T. W. Robertson
BORN: 1829, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England
DIED: 1871, London, England
M. P. (1870)
Thomas William Robertson. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Thomas William Robertson (known professionally as T. W. Robertson) was a dramatist best known for his romantic comedies. He is associated with the transitional period in English theater when playwrights working in an extravagant, artificial, and melodramatic style began to move toward greater realism. Robertson’s plays feature realistic characterizations and dialogue and are known today for their meticulous details in stage direction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Flair for the Dramatic. Robertson was born in 1829 in Newark-upon-Trent, Nottinghamshire, to a theatrical family. His parents were both actors—his father was a stage manager as well—and his youngest sister became a leading Victorian actress under the name Madge Kendal. Robertson made his stage debut at the age of five in the musical drama Rob Roy. In 1836, he began his formal education at a boarding school, but he returned to Newark after only seven years to help support his family. Working as an assistant to his father, he learned much about various aspects of the theater, including scene painting, prompting, stage-managing, acting, singing, and songwriting. In 1849, Robertson’s father’s theater company disbanded, and Robertson went to London, where he began writing plays while continuing to act in minor productions. By 1851, he was producing such plays as the farcical A Night’s Adventure at the Olympic Theatre in London. The production was not successful, however, so Robertson continued acting and began writing, contributing to the local newspapers of the day.
From Actor to Playwright and Drama Critic. In 1856, Robertson married an actress named Elizabeth Burton, and together they performed at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, where Robertson also worked as stage manager. In the late 1850s, he gave up acting and began writing dramatic reviews with W. S. Gilbert for the periodical Fun. He also contributed to the Illustrated Times, London Society, Comic News, and other publications, eventually becoming the drama critic for the Illustrated Times under the pseudonym ‘‘Theatrical Lounger.’’ He gained additional writing experience adapting and translating French plays, most of which were sold to Thomas Haile Lacy, the leading theatrical publisher of the nineteenth century.
In the 1860s, Robertson was working as an editor and writing on the side. He wrote a novel that was later adapted for the stage as Shadow-Tree Swift, performed in 1867. Robertson also wrote a second farce, A Cantab, which was performed at London’s Royal Strand Theatre in 1861. This play earned him little profit, and he considered giving up writing to become a tobacconist. But the comedy also brought Robertson attention from the writers at Fun and he began to build a reputation in the theater.
First Minor Hit. Robertson first achieved minor success with David Garrick (1865), an adaptation of a French play by Melesville (the pseudonym of Anne- Honore-Joseph Duveyrier), which was performed at Haymarket Theatre, featuring Edward Sothern in the lead role. Robertson was soon introduced to Squire Bancroft and his wife, Marie Wilton, actors who owned the Prince of Wales’s Theatre. The Bancrofts produced and acted in Robertson’s most successful plays between 1865 and 1870.
Eventual Success. By 1865, Robertson was gaining popularity and even critical acclaim, beginning with Society, produced at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1865. Wilton’s management of the production made popular the new ‘‘box-set’’ stage, which housed the popular drawing-room drama. Robertson’s fresh approach began a new kind of play called the ‘‘problem play.’’ The novelty of the production had great appeal, and the small and intimate Tottenham Street house was packed.
Robertson, with health compromised, nevertheless repeated the success of Society with several more of these innovations—the most popular among them including Ours, produced in 1866; Caste, produced in 1867; Play, first performed in 1868; School, produced in 1869, and M. P., first performed in 1870. The last of his plays he would see to the stage, War, was produced at the St. James’s Theatre in early 1871. Robertson died of heart disease on February 3, 1871, at the height of his career.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Robertson's famous contemporaries include:
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888): American novelist best known for her book Little Women (1868). She was also a seamstress, servant, teacher, and Civil War nurse before becoming an author.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880): French writer best known for his novel Madame Bovary (1857).
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): American civil rights advocate and leader, she was instrumental in the securing of women's rights, including the 1919 right to vote.
Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931): African American civil and women's rights advocate who cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1919.
