Wilks, Robert (DNB00)

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WILKS, ROBERT (1665?–1732), actor, a descendant of a Worcester family, the fortunes of which were seriously impaired by the civil war, was the second son of Edward Wilks, who took refuge in Dublin, and became a pursuivant of the lord lieutenant. The actor's grandfather, Judge Wilks, is said to have raised a troop of horse for the king, which his grand-uncle, Colonel Wilks, who is mentioned by Clarendon, commanded. Born at Rathfarnham, near Dublin, in 1665 or, according to another account, 1670, Robert Wilks received a good education, and was appointed, on the strength of his caligraphy, to a clerkship in the office of secretary Sir Robert Southwell [q. v.] On the outbreak of the war in Ireland Wilks was compelled to join the army of King William, but, being appointed clerk to the camp, took no part in active conflict. Rejoining his office, he contracted an intimacy with Richards, a comedian, and after playing privately the Colonel [Pedro] in Dryden's ‘Spanish Friar,’ made his first appearance on the stage under Joseph Ashbury [q. v.] at the Smock Alley Theatre in December 1691 as Othello. There being no regular company, the performance (which was to commemorate the defeat of the Stuart cause in Ireland, and to which the public were admitted gratis) was conducted by amateurs, principally officers. Wilks's success in this was such as to induce him to adopt the stage, and to lead to the establishment of the Smock Alley Theatre. A life by Daniel O'Bryan, which has been discredited, assigns this performance to January 1689, and says that Wilks had two, if not more, children by a wife he had privately married, and that both he and his wife, expelled from their respective homes, were sheltered by a Mr. Cope, a goldsmith.

Somewhere before 1695 Wilks visited London, and was engaged by John Rich [q. v.] at 15s. a week, out of which he had to pay 2s. 6d. to be taught dancing. The only part traced to him at the Theatre Royal is Lysippus in the ‘Maid's Tragedy.’ While in London he married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Ferdinando Knapton, town clerk of Southampton and steward of the New Forest. By her he had a son Robert—who was left in the care of an actor named Bowen when Wilks, with his wife, returned to Ireland—and some other children, all but one of whom died in infancy. In 1698 Wilks played in Dublin Sir Frederick Frolic in Etherege's ‘Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub,’ Courtall in ‘She would if she could,’ and Dorimant in the ‘Man of the Mode.’ So popular did he become in Dublin that on returning to London in the autumn of 1698 in company with George Farquhar [q. v.], to whom he showed himself a constant and loyal friend, he had to make an escape, the Duke of Ormonde having, it is said, issued a warrant to prevent him leaving the kingdom.

