Rayner, Lionel Benjamin (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 47
Rayner, Lionel Benjamin

by John Joseph Knight
1904 Errata appended.

RAYNER, LIONEL BENJAMIN (1788?–1855), actor, was born in Heckmondwike in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 10 Oct. 1788, or, according to another account, in 1786. He is said, as a child, to have learnt by heart, and recited in his eleventh year, the whole of Lee's tragedy of ‘Alexander the Great,’ a thing possible enough as regards himself, but highly improbable as regards his hearers. After seeing, at Leeds, Mathews as Farmer Ashfield in ‘Speed the Plough,’ he ran away from home and joined a company at Cheadle, Staffordshire, where he opened as Jeremy Diddler. This must have been subsequent to 1803, when Kenney's farce, ‘Raising the Wind,’ in which Jeremy Diddler appears, was first played. His manager played the light-comedy parts in which alone Rayner had determined to be seen, so he left and joined, at a salary of three shillings weekly, another company. At Stratford-on-Avon, by his performance of Solomon Lob in ‘Love laughs at Locksmiths,’ he raised his position and his salary. He appeared at Manchester as Robin Roughhead with success; and then, at a salary of thirty shillings, joined the Nottingham company. Here, where he rose in reputation, he was seen by Bannister in Zekiel Homespun and Dr. Pangloss, and was by him recommended to the manager of the Haymarket Theatre. He possibly appeared there for the first time as Zekiel Homespun in the ‘Heir at Law,’ on 5 Aug. 1814 (Era, 30 Sept. 1855); but the matter is doubtful. At any rate he made no marked impression. Having made the acquaintance and friendship of Emery, to whose parts he succeeded, Rayner went to York, where he played rustics, sailors, &c., and parts such as Caleb Quotem, Ollapod, Pedrigo Potts, &c. Stamford, Lynn, Louth, Manchester, Huntingdon, and other places were visited. His popularity was everywhere marked, and it was said he might take, with certainty of success, a benefit on Salisbury Plain. Nevertheless, he was thinking of leaving the stage, when he received an offer from Elliston for Drury Lane. There, as Rayner from York and Birmingham, he appeared on 30 Nov. 1822, playing Dandie Dinmont in ‘Guy Mannering.’ At Drury Lane he seems to have played only this character, in which, on 11 Feb. 1823, he was replaced by Sherwin from York. Rayner then joined the Lyceum, where he appeared in July 1823 as Fixture in ‘A Roland for an Oliver,’ and subsequently played Giles in the ‘Miller's Maid,’ in a manner that secured for him offers from Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

At Covent Garden, under Charles Kemble, he made what was announced as his first appearance there, on 8 Oct. 1823, as Tyke in the ‘School of Reform.’ His engagement was for three years at a salary rising from 10l. to 12l. per week. On 21 Oct. he was seen as Robin Roughhead in ‘Fortune's Frolic.’ Sam Sharpset in the ‘Slave,’ Fixture, and Pan in ‘Midas’ followed, and he had an original part in an unprinted drama in two acts, the ‘Ferry of the Guiers.’ In the following season his name was rarely in the bills. He was seen, however, on 1 June 1825 as Friar Tuck in ‘Ivanhoe,’ and on 22 June as Caliban. During his third season he can only be traced in Dandie Dinmont, Zekiel Homespun, and in Rolamo in ‘Clari,’ which he played for his benefit. In 1831 he took the site of Burford's Panorama, now occupied by the Strand Theatre, and erected thereon a house known as Rayner's New Subscription Theatre in the Strand. An opening address was spoken by Miss Cleaver, two burlettas, ‘Professionals Puzzled, or Struggles at Starting,’ by William Leman Rede [q. v.], and ‘Mystification,’ were produced, and Rayner appeared as Giles in the ‘Miller's Maid;’ Mrs. Waylett [q. v.] became his leading actress. For her Bayle Bernard brought out his ‘Four Sisters, or Woman's Worth and Woman's Wrongs.’ Mme. Celeste appeared in a drama called ‘Alp the Brigand.’ Leman Rede wrote for the theatre the ‘Loves of the Angels’ and the ‘Loves of the Devils,’ which were played by a good company, including Miss M. Glover, Selby, and Oxberry. But nothing, not even the popularity of Mrs. Waylett's ballads, could fight against the difficulties due to the absence of the lord chamberlain's license and the opposition of the patent houses, and on the second Saturday in November 1831 the theatre closed for want of patronage. Thereupon Rayner went into the country, and obtained a great success as Lubin in ‘Love's Frailties,’ not to be confused with Thomas Holcroft's earlier piece so named. This piece, written for the purpose of showing off Rayner's abilities in characters of the Tyke order, was dedicated to him. He made further attempts, all unsuccessful, to open the Strand with a magistrate's license and with non-dramatic pieces. His persistence in pointing out that, while theatres on the south side of the Thames could be opened, those on the north side could not, helped to form public opinion on the subject; and in 1836 a license was granted. It was too late to be of service to Rayner, who retired from his long fight practically ruined, and began writing for racing papers and magazines. During his stay at Covent Garden he had become a subscriber to the Covent Garden fund. On attaining his sixtieth year he claimed a pension, and on this and some aid from his pen he lived, contracting a second marriage and administering to the needs of others in the profession poorer than himself. He died on 24 Sept. 1855 from a disease in his throat, which deprived him of the power of swallowing. He was buried on 1 Oct., in the old burial-ground, Camberwell, near his only son. He had, in 1812, married, at Shrewsbury, Margaret Remington, daughter of the prompter of the York circuit, and had by her a son.

Rayner was a good serio-comic actor. His countrymen, though good, were not equal to those of Emery, whom, however, he surpassed as Giles in the ‘Miller's Maid.’ Job Thornberry represents the line in which he was seen to the most advantage. His Penruddock was compared, not to his disadvantage, with that of Kemble. It wanted dignity, but exhibited something higher and more beautiful—the picture of a heartbroken miserable misanthrope. The ‘Times,’ 9 Oct. 1823, warmly eulogised Rayner's first appearance as Tyke. A writer (Talfourd?) in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for 1 Nov., p. 491, is almost equally laudatory, calling Rayner ‘this original and unpresuming actor.’ In private life Rayner's character stood high. He was indefatigable in work and always conciliatory. When a house for his benefit was full, and a crowd outside was clamorous, he came and spoke to those assembled, asking what he could do for them. ‘Sing us a song, Rayner,’ was the reply, ‘and we'll go quietly home.’ Rayner mounted a tub, and, with the accompaniment of one violin, sang a song, receiving in response hearty cheers. He had a tenor voice of no great compass and of indifferent tone. His comic singing was, however, one of his chief attractions. He had a remarkable gift, amounting almost to eloquence, in impromptu speaking.

Rayner was five feet eight in height, stoutly made, dark in complexion, with hazel eyes and a certain appearance of rusticity. He was a sporting man, a member of Tattersall's, and, while in the country, a follower of the hounds. His portrait as Giles in the ‘Miller's Maid’ appears in the second volume of Oxberry's ‘Dramatic Biography.’

[Oxberry's account of Rayner, with all its mistakes, is copied into the Georgian Era. A Memoir appearing in the Era for 30 Sept. 1855 is also inaccurate. In addition to the works cited, Genest's Account of the English Stage, Era Almanac, and the New Monthly Magazine have been consulted.]

J. K.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.231
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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348 i 12f.e. Rayner, Lionel B.: for 1832 read 1831