Magazine article The Spectator

Performing at Drury Lane and around the Prince of Wales

Magazine article The Spectator

Performing at Drury Lane and around the Prince of Wales

Article excerpt


by Fintan O'Toole

Granta, L20, pp.516

He is a classic playwright, regularly revived, who wrote only two full-length plays, The Rivals and The School for Scandal, a comic opera, The Duenna, two shorter pieces, St Patrick's Day (now never performed) and The Critic, a pantomime, Robinson Crusoe, and two adaptations, A Trip to Scarborough from Vanbrugh's The Relapse and Pizarro, a tragedy full of the most noble sentiments but no wit, adapted from Die Spanier in Peru by August Kotzebue who wrote over 200 melodramas and was more popular than Schiller.

He was born in Ireland, left at the age of seven and never returned, although in later life he referred to Ireland as `my country'. His father was an actor, teacher of elocution and theatre-manager, who fought a duel to prove that an actor could be a gentleman. The son fought two duels to prove that an actor's son could be a gentleman. His older brother was the favourite; he himself was sent to Harrow. His mother died in France shortly after his l5th birthday. Nobody wrote to tell him: the news was broken by his headmaster. At school he was `much given to crying when alone'. All his life he was afraid of the dark.

He married, after various romantic complications including an elopement, a beautiful woman, Elizabeth, a professional singer, the daughter of Thomas Linley. After their marriage he forbade her to sing in public: a gentleman's wife is not paid to sing. Nor is a gentleman expected to be faithful to his wife.

The plays for which he is remembered were written between 1775 and 1779. In 1776 he bought half the patent of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and two years later acquired the rest. He was at first a successful manager, rebuilt the theatre to make it larger, then found it harder to fill. He had begun a political career by that time, and had less time to run a theatre, though the box-office receipts helped him to find cash for his day-to-day expenses. In 1809 the theatre burned down and was again rebuilt, but he himself lost control.

He had political ambitions and was elected for Stafford in 1780; politics was a more suitable occupation for a gentleman than the theatre. He drank heavily - port and claret - at Brooks's with friends, as gentlemen did. One of the gentlemen who were his friends was Charles James Fox. He voted with Fox and spoke on his side. Ironic yet elevated in sentiment, inspirational yet full of sense, the speeches were applauded: he treated the Commons like a theatre audience. …

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