Alfred 'Poet' Bunn



  • (1798 - 1860) British theater manager, who became notorious for his high-handed methods and bumptious personality. His nickname (courtesy of Punch) refers to the literary airs he adopted after penning several notably bad opera libretti. Among much else, Bunn was ridiculed for acquiring a position as a gentleman-at-arms to the Queen, which entitled him to wear a scarlet uniform with a plumed helmet. (He is said to have taken this step after learning of an obscure law that made members of this body exempt from arrest for debt.)

    Bunn's theatrical career began in 1819, when he was appointed manager of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. His tenure there would be a troubled one; the theater had to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1820 and there were continual disputes between Bunn and the members of the company. In 1824 Bunn's decision to stage Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein provoked furious accusations of blasphemy from a Revd J. A. James. Although this made for a good deal of publicity - so much so that Bunn was widely suspected of writing James's pamphlets himself - the show proved a total flop. Money problems meant that half the cast appeared without proper costumes and, surreally, the avalanche that buries the monster in the final scene had to be represented by a canvas elephant left over from a previous production.

    Despite this inglorious start, Bunn went on to dominate the London stage in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1831 he became lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - a position that he would hold (with two short breaks) until 1852. In 1833 he became manager of the only other patent theater, Covent Garden, giving him an effective monopoly of legitimate stage production in London. Bunn's abuse of this position made him widely disliked within the profession and eventually led Parliament to abolish the patent system. In 1836 Bunn's tense relationship with William Macready, his chief tragedian at Drury Lane, reached breaking point when Macready read on a playbill that he was to star in "the first three acts of Richard III". Macready, who was known for his loathing of mutilated versions of Shakespeare, dutifully performed the three acts but then marched into Bunn's office in full costume and struck the manager hard in the face. According to Macready, Bunn responded by savagely biting the actor's little finger and screaming "Murder! Murder!" until help arrived. The incident made Macready a hero in the theatrical world; he would succeed Bunn as manager of Covent Garden in 1837.

    Bunn's most positive contribution to the English stage was his tireless promotion of opera in the 1840s and 1850s. His own libretti include those for Balfe's The Maid of Artois (1836) and The Bohemian Girl (1843) - the latter containing the well-known lyric 'I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls'. In his later years 'Poet' Bunn produced three volumes of theatrical reminiscences and toured with a one-man show of anecdotes and stories.