Keeley, Robert (DNB00)

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KEELEY, ROBERT (1793–1869), actor, one of a family of sixteen children, was born in 1793 at 3 Grange Court, Carey Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. After the death of his father, said to have been a watchmaker, he was apprenticed to Hansard the printer. Not discouraged by one or two failures as an amateur, he joined in the humblest capacity the Richmond Theatre. Proceeding to Norwich, he remained on that circuit under Brunton for four years, when he joined Henry Roxby Beverley [q. v.] at the West London, subsequently the Prince of Wales's, Theatre in Tottenham Street. Elliston saw him in Birmingham, and engaged him for the Olympic, at which house he made what was practically his début in London in 1818, as the original Leporello in ‘Don Giovanni in London.’ When, in 1819, Elliston took Drury Lane, Keeley went with him. No opportunity being afforded him, he appeared at the Adelphi in a character called Dash, and was the original Jemmy Green in ‘Tom and Jerry.’ This piece ran for two seasons. At the end of the first Keeley went to Sadler's Wells under Daniel Egerton [q. v.], and played Jerry, 8 April 1822, in Pierce Egan's own version of his ‘Life in London.’ Charles Kemble now engaged him for Covent Garden, at which house he appeared, 26 Oct. 1822, in Edwin's part of Darby in the ‘Poor Soldier.’ On 6 Nov. he was the original Basil in Howard Payne's melodrama, ‘Two Galley Slaves,’ and on 3 Dec. Friar Peter in Planché's ‘Maid Marian.’ Natty Maggs in the ‘London Hermit’ and Hodge in ‘Love in a Village’ were failures, but as Rumfit, a tailor, in Peake's ‘Duel, or my two Nephews,’ 18 Feb. 1823, he made a decided hit. In a complimentary notice the ‘London Magazine’ says that as the tailor he ‘was the sublimity of impoverished manhood, the true ninth part of a man.’ On 8 May he was the original Gerorio, a drunken actor, in Howard Payne's ‘Clari, or the Maid of Milan.’ He also played Leporello to the Giovanni of Madame Vestris. In the summer, at the English Opera House, he was the original Fritz in Peake's ‘Frankenstein’ and the Gardener in Planché's ‘Frozen Lake,’ both parts being written for him. He was at Covent Garden the original Killian, 14 Oct. 1824, in one of the six versions of ‘Der Freischütz’ brought out during the season 1824–5, and on 9 Nov. made a favourable impression as Master Innocent Lambskin in ‘A Woman Never Vext, or the Widow of Cornhill,’ Planché's adaptation of Rowley's ‘A New Wonder.’ He played Master Matthew in Ben Jonson's ‘Every Man in his Humour,’ and Bob Acres. At Covent Garden he remained some years. While there he married Miss (Mary) Goward, who was born at Ipswich in 1806, and made her first appearance at the Lyceum, 2 July 1825, as Rosina in the opera so named, and at Covent Garden, 28 Nov., as Margaretta in ‘No Song, no Supper.’ Among the many parts in which Keeley at Covent Garden established his reputation are Marcel, a country lad, in ‘'Twas I;’ Abel in ‘Honest Thieves;’ Spado in ‘Castle of Andalusia;’ Peter in ‘Romeo and Juliet;’ Bob Barnacle in the ‘Wife's Stratagem,’ an alteration by Poole of Shirley's ‘Gamester;’ Nicodemus Crowquil in ‘Peter Wilkins, or the Flying Indian;’ Clown in the ‘Winter's Tale;’ Jerry Sneak in the ‘Mayor of Garratt;’ King Arthur in ‘Tom Thumb;’ Scrub in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem;’ Wamba in Lacy's ‘Maid of Judah;’ and very many parts in forgotten works of Pocock, Planché, Fitzball, and other dramatists. Miss Goward was associated with him in many of these pieces. In the summer they appeared at the English Opera House.

