Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phelps, Samuel

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PHELPS, SAMUEL (1804–1878), actor, the seventh child and second son of Robert M. Phelps and his wife Ann, daughter of Captain Turner, was born 13 Feb. 1804, at 1 St. Aubyn Street, Plymouth Dock, now known as Devonport. Coming of a Somerset stock, he was both by his father's and mother's side connected with people of position and affluence. His father's occupation was to supply outfits to naval officers. A younger brother, Robert Phelps (1808–1890), was a good mathematician. He graduated B.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, and took holy orders. In 1833 he was elected fellow of Sidney Sussex, and from 1843 till his death was master of that college.

Samuel was educated in his native town, and at a school at Saltash kept by Dr. Samuel Reece. Left an orphan at sixteen, he was sheltered by his eldest brother, who put him in the office of the ‘Plymouth Herald,’ where he was employed as junior reader to the press. In his seventeenth year he tried his fortunes in London, and became reader to the ‘Globe’ and the ‘Sun’ newspapers. Phelps had acquired theatrical tastes, had made the acquaintance of Douglas Jerrold, and of William Edward Love [q. v.] the ‘polyphonist,’ and was, with them, a member of an amateur theatrical company giving frequent performances at a private theatre in Rawstorne Street, Clerkenwell. At the Olympic he made, in his twenty-second year, an appearance as an amateur, playing Eustache de Saint Pierre in the ‘Surrender of Calais,’ and the Count of Valmont in the ‘Foundling of the Forest.’ His success induced him to take to the stage as an occupation, and having first married, 11 Aug. 1826, at St. George's Church, Queen Square, Bloomsbury, Sarah Cooper, aged sixteen, he accepted an engagement of eighteen shillings a week on the York circuit. In 1830 he acquired at Sheffield some popularity in parts so diverse as King John, Norval, and Goldfinch in the ‘Road to Ruin.’ In 1832 he enlisted under Watkin Burroughs for the Belfast, Preston, and Dundee theatres, and subsequently under Ryder for Aberdeen, Perth, and Inverness, playing in the northernmost towns the Dougal Creature to Ryder's Rob Roy and Sir Archy McSarcasm in ‘Love à la Mode.’ He was next heard of in Worthing, and then in Exeter and Plymouth. He was now announced as a tragedian, playing King Lear and Sir Giles Overreach, Virginius, Richard III, Iago, Sir Edward Mortimer in the ‘Iron Chest,’ and incurred the general fate of being advanced as a rival to Kean. This flattering comparison he supported by taking in Devonport, where he played, the lodgings previously occupied by Kean. Advances came from Bunn for Drury Lane, Webster for the Haymarket, and Macready for Covent Garden. In the end Phelps signed with Macready, who came to Southampton on 14 Aug. and saw him in the ‘Iron Chest.’ The engagement was to begin at Covent Garden in the following October.

In the interval Phelps played a short season at the Haymarket under Webster. On 28 Aug. 1837, as ‘Mr. Phelps from Exeter,’ he made at that playhouse, as Shylock, his first appearance in London. His reception was favourable, and he was credited by the press with judgment and experience, as well as a good face, figure, and voice. Sir Edward Mortimer, Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III followed.

On 27 Oct., as Jaffier in ‘Venice Preserved,’ to the Pierre of Macready, Phelps made his début at Covent Garden. This was succeeded by Othello to Macready's Iago. Difficulties followed, and Phelps, bound by his engagement for the next two years, was cast for secondary characters: Macduff, Cassius, First Lord in ‘As you like it,’ Dumont in ‘Jane Shore,’ Antonio in the ‘Tempest,’ Father Joseph (an original part) in ‘Richelieu,’ and Charles d'Albret in ‘Henry V.’ He was also seen in ‘Rob Roy.’ At the Haymarket (August 1839 to January 1840) he alternated with Macready the parts of Othello and Iago to the Desdemona of Miss Helen Faucit. His Othello was then and subsequently preferred to that of Macready, to which it was indeed superior. Master Walter in the ‘Hunchback’ and Jaques in ‘As you like it’ were also played.

