Authors: Thomas William Robertson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


A Night’s Adventure: Or, Highways and Byways, pr., pb. 1851 (adaptation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford)

David Garrick, wr. c. 1857, pr. 1864 (adaptation of Mélesville’s play Sullivan)

The Cantab, pr., pb. 1861 (one act)

Constance, pr. 1865 (libretto; music by Frederick Clay)

Society, pr. 1865

Ours, pr. 1866

Caste, pr. 1867

Play, pr. 1868

School, pr. 1869

Home, pr. 1869 (adaptation of Émile Augier’s play L’Aventurière)

Dreams, pr. 1869 (originally as My Lady Clara, pr. 1869)

M.P., pr. 1870

Not at All Jealous, pr. 1871

War, pr. 1871

A Row in the House, pr., pb. 1883

The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson, pb. 1889 (2 volumes)

Long Fiction:

David Garrick, 1865


Born in Newark-on-Trent, England, on January 9, 1829, Thomas William Robertson was bound up in the theater from the beginning to the end of his life. For several generations, his family had been actors and managers in the old theater circuits in the north of England. As a young child, he appeared in bit parts before being sent off, under the care of his actress-poet great-aunt, Fanny Maria Robertson, to attend such undistinguished schools as Henry Young’s Spalding Academy in 1836 and Moore’s School at Whittlesea in 1841. He seems to have been a normal, fun-loving child, inclined to be frail of health.{$I[AN]9810000454}{$I[A]Robertson, Thomas William}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Robertson, Thomas William}{$I[tim]1829;Robertson, Thomas William}

At the age of fourteen or fifteen, Robertson rejoined the family acting company based in Lincoln. There he gained practical experience in all aspects of the theater business except play writing itself. During all of this activity, Robertson found time to continue studying under the supervision of his father, who was a cultured literary man. The regimen included mastering French, a skill that later would prove useful in translating and adapting French plays for the English stage, a process that contributed much to Robertson’s understanding of the playwright’s business.

In 1848 the family business was in a bad way, and Robertson went to London to seek his fortune. The effort was not a success, and Robertson involved himself in an escapade that haunted him the rest of his life. He simply dropped out of sight for six weeks, to the distress of his family, spending the time miserably in Utrecht, the Netherlands, as a sort of assistant teacher. The mutual antipathy he felt for a fellow assistant teacher eventually surfaced in the character of Krux in the play School.

In 1851 Robertson met H. J. Byron, who became a lifelong friend. Together they produced a dramatic fiasco that attracted a single spectator who ultimately demanded his money back. The pair also made an abortive attempt to enlist in the Horse Guards. Meanwhile, Robertson freelanced articles, adapted plays for a publisher, Thomas Hailes Lacy, and saw the production of an early play, A Night’s Adventure, at the Olympia. In 1854 he found steady work as a prompter at the Lyceum Theatre.

By 1855 Robertson was back with the family troupe, which proceeded to become stranded in Paris when its production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth folded. Later that year, he met an actress, Elizabeth Burton, at the Queen’s Theatre (later called the Prince of Wales’s), a venue inelegantly known to members of the trade as “the Dust Hole.” They were married on August 27, 1856. A son, Thomas William Shafto Robertson, was born December 2, 1857, and a daughter, Betty, died in infancy in 1858.

An acting tour of Ireland followed the marriage, after which Robertson plunged once more into the bohemian life of the backwaters of literary London, acting occasionally and seeing some minor plays and farces produced. He became a member of two clubs, the Savage Club in 1861 and, later, the Arundel. His cronies there included other literary figures, among them the younger Tom Hood and W. S. Gilbert. The bohemian life of the Savage figured realistically in the play Society.

