Wills, William Gorman (DNB00)

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WILLS, WILLIAM GORMAN (1828–1891), dramatist, son of James Wills [q. v.], was born at Blackwell Lodge, Kilmurry, on 28 Jan. 1828. He was educated at Waterford grammar school under Dr. Price, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he entered on 6 Nov. 1845, his college tutor being Dr. Frank Sadleir [q. v.] He did not proceed to a degree, but established a reputation among the students by his poem on ‘Poland,’ for which he won the vice-chancellor's medal in 1848. He showed a strong bent for portrait-painting, but received no training in art beyond that which the Royal Hibernian Academy, then in a very decrepit state, could afford. Like Goldsmith when an undergraduate, he seems to have rioted upon a minute allowance, earning a precarious guinea now and again by a portrait or by contributing to an ephemeral magazine called ‘The Irish Metropolitan,’ through the pages of which ran his first serial story entitled ‘Old Times,’ published in volume form some years later, in 1857. At Dr. Anster's house he met with a fellow-contributor and congenial spirit, the brilliant university Bohemian, Charles Pelham Mulvany [q. v.]

In 1862, after several years of very desultory occupation, or, as he styled it, ‘daisy-picking’ in Ireland, Wills settled in London. He took rooms with his friend Henry Humphreys in Clifford's Inn. His efforts to make a livelihood by his pen were not encouraging. In 1863 appeared his ‘Notice to Quit,’ a story conceived after the manner of Eugène Sue, which was praised for its dramatic situations but met with little success. In October of this same year Wills obtained the Royal Humane Society's medal for a brave attempt to rescue a drowning lad near Old Swan Wharf. ‘The Wife's Evidence’ (1864, reissued 1876), a story of considerable melodramatic power, gained him an introduction to the magazines, and he wrote ‘David Chantrey’ (1865) for ‘Temple Bar,’ and for ‘Tinsley's Magazine’ ‘The Three Watches’ (1865), and ‘The Love that Wills’ (1867), in which he remanipulates material already used in ‘Old Times.’

His father's death in 1868 impelled Wills to undertake the support of his mother. He reverted to portraiture as his best means of earning money, took a studio at 15 The Avenue, Fulham Road, and worked very successfully in pastel drawings, mainly of children. He exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery, and was soon asking twenty guineas for a small picture finished in three or four sittings; and for a time there was no lack of fashionable sitters. Incurably unconventional, Wills, in response to a command to visit Osborne to draw the royal grandchildren, pleaded a prior engagement. The Princess Louise was interested in Wills's methods and amused by his Bohemian ways, but other patrons were repelled by the filth of his studio, which was haunted by stray cats, by monkeys and other unclean animals, and also by numerous parasites and loafers, attracted by the painter's easy-going habit of inviting visitors to stay, and keeping his spare change in a tobacco jar on the chimney-piece. Absent-mindedness, inherited, it is said, from his father, who once boiled his watch in mistake for an egg, grew upon Wills to an extent which prejudiced his career. He became oblivious of social engagements, asked people with the utmost cordiality to meet him at dinner and then could not be found to receive them, forgot or travestied the names of people who entertained him, and prided himself in being as dispassionate as Dr. Johnson on the subject of clean linen. In his later years he did most of his composition in bed.

Meanwhile Wills was turning his attention to writing for the stage. A first dramatic attempt, an adaptation from the German of Van Holtei, entitled ‘A Man and his Shadow’ (1865), was followed by the pathetic ‘Man o' Airlie,’ which was put on at the Princess's in July 1867, with Mr. Hermann Vezin in the title-part. Though the receipts were small, the play rarely failed to move its audience, and the author was encouraged to write two other plays, suggested and produced by Mr. Vezin: ‘Hinko, or the Headsman's Daughter’ (founded upon Ludwig Storch's historical novel), produced at the Queen's Theatre in September 1871; and ‘Broken Spells,’ written in conjunction with Westland Marston, and produced at the Court in April 1872. A short time before this date Wills was introduced by Vezin to the Batemans, and after the appearance of ‘Hinko’ he was retained by Colonel Bateman as ‘dramatist to the Lyceum’ at a yearly salary of 300l. Upon this endowment he produced in turn ‘Medea in Corinth’ (July 1872), ‘Charles I’ (28 Sept. 1872), and ‘Eugene Aram’ (April 1873). The first two of these plays contain Wills's best work. ‘Charles I,’ though inferior to its predecessor in form, caught the taste of the public, and enabled Mr. (Sir) Henry Irving to confirm the reputation which he had made for himself in the ‘Bells.’ The portraiture of Charles was in harmony with Van Dyck, and the suggestion of calm and dignified suffering that disdained to resent or protest is decidedly effective. Like Scott, Wills was a staunch cavalier, and he was as little concerned with historical accuracy as Dumas.