In January 1840 Phelps, with Macready, Mrs. Warner, and Miss Faucit, was engaged for Drury Lane by W. J. Hammond, whose management soon proved a failure, and the season closed in March. During this period Phelps played Gabor to Macready's Werner, Darnley in ‘Mary Stuart,’ and Joseph Surface. Cast at the Haymarket in 1841 for Friar Laurence in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ he fumed, resigned his engagement, and wrote to the ‘Spectator,’ giving his reasons for his action. During two months of 1841 he superintended at the Lyceum the performance of ‘Martinuzzi’ (the ‘Patriot’), by George Stephens, enacting the Cardinal Regent, Mrs. Warner being the Queen-Mother. The representation strengthened greatly the reputation of both players. After visiting the country, and ‘starring’ at the Surrey, he engaged with Macready for three years, reduced subsequently to two, at Drury Lane. Here he was seen in the first season as Antonio in the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ the Ghost in ‘Hamlet,’ and other characters. In the following season came Adam in ‘As you like it,’ Belarius in ‘Cymbeline,’ Stukeley, Gloucester in ‘Jane Shore,’ Hubert in ‘King John,’ Mr. Oakley in the ‘Jealous Wife,’ Leonato in ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ &c. On 8 Feb. 1842 he was the original Captain Channel in Jerrold's ‘Prisoners of War;’ on 10 Dec. the original Lord Lynterne in Westland Marston's ‘Patrician's Daughter,’ and on 11 Feb. 1843 the original Lord Tresham in Browning's ‘Blot on the 'Scutcheon;’ 24 April saw him as the first Lord Byerdale in Knowles's ‘Secretary,’ and, 18 May, Dunstan in Smith's ‘Athelwold.’ At the Haymarket, meanwhile, he had been, in 1842, the first Almagro in Knowles's ‘Rose of Arragon.’ In the autumn of 1843 he played at Covent Garden, under Henry Wallack, Gaston de Foix in Boucicault's ‘Woman.’

During these years Phelps had risen steadily in public estimation. His portrait as Hubert was painted by Sir William Charles Ross [q. v.] for the queen. William Leman Rede [q. v.] declared his Almagro a magnificent piece of acting; and Jerrold, in ‘Punch,’ with characteristic ill-nature, declared that Phelps on the Haymarket stage had publicly presented Charles Kean with an extinguisher. Macready at the close of the engagement gave Phelps 300l., and tried vainly to secure him as a companion on a proposed American trip.

After some representations in the north of England, Phelps took advantage, in May 1844, of the removal by the legislature of the privileges of the patent theatres to open jointly with Mrs. Warner and Thomas Greenwood the theatre at Sadler's Wells. He was the first actor to make such an experiment, and while the poetical drama was at its lowest ebb in the theatres of the west end, he succeeded in filling the ‘little theatre’ in Islington, and in ‘making Shakespeare pay’ for nearly twenty years. This period of management constitutes the most enterprising and distinguished portion of Phelps's career, and his chief claim to distinction. He was an intelligent and spirited manager, and Sadler's Wells became a recognised home of the higher drama, and, to some extent, a training school for actors.

The experiment began on Monday, 27 May 1844, with ‘Macbeth,’ Phelps playing the Thane, and Mrs. Warner Lady Macbeth. The performance won immediate recognition. Later in the first season Phelps was seen in Othello, the Stranger, Mr. Oakley, Werner, Shylock, Sir Peter Teazle, Sir Anthony Absolute, Hamlet, Virginius, Julian St. Pierre in Knowles's ‘Wife,’ Melantius in the ‘Bridal,’ Sir Giles Overreach, King John, Luke in Massinger's ‘City Madam,’ Claude Melnotte, Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ Richard III in the original play of Shakespeare instead of that of Cibber, which had long held possession of the stage, Rover in ‘Wild Oats,’ Nicholas Flam in Buckstone's piece so named, Frank Heartall in the ‘Soldier's Daughter,’ Sir Edward Mortimer, and Cardinal Wolsey, and played in the ‘Priest's Daughter,’ by T. J. Serle. In many of these characters he had been seen before; one or two were wholly unsuited to him, and more than one were monopolised by Macready. Much hard work is, however, represented in these successive productions, all of them well supported by a company including George John Bennett [q. v.], Henry Marston, Jane Mordaunt (a sister of Mrs. Nisbett), and Miss Cooper. Mrs. Warner was at the outset all but invariably the heroine. Among representations in the following season were William Tell, Henri IV in Sullivan's ‘King's Friend’ (an original part, 21 May 1845), ‘Richelieu,’ Beverley in the ‘Gamester,’ Romont in the ‘Fatal Dowry’ (perhaps his greatest quasi-tragic part), Rolla in ‘Pizarro,’ Lear, Leontes, Evelyn in ‘Money,’ and Hastings in ‘Jane Shore.’ In 1846–7 Mrs. Warner retired from management. The theatre opened with the ‘First Part of King Henry IV,’ Phelps playing Falstaff; Creswick making, as Hotspur, his first appearance in London, and Mrs. H. Marston playing Mistress Quickly. Phelps's characters included Brutus, Mordaunt in the ‘Patrician's Daughter’ (Miss Addison appearing as Lady Mabel), Mercutio, the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Damon in ‘Damon and Pythias,’ Adrastus in Talfourd's ‘Ion,’ Arbaces in ‘A King and no King’ of Beaumont and Fletcher, not seen since 1788. On 18 Feb. 1847 he produced, for the first time, ‘Feudal Times,’ by the Rev. James White [q. v.], and played Walter Cochrane [Earl of Mar]. Prospero, Reuben Glenroy in Morton's ‘Town and Country,’ Bertram in Maturin's ‘Bertram,’ and the Provost in Lovell's ‘Provost of Bruges’ followed. The season 1847–8 opened with ‘Cymbeline,’ Phelps playing Leonatus (23 Nov.). On 3 Nov. he was the original John Savile in White's ‘John Savile of Haysted.’ On 27 Dec. 1847, in mounting ‘Macbeth,’ he dispensed, for the first time since the Restoration, with the singing witches. Jaques followed, and after that Malvolio and Falstaff in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Next season (1848–9) opened with ‘Coriolanus.’ Isabella Glyn [q. v.] now replaced Miss Addison, for Phelps did not keep his leading actresses long. Leon in Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Rule a Wife and have a Wife’ followed, and was succeeded by the ‘Honest Man's Fortune,’ altered by R. H. Horne from Beaumont and Fletcher, in which Phelps played Montague. On 10 May 1849 he was the original Calaynos in a tragedy so named by G. H. Boker, an American.

