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|Robert William Elliston
Written by Julie W
(Saturday, 17 January 2009, at 9:38 a.m.)
Elliston, she tells us has just succeeded to a considerable fortune on the death of an Uncle. I would not have it enough to take him from the Stage; she should quit her business, & live with him in London Letter 51
This tiny snipppet of gossip referred to one of JA's favourite actors, Robert William Elliston.
His rise to fame coincided with her stay in Bath from 1801-5.
He was born on the 7 April 1774 in Orange Street, London, the only child of Robert Elliston , a watchmaker, and his wife. Sadly, his father was an alcoholic,and Elliston was cared for by two uncles, Dr William Elliston, master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Dr Thomas Martyn, professor of botany, of the same college.
Under their supervision he was educated at St Paul's School, London, where he took a special interest in oratory. It would appear that his uncles intended him for the church but spurning this role they had mapped out for him, he "ran away to the theatre" at Bath.
A this time the theatre in Bath was second in importance in the English dramatic world only to the two London patent theatres, the Theatre Royal Drury lane and Covent Garden. In conjunction with the theatre at Bristol the Bath company provided a very fashionable and knowledgeable audience with entertainment suitable for the most discerning palates.
Eliston made his first appearance at the Orchard Street Theatre in Bath in 1791. He stayed at the Bath theatre till 1804, performing many roles in plays with which JA was very familiar (Note: he played the part of Frederick in Lover Vows at least ten times in that period).
In 1796 he eloped with and married Elizabeth Rundell, a Bath dance teacher. They had ten children before she died in 1821. Through her dancing academy she helped Elliston's productions when he later became a theatre manager. Interestingly, she continued her occupation after her marriage despite Ellistons sucess as a leading actor. He finally left Bath for London in 1804, as Richard Sheriden wanted him to apear at his Drury Lane Theatre . Initially Elliston refused a permanent postion in Sheridan's company but gradually the lure of the London theatre sucked him in ;-) On 20 September 1804 Elliston began appearing as the leading actor at Drury Lane. He had played successfully in London during the summers of 1796 and 1797, mainly at the Haymarket Theatre, run by the playwright George Colman, but wisely waited until his reputation was ripe before making a complete break with Bath and Bristol.
Although he was versatile, Elliston's appearance was against him for the playing of tragedy, for his face was described as:
the very Mirror of Comedy. His countenance was round and open, his features small, yet highly expressive; laughter lay cradled in his eye, and there was a muscular play of lip, so pregnant of meaning, as frequently to leave the words that followed but little to explain. See G. Raymond, Memoirs of Robert William Elliston,(1844) vol 1 page 8
He seems to have been best in the Charles Surface sort of role from Sheridan's The School for Scandal: rakish but generous and warm-hearted, versions of which were available by the score in the comedies of this era. He was known as a great lover on stage, just as he was a notorious womanizer off stage......
The theatrical critic Leigh Hunt has left us an interesting analysis of Elliston's skill in this area, when Elliston played opposite Dorothy Jordan in 1805 in the facre Matrimony by James Kenney . They provided
‘altogether the most complete scene of amorous quarrel that I have witnessed’
When Drury Lane was destroyed by fire in 1809, Elliston looked around for new worlds to conquer and hit upon theatre management. He became known as ‘the Great Lessee’ and ‘the Napoleon of the Theatre’ for his interest in acquiring new property. He began with the Royal Circus in St George's Fields, which he transformed and managed for five years. At the same time he leased the Manchester Theatre Royal from 1809–10 then purchased Croydon in 1810 but it was seized by creditors in 1826. He leased Birmingham from 1813–18, to which he added Worcester and Shrewsbury in 1815 to make up a circuit He then purchased the Olympic Pavilion in London in 1813, and leased Lynn from 1817–18, Leicester, and Northampton both from 1818 and Leamington (where he also had a lending library and assembly rooms!!)from 1817;and Coventry in 1821.
When he became the manager of Drury Lane in 1819 Elliston was indeed "king of the theatre" indeed, and was soon to play that role in his magnificent coronation spectacle of 1821. During his "reign" at Drury Lane, Elliston had many successes with spectacular melodramas, operas, and pantomimes (complete with the latest invention, the diorama), but with not a single new ‘legitimate’ play of any significance. Theatre, not drama, and novelty of every kind were what the public now demanded. Edmund Bertram would not have approved ;-)
Following a severe stroke in August 1825, by which time the now sadly alcoholic Elliston was but a shadow of his former self, his place as manager was taken over by his eldest son, William Gore Elliston, who formed a successful partnership with his brother, Henry Twissleton Elliston.
Elliston returned to the stage, however, to create his last original role, "Falstaff" in The First Part of King Henry IV, in May 1826. As sometimes happens, he was brilliant in the final rehearsal but unable to reproduce that quality in public. Having lost Drury Lane but partially regained his health, Elliston finished his days as manager of the Surrey theatre , where he acted out his last days.His last appearance was as "Sheva" in Cumberland's The Jew, one of his most popular characters, on 24 June 1831. Two weeks later, on 8 July 1831, Elliston died of an ‘apoplexy’,which was, presumably , a cerebral haemorrhage, and was buried at St John's Church, Waterloo Road London(see Robert William Elliston, Manager: A Theatrical Biography by Christopher Murray (1975).
Given his womanising reputation, it would seem that JAs advice to his wife was quite perceptive.....
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