form of musical comedy which rapidly gained popularity in the United Kingdom and America. Trial by Jury was Carte’s first important theatrical venture. Encouraged by the success of Trial by Jury, Carte found four backers, one of which was Gunn, and formed the Comedy Opera Company to produce the future works of Gilbert and Sullivan. This allowed him to lease the Opera Comique and to give Gilbert and Sullivan firm terms for a new opera – The Sorcerer, which was soon followed by HMS Pinafore in 1878. Family legend has it that during a tour that stopped in Dublin, Richard D’Oyly Carte obtained a loan from Michael without which he would not have been able to keep the partnership of W.S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan going. This is alluded to in one book from that time – Old Days of Bohemian London: “From the minute Michael Gunn undertook to finance the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, impending disaster gave place to bustling prosperity.”

In the summer of 1879, when Carte had left Gunn to manage his affairs in London, some of the other business partners tried to seize the scenery as well as performers to set up their own production of the HMS Pinafore elsewhere! Gunn wrote Sullivan, who was away in France resting, that the rival directors were “seducing the male chorus by use of Champaign and promises of increased pay.” Carte maintained control as witness the fact that he continued with the production of HMS Pinafore, but now billed as Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company.

In 1881 Gunn managed to upset Gilbert on two occasions, the second one with dire financial consequences for Gunn. Early in the year Gunn made the mistake of booking the Savoy for a piece not written by Gilbert without getting Gilbert’s permission. Gilbert was livid as he considered it ‘his’ theatre; he managed to prevent any rehearsals from taking place, thereby forcing the musical to move elsewhere. It was perhaps this episode which led, later in the year, to a more important altercation with Gilbert. On this occasion, Gilbert refused to honor a verbal agreement with Sullivan, Carte and Gunn, which called for them to share equally any gains as well as losses made in a new production of Patience. Gunn attributed the failure of the production to “expensive costumes and postponements.” Matters worsened when the lead singer was taken ill and no satisfactory substitute could be found. This, and more, Gunn reported to Sullivan in a series of letters that finally ended with his having to close the production and absorbing all the losses himself. Gunn maintained his composure with Sullivan as witness his ending one letter with “no one regrets the disastrous termination of the unfortunate affair more than Yours Sincerely, Michael Gunn.”

Later in 1881 Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan went on without Gunn to establish a new agreement. In the years that followed Gilbert would prove just as difficult with Carte as he had been with Gunn. There were even times when he wasn’t on speaking terms with Sullivan. How much Gunn lost financially is not reported by whereas Carte, by the time of his death, had an estate that was valued at a quarter of a million pounds, twice that of Gilbert’s and four times more than Sullivan’s, the estate of Gunn, who died in 1901, was judged to be slightly more than 20,000£, a fortune that was soon squandered by his nephew.

Although he still invested in London activities, e.g. as a major shareholder in the Savoy Turkish Baths Company Limited, Gunn concentrated his affairs in Dublin. In 1883 he hired Frank Matcham, one of the greatest and most prolific of British theatre architects, to expand the Gaiety theatre. In 1886 he opened a new theatre, Leinster Hall, on the site of the old Theatre Royal, which had been destroyed by fire in 1880. When he died in 1901 the ownership of the Gaiety Theatre passed to Bessie Gunn who retained possession until 1909.

Gunn had established the Gaiety theatre in 1871 with his brother John. He also ran a music emporium, rivaling that of Arthur Chappell of Bond Street in London. In some circles he was known as the “Chappell of Ireland”. Chappell’s shop is still trading in music and pianos today but Gunn’s store eventually closed.

Gunn divided his time between Dublin and London where Bessie invariably accompanied him. Their home in London was a “fine old house on Russell Square,” while that in Dublin was located in Merrion Square, where lovely old Georgian style homes predominated. The Gunn’s were considered to be one of the wealthiest families in Dublin only surpassed by the Guinness’s of stout and ale fame as well as the Jameson’s of whiskey fame. It was not unusual for them to entertain forty or more guests, especially when celebrities were in town.

Since Michael Gunn was a close friend of James Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, the Joyce family were regular visitors to their home. They also visited the Gaiety theatre, a bit of history of which eventually was celebrated in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

What had prevented him from completing a topical song (music by R.G. Johnston) on the events of the past, or fixtures for the actual, years, entitled If Brian Boru could but come back and see old Dublin now, commissioned by Michael Gunn, lessee of the Gaiety Theatre, 46, 47, 48, 49 South King street, and to be introduced into the sixth scene, the valley of diamonds, of the second edition (30 January 1893) of the grand annual Christmas pantomime Sinbad the Sailor (produced by R Shelton 26 December 1892, written by Greenleaf Whittier, scenery by George A. Jackson and Cecil Hicks, costumes by Mrs and Miss Whelan under the personal supervision of Mrs Michael Gunn, ballets by Jessie Noir, harlequinade by Thomas Otto) and sung by Nelly Bouverist, principal girl?

