Elliston, Robert William (DNB00)
ELLISTON, ROBERT WILLIAM (1774–1831), actor, was born 7 April 1774 in Orange Street, Bloomsbury, where his father, Robert Elliston, who subsequently removed to Charles Street, Long Acre, was in business as a watchmaker. His grandfather was a farmer at Gedgrave, near Orford, Suffolk. Robert Elliston the elder was a man of indolent habits and low pursuits, and the charge of the education of his son at St. Paul's School, Covent Garden, devolved upon his brother, William Elliston, LL.D., master of Sidney College, Cambridge. The youth, who passed his holidays in Cambridge with his uncle, Dr. Elliston, or with his uncle by marriage, the Rev. Thomas Martyn, professor of botany at Sidney College, was intended for the church. While at school about 1790 at an evening academy kept by a Madame Cotterille, at which he studied French, he made in a private building a species of histrionic essay, playing Pyrrhus in 'The Distressed Mother,' to the Phœnix of Charles Mathews, and Chamont in 'The Orphan.' More ambitious efforts followed at the Lyceum Rooms, where he enacted Young Norval, Pierre, and other characters in tragedy. Early in 1791 he ran away from home with an introduction to Dimond, manager of the Bath Theatre, Failing to obtain on engagement he accepted a situation as clerk to a lottery office. On 14 April 1791,according to Genest, who describes him 'as a young gentleman, his first appearance on any stage,' he played Tressel in 'Richard III' at the Bath Theatre. This character he repeated with the same company at Bristol on the 25th. On the 28th he acted at Bath Arviragus in 'Cymbeline.' Raymond fixes his first appearance at 21 April 1792 (Life of Elliston, i. 39). An engagement was then accepted from Tate Wilkinson of the York circuit, and Elliston appeared at Leeds in 1792 as Dorilas in 'Merope.' Dissatisfied with the parts assigned him, he apologised for his escapade to Dr. Elliston, and was taken back into favour. In May 1793 he returned to London and made the acquaintance of Dr. Farmer and George Steevens, by the latter of whom he was introduced to John Kemble, who, July 1793, with the idea of giving him an engagement at Drury Lane, recommended him to study Romeo. As the new theatre was not ready, Elliston reappeared at Bath 26 Sept. 1793 in Romeo. He now sprang into favour, playing at Bath or Bristol a large number of characters in tragedy and comedy. In Bath Elliston eloped with and married, about June 1796, a Miss Rundall, a teacher of dancing, by whom he had a large family, and who, in the height of his success, continued her occupation. On 25 June 1796, by permission of Dimond, to whom he was engaged for three years, Elliston made what was probably his first appearance in London, playing at the Haymarket, under Colman, Octavian in 'The Mountaineers,' and Vapour in Prince Hoare's musical farce 'My Grandmother.' 'The Iron Chest,' the failure of which at Drury Lane, 12 March 1796, had elicited Colman's famous preface attacking Kemble, was revived at the Haymarket 29 Aug., when Elliston obtained warm recognition in Kemble's character of Sir Edward Mortimer. He also played Romeo. On 21 Sept. 1796 (Raymond, 1797) at Covent Garden, still by permission of Dimond, he appeared for one night only as Sheva in 'The Jew.' At the same house he played Young Norval and Philaster. The curious arrangement by which Dimond of Bath allowed him to appear in London once a fortnight subjected the actor to some ridicule. Bath remained his headquarters, all the leading business being gradually assigned him. He played by command before George III at Windsor, and also appeared at Weymouth, where by playing on the violin he awoke the king, who in the afternoon had retired into the royal box and fallen asleep. He also delivered at Wells and elsewhere an entertainment with songs, &c., written for him by Thomas Dibdin. During his frequent visits to London he had become a member of several clubs and acquired habits of gambling and dissipation. During the recess at Bath he managed the small theatres at Wells and Shepton Mallet. Having vainly taken some steps towards obtaining a patent for a new London theatre, and made a fruitless application to the vice-chancellor of Oxford for permission to open a theatre in that city, he accepted an engagement from Colman at the Haymarket, at which house he appeared 16 May 1803 in ' No Prelude,' which Genest assigns to Elliston and Waldron, and in 'The Jew' as Sheva, his old associate Mathews making as Jabal his first appearance in London. At the Haymarket he played during the summer seasons of 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1811. His début at Drury Lane took place 20 Sept. 1804 as Rolls in 'Pizarro.' He remained a member of the Drury Lane company until 1809, returned to it 1812–15 and again 1819–26. During the period last named he was lessee and manager of the theatre, from which in 1826 he retired ruined. His characters included most leading parts in the ancient and modern repertories of the two theatres. Among the many original parts in works by Dimond, Dibdin, Kenney, and other dramatists he played at Drury Lane, the most important are Fitzharding in Tobin's 'The Curfew,' 19 Feb. 1807, and Lothair in 'Adelgitha,' by 'Monk' Lewis, 