You never know who you’ll meet when you catalog a rare book: a pair of conjoined twins, a dog-sledding bigamist, the terrible-tempered Mister Bang … This year I was fortunate enough to encounter Harriet Taplin Chambers in the pages of an eighteenth-century copy of Thomas Hull’s tragedy Henry the Second, or, The Fall of Rosamond, a pseudo-Shakespearean verse drama featuring the love triangle of King Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his mistress Rosamund Clifford. First performed in 1773, this sentimental tragedy was quite popular with contemporary audiences, its narrative of adultery and murder climaxing in an orgy of contrition: “Rosamond repents of her life of sin with Henry but dies of poison at Eleanor’s hands before the queen knows of this. Henry and Eleanor seem to reconcile; but Eleanor cannot bring herself to place ‘[t]he hand that’s foul with murder’ into that of her husband, and instead enters a nunnery to repent of her deeds” (Evans 98-99). The Critical Review of early 1774 expressed its approval of the print version by observing that “the penitence of Rosamond is so happily described, as to atone for the guilt of her illicit amour, and prepare the audience for being more deeply affected with the catastrophe” (59). Harriet’s copy is marked up for use by the actor playing Queen Eleanor with some passages crossed out and others emended; occasional stage directions are added in the margins. Her autograph also appears several times, giving both of her noms de théâtre, Taplin and Chambers. There is nothing ingenious in Harriet’s interpretation of Eleanor, nothing spectacular in the dashes and crosses that pepper her playscript; she herself never became a household name. Neither a star like Sarah Siddons nor a fashion icon like Frances Abington nor a playwright like Susanna Centlivre nor a courtesan like Dorothea Jordan, Harriet simply supported herself throughout her life by acting. To trace her life is to see the path trod by the many, not the few—the path of the workaday entertainer.
She was born Harriet Dyer, the daughter of Michael Dyer (d. 1774), “a useful and pleasing actor, a fine singer, and a splendid mimic” (Highfill et al. IV, 531), and his wife Harriet (née Bullock; b. 1721), child of a prominent English theatrical family. Harriet Bullock’s grandfather William Bullock (ca. 1667-1742) was a comedian praised by his contemporary Richard Steele as “a person of much wit and ingenuity [who] has a peculiar talent of looking like a fool” (quoted in Highfill et al. II, 409). Her father Christopher Bullock (ca. 1690-1722) was a comic actor ranked with Colley Cibber and a playwright of rather less note. Christopher married the versatile actress Jane Rogers (d. 1737) in 1717 and their brief, possibly unhappy marriage produced three children over its five years: sons Robert (b. 1718) and James (b. 1719) and daughter Harriet. The widowed Jane continued to perform in a variety of roles, first at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre—the company that employed many of her in-laws—and later at the newly opened Covent Garden Theatre. In 1736, suffering from sciatica and declining currency with London audiences, she moved to Dublin, taking her daughter with her. Two years later Harriet, advertised as “Bullock’s daughter,” made her acting debut at Smock Alley, Dublin’s once and future Theatre Royal (Highfill et al. IV, 536). She married company member Michael Dyer in 1744 and soon “started a family, perhaps as early as the late 1740s. Their daughter Harriet … may have been born before 1750, but her baptismal record has not been found” (Highfill et al. IV, 537).¹ By then both Michael and Harriet Bullock Dyer were back in London and comfortably employed at Covent Garden, Michael as a well-received Mercutio among other parts and Harriet most notably in Colombine roles.
One of young Harriet’s later managements claimed that she, too, played at Covent Garden before making her way elsewhere, although that is not recorded. Her first documented appearance was as Miss Montague, the witty orphan in Hugh Kelly‘s Word to the Wise at Norwich in the summer of 1775. After a season at the Theatre Royal in Manchester, she traveled to Dublin and made her own debut at Smock Alley in John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s Provoked Husband as Lady Townly, a “recalcitrant flirt … she dresses extravagantly; she traverses the town engaging in such upper-class social rituals as theatre, parties, and gambling; she charms most men but enrages her husband; and in the enormously ideological tradition of exemplary comedy, at the end of the play she repents her errant ways, renounces her frivolous entertainments outside the home, and happily accepts a domestic existence subject to her husband’s will” (Peck 397). This set the tone for Harriet’s career: she was evidently at her best as a sharp-witted coquette or acid-tongued society matron, sometimes in a leading but more frequently a supporting role. Tate Wilkinson, otherwise an unsympathetic contemporary witness, noted in his memoir The Wandering Patentee that “[h]er Mrs. Candour, in the School for Scandal, was a good performance” (274).