Michael Gunn was a public figure; his activities were periodically reported on in the news about England that appeared in the New York Times. In 1881, for example, he and his wife were named as part of the “notable audience” that witnessed the appearance of the famous actors Edwin Booth and Henry Irving on the same stage in a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello. As was the fact that in 1886 Gunn arranged special performances at the Gaiety Theatre featuring the famous American actress Mary Anderson to raise funds for relief of earthquake victims in South Carolina.

Selskar’s parents were not the only theatrically-involved members of his family. His Godfather was George Edwardes who was Michael Gunn’s first cousin. Michael, older by 12 years, was responsible for getting Edwardes his first theatrical job as an employee of Carte’s Savoy theatre. The story passed down is that Edwardes ran into Gunn on two occasions, both times with no prospects for employment. Gunn found him something the first time that only lasted a short time. The second time he gave him a note to take to Carte, on which he wrote, “This is George Edwardes. Give him a joy, pay him a pound a week, and see that he earns it.” With that entrée Edwardes became box-office manager at the Opéra Comique. In time he moved to London’s Gaiety theatre where he created a new type of musical comedy much more in tune with musicals as we know them today. Gilbert denounced this new style, claiming him to be “the murderer of comic opera and the destroyer of legitimate musical comedy.” The public thought otherwise.

Like his cousin, Michael, Edwardes also often featured in the theatre news from England. For example, on July 11, 1897, the New York Times announced that he had “entered into partnership with Albert Gilmer for the management next season of the Princess’ Theatre. They will open in the Autumn with a spectacular melodrama now being written for them by Cecil Raleigh and Seymour Hicks, and which they announce will be produced on a scale of magnificence as yet unequaled on the London stage.”

Selskar Gunn was born on May 25, 1883 in London where Bessie had accompanied Michael for their regular “mid-season” visit. He was a “delicate boy with wide brown eyes.” His childhood, as was that of his five siblings (3 brothers (Brendan – born in 1881, Kevin born in 1880) and
2 sisters (Haidée – born in 1883, and Agnes), was a “pampered” one. He had private tutors while in Ireland and took many trips to the continent with his family. He was given a good musical education which included learning how to dance “in the most approved manner.” His teacher was Edward William Royce, who was an actor, dancer and stage manager. These lessons took place in London where Royce returned in 1892 following a long stay in Australia. Whether Selskar met Edward Royce Jr., who was born in 1870 and who gained fame later in life as director and choreographer of numerous Broadway musicals including the Ziegfield Follies and the original Broadway production of No, No, Nanette, does not seem to have been recorded. Selskar did remember, however, meeting the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the American actor John Drew.

Of the six Gunn children, only the daughters followed a professional theatrical career. Haidée, the oldest of the two, became an actress, making her debut in Dublin’s Gaiety as “a very tall, very charming Juliet.” She gained some fame as Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Agnes sang in several musicals.

Although surrounded all of his childhood by theatrical excitement, including the comings and goings of famous stars of all walks of life, Selskar seems not to have shown any real inclination to becoming part of that world. Nevertheless, at one point before leaving for America in 1900, serious consideration was given to his joining his Godfather’s theatrical organization in a management capacity, but this did not materialize.

Gunn’s determination to achieve an education was ascribed to the “leavening of his paternal grandmother” who had to bring up her two sons, Michael and John, single-handedly after losing her husband in an accident in December 1862. This accident “could hardly have happened outside of Ireland – He (Selskar’s Grandfather) was in a Stage Coach which driven by a slightly inebriated coachman went off a bridge into an empty lock chamber. The canal guard thought quickly and acted immediately – his reasoning being water floats wood – he could save the coach full of people by filling the lock chamber – he turned on the water full – they were all drowned.” Not mentioned in this account was that Michael would have been 22 at the time; otherwise the image of her bringing up her two sons “as a seamstress” would have been a bit undermined!

Bessie’s parental legacy was no happier. Her mother, Eliza Johnstone, lost her husband soon after Bessie’s birth. Eliza shortly married Thomas Richard Sudlow. Thomas was declared bankrupt several years later; somehow he managed to take his family to America in 1865. After their return to England, her mother sued for divorce on the ground of ill-treatment. She was still shown living with Michael and Bessie in the 1901 Irish census.