Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byron, Henry James

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BYRON, HENRY JAMES (1834–1884), dramatist and actor, was born in Manchester in January 1834. His father, Henry Byron, was for many years British consul at Port-au-Prince. Placed first with Mr. Miles Morley, a surgeon in Cork Street, W., and afterwards with his maternal grandfather, Dr. Bradley of Buxton, Byron conceived a dislike for the medical profession, and joined a ‘provincial’ company of actors. A monologue of his entitled ‘A Bottle of Champagne uncorked by Horace Plastic,’ produced at the Marionette Theatre, London, into which the old Adelaide Gallery had been turned, was his earliest literary venture. He entered on 14 Jan. 1858 the Middle Temple. His taste for the stage interfered with his pursuit of law. He had produced unsuccessfully at the Strand Theatre in 1857 a burlesque entitled ‘Richard Cœur de Lion.’ Better fortune attended his next burlesque, ‘Fra Diavolo,’ given the next year at the same theatre, which had then passed from the hands of Payne into those of Miss Swanborough. A series of pieces, chiefly of the same class, followed at the Strand, Adelphi, Olympic, and other west-end theatres. Byron wrote for ‘Temple Bar’ a novel entitled ‘Paid in Full,’ afterwards reprinted in 3 vols. London, 1865, into which he introduced some of his experiences as a medical student. He was the first editor of ‘Fun,’ and originated a short-lived paper, the ‘Comic Times.’ On 15 April 1865 he joined Miss Marie Wilton in the management of the Prince of Wales's Theatre, formerly the Queen's, in Tottenham Street, contributing to the opening programme a burlesque on the subject of La Sonnambula. ‘War to the Knife,’ a comic drama in three acts, was given at the same house, 10 June 1865, and ‘A Hundred Thousand Pounds,’ also in three acts, 5 May 1866. His terms of partnership included an engagement to write for no other house. In 1867 he resigned his connection with this theatre, and began the management of the Alexandra Theatre, Liverpool, to which soon afterwards he added also the management of the Theatre Royal and the Amphitheatre. At one or other of these houses he produced some of his best works. The result was, however, disaster. These painful experiences did not prevent him from undertaking seven years later the management of the Criterion Theatre, which opened on 21 May 1874 with his three-act comedy, ‘An American Lady.’ On 16 Jan. 1875 he gave to the Vaudeville Theatre ‘Our Boys,’ a three-act domestic drama, which is noticeable as having had the longest run on record, not having been withdrawn till 18 April 1879.

Byron's first appearance in London as an actor took place at the Globe, 23 Oct. 1869, as Sir Simon Simple in his own comedy, ‘Not such a Fool as he looks,’ a part originally designed for Mr. Sothern. He had previously played in the country as Isaac of York in his own burlesque of ‘Ivanhoe.’ Subsequently in his own comedies he appeared as FitzAltamont in ‘The Prompter's Box,’ Adelphi, 1870; Captain Craven in ‘Daisy Farm,’ Olympic, 1871; Lionel Levert in ‘Old Soldiers,’ Strand, 1873; Harold Trivass in ‘An American Lady,’ Criterion, 1874; Gibson Greene in ‘Married in Haste,’ Haymarket, 1875; and Dick Simpson in ‘Conscience Money,’ Haymarket, 1878. In 1881 he played, at the Court Theatre, Cheviot Hill in Mr. Gilbert's comedy of ‘Engaged.’ This was his last engagement, and, so far as is known, the only one in which he played in a piece by another author. Shortly after this period, in consequence of ill-health, he retired from the stage. The same cause drove him into comparative seclusion. He died at his house in Clapham Park on 11 April 1884, and was buried at Brompton.