Wilks reappeared at Drury Lane at a salary of 4l. as Palamede in ‘Marriage à la Mode.’ In 1699 he was the original Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar's ‘Constant Couple,’ the conspicuous success of which the author attributed to him, and in December was the original Agamemnon in ‘Achilles, or Iphigenia in Aulis,’ adapted by Boyer from Racine. In 1700 his original parts were Pedro in the ‘Pilgrim’ (altered by Farquhar from Fletcher), Freeman in Burnaby's ‘Reformed Wife,’ and Captain Bellair in ‘Courtship à la Mode;’ in 1701, Carlos in ‘Love makes a Man,’ Railton in Baker's ‘Humour of the Age,’ Paris in the ‘Virgin Prophetess, or the Fate of Troy,’ Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar's piece so named, and Duke of Lorrain in Mrs. Trotter's ‘Unhappy Penitent;’ in 1702 Almerick in the ‘Generous Conqueror,’ Campley in the ‘Funeral,’ Young Mirabel in the ‘Inconstant,’ Lionel in the ‘Modish Husband,’ Don Pedro in the ‘False Friend,’ and Elder Wouldbe in the ‘Twin Rivals’; and in 1703 Reynard in ‘Tunbridge Walks,’ Frederick in D'Urfey's ‘Old Mode and the New,’ Bellmie in ‘Love's Contrivance, or Le Médecin malgré lui,’ Wilding in ‘Vice Reclaimed,’ and Julio in the ‘Patriot.’ He also played Wilmore in the ‘Rover,’ Mosca in the ‘Fox,’ and Oroonoko. In the season of 1703–4 he was on 2 Dec. the first Young Bookwit in Steele's ‘Lying Lover;’ on 26 Jan. Andramont in ‘Love the Leveller,’ by ‘G. B.;’ and on 6 March Norfolk in Banks's ‘Albion Queens.’ He also played Amintor in the ‘Maid's Tragedy,’ Alexander in the ‘Rival Queens,’ Arbaces in ‘A King and No King,’ Celadon in ‘Secret Love,’ and, at court, Dolabella in ‘Love for Love’ and Peregrine Wary in ‘Sir Solomon, or the Cautious Coxcomb;’ 1704–5 saw him as Goswin in the ‘Royal Merchant’ and Theodore in the ‘Loyal Subject,’ and 1705–6 as Valentinian. The following original parts were also played during the two seasons: on 7 Dec. 1704 Sir Charles Easy in the ‘Careless Husband,’ on 23 April Captain Clerimont in the ‘Tender Husband,’ on 30 Oct. Bloom in ‘Hampstead Heath,’ on 20 Nov. Sir James Courtly in the ‘Basset Table,’ on 3 Dec. Perolla in ‘Perolla and Izadora,’ on 8 April 1706 Captain Plume in the ‘Recruiting Officer,’ and, some time in 1706, Farewell in the ‘Fashionable Lover.’

Owen Swiney or MacSwinny [q. v.] opened the Haymarket on 15 Oct. 1706, his company having been strengthened by a detachment of actors from Drury Lane. Among these was Wilks, who made his first appearance on the 26th as the Prince of Wales in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV.’ Here he remained two years, playing Hamlet, Antony in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ Macduff, Lorenzo in the ‘Spanish Friar,’ Moneses, the Copper Captain, Essex, Colonel Careless in the ‘Committee,’ Dorimant in the ‘Man of the Mode,’ Jaffier, Marius Junior in ‘Caius Marius,’ Truewit in the ‘Silent Woman,’ Castalio, Jupiter in ‘Amphitryon,’ Cortez in the ‘Indian Empress,’ Vincent in the ‘Jovial Crew,’ and other parts. The characters he originated included Belvil in the ‘Platonic Lady’ on 25 Nov. 1706, Abdalla in Mrs. Manley's ‘Almyna’ on 16 Dec., Palamede in ‘Marriage à la Mode’ on 4 Feb. 1707, Archer in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem’ on 8 March, Careless in the ‘Double Gallant’ on 1 Nov., Aribert in Rowe's ‘Royal Convert’ on 25 Nov., and Lord Wronglove in the ‘Lady's Last Stake’ on 13 Dec. The theatre being then devoted to opera, Wilks appeared at Drury Lane as Hamlet on 15 Jan. 1708. A round of comic characters, with some few serious parts, was assigned him, and he was, 31 May 1708, the original Artaban in Theobald's ‘Persian Princess,’ on 4 Dec. Colonel Blenheim in Baker's ‘Fine Lady's Airs,’ on 11 Jan. 1709 Young Oldwit in ‘Rival Fools’ (adapted by Cibber from Fletcher's ‘Wit at several Weapons’), L. Icilius in Dennis's ‘Appius and Virginia,’ and on 12 May Sir George Airey in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Busy Body.’ In answer to complaints from the principal actors of the meagre salaries allowed them, the patentees put forth statements, according to which Wilks's receipts, including his benefit, came to 299l. 1s. 5d. He was allowed 50s. a week as stage manager. Wilks, with Cibber, Dogget, and Mrs. Oldfield, now joined Swiney in the management of the Haymarket. The house opened on 20 Sept. 1709 with Betterton as Hamlet. On the 22nd Wilks played Plume in the ‘Recruiting Officer.’ On 12 Dec. he was the first Faithful in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Man's Bewitched,’ and on 20 April 1710 Lothario in Charles Johnson's ‘Force of Friendship.’ He played also Othello, Henry VI in ‘Richard III,’ and many other parts.

