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Black-Eyed Susan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Black-Eyed Susan on the bill of the Theatre Royal, Jersey, in December 1829
Black-Eyed Susan on the bill of the Theatre Royal, Jersey, in December 1829

Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs is a comic play in three acts by Douglas Jerrold. The story concerns a heroic sailor, William, who has been away from England for three years fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, his wife, Susan, has fallen on hard times and is being harassed by her crooked landlord uncle. A smuggler named Hatchet offers to pay her debts because he wants her for himself; he tries to persuade her that William is dead. Soon after William returns to solve this problem, his drunken, dastardly captain tries to seduce Susan. William, not recognising his captain from behind, strikes him with his cutlass. He is court-martialled for attacking a senior officer and sentenced to be hanged. But it turns out that he had been discharged from the navy before he struck his captain, so all ends well. Much of the humour in the piece centers on the sailor's nautical dialect, combined with his noble character. The play is a nautical melodrama (with all its stock characters) that praises the patriotic British tar (sailor) while critiquing authoritarianism in the British Navy. Aspects of the story were later parodied in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).[1]

The play was Jerrold's first big success, premiering on 8 June 1829 at the Surrey Theatre[2] and running for a new record of over 150 performances.[3] Britain at the time was recovering from the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars and was in the midst of a class war involving the Corn laws, and a reform movement, which resulted in the Reform Act of 1832 aimed at reducing corruption. Black-Eyed Susan consisted of various extreme stereotypes representing the forces of good, evil, the innocent and the corrupt, the poor and the rich, woven into a serious plot with comic sub-plots. Its subject was very topical, and its success was enormous. T. P. Cooke starred as William, the nautical hero, becoming a star, and the producer, Robert William Elliston, became rich. The piece played simultaneously at Covent Garden Theatre for part of the original run, and soon after it closed at the Surrey, it was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for a total run of over 300 nights, which was extraordinarily successful for the time.[4] After this, it was frequently revived.[5]

The play was revived at the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon in December 1986, and the same production played for a week at the Playhouse Oxford in February 1987. It was directed by Ted Craig and designed by Michael Pavelka. The cast consisted of Simon Slater, Rita Wolf, Frank Ellis, Sidney Livingstone and Burt Caesar.[6] The piece was given a 2007 revival at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. The play was made into a 1914 film directed by Maurice Elvey.[7] Among the numerous Victorian burlesques and later parody versions of the play was an 1884 version by F. C. Burnand called Black Eyed See-Usan, first produced at the Alhambra Theatre.[8]


  • Doggrass, a wealthy publican
  • Gnatbrain, a gardener and waterman
  • Tom Hatchet, a smuggler who covets Susan
  • Jacob Twig, a ploughboy turned bailiff
  • Susan, married to William and niece to Doggrass
  • Dolly Mayflower, a spinner in love with Gnatbrain
  • William, a sailor married to Susan
  • Blue Peter, a sailor
  • Ploughshare, a farm labourer
  • Lieutenant Pike, of William's ship
  • Captain Robert Crosstree, of William’s ship
  • The Admiral, in charge of the court martial
  • Master at Arms
  • Country girls and sailors


  1. ^ Walbrook, H. M. (1922). "Chapter V: The Adventures of 'H.M.S. Pinafore'". Gilbert & Sullivan Opera, A History and a Comment. London: F. V. White & Co. Ltd.
  2. ^ London Evening Standard, 9 June 1829, p. 1
  3. ^ Gillan, Don. "Longest Running Plays in London and New York", 2007, accessed 24 June 2009.
  4. ^ "Douglas Jerrold, T. P. Cooke, and Black-Eyed Susan", The New York Times, 29 November 1885, p. 11.
  5. ^ Melville, Lewis and Lewis Saul Benjamin.Victorian Novelists, p. 59, London, A. Constable and Company, limited, 1906.
  6. ^ Theatre programme, Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, December 1986.
  7. ^ Black-Eyed Susan 1914 film.
  8. ^ "Dramatic Gossip", The Athenaeum: A Journal, 16 August 1884, p. 220.

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This page was last edited on 17 April 2020, at 22:49
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