Byron's serious dramatic work is original in the sense that the plot is rarely taken from a foreign source. It displays ingenuity rather than invention, and abounds in the kind of artifice to be expected under arrangements by which no more than one scene is allowed to an act. The distinguishing characteristics of Byron's plays are homeliness and healthiness. He revelled in pun and verbal pleasantry, and in a certain cockney smartness of repartee. Character and probability were continually sacrificed to the strain after a laugh. In his dramatic works he met with many rebuffs, but few failures. ‘Cyril's Success’ is generally, and correctly, held to be his best play. As an actor Byron attempted little. A quiet unconsciousness in the delivery of jokes was his chief recommendation to the public. Byron had, before his retirement, an enviable social reputation. Many spoken witticisms, more indeed than he is entitled to claim, are associated with his name.

A complete list of Byron's plays can scarcely be attempted. The following list, in which e stands, perhaps too comprehensively, for extravaganza, burlesque, or pantomime, f for farce, c for comedy, and d for drama, omits little of importance: ‘Bride of Abydos,’ e, no date; ‘Latest Edition of Lady of Lyons,’ e, 1858; ‘Fra Diavolo,’ e, 1858; ‘Maid and Magpie,’ e, 1858; ‘Mazeppa,’ e, 1858; ‘Very Latest Edition of Lady of Lyons,’ e, 1859; ‘Babes in the Wood,’ e, 1859; ‘Nymph of Lurleyburg,’ e, 1859; ‘Jack the Giant-Killer,’ e, 1860; ‘The Miller and his Men,’ e (written with F. Talfourd), 1860; ‘Pilgrim of Love,’ e, 1860; ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ e, 1860; ‘Blue Beard,’ e, 1860; ‘Garibaldi's Excursionists,’ f, 1860; ‘Cinderella,’ e, 1861; ‘Aladdin,’ e, 1861; ‘Esmeralda,’ e, 1861; ‘Miss Eily O'Connor,’ e, 1861; ‘Old Story,’ c, 1861; ‘Puss in a New Pair of Boots,’ e, 1862; ‘Rosebud of Stinging-nettle Farm,’ e, 1862; ‘George de Barnwell,’ e, 1862; ‘Ivanhoe,’ e, 1862; ‘Beautiful Haidée,’ e, 1863; ‘Ali Baba,’ e, 1863; ‘Ill-treated Il Trovatore,’ e, 1863; ‘The Motto,’ e, 1863; ‘Lady Belle-belle,’ e, 1863; ‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ e, 1863; ‘Mazourka,’ e, 1864; ‘Princess Springtime,’ e, 1864; ‘Grin Bushes,’ e, 1864; ‘Timothy to the Rescue,’ f, 1864; ‘Pan,’ e, 1865; ‘La Sonnambula,’ e, 1865; ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ e, 1865; ‘Little Don Giovanni,’ e, 1865; ‘War to the Knife,’ c, 1865; ‘Der Freischutz,’ e, 1866; ‘Pandora's Box,’ e, 1866; ‘A Hundred Thousand Pounds,’ c, 1866; ‘William Tell,’ e, 1867; ‘Dearer than Life,’ d, 1867; ‘Blow for Blow,’ d, 1868; ‘Lucrezia Borgia, M.D.,’ e, 1868; ‘Cyril's Success,’ c, 1868; ‘Not such a Fool as he looks,’ d, 1868; ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ e, 1868; ‘Minnie, or Leonard's Love,’ d, 1869; ‘Corsican Brothers,’ e, 1869; ‘Lost at Sea’ (with