Thomas William Robertson

Last updated
Engraving of Tom Robertson Thomas William Robertson.jpg
Engraving of Tom Robertson

Thomas William Robertson (9 January 1829 – 3 February 1871), usually known professionally as T. W. Robertson, was an English dramatist and innovative stage director best known for a series of realistic or naturalistic plays produced in London in the 1860s that broke new ground and inspired playwrights such as W. S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw.

Contents

Life and career

Born in Newark-upon-Trent, Nottinghamshire, Robertson was the eldest son of William Shaftoe Robertson, a provincial actor and theatre manager, and his wife Margharetta Elisabetta Robertson (nee Marinus), a Danish-born actress. [1] [2] His family was famous for producing actors, including his brothers Edward Shaftoe Robertson (1844–1871) [3] and Craven Robertson (died 1879), [4] his youngest sister, Dame Madge Kendal. [1] , and his father's aunt and uncle Fanny Robertson and Thomas Shaftoe Robertson. [5] He was schooled in Spalding, Lincolnshire. [6] By the age of five he was performing in the Wisbech Georgian theatre, run by his family, as Hamish, the son of the title character in Rob Roy . [5] As a child, Robertson continued to act in juvenile parts in Pizarro, The Stranger, "French" parts and eccentric comedy elsewhere on the Lincoln circuit and at the Marylebone in London, all managed by his family. [7] He later visited Paris as the stage manager and interpreter for an English company. [8]

Robertson continued to act into adulthood, but, never a successful actor, he turned to writing and, by the 1860s, his plays achieved popularity. [1] He married his first wife Elizabeth Taylor (1836–1865; stage name Elizabeth Burton) in 1856, and they had a son, Thomas William Shafto Robertson (1857–1895), [9] and three daughters, Elizabeth Phyllis ("Bessie") Robertson (1859–1860), Maude Fanny Maria Robertson (1861–1930) and Elizabeth Ruth Robertson (1863–1926). After his wife's death, Robertson married his German-born second wife, Rosetta Elizabeth Rodmill Feist, in 1867 and had two more children, Rosette Caroline ("Rosy") Robertson (1869–1897) and Dion William Moritz Jacob Robertson (1871–1908). [10] Robertson died in 1871 at the age of 42 and is buried, with his wife Elizabeth, at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. [11]

Plays

As a dramatist, Robertson began with adaptations of Dickens novels and wrote music hall songs for comedians. [8] He produced a farcical comedy, A Night's Adventure at London's Olympic Theatre in 1851, but this did not catch on, [1] and he remained for several more years in the provinces, acting and continuing with play writing and writing for newspapers. In 1860, he moved to London and worked as an editor, also writing a novel, later dramatised under the title Shadow Tree Shaft. [1] He also wrote a farce entitled A Cantab, which was played at the Royal Strand Theatre in 1861. This brought him a reputation among a Bohemian clique of writers, [1] the Fun magazine gang (including W. S. Gilbert, Tom Hood, Clement Scott, and F. C. Burnand), but so little profit that he thought of abandoning the profession to become a tobacconist. [1] Finally, in 1864, he had his first notable playwriting success, David Garrick , produced at the Haymarket Theatre with Edward Sothern in the title role. [1] Robertson also wrote the libretto to the 1865 comic opera Constance, with music by Frederic Clay.

Robertson found fame in 1865 with the production of his comedy Society , under the management of Squire Bancroft and his wife Marie (née Wilton) at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in the West End. The play includes a scene that fictionalized the Fun gang, who frequented the Arundel Club, the Savage Club, and especially Evans's café, where they had a table in competition with the Punch 'Round table'. [12] This play became regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue. [13]

All of Robertson's popular plays, except for David Garrick , were produced by the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales's Theatre. Other Robertson successes included the domestic dramas Ours (1866), Caste (1867), Play (1868), School (1869), and M.P. (1870). [13] He also wrote Dreams for the Gaiety Theatre, London, which opened that new theatre in 1868 together with Gilbert's Robert the Devil . His last play, War, was produced at the St. James's Theatre in 1871, the year in which he died. Robertson's plays are still occasionally seen. For example, Ours was given a professional production in July 2007 at the Finborough Theatre, London. [14]

Innovations in realism and directing

Robertson's plays became known as 'problem plays', because they dealt seriously and sensitively with issues of the day. In the 1850s and 1860s, Robertson's plays, both in style and substance, were considered revolutionary. Caste was about marriage across the class barrier and explored prejudices towards social climbing. [15] [16] These plays were notable for their "cup and saucer" realism, treating contemporary British subjects in settings that were realistic, unlike the oversize acting in Victorian melodramas that were popular at the time. [17] For example, whereas previously a designer would put as many chairs into a dining room scene as there were actors who needed to sit down, Robertson would place on stage as many chairs as would realistically be found in that dining room, even if some were never actually used. Or, if someone came in from a blizzard, snow would blow in from the doorway. In Ours, a pudding was made on stage, and this caused a major furore – people were not used to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. Also, the characters spoke in normal language and dealt with ordinary situations rather than declaiming their lines. [15]

In addition, the importance of everyday incidents, the revealing of character through apparent "small talk", and the idea that what is not said in the dialogue is as important as what is said are all Robertson trademarks. Some critics wrote that there was nothing in Robertson's plays but commonplace life represented without a trace of Sheridanian wit and sparkle, but many admired the new style of play and new style of acting. [1] George Bernard Shaw called Robertson's play Caste "epoch making" and referred to Robertson's innovations as a "theatrical revolution". It is now disputed whether Robertson really originated some of his innovations, but Society and its successors were viewed at the time as something new and, in a quiet way, revolutionary.