Her second year in Dublin saw Harriet embroiled in a scandal of her own. She was billed as “Mrs. Taplin,” having married William Taplin, “of the Parish of St. Paul Covent Garden … Batchelor aged twenty one years and upwards,” in 1771 in her home parish of St. Martin in the Fields (“[Marriage allegation of William Taplin and Harriet Dyer]”). He, too, was an actor, but of more limited scope: on the same night in 1776 that she played Rosalind in As You Like It, he performed a monologue titled “Dissertation on Hobby Horses” in the persona of a Newmarket jockey (Greene 1634). William’s equestrian schtick was sufficiently popular for a return engagement in 1777 as part of an interlude titled The Humours of the Curragh Races:
In which will be run a sweepstakes of 100 guineas by the following hunters, carrying twelve stone, one four mile heat cross and jostle. Taplin’s brown gelding, Broomstick, Taplin, purple; Shaftoe’s grey horse, Young Gimcrack, J. Sousa, pink; England’s black horse, Slew and Easy, T. Dilly, Harlequin. Preceding which Taplin will deliver a dissertation on favourite hobbies, in the dress and character of a Newmarket jockey. To conclude with a match between two ponies, rode by young gentlemen. (quoted in Greene 1726)
Perhaps Harriet, who had graduated from Nerissa to Portia in The Merchant of Venice in addition to reprising Lady Townly and adding Miss Tittup of David Garrick‘s Bon Ton to her repertoire, began to wish she had hitched her wagon to something better than a hobbyhorse. While playing with a company in Bristol in the early summer of 1777, she ran off with Thomas Kennedy (ca. 1750?-1808), an Irish actor who had trod the boards with his parents at Smock Alley and Drury Lane before striking out on his own in the provinces. William Taplin was (or so he claimed) not only completely blindsided by his wife’s desertion, but also financially ruined without her income. Advertising a benefit staged on his behalf at Crow Street on 4 July 1777, he claimed that “Mrs. Taplin (after having been married near seven years) eloped some few days since, without the least domestic Broil or Provocation … leaving him a stranger in this kingdom, subject to a multiplicity of debts, contracted without his knowledge … by which step … he is reduced to a state of indigence” (quoted in Greene 1752).
Harriet and Thomas Kennedy, meanwhile, had signed on with Tate Wilkinson’s York-based company, he to “[act] the fops and Harlequin,” she to “[enter] the lists … as a first comedy actress” (Wilkinson 273). Wilkinson, as previously mentioned, soon concluded that Harriet was not up to the job. “[H]er profession as an actress was a labour,” he sneered in his memoir. “Her figure was good, and she acted some parts with a degree of credit, as proved, (with pains and attention to characters) she might have been a useful actress; but indolence and a mind turned topsy-turvy, possessed her leisure” (274). Kennedy, too, was as quick to abandon Harriet as he had been to elope with her. “Miss [Agnes] Holmes attracted the attention of Mr. Kennedy that season, by playing Phillis to his Tom [in The Conscious Lovers by Richard Steele],” Wilkinson noted. “[T]his occasioned eyes of fire from Mrs. Taplin, who had depended on the false vows of the seducing Kennedy; it ended at last in a marriage (as I was informed) between Mr. Kennedy and Miss Holmes, who declared she would rather starve with Kennedy than live with a Prince” (274-275). To add injury to insult, Wilkinson turned Harriet off at the end of the season. “I could not continue her with me after the first year, she then joined a little company in Yorkshire,” he wrote, adding spitefully, “Whether she is now living or dead I know not, but if existing, it must be so barely, that her departure from this life her friends (if she has any) need not regret, but doubly wish” (275).