30 April 1807. So great was the popularity of Elliston that he was compelled for his benefit, 10 Sept. 1804, to take the King's Theatre, and the public breaking through all obstacles rushed in without paying, and crowded the house in all parts, including the stage (Oulton, History of the Theatres of London, iii. 55–7). At the close of the season of 1808–9 at Drury Lane Elliston entered upon the management of the Royal Circus, which he subsequently called the Surrey Theatre. At the time when the theatre opened, Easter 1809, Elliston was engaged with the Drury Lane company, then, in consequence of the destruction of their theatre by fire, playing at the Lyceum. He did not appear accordingly at the Surrey until 16 June 1809, when he played Macheath in a burletta founded on the 'Beggar's Opera,' itself a burlesque. The next performance was as Macbeth, in a burletta on that tragedy. The following season, the theatre having been converted into the Surrey, Miss Sally Booth [q. v.] appeared in a burletta founded on the 'Beaux' Stratagem,' in which Elliston was Archer. While the house was closed Elliston meanwhile had undertaken the management of the theatres at Manchester and Birmingham, and had opened in 1811, in John Street, Bristol, a 'Literary Association' connected with a shop for the sale of secondhand books. A bloodless duel with De Camp the actor belongs to September 1812. On 19 April 1813, while still retaining the Surrey, he opened, under the title of Little Drury Lane, the Olympic Pavilion, which in the following month was closed by order of the lord chamberlain. In December it was reopened as the Olympic. Elliston also managed for a season the Leicester theatre, and undertook other theatrical or quasi-theatrical speculations. When the new theatre in Drury Lane reopened 10 Oct. 1812, Elliston spoke Byron's prologue and acted Hamlet. After refusing the management of Drury Lane, which was offered him by the committee, he secured, in a competition with Kean, Dibdin, Arnold, and others, the lesseeship of the house. His management was spirited. He made at the outset an application to Mrs. Siddons, who refused to be drawn from her retirement, engaged, in addition to other actors, Kean, Pope, Holland, Dowton, Munden, Harley, Oxberry, Knight. Braham, Mrs. West, Mrs. Egerton, Mrs. Glover, Miss Kelly, Mrs. Edwin, and subsequently Madame Vestris, and applied for dramas to Sir Walter Scott, Maturin, and other authors of repute. Drury Lane opened under Elliston's management, 4 Oct. 1819, with 'Wild Oats,' in which he played Rover. Kean during the season appeared for the first time as Lear and Jaffier; versions of novels of Scott were produced, and Madame Vestris obtained a success in the revival of 'Don Giovanni' in London. After closing 8 July 1820, the theatre reopened 15 Aug. for a series of farewell performances of Kean before that actor's departure to America, and did not finally close until 16 Sept. The principal event of the following season was the production, 25 April 1821, in the face of much opposition, of Lord Byron's' Marino Faliero.' 'Towards the close of the season, which lasted through the summer, Kean reappeared. Young was engaged in 1832-3, and Macready, who appeared as Virginius, in 1823-4, Kean also played occasionally, but many causes combined to render his appearances casual and uncertain. To Elliston's engagement of Clarkson Stanfield and David Roberts Drury Lane owed the reputation for scenery it long enjoyed. At the close of the season 1825-1826 Elliston, unable to meet the claims of the committee of Drury Lane, was compelled to resign the theatre, the management of which was for a time entrusted to his son, and on 10 Dec. 1826 he appeared as a bankrupt. Mrs. Elliston had died 1 April 1821 in her forty-sixth year, and been buried in Georges burial-ground, Bayswater. In January 1823 Elliston had an epileptic seizure. A second attack, the nature of which is not defined, left him, in August 1825, 'a helpless, decrepit, tottering old man' (Life by Raymond). On 11 May 1826 he appeared at Drury Lane as Falstaff in the 'First Part of King Henry IV.' He showed signs of exhaustion, and in the fifth act fell flat on stage. This was his last appearance at Drury Lane. After quitting this house Elliston became once more lessee of the Surrey, at which he appeared Whit-Monday 1827 as 'The Three Singles,' playing a triple character, in which he was in turns a collegian, a Frenchman, and a fool. Falstaff and other characters followed, the result being financially successful. The engagement of T. P. Cooke and the production in 1829 of Douglas Jerrold's 'Black-Eyed Susan' were features in his management of the Surrey. At this time he had recovered a portion of his old spirits, and was still 'the first comedian of his day. His health was, however, shattered. On 24 June 1831 he played Sheva in 'The Jew,' and struggled with difficulty through the character. This was his last performance. He had an apoplectic seizure 6 July 1831, and on the 8th, at 6.30 a.m., at Great Surrey Street. Blackfriars, he died. Elliston is buried in a vault in St. John's Church, Waterloo Road. A marble slab, with a Latin epitaph by his Son-in-law, Nicholas Torre, was placed in August 1833 on the south side of the church.