The Bancrofts, impressed with Robertson's dedication and skill, gave Robertson unusual artistic freedom to control his scripts and direct (or as it was then called, "stage manage") his plays. [17] Before Robertson and James Robinson Planché, star actors generally had control of scripts, and theatre managers had control of casting in the theatre. Robertson insisted on retaining control over his scripts and casting and required that his actors follow his directions - a novel concept at that time. Robertson directed his own plays and aimed to get rid of the unreal stylisation and bombast of the old melodramas. He did not act in his plays but instead took on the role of a professional director to control the action on stage. [17] W. S. Gilbert attended Robertson's rehearsals to learn from the older playwright's use of "stagecraft" and personally directed his own plays and operas based on what he had learned. Gilbert later recalled:

Why, he invented stage management. It was an unknown art before his time. Formerly, in a conversation scene for instance, you simply brought down two or three chairs, and people sat down and talked, and when the conversation was ended the chairs were replaced. Robertson showed how to give life and variety and nature to the scene, by breaking it up with all sorts of little incidents and delicate by-play. I have been at many of his rehearsals and learnt a great deal from them. [18]

These pioneers opened the way for later proponents of realism in drama, such as Shaw, and for modern methods of play production. Robertson was also a leader in requiring a fee from his managers for every performance of his plays, thus pioneering the modern royalty system.

Notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Robertson, Thomas William"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 406.
  2. Foulkes, Richard. "Kendal, Dame Madge [real name Margaret Shafto Robertson; married name Margaret Shafto Grimston (1848–1935), actress"], Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2013. Retrieved 9 November 2019 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. "Intelligence". Stamford Mercury. 13 October 1871.
  4. "Craven Robertson". Stamford Mercury. 27 June 1879.
  5. 1 2 "History". www.anglestheatre.co.uk. Retrieved 13 Dec 2019.
  6. "The late Mr TW Robertson". Stamford Mercury. 10 February 1871. p. 3.
  7. Robertson, T. W., The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson, p. 23
  8. 1 2 Stedman, Jane W. "General Utility: Victorian Author-Actors from Knowles to Pinero", Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, October 1972, pp. 289-301, The Johns Hopkins University Press
  9. Neil R Wright (2016). Treading the Boards. SLHA.
  10. "Ancestry - Sign In". www.ancestry.com.au. Retrieved 2020-02-08.
  11. Savin, p. 44
  12. Information about the bohemian round tables
  13. 1 2 Pemberton, T. Edgar. The English Drama from its Beginning to the Present DaySociety and Caste, D. C. Heath & Co., Publishers Boston USA and London (1905)
  14. Information about the 2007 production of Ours at the Finborough Theatre
  15. 1 2 "Cup and Saucer drama," 19th Century Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, accessed 22 October 2011
  16. Culme, John. Information about Caste, especially the 1910 revival. Footlight Notes, No. 315, 27 September 2003
  17. 1 2 3 Vorder Bruegge, Andrew "W. S. Gilbert: Antiquarian Authenticity and Artistic Autocracy" (Associate Professor, Department Chair, Department of Theatre and Dance, Winthrop University). Professor Vorder Bruegge presented this paper at the Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States annual conference in October 2002 Archived 2011-05-10 at the Wayback Machine , accessed March 26, 2008
  18. Archer, William. Real Conversations, 1904, quoted in Baily, p. 60

Related Research Articles

Squire Bancroft English actor-manager

Sir Squire Bancroft, born Squire White Butterfield, was an English actor-manager. He changed his name to Squire Bancroft Bancroft by deed poll just before his marriage. He and his wife Effie Bancroft are considered to have instigated a new form of drama known as 'drawing-room comedy' or 'cup and saucer drama', owing to the realism of their stage sets.

Henry James Byron British writer and theatre manager

Henry James Byron was a prolific English dramatist, as well as an editor, journalist, director, theatre manager, novelist and actor.

Clement Scott English theatre critic and writer

Clement William Scott was an influential English theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph and other journals, and a playwright, lyricist, translator and travel writer, in the final decades of the 19th century. His style of criticism, acerbic, flowery and carried out on the first night of productions, set the standard for theatre reviewers through to today.

