The following is an excerpt from the book, Black Country. It takes place when Francis Asbury, by his father’s arrangement, (and against his mother’s wish), spends some time as an apprentice with a wealthy family, headed by John Wryley Birch, in the ancient parish of Handsworth. Francis had the privilege of living in a cottage at the stately mansion, Hamstead Hall. In the scene below, Francis attends an outdoor theatre event in Birmingham with the well to do family.
The audience goes silent as Mr. Ward walks to the edge of the stage and prepares to speak. The quiet gives Francis one more opportunity to appreciate the evening’s opportunity and the fine outfit that he is enjoying more and more as he wears it; he strokes the fine cotton-sleeve of his jacket.
Mr. Ward begins,
“It brings great happiness to realize our fair audience has refused to subscribe to the drawling, face-making puppies that inhabit the theatre at King Street.”
(Mr. Ward is mocking the recent competition of another, more modernized theatre that has recently opened in town).
Mr. Ward pauses as the gathering politely applauds. He continues,
“As shared in times past, I am committed to work the dogs a penny’orth (1) for daring to cross my circuit.”
The crowd once again approves.
At the completion of the light applause, Mr. Ward turns stage left, heading for the over-sized chair on the perimeter of the stage.
Taking his place as the play’s narrator, he begins:
“Afraid of spirits, ghosts, witches and fairies, the Widow Bumper and her over productive body, approaches the Marvel of the Age, Dr. Preachfield. With fifteen children, two since the death of her husband and another on the way, the good Widow Bumper longs for a compassionate ear – –
Arm, leg, even a torso…”
Insinuating sexual suspicion, the stage transvestism of the male actor dressed as the widow, enters stage right.
Simultaneously, the character, Dr. Preachfield, walks on stage from the center of the upstage curtains.
Downstage, the pair rushes to embrace. The Widow immediately begins to rub her upper torso onto the chest of Dr. Preachfield,
“I assured my uncle, ‘Oh you are a very good man, quite full of the spirit.’”
This scene is from the 1746 stage production, A Will or No Will, by Charles Macklin. The play is a mocking burlesque meant to cast a disparaging light on the great preacher of Francis Asbury’s time, George Whitefield. Whitefield is characterized as ‘Dr. Preachfield.’ In the play, he is not leading a Christian revival, instead, he is running a brothel. Whitefield was a personal friend of John and Charles Wesley. In fact, it was Whitefield who asked the brothers to take over his extremely successful ministry when he chose to head for the American colonies just before 1740. John and Charles Wesley’s early ministry was greatly aided by this move.
His August, 1739 arrival in Philadelphia coincided with local papers that boasted that “no one alive has preached to as many people as George Whitefield, perhaps no one throughout all of history.”
(1) Penny worth