Desperate Stages: New Brunswick's Theatre in the 1840s


113 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-86492-067-9
DDC 792'




Reviewed by Pauline Carey

Pauline Carey is an actor, playwright and librettist and author of the
children’s books Magic and What’s in a Name?


Edward Mullaly has written a lively account of the theatrical travails of three men whose paths meshed in New Brunswick over a hundred years ago. Thomas Hill was an outspoken and sometimes vituperative writer and editor of the Loyalist newspaper who wrote a satirical play entitled The Provincial Association, or taxing one another. Charles Freer was an East End of London actor known as The Kean of the East but praised in New York only as “a faintly twinkling star.” Henry Preston was an actor-manager, an old hand at starting up and losing theatres, who once went into battle in Albany with 14 armed men in order to regain what he considered his own theatre. Theatre has always been a desperate business but today we seldom take up arms over it.

Much of the action of Desperate Stages concerns the presentation of Hill’s play, which was premiered by Preston in Fredericton and received its only newspaper review from the author himself. We gather from his tentative appraisal that the performance was a shambles. A week later, Preston got news that the bailiff was on his heels and he hurriedly left for Saint John where he opened Hill’s satire to a full-scale theatre riot. The third performance survived an attempted arrest of Preston for old debts (his company put up bail for him) and Preston survived to enter the good graces of the Saint John audience by hiring the English tragedian Charles Freer to strut his stuff. After a successful few weeks, Freer left for the States and some years later ended his life in poverty and suicide.

All three men battled against great odds and all came to a sad end, but there is a buoyancy in the telling of their tale that keeps us entertained. While we shed a tear for three unfortunate lives, we learn a great deal of the rough and tumble of theatre and of journalism in the nineteenth century and some appreciation of the desperate lives of their practitioners.

Sources in this enjoyable book are meticulusly noted, but it would have been helpful to have a bibliography and an index.


Mullaly, Edward, “Desperate Stages: New Brunswick's Theatre in the 1840s,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,