Thursday, December 29, 2016

Elliston as Manager

I recently finished Christopher Murray's biography of the actor and theatre manager Robert William Elliston. It's amazing the number of things Elliston managed to accomplish, including in 1815, lighting the exterior, saloon, and part of the auditorium of the Olympic Theatre with gas lighting.

Frederick Albert Windsor had patented gas lighting in 1804, when it was first used to light the facade of the Lyceum Theatre. It was not until 1817 that gas lights were first used to illuminate a London stage. (The previous year, the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia had used gas lighting.)

So Elliston's illumination of the Olympic was a dubious first. He had greatly expanded a technology already in use, but not brought it to its full capability. The same could be said about many aspects of Elliston's management. He dragged the London theatre forward (sometimes kicking and screaming), but only so far.

Throughout his life, Elliston managed a number of theatres, both in and outside of London. Murray devotes one chapter to Elliston's management of the Birmingham Theatre Royal, where he attracted such luminary performers as Eliza O'Neill. According to Murray, hundreds of people had to be turned away from the theatre when O'Neill appeared, and many "settled for a glimpse of the adored actress coming or going at the Royal Hotel."

Later, when Elliston was managing the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane in London, he fared considerably poorer with dramatists than he did with actors. He tried to get Walter Scott and Thomas Moore to write plays for him, but both declined. Of course, he received unsolicited scripts from John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, and rejected them all. Alas, the tyranny of the slush pile is nothing new! Without a friend on the inside, even the best writers of the nineteenth century couldn't get their work taken seriously.

Elliston was managing Drury Lane when King George III died at the beginning of 1820. The sad event closed the theatres out of respect for the nation's mourning, but it also opened up a new possibility. Since the king had gone mad, no one had dared perform King Lear (for obvious reasons). Elliston rushed a production of Lear to the stage after the theatres were allowed to reopen in February. Though he for the most part followed the adaptation by Nahum Tate with its absurd happy ending, he did restore some of Shakespeare's text to the heath scene and to Lear's recognition of Cordelia.

The following year, Elliston gained notoriety for staging Lord Byron's play Marino Faliero without the author's permission. Again, Elliston rushed the piece into production, securing a copy of the play while it was still going to press and not even completing casting until a week before the show opened. Elliston had secured permission to perform the play from the Lord Chamberlain's office, so he legally had a right to do it whether Byron wanted him to or not. Alas, the controversy was not enough to sell tickets, and the play was ultimately deemed a financial and critical failure.

Later at Drury Lane, Elliston staged the first English-language version of Goethe's Faust. After a collapse in health (and finances) Elliston lost his lease on Drury Lane, but he did not give up on theatrical management. In 1827, he took over a theatre in Surrey, where he staged melodramas by popular writers like Edward Fitzball, William Thomas Moncrieff, and Douglas Jerrold. Elliston also staged the only play by Walter Scott to be performed in the writer's lifetime, The House of Aspen. As was the case with Marino Faliero, the production was without the author's permission.

Elliston is perhaps best known as an actor, a fine Romeo and the original Alvar in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Remorse. However, Murray makes a good case that Elliston's greatest achievements were not as a performer, but as a manager.