30 March 2012

T. W. Robertson, Playwright

The playwright Thomas William Robertson (1829– 71) – who was usually known as 'T. W. Robertson', sometimes as 'Tom Robertson' – was born in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, where his father William was an actor on the 'Lincoln circuit'.

Robertson moved to London in 1849, where he lived as a journalist, writer, stage manager and actor. He was a friend of the Manchester playwright H. J. Byron, with whom he had collaborated, and Robertson's play Society (1865) was put on at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, which was managed by Marie Wilton and Byron. He wrote a number of plays after this, but died just a little more than five years later.
William Tydeman's Plays by Tom Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) contains, along with a brief critical sketch, four plays: Society, Ours (1866), Caste (1867), and School (1869). Tydeman is very sceptical of the many claims that have been made about Robertson being a great innovator of realist theatre (using real props, realistic language, etc), although he concedes that his intentions involved more than mere amusement and pleasure. Tydeman states that although these plays are in fact 'no more "life like"' than those of playwrights who went before, they are nevertheless 'a little less "unlifelike"'. All things considered, Tydeman seems to suggest, perhaps Robertson's major contribution to the stage is that he founded the new school of 'stage management', making him an important precursor to today's play directors.


Society depicts a world in which the very rich (but very vulgar) parvenu Mr John Chudd senior wants his son, the also very rich Mr John Chudd junior, to steamroller his way through society and become accepted as a 'swell': money can buy everything, including love – 'I adore you with my whole heart and fortune' is the way he woos. The principled but poor and feckless Bohemian barrister and hack, Sidney Daryl, knows the people Chudd junior wants to know, but will not be bought and shuns the arriviste.

Lord and Lady Ptarmigant have brought up the orphan Maud Hetherinton, and for most of the play there is a strong criticism of Lady Ptarmigant, who seems made of similar hypocritical, money-worshipping material to the Chudds. Maud and Sidney are (chaste) lovers, although Lady Ptarmigant's hostility grows much more hostile towards any possible match as Chudd junior declares his interest in marrying Maud.

And Chudd and Sidney become not only rivals in love but political rivals as Sidney learns that the 'digesting cheque-book' is a candidate for Springmead, where Sidney's ancestors have 'held their own for centuries'.

The plot shifts a few gears as a result of two misunderstandings: Sidney thinks Maud has agreed to marry Chudd, and Maud thinks that Little Maud is Sidney's illegitimate son, whereas in reality she's the daughter of Lady Ptarmigant's son Charles, who died in the Crimea shortly after marrying his 'poor and humble' (and pregnant) girlfriend. Realizing the misunderstanding, Lady Ptarmigant is delighted to learn that she has a grandchild (and probably as delighted that Sidney has suddenly become rich on the death of his brother), and in the end good triumphs over bad: Sidney and Maud can now marry in peace, and the jumped-up pipsqueak Chudds get their social comeuppance.

It might be easy to dismiss Society as contrived and slightly farcical, but there are strong socials criticisms in this play.


Tydeman suggests that Ours is inspired by Millais's 'The Black Brunswicker' painting, which depicts a woman in an emotional state standing between her partner, a volunteer for the Waterloo campaign, and the door he's reaching to leave by. This painting is in fact mentioned in the play, relating to the moment when Angus goes to the Crimea, leaving Blanche, the woman he loves, behind, although it is not certain that Blanche loves him.

Like Society, Ours has rich and poor lovers but no scoundrels (apart from a brother who never makes an appearance) and a much more complicated plot. The aristocracy is represented by Sir Alexander Shendryn and his wife Lady Shendryn, who is still hurt that her husband had an affair with another woman years before, and believes that he is continuing to deceive her . The rich Blanche lives with them, as does her (obviously poor) companion Mary, and the dynamics between the quiet Blanche and the spunky Mary, according to Tydeman, influenced James Albery's Two Roses (1870), W. S. Gilbert's Engaged (1877), Pinero's Dandy Dick (1887), and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

The rich (and feckless but not Bohemian) brewing heir Hugh Chalcot, whose marriage proposal has previously been turned down flatly by Blanche, just spends his time mooching around, driven by whims or the urge to sleep off his boring life. Angus knows he has no chance with her as he's poor, and anyway the older Russian Prince Perovsky is moving in on her to turn her into a princess, even a queen. The men (even Hugh, who can now find something to give his life meaning) go off to the Crimea to risk their lives, with Sir Alex and Lady Shendryn parting on bad terms as they're radiply becoming poor.

'If this were put in a play, people would say it was improbable', says Hugh when he finds that some time later the three women turn up at the large cabin close to where the men are fighting, and this was obviously what I too thought. However, it's a neat way to conclude the play, and there are several discoveries: Sir Alex is a man of great integrity who was protecting his wife from the truth that her brother Percy has been embezzling him; Blanche loves Angus in spite of his poverty; and Mary's pudding-making has sent Hugh head over heels for her.

The front cover of Plays by Tom Robertson shows a representation of the final act, and an interesting point here is that Ours has been particularly noted for the 'realistic' sweeping of 'snow' into the cabin when the door opens. The Times also noted the military equipment in the cabin, and the sound of rain on leaves in the first act, and called the play 'an exact specimen of the ultra-real school of comedy'. With his feet firmly on the ground, Tydeman labels it a 'romantic comedy whatever its pretensions to realism'.


Tydeman rates Caste as Robertson's best play. Based on his short story 'The Poor-Rate Unfolds a Tale' and perhaps a love story relating to one of Robertson's sisters, it concerns a mésalliance between the soldier George D'Alroy, who is the son of the Froissart-quoting Marquise de St Maur, and Esther Eccles, the poor daughter of Eccles, a workshy alcoholic who provides much of the play's humour and tension: Eccles steals the £600 that the recently-married George leaves to his wife Esther (before going to India) and blows it on betting, and Tydeman reckons that Eccles is Robertson's revenge on the benevolent parents that swamped the conventional plays of the period.

Robertson is given to working around the theme of love matches between rich and poor protagonists, although I still feel unsure about his conclusions, if indeed there are any. George's 'toff' friend Hawtree finds class (or 'caste') problematic, but George sees things differently, and says:

'Oh, caste's all right. Caste is a good thing if it's not carried too far. It shuts the door on the pretentious and the vulgar [such as the Chudds in Society, not doubt]: but it should open the door very wide for exceptional merit [such as Esther, of course]'.

There have been criticisms by reviewers regarding some characters perceived as not entirely believable: the Marquise is perhaps too stilted, Esther may be a little too virtuous, poor Sam seems rather too generous towards George, etc, but these seem minor issues.

(It is interesting to note, in Appendix II, a number of musical and literary quotations spoken by Eccles. The literary quotations include Robert Burns, Ann Taylor, and John Greenleaf Whittier.)


School was extremely popular, although it came in for some harsh criticism that it was derivative of Roderick Benedix's Aschenbrödel (Cinderella). Tydeman seems very dismissive of it, and after trying (but failing miserably) to read it I can't understand why he included it in this selection – it seems such a flat way to conclude the book.

Meynard Savin's Thomas William Robertson: His Plays and Stagecraft (Providence, RI: Brown University, 1950)

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