Rugby “Football or Life in Cardiff”

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Objects from the online Cardiff Rugby Museum #5
The popular play, “Alone It Stands”, was a highly successful theatrical re-enactment of Munster’s historic 1978 victory over the All Blacks. It was first performed in 1999 but that was not the first occasion on which rugby was portrayed on the stage. Not by a long way. It is always risky to claim to be the “first” or the “earliest” in anything associated with the game, but there is strong evidence that rugby made its theatrical debut as long ago as 1886 in Cardiff.
Though rugby only arrived little more than fifteen years previously, the game unquestionably had become extremely popular in Cardiff by the mid-1880s. The thousands regularly attending matches at the Arms Park; the astonishing growth in the number of new teams springing up locally; and the increasing coverage being given to the sport in the local press: these were all testament to the intense and growing interest in rugby in Cardiff.  It is hardly surprising therefore that local theatrical impresarios began to respond to this.
So it was in June 1886 that the South Wales Daily News announced:
For once the national winter pastime of Wales has changed both its
     habitat and its season, for during the present week “Football” occupies      
the boards of the Theatre Royal instead of the Cardiff Arms Park.

The Theatre Royal was located only a drop kick away from the Arms Park. The Prince of Wales pub inhabits the site in Wood Street today. By very good fortune, Glamorgan Archives hold a remarkable collection of five hundred Theatre Royal playbills covering the period 1885 to 1895. With the kind consent of the Archives, one of these is displayed here: the playbill which advertises a “new local drama” called “Football or Life in Cardiff”. For a more detailed view of the playbill click here
This production was performed every evening during the lucrative Whitsun week 14th-19th June 1886, with a promise that if Whit Monday turned out wet, an afternoon matinee would also be held. It was wet. One of the authors was J P Sutherland, the manager of the Victoria Theatre Newport, and his play was a heavily reworked version of an earlier one he had produced there called “The Streets of Newport or Life As It Is”. This had included a scene at Rodney Parade but there was no on-stage rugby.
In bringing his new play to Cardiff, Sutherland demonstrated that he was well attuned to popular enthusiasms. There couldn’t have been a better time and place for promoting a drama involving rugby. The 1885-6 season had only just concluded and, under their captain Frank Hancock, Cardiff rugby club had enjoyed one of their most successful ever seasons. Defeated only once, in their last fixture, the team scored 131 tries yet conceded only four. Acknowledged as the innovators of the four three-quarter system, which changed the way rugby was played, Hancock and his team were inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

There can be no doubt that the reference to “Football” in the title meant rugby football. The moustachioed player depicted in the playbill is clearly in the process of kicking a rugby ball; while local theatre goers would have had no trouble in recognising that his jersey was the distinctive blue and black quartered one worn by Hancock’s team in 1885-6.  The reference in the playbill to “Cardiff Arms Park - The Game of Football”, also reveals that one scene was actually set during a match at the Arms Park. The cast list refers to a “host of auxiliaries” who portrayed the role of footballers in this “game” and possibly in other scenes too; while the press reported that the “match” involved thirty players and was “a novel attraction”.
“Football or Life in Cardiff” was a romantic melodrama with music. It involved a complicated story of love between the hero, a humble soldier, and the heroine, the colonel’s daughter. Trying to separate the star-crossed lovers was a villainous captain and a scheming lawyer. And in keeping with the tradition of melodrama, the story unfolded against a backdrop of comical and sensational incidents, including the rugby match and an escape from Cardiff Gaol.
The main comic character was played by DE Dodson, who later became a well-known character actor on Broadway. His “Penarth Billy” brought the house down when he sang a specially adapted version of the traditional “Crawshay Bailey’s Engine”. With verses referring humorously to the members of Hancock’s team, Dodson’s performance was received with such “enthusiastic acclamation” that he had to give several encores before he was allowed to proceed.
Unsurprisingly, Football or Life in Cardiff proved to be a great hit with the Cardiff public throughout Whitsun week, and it received a very warm reception from audiences of up to 2,000. Indeed, Sutherland was so encouraged by its success that, soon afterwards, he arranged an ambitious north country tour of the play, with an even more melodramatic storyline. This fell through but he did later take his football play to a variety of venues around the country. Some years later, a dispute arose in theatrical circles about the first portrayal of football on stage. Several producer/writers maintained that they had been the innovators but none was able to improve on Sutherland’s claim to be, as he put it, “the first in the field”. It was at the Theatre Royal Cardiff, he declared, that “a game of football – or more correctly a portion of the game – was played on the stage”.  He was so sure of his grounds that he threatened legal action to protect his rights!
This intriguing playbill, therefore, is a precious survivor of a particular moment in the history of both the theatre and rugby football.  It is also a vivid and – dare I say it – dramatic piece of evidence that Cardiff rugby club, and the game in general, were at the very heart of the life of Victorian Cardiff.

For a more detailed view of the playbill click here

Click here for more information on the work of the Glamorgan Archives

Gwyn Prescott

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