Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Belles of the Kitchen

"Belles of the Kitchen" (NYPL Digital Gallery)
The Belles of the Kitchen was a play written by Mrs. Field, the aunt of the Vokes Family of actors - three sisters, a brother and an adopted brother who toured to great acclaim in the 1870s and 1880s.

Rosina Vokes (1854-1894) grew up in London, the daughter of Frederick, a costumier, and Sarah Vokes. The entire Vokes family acted: Rosina and her siblings Frederick, Victoria and Jessie. They had all loved to sing and dance from an early age and were encouraged to go into acting. Mrs. Field took the four Vokes children to Plymouth and there they "were taught elocution and stage action." Rosina was only four when she went to Plymouth.

Library of Congress
Mrs. Field had been a music teacher, and seems to have had many connections in the theatrical world. She arranged for the children to join a "pantomime troupe" and it was in this troupe that they became well known as the Vokes Family. But they wanted to act, not do pantomimes - so Mrs. Field wrote "The Belles of the Kitchen" for them to appear in.

"The Belles" was first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1870, and to great acclaim in New York in 1872. They returned to New York with the play two years later, too. When the Vokes Family appeared in Toronto,Canada, one critic described the sisters as "Victoria, demure and dignified; Jessie, elegant and aristocratic; Rosina, merry and mischievous...with a sprightliness and vivacity all her own." Rosina returned to America in 1885 with her own troupe, also with great success. Sadly, she died aged 40 in 1894.

What was the play like? It was a musical comedy - with plenty of dancing involved. I suspect that it was a fairly typical vaudeville production, enlivened by the charm and talent of the Vokes sisters (and of the brothers' dancing - one critic seemed mesmerized by their legs, for some reason). I wasn't able to find a synopsis of the play. I'd also like to know more about Mrs. Field, the playwright, but she doesn't tend to be credited with writing the play. If and when I do find out more, I'll come back to this post and let you know.


"Amusements: Last Night's Incidents," New York Times, January 6, 1874 [Vokes Family in Belles, at Niblo's Theater]
"Music and the Drama," The Canadian Monthly and National Review (Volume 10, 1876), p. 184.
Welch, Deshler. "Rosina Vokes' Life,"  The Theatre (Volume 2, 1887)  p. 352.

Rosina Vokes at
Sheet music from Belles of the Kitchen at the Library of Congress
Vokes family in the 1881 UK census (confirmed by Victoria Vokes' birth record here)

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