Fortunately, however, Harriet’s life followed a comedic rather than a tragic arc. The “little company in Yorkshire” kept her on for the next two years as it toured the stages of northern England, appearing in Doncaster, Leeds, Halifax, Wakefield and York itself. During this time she added two more often performed roles, Lucy Lockit in John Gay‘s Beggar’s Opera and the breeches part of Don Carlos in Richard Sheridan‘s comic opera The Duenna. Like her acting, Harriet’s voice appears to have been adequate; her performance of popular songs was noted in advertisements for As You Like It and Garrick’s Irish Widow her first year in Dublin. (A review of her performance as the cross-dressing Jacintha in Benjamin Hoadly‘s Suspicious Husband mentioned that she also “looks very well in breeches” [quoted in Greene 1678], an obvious advantage when playing Don Carlos.) Harriet was welcomed back to Bristol to perform Rosalind at the Theatre Royal in November 1778 and acted Miranda in The Tempest in Brighton in October 1779. At some point she may even have reconciled with William Taplin since both of them are numbered among the company of the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh for the 1780-1781 season (Dibdin 496). Thereafter Harriet returned to Ireland and rejoined the Smock Alley company in something approaching triumph. Her turn as Clarinda, Jacintha’s non-cross-dressing counterpart in The Suspicious Husband, on 1 November 1781 was advertised (generously rounded up) as “her first appearance these five years” (quoted in Greene 2010) and the very next day she played Queen Gertrude to rising star John Kemble‘s Hamlet in his Dublin debut. She must have given satisfaction, for not only did she reprise the role several times that season, including once in a gala that featured only the “closet scene” (act 3, scene 4) with Kemble, but she also acted Cleopatra to his Mark Antony in John Dryden‘s All for Love and Marcia to his Juba in Joseph Addison‘s Cato. With these roles, in addition to Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera (and once, in a gender-reversed version, Mat of the Mint), Lady Minikin in Bon Ton, and Urganda in Garrick’s Cymon, Harriet must have felt ready to thumb her nose at Wilkinson when Smock Alley’s 1781-1782 season closed.
The fall of 1782 found her in Cork, where she again performed Queen Gertrude. When her engagement there ended, Harriet joined a group of actors headed back to Dublin, among them John Bernard (1756-1828) who chronicled the journey in his Retrospections of the Stage. The group split the cost of a hired cart for their baggage in which “Mrs. Taplin, being a lady [was] to enjoy the privilege of riding the whole distance” (Bernard 266). Two days into the trip they were set upon by robbers; without any other means of defense, the men of the party decided
that we should do something to intimidate them; such as drawing our swords, and commencing a general combat round the car, Mrs. Taplin, (a tall, well-formed woman,) to act up to us, or rather down upon us. Approving the hint, we drew and fell to,—Macduff and Macbeth—Richard and Richmond—Hotspur and the Prince,—stamping, cutting, and thrusting at each other with the most inhuman gestures and grimaces; Mrs. Taplin bending down on each side, stretching forth her hands, beating her bosom, letting loose her hair, (she did it famously), to induce us to desist. (Bernard 270-271)
Confused at this sudden eruption of Flynning, the robbers retreated, but the company was having so much fun that they continued stage-fighting as they went on, “falling and reviving, and chasing each other about the car, with a medley of exclamations, such as ‘Die, villain!’—’Never!’—’Spare, oh! spare him!’ (from Mrs. Taplin.)—’Renounce your claim!’—’Only with my life!’—’Then perish!’—’Ah! I have regained my sword; another chance is mine.’—’Lay on Macduff,’ &c.” (Bernard 271). The hullaballoo attracted the attention of a passing horseman, who very properly asked what in heaven’s name was afoot. That was the cue for one of the company to point at Harriet, resplendent in “a scarlet pelisse trimmed with fur, with a fur cap and gold band” and confide “that she was the celebrated Empress of Russia, who had run away to Ireland, to raise a rebellion, and we were a body-guard, who had apprehended her in Cork, and were conveying her to Dublin Castle” (Bernard 272). The horseman galloped ahead of them to the next village, where in the best tradition of comedy the travelers arrived to discover that their prank had escalated out of their control: the Empress “had come all the way from Russia to emancipate Ireland”; her guards “were carrying her to Dublin Castle to be executed!”; and it was entirely possible “if the joke was not put an end to, that the multitude, in the true spirit of Irish heroism and sympathy, would entertain the wish of rescuing Mrs. Taplin and belabouring her guards” (Bernard 273). The rumors proved impossible to squelch, but the crowd was more interested in gawking at the soi-disant empress than liberating her, and the party arrived safely at their destination five days later.
