Animal melodrama

17 Apr

In 2006, Alexandria’s New Old Theatre, a theatrical company specialising in reviving Victorian melodramas, put on a version of Caesar; Or, the Watchdog of the Castle. As the review in the Washington Post indicated, this was one of many nineteenth century melodramas to feature a dog in a heroic part.

Obviously the forerunner of Lassie, The Wizard of Oz, and the other lovable-dog Hollywood movies, animal melodramas had a certain enthusiastic following in minor English and American theatres – and even some of the big ones – in the 1820s and later years. Plays with monkeys also feautred – and according to Frank Rahill, plays with courageous birds as well. Here are some representative titles: The Cherokee Chief; or, The Shipwrecked Sailor and His Dog, The Smuggler’s Dog, or, the Blind Boy’s Murder, Jack Robinson and his Monkey (is that where the phrase ‘before you can say Jack Robinson’ comes from, I wonder?), Philip and his Dog, and The Planter and his Dog; or the Slave’s Revenge.

Actors who worked with dogs on stage were apparently known in the ninteenth-century industry as “dog Hamlets”. They worked in a three-person team – or rather, a two-person-and-dog team, the humans playing hero and villain respectively. As Rahill puts it, “the dog was by far the most important person in the ensemble”. In Philip and his Dog, the canine hero drowns the villain and steals bread for starving farmers. Usually, though, the dog’s “prize contribution to the entertainment was to leap at the throat of the villain and tear open a carefully prepared sack of red ochre planted there for the purpose, the malefactor dying a horrible, bloody death on the stage”.


Frank Rahill, The World of Melodrama (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967), 139-40.


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