In his next historical play, ‘Marie Stuart’ (Princess's, February 1874), he caricatured John Knox with the same gusto with which he had defamed Cromwell. He was now in great demand as a verse playwright, and produced in quick succession ‘Sappho,’ given at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, in 1875; ‘Buckingham’ (Olympic, November 1875); ‘Jane Shore’ (Princess's, September 1876); and ‘England in the Days of Charles II’ (Drury Lane, September 1877). His second great success was with ‘Olivia’ (based upon Goldsmith's ‘Vicar of Wakefield’), of which the best that can be said is that it has rarely been surpassed as an adaptation of a novel. It was produced at the Court Theatre in March 1873 under the management of John Hare, with William Terriss [q. v.] as Squire Thornhill and Miss Ellen Terry as Livy; both players were seen in their original parts when the piece was successfully revived at the Lyceum in 1885.

The dramatist now produced with great rapidity a quantity of very inferior work. ‘Nell Gwynne,’ given at the Royalty in May 1878; ‘Vanderdecken,’ based upon the legend of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ (Lyceum, June 1878); ‘Ellen,’ afterwards called ‘Brag’ (Haymarket, April 1879); ‘Bolivar’ (Theatre Royal, Dublin, November 1879); ‘Ninon’ (Adelphi, February 1880); ‘Forced from Home’ (Duke's Theatre, February 1880); ‘Iolanthe’ (Lyceum, May 1880); ‘William and Susan’ (St. James's, October 1880); ‘Juana’ (Court, May 1881); ‘Sedgmoor’ (Sadler's Wells, August 1881); and ‘Jane Eyre’ (Globe, December 1882). In 1882 Henry Herman, Mr. Wilson Barrett's manager, provided a ‘plot’ on which Wills was coaxed into basing the play ‘Claudian’ (successfully produced at the Princess's in December 1883), a strange compound of tinsel and hollow columns, in which the old legend of the Wandering Jew is turned to melodramatic purpose. ‘Gringoire,’ given at the Prince's Theatre in June 1885, was followed in December by Wills's version of ‘Faust’ for the Lyceum. In this, as in ‘Claudian,’ he appeared merely as the text writer to a series of scenes and situations; his sub-archaic verbiage was not devoid of romantic resonance and was scrupulously cut into blank-verse lengths. Like qualities are conspicuous in his ‘Melchior,’ a blank-verse poem in thirty-two cantos, dedicated to Robert Browning and published in 1885. The long-drawn descriptions are often mere pinchbeck, but Wills had some of the faculty of an Irishman as a balladist, clearly shown in such songs as ‘I'll sing thee songs of Araby’ and ‘The Ballad of Graf Bröm.’

In the intervals of dramatic work Wills spent much time at Étretat and a few weeks occasionally at Paris, where he rented a studio. His real interest was still in oil-painting; his oil-painting of Ophelia is now in the foyer at the Lyceum. His plays were a by-product, in which he took little interest after he had furnished the manuscript. He seldom attended rehearsals, and his recommendations, even when feasible, were generally unheeded by the actors; he was never present at the première of one of his own plays.

On 3 April 1887 Wills's mother died, and her loss removed one of the few incentives he had to exert himself. He moved his ‘studio’ to Walham Green, was henceforth little seen by his friends at the Garrick Club or elsewhere, and wrote little. His health began to break, and at the close of 1891 he was by his own request removed to Guy's Hospital, where he died on 13 Dec. 1891. Many of the leading actors and playwrights of the day were present at his interment in Brompton cemetery. His last piece, ‘A Royal Divorce,’ was being played at the Olympic at the time of his death. A previous play, on the subject of ‘Don Quixote,’ was produced at the Lyceum with very moderate success in May 1895. ‘Charles I’ and his adaptation of the first part of ‘Faust’ are the only plays by Wills which were issued in printed form.

Wills was a born writer of dramatic scenes, but his gifts were neutralised to a large extent by his inability to concentrate and by the essential lack of firm taste and self-critical power. He is ably summed up in the acute judgment of M. Filon: ‘His Bohemian life, his impassioned character, his hasty methods of production, gave him in the distance the look of genius. But it was a misleading look .... his pieces are founded upon conceptions which crumble away upon analysis, and the versification is too poor to veil or redeem the weakness of the dramatic idea.’

[‘W. G. Wills, Dramatist and Painter,’ a well-written biography by the dramatist's brother, Freeman Wills, appeared in 1898, with a good portrait and facsimile autograph. See also Archer's English Dramatists of To-day, 1888, pp. 352–80; Archer's About the Theatre, 1886, pp. 240 sq.; Filon's English Stage, 1897; Fitzgerald's Henry Irving, 1893, chaps. xiv. xv.; O'Donoghue's Poets of Ireland, p. 261; An Evening in Bohemia (Temple Bar, June 1896); Celebrities of the Century; Times, 15 Dec. 1891; The Theatre, 1 Feb. 1892 (with portrait); Era, 19 Dec. 1891.]

T. S.