Norman Pogson (1829-1891): English astronomer, he became India's government astronomer, initiated the Madras Catalogue of stars, and made several important discoveries.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1891): Russian novelist, essayist, dramatist and philosopher, he is known for his masterpieces, Anna Karenina (1873-1877) and War and Peace (1865-1969).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Robertson's plays often addressed differences in social status. Here are a few works by writers who have also considered the themes of social class and class values:
An American Tragedy (1925), a novel by Theodore Dreiser. This book explores the troubles of a young Clyde Griffiths, who is challenged by his relationships with both rich and poor girls.
Manservant and Maidservant (1947), a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. In this novel, English author Comp- ton-Burnett examines the underbelly of the serving class, poking harsh and mocking fun at the classes the central characters serve.
Where I'm Calling From (1988), a short-story collection by Raymond Carver. This collection of contemporary short stories, set in the Pacific Northwest, involves the simple but miserable lives of common working-class Americans.
The World of Malgudi (2000), a collection of four short novels by R. K. Narayan. In this work, the author expresses the values and mores of domestic life and explores what it means to be East Indian in modern times.
Works in Literary Context
Theatres Act of 1843. Robertson’s dramatic writing was considered revolutionary in both style and subject matter. His ‘‘problem plays’’—sensitive to the serious issues of Victorian people—moved theater toward a more realistic method of drama. Robertson was among the first English dramatists to benefit from the Theatres Act of 1843, which amended previous legislation that severely limited artistic freedom. In contrast to his contemporaries who, in spite of the act, did not stray from theatrical comedy and machine-made melodrama, Robertson took advantage of the new freedom afforded to playwrights and introduced naturalism into drama.
Social Class Themes. Intended as entertainments for a middle-class audience, most of Robertson’s plays are romantic comedies that treat social issues of the day in an idealized manner. Many concern issues of class: They satirize the pretensions of the aristocracy and the nouveau riche, and they ultimately uphold the values of the middle class.
Society (1865), for example, depicts a poor but honest man who achieves a title, property, and a seat in Parliament as the result of his moral character. His morality is sharply contrasted with that of the upper class, which is depicted as valuing only money and status. Similarly, in Caste, Robertson’s best-known play, a young actress earns the respect and affection of her aristocratic husband’s family by patiently enduring hardship and criticism. In other plays, Robertson depicted conflicts between the aristocracy, with its devotion to tradition, and the rising middle class, which favored social change.
Realistic Style. Although conventional in sentiment, Robertson’s plays were markedly different from those of his predecessors in terms of dialogue, characterization, and staging. These drawing-room dramas featured meticulous directions concerning details of staging and production, realistic characterization, and realistic dialogue.
Seeking to avoid the exaggeration and posturing of earlier Victorian acting methods, Robertson created characters that spoke in a realistic manner and provided his actors with elaborate directions concerning facial expression, hand gestures, and vocal intonation. Especially innovative, his dialogues are composed of short speeches that require the actors to address one another, thus avoiding the prevailing oratory style.
Robertson enhanced this dramatic realism by insisting on authenticity in his stage sets: he included furniture and backdrops that clearly depicted the settings of his plays, and he made extensive use of props, including real food. Robertson’s combination of stage realism with a focus on themes drawn from English life of the period is considered his most significant contribution to the English drama. His innovations prompted a trend which later culminated in the works of Henrik Ibsen, W. S. Gilbert, and George Bernard Shaw and are widely viewed as a significant contribution to the development of modern drama.
Works in Critical Context
Robertson was recognized as one of the first English dramatists to bring timely social issues to the stage. Yet, the critics have been divided on his treatment of those issues. Some earlier critics judged his plays to be ‘‘cup- and-saucer comedies’’ and derided them for their absurd realism. These nineteenth-century critics bemoaned the commonplace representations and the realistic attention to physical detail. Others note that Robertson’s treatment of common, everyday Victorian concerns was similar to that of earlier Romantic dramatists—his treatment relying too heavily upon the redeeming power of worthwhile sentiments.
Some critcs, however, praised Robertson’s attempt to mirror reality on the stage. His unique use of stage directions was appreciated by later playwrights, who acknowledged their debt to his innovations. W. S. Gilbert, for example, offered this tribute: ‘‘Most pieces are now stage-managed on the principles [Robertson] introduced. I look upon stage-management, as now understood, as having been absolutely invented by him.’’