Dion Boucicault), d, 1869; ‘Uncle Dick's Darling,’ d, 1869; ‘Yellow Dwarf,’ e, 1869; ‘Lord Bateman,’ e, 1869; ‘Whittington,’ e, 1869; ‘Prompter's Box,’ d, 1870; ‘Robert Macaire,’ e, 1870; ‘Enchanted Wood,’ e, 1870; ‘English Gentleman,’ d, 1870; ‘Wait and Hope,’ d, 1871; ‘Daisy Farm,’ d, 1871; ‘Orange Tree and the Humble Bee,’ e, 1871; ‘Not if I know it,’ e, 1871; ‘Giselle,’ e, 1871; ‘Partners for Life,’ c, 1871; ‘Camaralzaman,’ e, 1871; ‘Blue Beard,’ e, 1871; ‘Haunted Houses,’ d, 1872; ‘Two Stars,’ d (altered from the ‘Prompter's Box’), 1872; ‘Spur of the Moment,’ f, 1872; ‘Good News,’ d, 1872; ‘Lady of the Lake,’ e, 1872; ‘Mabel's Life,’ d, 1872; ‘Time's Triumph,’ d, 1872; ‘Fine Feathers,’ d, 1873; ‘Sour Grapes,’ c, 1873; ‘Fille de Madame Angot,’ op. bouffe, 1873; ‘Old Soldiers,’ c, 1873; ‘Chained to the Oar,’ d, 1873; ‘Don Juan,’ e, 1873; ‘Pretty Perfumeress,’ op. bouffe, 1874; ‘Demon's Bride,’ op. bouffe, 1874; ‘American Lady,’ c, 1874; ‘Normandy Pippins,’ e, 1874; ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ e, 1874; ‘Oil and Vinegar,’ c, 1874; ‘Thumbscrew,’ d, 1874; ‘Old Sailors,’ c, 1874; ‘Our Boys,’ c, 1875; ‘Married in Haste,’ c, 1875; ‘Weak Woman,’ c, 1875; ‘Twenty Pounds a Year,’ f, 1876; ‘Tottles,’ c, 1876; ‘Bull by the Horns,’ c d, 1876; ‘Little Don Cæsar de Bazan,’ e, 1876; ‘Wrinkles,’ d, 1876;‘Widow and Wife,’ d, 1876; ‘Pampered Menials,’ f, 1876; ‘Little Doctor Faust,’ e, 1877; ‘Old Chums,’ c, 1877; ‘Bohemian Gyurl’ (second version), e, 1877; ‘Guinea Gold,’ d, 1877; ‘Forty Thieves,’ e (written in conjunction with F. C. Burnand, W. S. Gilbert, and R. Reece), 1878; ‘La Sonnambula’ (second version), e, 1878; ‘Young Fra Diavolo,’ e, 1878; ‘A Fool and his Money,’ c, 1878; ‘Crushed Tragedian,’ c, 1878; ‘Hornet's Nest,’ c, 1878; ‘Conscience Money,’ d, 1878; ‘Uncle,’ 1878; ‘Courtship,’ c, 1879; ‘Jack the Giant-Killer,’ e, 1879; ‘Pretty Esmeralda,’ e, 1879; ‘Handsome Hernani,’ e, 1879; ‘The Girls,’ c, 1879; ‘Upper Crust,’ c, 1880; ‘Light Fantastic,’ f, 1880; ‘Gulliver's Travels,’ e, 1880; ‘Trovatore,’ e, 1880; ‘Bow Bells,’ d, 1880; ‘Without a Home,’ c, 1880; ‘Michael Strogoff,’ d (translated from the French), 1881; ‘Punch,’ c, 1881; ‘New Broom,’ c, 1881; ‘Fourteen Days,’ c (translated from the French), 1882; ‘Pluto,’ e, 1882; ‘Frolique,’ c (with H. B. Farnie), 1882; ‘Auntie,’ c, 1882; ‘Villainous Squire,’ e, 1882. The following pieces may be added: ‘Dundreary,’ ‘Married and Done for,’ ‘Sensation Fork,’ ‘Our Seaside Lodging,’ ‘Rival Othellos,’ and ‘My Wife and I,’ farces, the exact date of production of which it is difficult to fix. Under the head c are ranked various slight productions put forth as farcical comedies, farcical dramas, &c.

[Private information; Era Almanack; Era Newspaper, 19 April 1884; Athenæum; Dutton Cook's Nights at the Play; Men of the Time, 10th ed.; Pascoe's Dramatic List.]

J. K.