Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 45.djvu/157
spirited and honourable enterprise at Sadler's Wells came to an end. In his farewell speech at the theatre he stated that he had made it the object of his life and the end of his management to represent the whole of Shakespeare's plays. He had succeeded in producing thirty-one of them (all with the exception of ‘Richard II,’ ‘Henry VI,’ ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ and ‘Titus Andronicus’), and they were acted under his management between three and four thousand nights.
In 1863 he began a long engagement at Drury Lane, under Falconer and Chatterton, during which he appeared in most of his favourite characters. In October 1863 he played Manfred, and in October 1866 Mephistopheles in ‘Faust.’ In 1867 he was the Doge in Byron's ‘Marino Falieri.’ In September 1868 he created some sensation by his performance of King James I and Trapbois in Halliday's adaptation of the ‘Fortunes of Nigel.’ After fulfilling engagements in the country, he was for a time lessee of Astley's, where he lost money. He reappeared on 23 Sept. 1871 at Drury Lane as Isaac of York in Halliday's adaptation of ‘Ivanhoe.’ On 16 Dec. 1871 he played at the Princess's Dexter Sanderson, an original part in Watts Phillips's ‘On the Jury.’ After acting in Manchester, under Calvert, he went to the Gaiety, under Hollingshead, where he played Falstaff and other parts. During a short engagement at the Queen's Theatre he appeared as Henry IV. Subsequently (1877 and 1878) he acted at the Imperial Theatre (Aquarium) under Miss Marie Litton [q. v.], the last part he took being Wolsey in ‘Henry VIII.’ His engagement with Miss Litton he could not complete owing to failing health, and other engagements made with Chatterton in 1878–9 he was unable to fulfil. A series of colds prostrated him, and he died on 6 Nov. 1878, at Anson's Farm, Coopersale, near Epping, Essex. His remains were brought to the house he long occupied, 420 Camden Road, and on the 13th were interred at Highgate.
Phelps was a sound, capable, and powerful actor. Alone among men of consideration he held up in his middle and later life the banner of legitimate tragedy. He was not in the full sense a tragedian, being deficient in passion or imagination, grinding out his words with a formal and at times rasping delivery. Romont in the ‘Fatal Dowry’ of Massinger marked the nearest approach to tragic grief, but he was good also in Arbaces, Melantius, and Macduff. In Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Sir Giles Overreach, and other heroical parts he was on the level of Charles Kean and Macready. He lived, however, in days when conventional declamation of tragedy fell into evil odour, and when experiments so revolutionary as Fechter's Hamlet won acceptance. Thus, though a favourite with old stagers, and the recipient of warm praise from certain powerful organs of criticism, he lived to hear his tragic method condemned and his mannerisms ridiculed. It was otherwise in comedy. His Sir Pertinax Macsycophant was a marvellously fine performance. His Bottom had all the sturdiness and self-assertion of that most complacently self-satisfied of men. Shallow was an admirable performance, Malvolio was comic, and Falstaff, though upbraided with lack of unction, had marvellous touches. In Scottish characters he was generally excellent. There was, indeed, something dour and almost pragmatical about Phelps's own nature that may account for his success in such parts. His command of the Scottish accent was unparalleled among English actors.
Among those who have paid tribute to his worth and ability are Tom Taylor, Jerrold, Heraud, Tomlins, Bayle Bernard, and Professor Morley. Westland Marston praised highly his Tresham in ‘A Blot on the 'Scutcheon,’ and has something to say for his Richelieu, Virginius, and Timon. Dutton Cook credits him with the possession of a marvellously large and varied répertoire. All allow him pathos. It was in characters of rugged strength, however, that he conspicuously shone.
Intractable and difficult to manage, Phelps still won general respect, and passed through a long and arduous career without a breath of scandal being whispered against him. He took little part in public or club life. His great delight when not acting was to go fishing with a friend. He is said to have known most trout-streams in England.
By his wife, who died in 1867, he had three sons and three daughters. The eldest son, William Robert (d. 1867), was for some years upon the parliamentary staff of the ‘Times,’ and was subsequently chief justice of the admiralty court at St. Helena. The second son, Edmund (d. 1870), was an actor.
The best portrait of Phelps was painted by Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, his friend, and, in a limited sense, his pupil. It presents the actor as Cardinal Wolsey, is a striking likeness, and was purchased by the members for the Garrick Club, where it now is. It has been engraved, by permission of the committee, for the life by his nephew. Phelps was tall, and remained spare.[Personal knowledge; information privately supplied by Mr. W. May Phelps; W. May Phelps and J. Forbes-Robertson's Life and Life-Work of Phelps, 1886; Coleman's Memoirs of Phelps, 1886; Westland Marston's Recollections of Actors; Pascoe's Dramatic List.]