An anonymous memoir of the actor Robert William Elliston published in 1825 declared that to do the man justice, "we should devote a volume to his impudence, another to his eloquence.” Certainly, the checkered career of the actor and manager has provoked a variety of responses.
Born in 1772, Elliston was a product of the late-Georgian era. His uncle, who taught at Cambridge, groomed the young man for the church, but that was not to be. He dropped out of St. Paul's school, in spite of early academic success, and went to Bath to pursue a career on the stage. After receiving some advice from John Kemble, Elliston made a successful appearance as Romeo in Bath, and soon thereafter became one of the leading actors in that city.
Elliston made his first appearance at the Haymarket Theatre in London on June 24, 1796, later excelling there in the role of Edward Mortimer in The Iron Chest. The play had failed the previous winter when performed at Drury Lane, but with Elliston, it was a success. Unfortunately, the success seems to have swelled his ego, but in spite of personal conflicts with a number of London actors, he was appointed acting manager at the Haymarket in 1803. Elliston took on a variety of roles, from Hamlet to Harlequin, and in the words of his anonymous biographer, he became "a dabbler in every thing, a master of nothing.”
In 1809, Elliston took over the management of a theatre in Surrey for three years. It was here that he came into conflict with Vincent De Camp, with whom he would later share the stage in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Remorse. Elliston apparently insulted De Camp while the two were on stage in a farce called How to Die for Love. As soon as they got off stage, De Camp quarreled with him and "made the manager bite the dust.” Elliston challenged De Camp to a duel, but apparently neither were injured, as "the affair ended--not in fire--but smoke.”
Later, while managing Drury Lane, Elliston produced Lord Byron's play Marino Faliero against the professed wishes of the author. The play was not a success, but that might have been due in part to the haphazard cutting to which Elliston subjected the script. As his biographer later put it, "He had it hacked, to suit his theatre; and thus, after having seized the piece like a robber, he carved it like a butcher."
Elliston occasionally tried his hand as a playwright, most noticeably with The Venetian Outlaw, an adaptation of a French drama that had in turn been pirated from the German. Though considered "the best light comedian of his day" he had more difficulty with tragedy. As the 1825 memoir puts it, "he was superlative in comedy, good in melodrame, endurable in tragedy, excellent in farce, and even at one time bearable in opera."
By the close of his career, Elliston seems to have alienated most everyone. His biographer declared: "We believe, in the whole range of the drama, there is no one who speaks well of Mr. Elliston." A sad end for a once great actor.