Many earlier critics praised Robertson’s contributions to dramatic production methods, yet did not see any literary value in the plays, which were rarely performed after the 1890s. In addition, the dramatic changes subsequently brought to the stage by such Realists as Ibsen and Shaw overshadowed the efforts of Robertson and many of his contemporaries. Recent scholarship, however, has brought renewed awareness of Robertson’s contributions to the theater. William Tydeman echoes these modern sentiments: ‘‘[Robertson’s] plays do convey something of the quality of everyday existence where meals are eaten, watches consulted, pipes smoked, peas shelled, half-crowns borrowed, and galoshes fetched. ...In introducing even a hint of these factors into his pieces Robertson cautiously unbolted a door which bolder spirits were to fling wide.’’
Critical Reaction to Caste. Contemporary critics such as John Oxenford applauded Robertson’s Caste, comparing its quality with that of his other popular works. With regards to the reaction of Robertson’s contemporaries to the work, Oxenford notes that ‘‘the success of Caste [was] indubitable.’’ Writing in 1879, critic W. Wilding Jones agreed, saying that Caste was ‘‘in the opinion of many Robertson’s chef-d’oeuvre [masterwork], and in this opinion I concur.’’ Later, George Bernard Shaw called Robertson’s play ‘‘epoch making’’ and referred to Robertson’s innovations as a ‘‘theatrical revolution.’’ Modern scholars have recognized the play’s popularity, and often cite it as an example of Robertson’s innovations in realistic drama.
Responses to Literature
1. While a playwright named Eugene Scribe is credited with creating the theatre genre known as the well- made play, Robertson was known as a playwright who met the conventions of that genre. Research the elements that make this kind of well-made play and match the list of criteria against one of Robertson’s works. Report back to a group to discover Robertson’s important techniques of action, characterization, and plot.
2. Go online to literary sites and databases and find one aspect of Victorian literature to investigate. This could be Victorian literary style, esteemed Victorian writers, lesser-known Victorian writers, publishing venues of the period, differences in the Victorian writing of other continents, or even the events and concerns that influenced Victorian themes. When you have printed out examples, return to share your new area of expertise with the group and discuss the influence of Victorian values or standards of behavior on Robertson’s plays.
3. Besides appealing to a middle-class audience, Robertson’s plays share common themes. Compare and contrast the themes in such plays as Play, School, and M. P. What do the similarities tell you about the audiences in Robertson’s time? What, if anything, might still appeal to audiences today?
4. Robertson was known for his innovations with the realistic ‘‘drawing-room drama.’’ Research the genre, making careful note of what was required to produce such a play. Then, choosing a favorite Robertson work, create your own drawing-room drama. You might even decide to do a ‘‘cup-and-saucer comedy’’ by deciding on the characters to include in the scene, the right Victorian drawing-room drink and food to have as props, and the costumes and set you might use. Be prepared to also justify your choices—in context of how closely they imitate Victorian era, drawing-room culture.
Bancroft, Squire, and Marie Wilton Bancroft. The Bancrofts: Recollections of Sixty Tears. London: Dutton, 1909.
Pemberton, T. Edgar. The Life and Writings of T.W. Robertson. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893.
Robertson, Thomas William Shafton. The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson: With Memoir by His Son. London: Kessinger, 1889.
Shaw, George Bernard. Plays and Players: Essays on the Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. London: Methuen, 1967.
Tydeman, William, ed. Plays by Tom Robertson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Durbach, Errol. ‘‘Remembering Tom Robertson (1829-1871).’’ Educational Theatre Journal 24, no. 3 (October 1972): 284-88.
Meier, Erika. ‘‘Realism and Reality: The Function of the Stage Directions in the New Drama from Thomas William Robertson to George Bernard Shaw.’’ Modern Language Review 65, no. 2 (April 1970): 404.
Taylor, G. ‘‘Franyois Delsarte: A Codification of Nineteenth-Century Acting.’’ Theatre Research International 24, no. 1 (1999): 71-81.
1911 Encyclopedia. ‘‘Thomas William Robertson.’’ Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Thomas_William_Robertson.
People Play. ‘‘Cup-and-Saucer Drama and Tom Robertson.’’ Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/drama_tour/19th_century/cup.php.
Turney, Wayne S. ‘‘Thomas Robertson (1829-71), Playwright, Regisseur.’’ Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.wayneturney.20m.com/robertsontom.htm.