Fitzball, Edward (DNB01)

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FITZBALL, EDWARD (1792–1873), dramatist and miscellaneous writer, born at Burwell, near Mildenhall, Cambridgeshire, in 1793, was the second son of Robert Ball, a farmer (d. 1803), and grandson of 'the celebrated Dr. Ball of Mildenhall.' His mother, whose maiden name was Fitz, was the well-endowed widow of Brundish Marker of Bury St. Edmunds. His father was ruined by neglecting his farm for the attractions of Newmarket, and his mother had difficulty in carrying on the business, which was eventually sold for 12,000l. Edward was educated at Albert us Parr's school at Newmarket; he then started as apprentice in a printing house at Norwich, 1809-12. Having married in 1814, he started a small printing house and magazine of his own, which proved a failure. Before this he had been greatly impressed by some performances at the Norwich Theatre. He had already written some verses in emulation of Robert Blomfield, adopting the signature Fitzball, by which he was thenceforth generally known. He now began to try his hand at tragedies and 'melodrames.' About 1819 he forwarded a melodrama, 'Edda,' to Tom Dibdin at the Surrey, and received an encouraging answer. Mrs. Opie advised him to try his fortune as a dramatist in London, and on the strength of a success achieved at the Norwich Theatre with a piece called 'The Innkeeper of Abbeville,' he consented. In 1821-2 his 'Innkeeper of Abbeville' was successfully tried at the Surrey Theatre, then under Watkin Burroughs, and it was revived in 1826 and at the Olympic in January 1830. In June 1822 his adaptation of 'The Fortunes of Nigel ' was produced at the Surrey (revised for the Pavilion 1830), and on 12 Aug. in the same year his 'Joan of Arc,' written for Mrs. Egerton, was produced at Sadler's Wells. During the next twenty-five years Fitzball turned out an enormous number of dramas, mostly for the minor metropolitan theatres. In facility and productiveness he was probably exceeded in England only by J. R. Planché, but, unlike Planché, he did not deal in translations from the French, 'unless expressly per order.' Among his numerous 'triumphs' may be mentioned 'Peveril of the Peak,' given at the Surrey 6 Feb. 1823, and 'Waverley' at the Coburg in March 1824. The first of many nautical pieces, for which it was jocularly said that Fitzball had a patent, was 'The Floating Beacon' (Surrey, 19 April 1824), in which Gallet made a hit as the British sailor, Jack Junk, and which ran 140 nights (repeated at Sadler's Wells and Adelphi, 1829). The dramatist was now requisitioned by the Adelphi, where in 1825 was produced his highly successful 'The Pilot (based on Fenimore Cooper's novel), with Terry and Yates as the pilot and Barnstaple, John Reeve as the Yankee captain, BoroughelifFe, and T. P. Cooke as Long Tom Coffin. The piece ran over 200 nights. Another Adelphi success was 'The Flying Dutchman ; or the Phantom Ship,' with Reeve as Von Bummel, Yates as Toby Varnish, and O'Smith as Vanderdecken. This was followed up at the Adelphi by 'The Red Rover,' with Yates in the title part, and at the Surrey by 'The Inchcape Bell,' both produced in 1828. A reverential admirer of successful actors, Fitzball was inspired with awe and terror when he was asked by the manager of Covent Garden to write for one of the 'legitimate' houses in 1828. His first attempt, 'Father and Son,' proved a failure, but was followed by an Easter piece, 'The Devil's Elixir,' which had a long run. 'Hofer the Tell of the Tyrol' was given at the Surrey in 1832, and was followed on 12 June 1833 by the melodrama 'Jonathan Bradford,' which had a career of nearly 400 nights and made the fortune of the management. It was followed by 'Tom Cringle' in the summer of 1834. When Osbaldiston became lessee of Covent Garden in 1835, he retained the inexhaustible 'Fitz' as stock dramatist and reader. But though bound to 'hod and mortar work,' as he called it, at Covent Garden, he was not deterred from pouring out a constant stream of 'poetry, romance, and song,' or even from writing plays for other houses. At Covent Garden he produced 'Walter Tyrrel' (1835), and in April 1836 was given his lively extravaganza, 'Zazezizozu.' When Osbaldiston's management came to an end some two years later, Fitzball went to Drury Lane as reader for Alfred Bunn [q. v.], for whom he had previously written the libretto of 'The Siege of Rochelle' to Balfe's music (October 1835). Among other librettos he wrote for Balfe 'Joan of Arc,' 'Diadeste,' 'Keolanthe' (1840), and ' The Maid of Honour ' (1847). He also furnished the English version for Donizetti's 'La Favorita,' Bishop's 'Adelaide,' and 'Maritana' for Vincent Wallace. Among his later dramatic successes must be counted 'The Momentous Question' for the Keeleys at the Lyceum, 'The Miller of Derwentwater' for Farren at the Olympic, and the Egyptian play 'Nitocris' for Drury Lane in October 1855. In 1859, after nearly forty years' theatrical life, Fitzball made a curious revelation of the state of mind produced by a constant atmosphere of the stage in his 'Thirty-five Years of a Dramatic Author's Life,' London, 2 vols. 8vo. He was constrained a few years later to make over his work to younger hands, and, having outlived all his old companions, secluded and forgotten, he died at Chatham on 27 Oct. 1873 at the age of 81. He was buried in Chatham cemetery. His wife Adelaide had died in 1839, leaving a married daughter.

The very exuberance of his facility seems to have prevented Fitzball from exacting favourable terms from the managers of his day, though he was recognised by all of them as a playwright unrivalled in every trick and artifice known to the stage. Personally, too, though the greatest creator of stage devilry and blue fire ever known, he was the mildest of men. Apart from his plays he had ambitions as a poet and a writer of romance. He wrote an enormous number of songs, patriotic, sentimental, and 'comic.' At Vauxhall between 1830 and 1838 the 'Poetry by Edward Fitzball' was a usual announcement in the programmes. Many of his songs, like his librettos, abound in prettiness. The best known is 'The Bloom is on the Rye' (beginning 'My pretty Jane'), originally sung at Vauxhall in 1831 by the well-known alto George Robinson, and more recently as a tenor song by Sims Reeves.

[Thirty-five Years of a Dramatic Author's Life, 1859; Era Almanac, 1873; Era, 2 Nov. 1873; Illustr. London News, 8 Nov. 1873 (portrait); Times, 29 Oct. 1873; Barrett's Balfe, his Life and Work, 1882, passim; Planche's Recollections; Bunn's The Stage, 1840; Wroth's London Pleasure Gardens, p. 319; Boase's Modern English Biog. i. col. 1056; Brown's Biographical Dict. of Musicians, p. 248; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.