On February 14, 1861, Robertson achieved success with his farce The Cantab at the Strand Theatre and became drama critic for The Illustrated Times at about the same time. In 1863, he wrote a novel, David Garrick. In 1864, he produced the play David Garrick, an adaptation of a French play, Mélesville’s Sullivan. The “drunken scene” was reckoned a coup de théâtre by Robertson’s contemporaries. The play’s production in April at the Haymarket was Robertson’s first considerable dramatic success.

On May 8, 1865, Society opened in Liverpool. In the late summer, on August 14, Robertson’s first wife died. She had been loving and supportive, and her loss was a terrible blow. Meanwhile, Byron, who had arranged the Liverpool engagement of Society, found London managers unreceptive to the play. John Baldwin Buckstone, a crusty actor-manager, pronounced it “rubbish.” After much maneuvering, Byron succeeded in interesting the Bancrofts, the actor-managers of the small, newly refitted and renamed Prince of Wales’s Theatre on Tottingham Court Road, and Society opened there November 11, 1865.

From this point onward, Robertson’s life of bohemian penury was over. The play was an immediate success with its first London run of 150 nights. Robertson, for the first time, had theater owners who agreed entirely with his notions of acting, setting, and stage management. Triumph followed triumph with productions of Ours, Caste, Play, School, and M.P., all at the Prince of Wales’s. In 1867 Robertson had four other plays running in London, and in the glory year of 1869 he had six plays on the London stage and one each in Liverpool and Manchester.

In the midst of this triumph, Robertson married again, this time to a charming German woman, Rosetta Feist, in Frankfurt, Germany, on October 17, 1867. Never an especially well man, though generally described as robust, Robertson’s health declined with the onset of success. His last years were marked by increasingly painful bouts of lung disease, heroic efforts to continue to write and direct, and a nagging sense that, in spite of his obvious success, his work was middling and would not survive.

Robertson died on February 3, 1871, and was buried six days later in Abney Park Cemetery, attended by, among others of note, Tom Hood, Dion Boucicault, and Squire Bancroft.

BibliographyArmstrong, Cecil Ferard. Shakespeare to Shaw: Studies in the Life’s Work of Six Dramatists of the English Stage. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. The early significance of Robertson is established as he is assessed with William Shakespeare, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Arthur Wing Pinero, and George Bernard Shaw as the best of English playwrights. A brief literary biography shows the development of the writer in conjunction with the major events of his life.Barrett, Daniel. T. W. Robertson and the Prince of Wales’s Theatre. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Barrett examines Robertson’s plays within their theatrical, political, and social contexts. He notes the influence on future dramatists of Robertson’s writing style, efforts regarding copyright and compensation, and his work directing plays. Bibliography and index.Durbach, Errol. “Remembering Tom Robertson (1829-1871).” Educational Theatre Journal 24 (October, 1972): 284-288. A retrospective of Robertson’s contributions to the theater on the occasion of the centennial of his death. His contemporaries praised his drama for its freshness, nature, and humanity. Although Robertson is almost forgotten, he was revolutionary in his day and provided a point from which significant European drama could develop.Nicoll, Allardyce. British Drama. 6th ed. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1979. Nicoll describes how Robertson created a new “cup-and-saucer” drama, inviting people to bring their “fireside concerns” to the playhouse and look on reality. Robertson was successful in bringing life back into the theater. He was influential in showing how to write characters who speak in natural tones and in showing how to write about themes.Pemberton, T. Edgar. The Life and Writings of T. W. Robertson. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893. The standard biography of Robertson, tracing his life and literary development. Robertson’s son provided pertinent family information to Pemberton, who offers no literary criticism of the plays. Instead, he invites his audience to judge the works for themselves, as they were still standards on the London stage. Index.Tydeman, William, ed. Introduction to Plays by Tom Robertson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Tydeman demonstrates why Robertson’s plays were so acclaimed in their day and claims that the plays have since been vastly underrated. He draws attention to the features in the best of those genteel, optimistic comedies that enable them to endure for modern audiences. Illustrations, chronology, and bibliography.
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