Luscombe Searelle

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Luscombe Searelle (1860-1907)[1] was an actor, singer, dramatist, composer, conductor and manager, who had quite an impact on South African theatre during the late 19th century.

Biography

Born in Devon, England, he was brought up in New Zealand, where he attended Christ's College, Christchurch. He initially worked as a pianist in Christchurch and graduated to conductor, also singing writing an composing.

His first comic opera, The Wreck of the Pinafore was produced at the Gaiety Theatre in London when he was twenty-two years of age and was followed by the popular Estrella (1884) and Bobadil (). By 1886, in spite of favourable criticism, Searelle was bankrupt and then turned his sights to South Africa's newly discovered gold fields.

He first came to South Africa in 1887 with an Australian Opera Company and which put on several operas in Cape Town, including three of Searelle’s own compositions: Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora.

He returned to the country with his wife, Blanche Fenton, her sister Amy Fenton and his own operatic company in 1889, constructing a portable “Theatre Royal” made of corrugated iron at the intersection of Eloff and Commissioner Streets in Johannesburg for his first season.

Searelle ended up staying in South Africa for ten years and in that time built and managed a variety of theatres and theatrical companies and brought out various artistes and companies to perform in the country. In addition, he undertook a variety of other speculative projects. For example he bought a coal mine that yielded no coal, prospected for tin in Swaziland, with little success and fought with the Boers during the early years of the Anglo-Boer War.

Searelle was never financially successful, for despite his genius and sporadic successes, he was dogged throughout his life with litigation and debt, and was finally hounded out of Johannesburg in 1898.

His comic opera Bobadil was staged in the USA in 1905, but he lost all his money to his backers, and ended up destitute, selling dusters from door to door, sleeping on benches on occasion and writing occasional poems.

Eventually Ella Wheeler Wilcox read his poetry and together they wrote opera Mizpah, based on the biblical story of Esther (1904-5). It was put on in San Francisco but by then Searelle was too ill; dying of cancer, he could only view its success from a wheel-chair. After its premiere he was wheeled before the audience to receive his ovation. Inspired he rushed to England to stage it there but by now he was too ill and died on 18 December 1907 aged 54 before he could begin negotiations.

Searelle's contribution to theatre in South Africa

Searelle first came to South Africa in 1887 with an Australian Opera Company and which put on several operas in Cape Town, including three of Searelle’s own compositions: Bobadil, Estrella and Isadora.

He returned to the country in 1889 with his wife, Blanche Fenton, her sister Amy Fenton and his own operatic company of seven members, constructing a portable “Theatre Royal” made of corrugated iron at the intersection of Eloff and Commissioner Streets in Johannesburg for his first season, consisting of Blanche Fenton in the opera Maritana and followed this with his own operas Isidora, Bobadil and Estrella, productions also staged in Pretoria and Cape Town by the Luscombe Searelle Opera Company (also known as the Searelle Opera Company).

From 1891 he began to concentrate on plays rather than operas and touring the country with what was generally referred to as the Searelle Company by journalists and the public. (Besides the original name, the companies had various other names over time, including the Luscombe Searelle Theatre Company, the Searelle Theatre Company, the Luscombe Searelle Comedy Company or the Searelle Comedy Company).

These companies did both serious plays (e.g. Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet ) as well as lighter fare (Forget Me Not, The New Boy).

In 1891-2 he brought out the world-renowned American-born opera singer and actress Genevieve Ward to tour South Africa for nine months. They presented an astounding 26 plays, sixteen in Johannesburg alone. The tour encompassed all the major towns, but en route two of the company died and the tour was cut short. Another popular performer was W. Vernon.

In 1892 Searelle also brought the partnership of Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter and the romantic lead Kyrle Bellew out from Australia. They toured South Africa with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet however, their run was cut short when the Exhibition Theatre in Cape Town burned to the ground.

He constructed his own theatre (known as Searelle's Theatre Royal) in Johannesburg. The building, built using the best quality burnt bricks, had a frontage of 100 feet and was situated on plots 316, 317, 320 and 321, central Commissioner Street, Marshall's Town, Johannesburg. The building consisted of a theatre, shops, bar, tearooms, cafes and Searelle Chambers, as well as a barber, tobacconist and watchmaker's shops. There were also seven two-roomed offices with private toilets. Electric lights and water were supplied. Facing Fox Street were four semi-detached, double-storied houses, each containing five rooms, a kitchen, a pantry etc.

Due to the impresario's financial troubles, the theatre building was eventually put up for auction by Richard Currie's Sales on Tuesday, February 22, 1898, and Searelle left the country.

Sources

Eastern Province Herald, Friday, January 21, 1898.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luscombe_Searelle

D.C. Boonzaier, 1923. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1932. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: p. 403

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