During the mid 1800s, Dundreary whiskers, or as the British called them, Piccadilly weepers, became popular. They were long bushy, carefully combed side whiskers, worn without a beard. The whiskers were named for Lord Dundreary, a character in Tom Taylor’s 1858 British play titled Our American Cousin. The play was a farce about a boorish but warm-hearted American named Asa Trenchard, who was introduced to his aristocratic English relatives.
The play premiered on 15 October 1858, in New York. Edward Askew Sothern, an English actor known for his comedic skill, aptly portrayed Dundreary. Sothern initially thought the part “dreadful.” In fact, Sothern was reluctant to accept the part. He thought that portraying Dundreary might permanently damage his career and reputation. Because Sothern was dejected about the part, he “began to introduce extravagant business into his character, skipping about the stage, stammering and sneezing, and, in short, doing all he could to attract and distract the attention of the audience.”
No one was more surprised than Sothern at the reception of his antics. Sothern turned Dundreary into an easy-going, brainless aristocrat. Moreover, Dundready was “at once understood by the English folk,” which delighted theatre audiences. Sothern later noted that he never dreamed “the character of the imbecile lord would turn out to be the stepping-stone of his fortune.” In fact, Sothern’s portrayal of Lord Dundreary became a turning point in his career and by far his most famous stage role.
Because of Sothern’s physical comedy and his dundrearyisms (expressions, fashionable mots, or parables that were nonsensical and humorous), he soon captured the hearts of the audience. Before long Sothern’s Dundreary character became the central figure in the play. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic, “Dundreary was upon the lips of every one. Men cultivated Dundreary whiskers and affected Dundreary coats.”
Dundreary’s whiskers were not the only thing parodied and imitated by the masses. So, was Dundreary’s dress—his frock coat, vest, and monocle—and his dundrearyisms, such as the oft-quoted, “Birds of a feather gather no moss.” There were also numerous small books “(generally very badly done) dealing with the imaginary doings of Dundreary under every possible condition, and in every quarter of the globe.” Punch also published a cartoon in 1862 about the Dundreary phenomena. They called it “Dundreary Row—Hyde Park.” It showed that the Dundreary whiskers and his “get up” were so popular among London’s “swells,” it was hard to tell one Dundreary from another.
Even after all the Hyde Park Dundreary’s stopped wandering about Dundreary Row, McClure’s Magazine noted in 1909 that “the fortunes Dundreary earned for Sothern were princely; the fame he made for Sothern was not eclipsed by that of any other comedian of his day; the fashions he set for all the world were comparable to nothing in recent stage history.” Yet, Sothern’s success as Dundreary is not what is most remembered. Rather it is that Our American Cousin was the play Abraham Lincoln attended when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
- McClure’s Magazine, Vol. 32, 1909
- Mr. Punch’s Victorian Era, Vol. 2, 1888
- Pemberton, Thomas Edgar, Lord Dundreary, 1889