Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Sands o' Dee

                    'O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
                        And call the cattle home,
                        And call the cattle home,
                        Across the sands of Dee.'
                    The western wind was wild and dark with foam, 
                        And all alone went she.

Thus begins Charles Kingsley's poem "The Sands of Dee." This bit of sentimental Victorian verse is perhaps best known for inspiring D.W. Griffith's 1912 film of the same name. However, it also inspired the only known surviving script from London's famed Hippodrome theatre.

Built in 1900 at the cost of a quarter of a million pounds, the Hippodrome had a massive arena that could sink into the floor and be filled with water. As its name suggests, the Hippodrome was used for equestrian spectacles, but the water feature could also be employed with staging melodramas like The Flood or The Typhoon.

Illustrations of a number of these productions survive, and there is even a film clip of the mill scene from The Bandits, in which horses leap into the water and a coach goes down on a collapsing bridge. In 1909, the Hippodrome was converted into a more traditional music hall with a larger audience capacity, so its last big horse-and-water spectacular was The Sands o' Dee in 1908.

                    The western tide crept up along the sand,
                        And o'er and o'er the sand,
                        And round and round the sand,
                        As far as eye could see.
                    The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
                        And never home came she.

Alicia Ramsay and Rudolph de Cordova, who penned a number of scripts for the Hippodrome, wrote The Sands o' Dee, which only survives because the play was licensed for performance by the Bristol Hippodrome in 1912. Rather than replicating the story of Kingsley's poem, the play exists in the same world of that story, with the ill-fated Mary of the poem remembered by all the characters. Mary's father, now an old man, tells the tale this way:

Mother and Bill and me started running towards her, screaming like mad. Before we got more than a few yards - I heard a sound as made my heart stand still - a roaring muttering sound like the beginning of a storm. I think we must all have gone mad for we stood stock still staring. We knew what that sound meant. It meant that the tide had begun to turn.

This was all 40 years ago, the old man says, adding that "Parson Kingsley made a piece" about the story. To this day, Mary's ghost can sometimes be seen at night, "driving her dead cattle across the sand."

                    'O is it weed, or fish, or floating hair—
                        A tress of golden hair,
                        A drownèd maiden's hair,
                        Above the nets at sea?'
                    Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
                        Among the stakes of Dee.

The play introduces a new Mary (the dead Mary's niece) who is engaged to one John Hooper. The villain (and we know he's a villain because that's how he's described in the characters list) is named Basil Dean, and when he fails to force the young heroine to marry him, he decides to murder her, tying her to a stake on the seashore so that she will drown like her now-famous namesake.

Fortunately, John Hooper arrives in the nick of time. He rescues Mary and carries her away on horseback. Villainous Basil Dean instead drowns, falling into the water while screaming, "Curse you!" The play also features a vision of the dead Mary, which appears on a cloth lowered down while the living Mary is tied to the stake.

                    They row'd her in across the rolling foam,
                        The cruel crawling foam,
                        The cruel hungry foam,
                        To her grave beside the sea.
                    But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home,
                        Across the sands of Dee.

Before the Hippodrome converted to a music hall, there were a couple of aquatic spectacles staged after The Sands o' Dee, though they did not feature horses. In 1909 The Motor Chase showed an automobile plunging into a lake. That same year, the theatre hosted 70(!) onstage polar bears in the melodrama The Arctic. Take that, chandelier from Phantom!

If you want to find out more about the Hippodrome spectacles, check out Bandits! or The Collapsing Bridge: an early film and a late-Victorian stage by David Mayer and Bryony Dixon, published by the Society for Theatre Research.