Exit with Dead Horse
Mayer, Cassie, Mayer, David, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
We view it on a poster. We read it in a novel. It all appears so matter-of-fact, so distant, yet so obvious and beyond challenge, that we don't think to ask questions. Our first encounter is with a poster - undated, with no venue specified - for the equestrian drama Turpin's Ride to York, a play performed from the mid-1830s until the 1920s (Plate 33). In particular, we note two lunettes in the lower leftand upper right hand corners that depict, first, a fallen horse, its rider apparently trying to raise the poor animal, and, second, a prostrate horse - perhaps a dead horse - lying on some sort of bier and being carried shoulder-high by a group of farmers (Plates 34 and 35). What we read in the novel - and the passage is from Thomas Hardy's 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd - is a description of the principal characters brought together to watch an itinerant circus performing what the strollers have ornately styled as 'The Royal Hippodrome Performance of Turpin's Ride to York and the Death of Black Bess' in their tent erected on Weatherbury village common. Hardy supplies this bit of local colour as two farmhands watch the drama:
The play began, and at the appointed time Black Bess leapt into the grassy circle amid the plaudits of the spectators. At the turnpike scene, where Bess and Turpin are hotly pursued at midnight by the officers, and the half-awake gatekeeper in his tasseled nightcap denies that any horseman has passed, Coggan uttered a broad-chested 'Well done!' which could be heard all over the fair above the bleating, and Poorgrass smiled delightedly with a nice sense of dramatic contrast between our hero, who coolly leaps the gate, and halting justice in the form of his enemies, who must needs pull up cumbersomely and wait to be let through. At the death of Tom King, he could not refrain from seizing Coggan by the hand, and whispering, with tears in his eyes, 'Of course he's not really shot, Jan - only seemingly!' And when the last sad scene came on, and the body of the gallant and faithful Bess had to be carried out on a shutter by twelve volunteers from among the spectators, nothing could restrain Poorgrass from lending a hand, exclaiming, as he asked Jan to join him, 'Twill be something to tell of at Warren's in future years, Jan, and hand down to our children.' For many a year in Weatherbury, Joseph told, with the air of a man who had had experiences in his time, that he touched with his own hand the hoof of Bess as she lay upon the board upon his shoulder. If, as some thinkers hold, immortality consists in being enshrined in others' memories, then did Black Bess become immortal that day if she never had done so before.1
What Hardy's farm-hands witness is the death of Turpin's beloved mare, Black Bess. Hardy's narrative assures us that this moving death and removal of the horse's carcass from the arena are elements of a standard Turpin performance. Audiences, we are led to believe, expected no less. This stock poster from the 1890s could be purchased from Stafford & Son in Nottingham and over-printed by any circus or theatre company that wished to stage their own Turpin's Ride to York. The names and dates in the poster might change, but the episode of a faltering, falling horse and pathetic equine death were unvaried. Other pictorial and black-letter posters from as early as the 1840s reinforce this expectation. Nobody questions whether the Turpin narrative was always thus, and certainly no modern theatre historians, who have grown up with automobiles, airplanes, and fork-lifts that could hefta horse's carcass from the arena in a matter of minutes, trouble to ask how a horse could be trained to lie so still as to feign death or how this same horse had been trained to leap a prop five-bar turnpike gate only moments before and, after several more circuits of the circle, fall to the ground and enact dying.
That is our purpose: first, to question the veracity of the visual images and narrative sources that support the several Dick Turpin dramas: did audiences expect the turnpike gate and collapsing-and-dying episodes? …