Harriet spent two more seasons in Dublin with summer appearances in Cork and Limerick. She continued her run as Gertrude in Hamlet against Kemble in 1782-1783 as well as playing Lady Anne to his Richard in Richard III. The 1783-1784 season opened with Harriet as Emilia in Othello and rumor-mongering Lady Sneerwell in Sheridan’s School for Scandal, but then her performance of the similarly scheming Dona Isabella in John O’Keeffe‘s popular comic opera The Castle of Andalusia received a scathing review. Harriet seems to have walked on as an emergency replacement for the usual actress, Alice Mason Heaphy (b. ca. 1736) but it was not lack of preparation that the reviewer highlighted:
Mrs. Taplin in Dame Isabella must prove highly disadvantageous both to herself and the manager and can be justified only by the most urgent necessity. Mrs. Taplin has a very considerable share of merit in a certain cast of parts, and it must prove injurious to herself, when she attempts characters that nature does not countenance her in. (quoted in Greene 2199)
Harriet found herself demoted to the chorus in Orpheus and Eurydice, the first English-language performance of Christoph Gluck‘s Orfeo, and seems to have had fewer roles overall this season. Although she played principal characters in William Congreve‘s Love for Love and Isaac Jackman‘s farce The Divorce, when she was assigned the part of Doll Tricksey in The Tobacconist, Francis Gentleman‘s adaptation of Ben Jonson‘s Alchemist, Harriet may have worried about her future in Dublin. Doll was usually played by an older actress (Munro link) and then as now theatrical maturity for women was an equivocal state. “Like their male counterparts, many actresses continued performing as they aged,” writes Laura Rosenthal, “sometimes taking more matronly parts but also sometimes continuing to play young girls … While alluring female bodies on stage certainly could become fetishised, actresses were successful in establishing their value through the stage effects they were able to produce. The kind of living a woman could make from acting varied tremendously depending on her ability to draw in audiences” (167). Harriet was still at least a decade from the end of her acting career, indicating continued drawing power of some sort, but she may have felt her welcome worn out with Dublin theater-goers, who still remembered her as the actress who “eloped from her husband” (quoted in Greene 2012).
Whatever the reason, Harriet returned to northern England in 1785 to work with a company in Chester managed by Joseph Austin (1735-1821), a Crow Street alumnus, and Charles Edward Whitlock (d. 1822), husband of John Kemble’s sister and fellow actor Elizabeth. Austin founded the company in 1766 and settled it in Chester the following year; in 1780 he took Whitlock into partnership “to help supervise a circuit which by this time was one of the most extensive in England,” comprising in addition to Chester the cities of Newcastle, Lancaster, Manchester, Preston, Sheffield, Warrington, and Whitehaven (Highfill et al. I, 178). No berth for the delicate of constitution, Austin and Whitlock’s company “occasioned the performers a necessity of traveling eleven hundred miles each year in addition to the constant weariness and fatigue of studying and acting,” according to one contemporary commentator (quoted ibid.), but Harriet rose to the challenge: “[S]he continued her association with that group for a number of years, playing some of the towns on their circuit: Chester, Sheffield, Lancaster, Whitehaven, Manchester, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne” (Highfill et al. III, 144). Venturing south between seasons in July 1786, Harriet played four roles at Windsor Castle Inn in Hammersmith, London: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on the twelfth, Victoria in Hannah Cowley‘s Bold Stroke for a Husband on the nineteenth, Lady Grace (Lady Townly’s virtuous sister-in-law) in The Provoked Husband on the twenty-fourth, and protagonist Letitia Hardy in Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem on the twenty-sixth. She was billed there as “Mrs. Chambers,” implying that she and William Taplin had finally parted company. He may have given up discoursing on horses for tending them: John Bernard recalled him as “the author of ‘Treatises on Farriery’” (266) and a William Taplin (1740?-1807) certainly made a name for himself as a veterinary surgeon specializing in equine diseases and injuries in the late 1780s.² But if “Mr. Chambers” existed as anything other than a polite fiction, he has left no record behind (Highfill et al. III, 144).