In June 1833 Mr. and Mrs. Keeley were engaged by Abbott and Egerton for the Coburg, rechristened the Victoria, and on the failure of the experiment went to America. In 1838 they joined Madame Vestris at the Olympic, where they stayed till 1841, in which year Keeley was sufficiently ill-advised to appear at the Strand as Shylock. In 1841–1842 the Keeleys were with Macready at Drury Lane. On 2 Oct. 1843, under Henry Wallack, he reappeared at Covent Garden in ‘My Wife's out.’ At the Lyceum he played in a version of ‘L'Homme blasé’ (‘Used Up’). In 1844 the Keeleys joined Strutt in the management of the Lyceum, and played there until 1847, producing burlesques and adaptations of novels by Dickens. Keeley then, in August 1850, joined Charles Kean in the management of the Princess's, beginning on 28 Sept. 1850 with a revival of ‘Twelfth Night,’ in which Keeley played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Mr. and Mrs. Keeley also rose to the full height of their respective gifts in the farce of ‘Betsy Baker,’ 13 Nov. 1850. He was a Carrier and Mrs. Keeley Dame Quickly in the performance of ‘Henry IV’ at Windsor by royal command. At the close of the season Keeley retired from the partnership. He played, however, 22 Nov. 1852, Sir Hugh Evans in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ Mrs. Keeley being Mrs. Page, and Miss Mary Keeley Anne Page. The Keeleys then went to the Haymarket, where Keeley played the hero in ‘Your Life's in Danger.’ The Adelphi and the Olympic were visited, and in September 1856 they appeared at Drury Lane under E. T. Smith in a burlesque of ‘Pizarro.’ Keeley's last appearance before retirement was made at Drury Lane in March 1857, in Morton's ‘A Cure for the Heartache,’ in which he played Old Rapid to the Young Rapid of C. Mathews and the Frank Oatlands, a youth, of Mrs. Keeley. For the benefit of the Royal Dramatic College, however, he played, May 1861, Touchstone in a scene from ‘As you like it’ at Covent Garden, and for that of E. T. Smith, 27 March 1862, he played Euclid Facile in the farce of ‘Twice Killed.’ He died Wednesday, 3 Feb. 1869, at 10 Pelham Crescent, Brompton, where he had lived for seven years in failing health. One daughter, Mary Lucy, who made her début at the Lyceum in 1845, married Albert Smith, and died 19 March 1870, aged 39. Another, Louise, married Mr. Montagu Williams, Q.C., police magistrate; she appeared at Drury Lane on 12 July 1856 as Gertrude in the ‘Loan of a Lover,’ and died 24 Jan. 1877, aged 41.

Keeley was a genuine comedian. His height was only five feet two inches; he had when young red hair, a high-coloured, handsome, but in repose inexpressive face, and a slight limp. He had a good deal of mannerism, and, like most comedians, an individuality recognisable through all his assumptions. His actions were natural and unrestrained, and he had a happy stolid appearance of insensibility to his own jokes. In the expression of semi-idiocy or rustic wonderment, or as the suffering victim of unjust fate, he had few equals. Among his best parts were Master William Waddilove in Tom Taylor's ‘To Parents and Guardians,’ Diego in the ‘Spanish Curate,’ Dolly Spanker in ‘London Assurance,’ Peter Spyk in the ‘Loan of a Lover,’ Mr. Bounceable in ‘What have I done?’ Verges, Peter, Pall Mall in the ‘Prisoner of War,’ Lambskin, and Rumfit.

Portraits of Keeley are found in most of the theatrical publications of his day. A pencil drawing of him in the original part of Robin in the ‘Serjeant's Wife’ is in the possession of his son-in-law, Mr. Montagu Williams. He was something of a bon vivant, fond of society, and at one period of his life he liked to show himself on horseback. A portrait of him in ‘Actors by Daylight’ shows him thus mounted. He was a prudent man, however, and left a handsome provision for his family, of whom his wife alone survives.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, vol. v.; Georgian Era, vol. iv.; Actors by Daylight; Pascoe's Dramatic List; Tallis's Dramatic Mag.; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; The Idler and Breakfast Table Companion, 1837–8; Cole's Life of Charles Kean; Theatrical Times; Pollock's Reminiscences of Macready; Westland Marston's Recollections of Our Recent Actors; Stirling's Old London; Montagu Williams's Leaves from a Life.]

J. K.