Charles Wyndham (actor) English actor-manager

Sir Charles Wyndham, Charles Culverwell, was an English actor and theatre proprietor. Wyndham's Theatre in London is named after him, and he also built the New Theatre nearby.

John Baldwin Buckstone English actor and playwright

John Baldwin Buckstone was an English actor, playwright and comedian who wrote 150 plays, the first of which was produced in 1826.

William Hunter Kendal 19th/20th-century English actor and theatre manager

William Hunter Kendal was an English actor and theatre manager. He and his wife Madge starred at the Haymarket in Shakespearian revivals and the old English comedies beginning in the 1860s. In the 1870s, they starred in a series of "fairy comedies" by W. S. Gilbert and in many plays on the West End with the Bancrofts and others. In the 1880s, they starred at and jointly managed the St. James's Theatre. They then enjoyed a long touring career.

Madge Kendal 19th/20th-century English actor and theatre manager

Dame Madge Kendal, was an English actress of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, best known for her roles in Shakespeare and English comedies. Together with her husband, W. H. Kendal , she became an important theatre manager.

John Hare (actor) 19th/20th-century English actor

Sir John Hare, born John Joseph Fairs, was an English actor and theatre manager of the later 19th– and early 20th centuries.

Effie Bancroft actor-manager

Marie Effie Wilton, Lady Bancroft (1839–1921) was an English actress and theatre manager. She appeared onstage as Marie Wilton until after her marriage in December 1867 to Squire Bancroft, when she adopted his last name. Bancroft and her husband were important in the development of Victorian era theatre through their presentation of innovative plays at the London theatres that they managed, first the Prince of Wales's Theatre and later the Haymarket Theatre.

Scala Theatre Former theatre in London, England

The Scala Theatre was a theatre in Charlotte Street, London, off Tottenham Court Road. The first theatre on the site opened in 1772, and the theatre was demolished in 1969, after being destroyed by fire. From 1865 to 1882, the theatre was known as the Prince of Wales's Theatre.

Charles Collette British composer, actor and writer

Charles Henry Collette was an English stage actor, composer and writer noted for his work in comedy in a long career onstage. He appeared, beginning in the late 1860s, in many Bancroft productions and was engaged by other managers, including J. L. Toole, John Hollingshead, Mary Anderson, Lydia Thompson and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, as well as performing in his own companies. He toured for some years as the title character in F. C. Burnand's The Colonel and played many military men.

W. S. Gilbert English dramatist and librettist of the Gilbert & Sullivan duo

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas are still frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

Henrietta Hodson British actress

Henrietta Hodson was an English actress and theatre manager best known for her portrayal of comedy roles in the Victorian era. She had a long affair with the journalist-turned-politician Henry Labouchère, later marrying him.

Arthur Cecil British actor, comedian and theatre manager

Arthur Cecil Blunt, better known as Arthur Cecil, was an English actor, comedian, playwright and theatre manager. He is probably best remembered for playing the role of Box in the long-running production of Cox and Box, by Arthur Sullivan and F. C. Burnand, at the Royal Gallery of Illustration.

<i>Society</i> (play) 1865 comedy drama by Thomas William Robertson regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama

Society was an 1865 comedy drama by Thomas William Robertson regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue. Unusually for that time, Robertson both wrote and directed the play, and his innovative writing and stage direction inspired George Bernard Shaw and W. S. Gilbert.

Hawes Craven British artist (1837-1910)

Henry Hawes Craven Green was an English theatre scene-painter. He collaborated with Henry Irving, Richard D'Oyly Carte and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, producing stage sets of unprecedented realism. Craven's career lasted from 1853 to 1905, spanning the end of the era of gas lighting in theatres and the beginning of electrical lighting; he developed new techniques to co-ordinate the appearance of theatre settings during the transition from gas to electricity. He was regarded as the finest scene-painter of his day and was the last major scenic designer in the ultra-realistic tradition.

Actor-manager leading actor who sets up their own permanent theatrical company and manages the companys business

An actor-manager is a leading actor who sets up their own permanent theatrical company and manages the business, sometimes taking over a theatre to perform select plays in which they usually star. It is a method of theatrical production used consistently since the 16th century, particularly common in 19th-century England and the United States.

<i>Caste</i> (play) play by Thomas William Robertson

Caste is a comedy drama by Thomas William Robertson, first seen in 1867. The play was the third of several successes by Robertson produced in London's West End by Squire Bancroft and his wife Marie Wilton. As its name suggests, Caste concerns distinctions of class and rank. The son of a French nobleman marries a ballet dancer and then goes to war. When word arrives that he has been killed in action, his mother tries to wrest the child from his penniless widow.

Anna Ross Brunton was an English actress and dramatist and part of an extended family of actors.

William Shaftoe Robertson was a British actor and theatre manager. He was the nephew of Fanny Robertson, manager of the Lincoln theatre circuit, and her husband Thomas Shaftoe Robertson.

References

Further reading

Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature . London: J. M. Dent & Sons via Wikisource.