The companies reuniting at Drury Lane, Wilks created there the rôles of Colonel Ravelin in ‘Marplot,’ 30 Dec. 1710; Rashlove in ‘Injured Love,’ 7 April 1711; Volatil in the ‘Wife's Relief,’ altered from Shirley by C. Johnson, 12 Nov.; Colonel Bastion in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Perplexed Lovers,’ 19 Jan. 1712; Aranes in C. Johnson's ‘Successful Pirate,’ 7 Nov.; Major Young Fox in Charles Shadwell's ‘Humours of the Army,’ 29 Jan. 1713; Juba in ‘Cato,’ 14 April; Chaucer in Gay's ‘Wife of Bath;’ Agamemnon in C. Johnson's ‘Victim,’ translated from Racine, 5 Jan. 1714; Dumont in ‘Jane Shore,’ 2 Feb.; Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ 27 April; Modely in the ‘Country Lasses,’ 4 Feb. 1715; Sir George Truman in Steele's ‘Drummer,’ 10 March 1716; and 6 Dec. 1717 Heartly in Cibber's ‘Non-Juror.’ He had also been seen as Philaster, Demetrius in the ‘Humourous Lieutenant,’ Ferdinand in the ‘Tempest,’ and Cassio. At Drury Lane Wilks remained until close upon his death. His original parts during the remainder of his stay, omitting a few in pieces which failed or are completely forgotten, are Don Carlos in Cibber's ‘Ximena,’ founded on the ‘Cid,’ 1 Nov. 1718 (it had been acted six years earlier); Sir George Jealous in C. Johnson's ‘Masquerade,’ 16 Jan. 1719; Bellamar in T. Killigrew's ‘Chit-Chat,’ 14 Feb.; Memnon in Young's ‘Busiris,’ 7 March; Eurytion in Southerne's ‘Spartan Dame,’ 11 Dec.; Eumenes in Hughes's ‘Siege of Damascus,’ 17 Feb. 1720; Frankly in Cibber's ‘Refusal,’ 14 Feb. 1721; Carlos in Young's ‘Revenge,’ 18 April; Yvor in Ambrose Philips's ‘Briton,’ 19 Feb. 1722; Sir John Freeman in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Artifice,’ 2 Oct.; Myrtle in Steele's ‘Conscious Lovers,’ 7 Nov.; Orlando in ‘Love in a Forest,’ altered from ‘As you like it,’ 9 Jan. 1723; Dauphin in Hill's altered ‘Henry V,’ 5 Dec.; Phraortes in Gay's ‘Captives,’ 15 Jan. 1724; Antony in Cibber's ‘Cæsar in Egypt,’ 9 Dec.; Bellamine in James Moore Smythe's ‘Rival Modes,’ 27 Jan. 1727; Henriquez in the ‘Double Falsehood,’ assigned by Theobald to Shakespeare, 13 Dec.; Lord Townly in the ‘Provoked Husband,’ 10 Jan. 1728; Merital in Fielding's ‘Love in several Masques,’ 16 Feb.; Gainlove in Miller's ‘Humours of Oxford,’ 9 Jan. 1730; Masinissa in Thomson's ‘Sophonisba,’ 28 Feb.; Jason in C. Johnson's ‘Medea,’ 11 Dec.; Lord Modely in Boden's ‘Modish Couple,’ 10 Jan. 1732; and Bellamant in Fielding's ‘Modern Husband,’ 21 Feb. This was his last original character. Among parts of which he was not the originator were Mirabell in the ‘Way of the World,’ the Prince of Wales in the ‘Second Part of King Henry IV,’ Aurenge-Zebe, Buckingham in ‘Henry VIII,’ Altamont in the ‘Fair Penitent,’ and Hastings in ‘Richard III.’