Harriet’s acting career, too, suffers from a dearth of readily available documentation for the period she spent with Austin and Whitlock (though our script may testify to an appearance in Henry the Second during this period). She enjoyed sufficient success, however, to follow in her parents’ footsteps and make the leap to Covent Garden in the 1793-1794 season. Her position in the company was modest: she earned £2 per week (Highfill et al. III, 145), putting her near the bottom of the salary range,³ and played comic secondary roles such as Lady Oldstock in Frederick Pilon‘s He Would Be a Soldier and Lady Rachael Mildew in Kelly’s School for Wives. But her first documented season at Covent Garden also proved to be her last. Then in her mid-forties, Harriet “may have left the stage, though perhaps she was the actress of that name who acted at Tunbridge Wells in 1796, in Worcester in 1801, and in Wolverhampton in 1802” (ibid.). When she died at Worcester in 1804, she had at least the satisfaction of outliving Tate Wilkinson (d. 16 November 1803) and of having achieved more than the bare subsistence he foretold for her. Harriet Taplin Chambers was never a star, but the theater does not run on star power alone. We are well reminded of that in the records and relics of Mrs. Taplin, once Empress of Russia, and her Puckish colleagues.
Information about Harriet Taplin Chambers’s performance history, where not cited, has been gleaned primarily from Highfill’s Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, Greene’s Theatre in Dublin, 1745-1820, and The London Stage Database, 1660-1800.
¹The record of application for her marriage license, dated 25 February 1771, gives her age as “twenty one years and upwards,” arguing for a date not later than early 1750 (“[Marriage allegation of William Taplin and Harriet Dyer]”).
²No contemporary obituary notice that I have seen credits William Taplin the veterinary surgeon with a stage career. The one in The Sporting Magazine of January 1807 notes that his “horse medicines … will be continued to be made up and sold by Mrs. Taplin” (168), suggesting that if William Taplin the surgeon is indeed William Taplin the actor, he had remarried.
³See, for example, this page from the Covent Garden accounting journal for the 1793-1794 season held by the Folger Shakespeare Library and cited in Chelsea Phillips’s post “Accounting for Relationships.”
Bernard, John. Retrospections of the Stage. Volume 1. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830.
Dibdin, James C. The Annals of the Edinburgh Stage. Edinburgh: Richard Cameron, 1888.
Evans, Michael R. Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
Greene, John C. Theatre in Dublin, 1745-1820: A Calendar of Performances. Volume 3. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2011.
“Henry the Second; or, The Fall of Rosamond: A Tragedy [review].” The Critical Review 37 (January 1774): pages 59-62.
Highfill, Philip H., et al. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 volumes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-1993.
“[Marriage allegation of William Taplin and Harriet Dyer].” London and Surrey, England, Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1597-1921, Ancestry.com, 2011, https://tinyurl.com/ybu7ts2l . Accessed 30 April 2020.
Munro, Lucy. “The Alchemist: Stage History.” The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online, universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/k/essays/stage_history_Alchemist. Accessed 30 April 2020.
Peck, James. “Anne Oldfield’s Lady Townly: Consumption, Credit, and the Whig Hegemony of the 1720s.” Theatre Journal 49.4 (December 1997): pages 397-416.
Phillips, Chelsea. “Accounting for Relationships: The Drury Lane Financial Records.” The Collation, collation.folger.edu/2019/03/accounting-for-relationships. Accessed 30 April 2020.
Wilkinson, Tate. The Wandering Patentee. Facsimile edition. Volumes 1-2. London: Scolar Press, 1973.