Thomas William Robertson - Encyclopedia

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THOMAS WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1829-1871), English actor and dramatist, was born at Newark on the 9th of January 1829. As a dramatist he had a brief but very brilliant career. The son of a provincial actor and manager, chief of a "circuit" that ranged from Bristol to Cambridge, Robertson was familiar with the stage from his childhood; he was the eldest of a large family, the actress Margaret (Madge) Robertson (Mrs Kendal) being the youngest. His success came late. A farcical comedy by him, A Night's Adventure, was produced at the Olympic under Farren's management as early as 1851, but this did not make good his footing, and he remained for some years longer in the provinces, varying his work as an actor with miscellaneous contributions to newspapers. In 1860 he went to London, and edited a mining journal to which he contributed a novel afterwards dramatized with the title Shadow Tree Shaft. He was at one time prompter at the Olympic under the management of Charles Mathews. He wrote a farce entitled A Cantab, which was played at the Strand Theatre in 1861. This brought him a reputation in a Bohemian clique, but so little practical assistance that he thought of abandoning the profession to become a tobacconist. Then, in 1864, came his first marked success, David Garrick, produced at the Haymarket with Edward Sothern in the principal character. It was not, however, till the production of Society at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1865, under the management of Miss Marie Wilton, afterwards Mrs Bancroft, that the originality and cleverness of the dramatist we're fully recognized. Play-writer and company were exactly suited one to another; the plays and the acting together - the small size of the playhouse being also in their favour - were at once recognized as a new thing. Although some critics sneered at the "cup-and-saucer comedy," voted it absurdly realistic, said there was nothing in it but. commonplace life represented without a trace of Sheridanian wit and sparkle, all London flocked to the little house in Tottenham Street, and the stage was at once inundated with imitations of the new style of acting and the new kind of play. Robertson, although his health was already undermined, rapidly followed up Society with a series of characteristic plays which made the reputation of himself, the company and the theatre. All his best known plays (except David Garrick) were written for the old Prince of Wales's under the Bancrofts, and that regime is now an historical incident in the progress of the English stage. Ours was produced in 1866, Caste in 1867, Play in 1868, School in 1869, in 1870. Unhappily, Robertson enjoyed his success for but a short time. He died in London on the 3rd of February 1871. His work is notable for its masterly stagecraft, wholesome and generous humour, bright and unstrained dialogue, and high dramatic sense of human character in its theatrical aspects.

See Principal Dramatic Works of Robertson; with Memoir by his son (1889); and T. E. Pemberton, Life and Writings of Robertson (1893).

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