Wilks died at his house in Bow Street, Covent Garden, on 27 Feb. 1732, and was buried at midnight (by his own desire) on 4 Oct. at St. Paul's, Covent Garden. A prologue to his memory was spoken at Drury Lane on 14 Oct. Mrs. Wilks, born Elizabeth Knapton, had died on 21 March 1714, and was buried in St. Paul's, Covent Garden, where her husband raised a monument. He married again, on 26 April 1715, Mary Fall (born Browne), a widow with four children living, who survived him.

Wilks's name was long associated with the management first of the Haymarket and then of Drury Lane [for the complex managerial changes between 1705 and 1709 see Rich, Christopher]. In 1710, by an arrangement with William Collier, M.P., the chief lessee, the management of Drury Lane was assigned to Wilks, Doggett, and Cibber. The most prosperous period of Drury Lane management then began. Barton Booth [q. v.] was associated in the management early in 1711, and Steele took on 18 Oct. 1714 the place of Collier, to whom the license was granted, the managers then consisting of Steele, Wilks, Cibber, Doggett, and Booth. In January 1720 the theatre was temporarily shut and the licenses revoked by the Duke of Newcastle, the lord chamberlain [see Steele, Sir Richard]. By the season of 1729–30 Steele was dead and Booth disqualified from acting. After Steele's death a patent was granted to Cibber, Wilks, and Booth, empowering them to give plays at Drury Lane for a period of twenty-one years from 1 Sept. 1732. Wilks's share came at his death into the hands of his widow, who appointed John Ellys [q. v.], the portrait-painter, her representative.

Cibber, whose ‘Apology’ is largely occupied with Wilks, though not estimating very highly Wilks's judgment or his correctness of style, declares him to have been the most diligent, laborious, and useful actor that had been on the stage for fifty years. His unfailing industry is attributed to his ambition for fame, in search of which he was unremitting in labour. By example and authority he rebuked negligence in others. In the ‘Spectator’ Wilks is specially commended as Macduff, Sir Harry Wildair, Mosca, and the Prince of Wales in ‘The First Part of Henry IV.’ Davies declares the last to have been ‘one of the most perfect exhibitions of the stage,’ and says that the Hotspur of Booth was not superior. Davies praises his Castalio, which was, however, inferior to that of Cibber, and his Antony in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ in which he showed his customary fault of restlessness. His Othello is spoken of with disparagement by Cibber and by Steele. In Hamlet, Castalio in the ‘Orphan,’ Ziphares in ‘Mithridates,’ Edgar in ‘Lear,’ Norfolk in ‘Albion Queens,’ Essex, Moneses in ‘Tamerlane,’ and Jaffier in ‘Venice Preserved’ he won recognition. But though his tragic conceptions were praised for sorrow, tenderness, and resignation, his greatest triumphs were all in comedy, and especially in the comedy of Farquhar. His chief qualities as a comedian were ease, sprightliness, and distinction of manner, which caused him to be accepted as a model of behaviour in fashionable society. Concerning his relations with Farquhar (which were uniformly good) it has been said by some versifier without much sense of proportion:

    Farquhar by writing gain'd himself a name,
    And Wilks by Farquhar gain'd immortal fame.

