HALL, Owen [DAVIS, James] (b Dublin, 10 April 1853; d Harrogate, 9 April 1907). Style-setting librettist who authored some of the most successful musical plays of the 1890s and 1900s for the British stage.
The son of Hyman Davis, a Jewish artist, Jimmy Davis was intended to be a solicitor and, from the age of 21, he busied himself in pursuit of a legal career from an office at Mayfair's 5 Albermarle Street. Like many another young solicitor of the period, however, he had a taste for the bottle, the pen and the sporting and bohemian lives, as well as an utter incapacity to control his indulgences and an outrageous bonhomie. As a result, at the age of 29 the young solicitor went bankrupt to the vast tune of £27,385. After a dozen years of trying, and an abortive attempt to take the Dundalk parliamentary seat for the Conservative Party in 1880, he gave up the law in 1886 and went full-time into journalism, where he exercised a trippingly caustic tongue as dramatic critic on The Sporting Times and for two years as editor of The Bat (1885–7). So caustic, indeed, that he was hauled into court by musical-comedy star Marius for what turned out to be £110 worth of rather too imaginatively libellous prose. He also continued his old way of life and, by 1888, ended up in the bankruptcy courts again.
Davis persevered both in his journalism and his vices – in which the musical theatre played a natural part – and was apparently not overly impressed when he saw George Edwardes's production of In Town, one of the heralds of what was to become accepted as the new-style musical comedy. Anecdote relates that, meeting Edwardes on the Brighton train, he told 'the Guvnor' what he thought of the text of his new show, adding `I could do better myself'. Edwardes's reply is said to have been `Then do'.
The result of this conversation was a libretto which was entitled A Gaiety Girl, written under the pseudonym 'Owen Hall' (said to be a reference to Davis's notorious propensity for alarming debts), which Edwardes accepted and entrusted to the young conductor and composer Sidney Jones, who had never written a full-sized musical before, and the neophyte lyricist Harry Greenbank for its songs. When it came to production, Owen Hall's book had to undergo some changes. Not to the plot, for that was a simple little affair about a stolen comb and a few tangled romances, but to the dialogue. Hall had taken a slicingly satirical tone, and the little story with its pretty girls and songs was told in lines which jabbed here and there in the style of an upmarket and particularly vicious gossip columnist. Some of the jibes were so personal that Edwardes did not dare put them on the stage. But much of the smart society back-chat was still there on opening night, and it hit its marks with such effect that Edwardes received several requests from high places for alterations. The public, on the other hand, loved it, even when the Reverend Brierly, a character depicted as a man of doubtful moral rectitude, was demoted, after pressure from Lambeth Palace, to being just plain Dr Brierly.
A Gaiety Girl was a dazzling success and confirmed Edwardes in the way he was going. It also found a new career and a new source of money for Hall, who immediately went to work on a new show with Jones and Greenbank. An Artist's Model kept the snappy dialogue, but twinned it with a romantic plot, tacked in at the last minute when Edwardes managed to contract favourite prima donna, Marie Tempest, and needed a role for her. For the £850 he was being paid this time, Hall happily made the alterations and, by this lucky chance, set up the formula for a series of successes at Daly's Theatre.
An Artist's Model was succeeded by The Geisha, as Hall's price climbed to a dazzling £4,000 a script – sold outright, for ready money was all the author cared about. Here Edwardes made a marvellous bargain, for The Geisha was to be the biggest international hit the British musical theatre had known, playing thousands of performances on the Continent (one source counts some 8,000 in Germany alone) and touring for decades in Britain.
Hall had now taken some of the sauce off his style, and happily evolved a combination of sparky, up-to-date comedy and good old-fashioned (and sometimes new-fashioned) romance, into which he was never afraid to pop some general or particular parody when the opportunity arose. For the most part his subjects were modern, but he was by no means at a loss with the citizens of Ancient Rome when he supplied Sidney Jones with the text for one
of their finest works, A Greek Slave. They came out just like his Londoners. And all the time his honorariums were rising. He had earned £7,000 in the year The Geisha was produced, in the following year he netted £9,900. Astounding figures, but no less astounding was the £8,000 that he paid out to bookmakers in lost bets. A few weeks after the opening of A Greek Slave, Owen Hall was bankrupt again.
Given his continuing appetite for money, Hall did not confine himself to writing for Edwardes. He had already fleshed out a James Tanner plotline for ambitious touring manager Cissie Graham (All Abroad, £350) and when Edwardes found it a good idea to accept a libretto from the influential journalist `E A Morton' for his next show, Hall was happy to accept the proposition from up-and-coming producer Tom Davis and his associates to write a text for a first musical by successful songwriter Leslie Stuart. The result was Florodora, another international hit of huge proportions.
Hall turned out two more musicals for Davis: The Silver Slipper with Stuart, and his one and only genuine flop, a complicated piece of nonsense, nothing like his other works in tone, called The Medal and the Maid, in which he came back together with Sidney Jones. For Edwardes, on the other hand, he went back to the modern society tale to turn out perhaps the most delightful of all his libretti, the sweetly silly story of a misguided kiss told with the skill of a genuine farceur in The Girl from Kays (allegedly based on Leon Gandillot's La Mariée recalcitrante), and a semi-success in The Little Cherub (announcedly with the use of a bit of Meilhac's Décore'). For Frank Curzon he created a splendid character in the amorous copper Sergeant Brue, which Willie Edouin, who had already made Florodora's Tweedlepunch and `Piggy Hoggenheimer' from The Girl From Kays into classic comic gentlemen of the theatre, turned into another memorable creation.
Life caught up with Jimmy Davis, at the age of 54, before the law did again. His last show, the farcical comedy with music King Silly, apparently written without a commission, seems not to have got to the stage, and his attempted launch of himself as a public company towards the end of 1906 with a capitalisation of £12,000 does not seem to have taken off. Perhaps investors knew. When he died, with the credit for two of the world's most successful ever shows and a whole series of other hits to his name, with performances of his shows taking place every day all over the world, his assets came to just £200.
Hall's non-theatrical writings included a successful novel, The Track of a Storm (1896), a mystery, Jetsam (1897), and Hernando (1902).
Hall's sister, Julia Frankau (?1859—1916) was a successful novelist under the name of `Frank Danby', and the mother of author Gilbert Frankau, and the actor Ronald Frankau who appeared in London in A Country Girl (1914), The Gay Princess (1931) and a long run of 1930s and 1940s revues.
1893 A Gaiety Girl (Sidney Jones/Harry Greenbank) Prince of Wales Theatre 14 October
1895 An Artist's Model (Jones/Greenbank) Daly's Theatre 2 February
1895 All Abroad (Frederick Rosse/W H Risque/w James Tanner) Criterion Theatre 8 August
1896 The Geisha (Jones/Greenbank) Daly's Theatre 25 April
1898 A Greek Slave (Jones/Greenbank) Daly's Theatre 8 June
1899 Florodora (Leslie Stuart/E Boyd Jones) Lyric Theatre 11 November
1901 The Silver Slipper (Stuart/Risque) Lyric Theatre 1 June
1902 The Girl from Kays (Ivan Caryll, Cecil Cook/Adrian Ross, Claude Aveling) Apollo Theatre 15 November
1903 The Medal and the Maid (Jones/C H Taylor) Lyric Theatre 25 April
1904 Sergeant Brue (Liza Lehmann/J Hickory Wood) Strand Theatre 14 June
1906 The Little Cherub (The Girl on the Stage) (Caryll/Ross) Prince of Wales Theatre 13 January
Adapted from The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre by Kurt Gänzl.
Page updated 12 September 2004