Few actors have occupied a more important place than Elliston, and few have exhibited more diversified talent or a more perplexing individuality. In the main he was an honest, well-meaning man, His weakness in the presence of temptation led him into terrible irregularities; his animal spirits and habits of intoxication combined made him the hero of the most preposterous adventures; and his assumption of dignity, and his marvellous system of puffing, cast upon one of the first of actors a reputation not far from that of a 'charlatan.' In his management of Drury Lane be acquired the respect of a portion at least of his contemporaries, the general estimate being that he sacrificed his own fortune, which he states in a note to the preface to 'The Flying Dutchman' to have been 30,000l., to the interests of the proprietors, by whom he was treated with ingratitude. It was in the management of minor and provincial theatres, into which he recklessly plunged, that he played the preposterous or diverting pranks which cling to his memory. Pages might be filled with the record of his pretensions and his absurdities. His merits as an actor cannot be challenged. The rhapsody 'To the Shade of Elliston,' beginning 'Joyousest of once embodied spirits,' and the praise of his various performances, are among the most familiar of Lamb's utterances concerning the stage. Leigh Hunt declares Elliston 'the only genius that has approached that great man (Garrick) in universality of imitation,' and speaks of him (1807) as 'the second tragedian on the stage,' and the 'best lover on the stage both in tragedy and comedy,' Macready, sparing as he is of praise to rivals, in giving a striking account of Elliston's last performance at Drury Lane (Reminiscences, i. 307-8), writes a high encomium of his versatility and power. The 'London Magazine and Theatrical Inquisitor,' iii. 515, says his comic genius was irresistible. It was the very apotheosis of fun, sworn brother 'to all frolicsomeness,' but adds that in his later years he had fallen into 'a coarse buffoonery of manner;' and Byron says he could conceive nothing better than Elliston in gentlemanly comedy and in some parts of tragedy. Vapid in 'The Dramatist, 'Doricourt., Charles Surface, Rover in 'Wild Oats,' and Ranger in the 'Suspicious Husband,' are a few of the comic characters in which he had no equal. Among his serious parts the best were Hamlet, Orestes, Romeo, Hotspur, Amintor. In addition to 'No Prelude' before mentioned Elliston wrote the 'Venetian Outlaw,' 8vo, 1805, acted at Drury Lane 26 April 1805, the author playing the part of Vivaldi. It is dedicated from Elliston's residence, 13 North Street, Westminster, to the king, is fairly workmanlike, and is, according to a postscript by Elliston to the printed edition, an adaptation of Abelin's 'Le Grand Bandit ou l'Homme à trois Masques,' a piece played at the Duke's Theatre, Brunswick. He wrote a preface to the 'Flying Dutchman, or the Spectral Ship,' a three-act drama played at the Surrey, and included in the third volume of Richardson's 'New Minor Theatre,' 12mo, 1828, et seq., and two letters, one of them being a reply to a memorial to the lord chamberlain against the Olympic and the Sans Pareil theatres, presented by the managements of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. These are printed in octavo, London, 1818, with the memorial, and are in the British Museum under 'Drury Lane.' An acting edition of 'Coriolanus,' London, 1820, is said to be altered by R. W. Elliston. A preface to Poole's 'Married and Single,' 8vo, 1824, contains an attack upon him. No. 2 in the Mathews collection of paintings at the Garrick Club is a portrait by Henry Singleton, R.A., of Elliston as Octavian in 'The Mountaineers.' Mathews, in the 'Catalogue,' writes, 'A most fascinating, brilliant actor.' Other portraits by De Wilde, as Duke Aranza in 'The Honeymoon,' and by Harlowe show him a handsome, bright-looking man. He is charged with being a little of a fop, but was a good conversationalist, and without being witty had a fund of humour. He had a gift of facile oratory which he frequently abused. On the strength of this he contemplated at different times entering parliament and the church. His habit of addressing the public frequently with most mendacious intentions subjected him to much well-deserved ridicule. Those extravagances which most embroiled him with a portion of the public were forgiven him by another portion as due to waywardness of humour rather than any other cause. Among the contents of a curiosity shop was once preserved a series of his cancelled cheoues issued while manager of Drury Lane. The progressive unsteadiness and illegibility of the writing furnished a curious commentary on the drunken habits of the writer.
[Raymond's Memoirs of Elliston, 2 vols. 1845; Genest's Account of the Stage; Moore's Life of Byron, 1822; Baker, Reed, and Jones's Biographia Dramatica; Mathews's Anecdotes of Actors; Sir F. Pollock's Macready's Reminiscences; New Monthly Magazine; London Magazine; Monthly Mirror; Theatrical Inquisitor, passim; Leigh Hunt's Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres; Charles Lamb's Works; Thomas Dibdin's Reminiscences; Hazlitt's Criticisms and Dramatic Essays on the English Stage.]