Farquhar, who had been more than once pecuniarily indebted to Wilks, commended to him on his deathbed his orphan daughters. So well was the trust fulfilled that the girls were said to have lost in Wilks a second father. Among those whom Wilks benefited by a somewhat lavish generosity (to which it was due that, though in receipt of an income large for the time, he left his wife almost without provision) was Richard Savage. Dr. Johnson praised Wilks for his generosity in characteristic language. ‘To be humane, generous, and candid is a very high degree of merit in any case, but those qualities deserve still greater praise when they are found in that condition which makes almost every other man … contemptuous, insolent, petulant, selfish, and brutal’ (Works, viii. 107). Steele in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 370) speaks of ‘commending Wilks for representing the tenderness of a husband and a father in “Macbeth,” the contrition of a reformed prodigal in “Henry the Fourth,” the winning simpleness of a young man of good nature and wealth in the “Trip to the Jubilee” [Sir Harry Wildair], the officiousness of an artful servant [Mosca] in the “Fox.”’ In the ‘Tatler’ (No. 182) he speaks of Wilks and Cibber as ‘the first of the present stage … perfect actors in their different kinds,’ and draws a parallel between them, the most significant phrase in which is that ‘Wilks has a singular talent in representing the graces of nature, Cibber the deformity in the affectation of them.’ The only charges brought against Wilks as a manager were a certain impetuosity in command and some favouritism towards actors such as Mills, his great friend, whose mediocrity and propriety of conduct appealed to him more than the brilliant talent and irregularity of life of a born actor such as Booth.

A portrait of Wilks was painted in the year of his death by John Ellys or Ellis [q. v.], and was engraved by J. Faber (see Smith, Catalogue).

William Wilks (fl. 1717–1723), a nephew of the preceding, appeared at Drury Lane on 17 Oct. 1715 as Sir George Airey in the ‘Busy Body.’ He was bred as an attorney; Wilks tried vainly to dissuade him from adopting the stage, but sent him in 1714 to Ashbury, the manager of the Dublin Theatre, whom he urged to show him his faults. According to Chetwood, William Wilks played one season at Smock Alley, was engaged at 30s. a week for Drury Lane, and died before he was thirty. His name appears in Genest to Tressel in Cibber's ‘Richard III,’ Octavio in ‘She would and she would not,’ Farewell in ‘Sir Courtly Nice,’ Verdone in the ‘Little French Lawyer,’ Ned Brag in ‘Love for Money,’ Dapperwit in ‘Love in a Wood.’ He had a benefit on 27 April 1719; other benefits to Wilks's brother, the office-keeper, were given on 5 June 1718 and 11 May 1719. On 11 Nov. 1719 W. Wilks was the first Sicinius in Dennis's ‘Invader of his Country.’ On 2 Oct. 1722 he was the original Fainwell in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Artifice.’ On 7 Jan. of the following year he played Ferdinand in the ‘Tempest,’ and on 5 July 1723 was the first Young Clifford in Theophilus Cibber's alteration of ‘King Henry VI.’ The last part to which his name is found is Sir Harry Beaumont in the first representation of Mrs. Haywood's ‘Wife to be Let’ on 12 Aug. 1723.

[There are early lives of Wilks, all untrustworthy and mostly contradictory of each other. These lives, one anonymous and dedicated to Colley Cibber; a second by Daniel O'Bryan, and a third by Curll, asserting that the two other were unworthy of credit; statements certified to by Mary Wilks, his relict, and by Wilks's brother-in-law, Alex Kingston, were issued within a year of the actor's death, and went through various editions. All are now scarce. Cibber in his Apology supplies much information, often inaccurate. The best account is that in Chetwood's General History of the Stage. Lives appear in Galt's Lives of the Players, and the Georgian Era. The list of characters is taken from Genest's Account of the English Stage. See also Doran's Annals of the English Stage, ed. Lowe; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill; Hitchcock's Irish Stage; Chalmers's British Essayists; Steele's Theatre; Cunningham and Wheatley's London Past and Present; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Dibdin's History of the Stage; Lowe's Bibliographical Account of English Theatrical Literature. In the book last named is mentioned ‘To Diabebouloumenon, or the Proceedings at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,’ 1723, 4to, which appears to deal with the resignation by Wilks of the part of Sir Harry Wildair.]

J. K.