On 22 Oct. 1849 Phelps was Antony in a performance, the first for a century, of Shakespeare's ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ This was perhaps Phelps's most successful revival. On 12 Dec. Phelps was the original Garcia in ‘Garcia, or the Noble Error,’ of F. G. Tomlins, and on 11 Feb. 1850 the original Blackbourn in George Bennett's ‘Retribution.’ He also added to his repertory Jeremy Diddler and Octavian in the ‘Mountaineers.’ On 22 Aug. 1850 Leigh Hunt's ‘Legend of Florence’ was revived, with Phelps as Francesco Agolanti. Nov. 20 saw Webster's ‘Duchess of Malfi,’ adapted by R. H. Horne. Phelps took the part of Ferdinand. Timon of Athens was first assumed 15 Sept. 1851. On 27 Oct. he appeared as Ingomar, and on 27 Nov. was first seen in his great comic character, Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, in Macklin's ‘Man of the World.’ On 6 March 1852 he was the original James VI in White's ‘James VI, or the Gowrie Plot.’ In the following season, 1852–3, he revived ‘All's well that ends well,’ playing Parolles; ‘King Henry V,’ playing the King; and the ‘Second Part of King Henry IV,’ doubling the parts of Henry and Justice Shallow. Bottom, long esteemed Phelps's greatest comic character, was first seen October 1853. ‘Pericles,’ not acted since the Restoration, was revived 14 Oct. 1854, Phelps playing Pericles. His only other new part in that season was Bailie Nicol Jarvie in ‘Rob Roy.’ Christopher Sly, in the ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ was first seen in December 1856. In the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ produced on 18 Feb. 1857, Phelps did not act. Don Adriano de Armado, in ‘Love's Labour's Lost,’ was first seen 30 Sept. 1857. Lord Ogleby, in the ‘Clandestine Marriage,’ followed on 4 Nov. On 19 Jan. 1858, as one of a series of festival performances for the marriage of the princess royal, he played Macbeth at Her Majesty's Theatre. Dr. Cantwell, in the ‘Hypocrite,’ was first taken 13 Oct. 1858, and on 11 Dec. Penruddock in the ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ On 14 Sept. 1859 he played for the first time Job Thornberry in ‘John Bull,’ and on 18 Oct. was the original Bertuccio in the ‘Fool's Revenge,’ Tom Taylor's adaptation of ‘Le Roi s'amuse.’ In May 1859 Phelps had made a not very successful visit to Berlin and Hamburg, where he is said to have played ‘King Lear’ to empty benches. In the spring of 1860 he appeared under Harris at the Princess's, playing a round of characters.

The following season, 1860–1 was the first of Phelps's sole management of Sadler's Wells, Greenwood, upon whose financial and business capacity Phelps had entirely relied, having retired. The season was only memorable for the appearance of his son Edmund, who played Ulric to his father's Werner. On 24 Jan. 1861 he appeared with his company at Windsor Castle in ‘Richelieu.’ At the outset of Phelps's last season (1861–2) at Sadler's Wells, he appeared in the title-rôle of an adaptation of Casimir Delavigne's ‘Louis XI.’ A piece called ‘Doing for the Best,’ in which he played Dick Stubbs, a carpenter, was a failure. But the withdrawal of Greenwood had transferred to Phelps's shoulders business responsibilities for which he was unfitted, and on 15 March 1862 his 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.]

J. K.