The front matter of The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson lists forty-seven plays, all but fourteen of them published. Of the total, The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson reproduces sixteen. Except for the plays David Garrick, a highly successful potboiler adapted from Mélesville’s Sullivan, and Dreams (retitled version of My Lady Clara), a somewhat less successful one, Thomas William Robertson’s reputation rests on the six plays produced at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre : Society, Ours, Caste, Play, School, and M.P. These plays form the body of a dramatic revolution whose reality is universally recognized but whose extent has not been finally set. Robertson teamed with sympathetic managers, Sir Squire and Marie Wilton Bancroft, to achieve a new sort of production. It featured ensemble acting, which emphasized the totality of the dramatic situation and eschewed the then dominant star system. This was combined with a realistic treatment of theme and staging within a cameo theater setting. Less clear than the fact of Robertson’s signal success is the extent to which he should be given credit for achieving a breakthrough from melodrama to realistic serious drama a decade and a half before Henrik Ibsen; also a matter of critical debate is his contribution to the Little Theater movement that began to sweep Europe and eventually the United States.
As early as 1875, an anonymous critic for the magazine Temple Bar gave Robertson credit for revitalizing British drama and exerting a continuing influence after his death. This critic asserted that Robertson’s success was in part a result of his novel treatment of social conflicts in a manner drawn from life; Robertson’s skills as a stage manager, the critic said, were also crucial to his success. This early evaluation of Robertson’s career anticipated the boundaries of much subsequent criticism.
George Bernard Shaw took two occasions to refer to Robertson’s work in passing. In the first, he used a recently revived production of Caste as a club with which to hammer Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (pr. 1893), observing that a comparison of Pinero’s characters, in the matter of realism, to those of Caste would be as absurd as a comparison of Caste’s realism with that of Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In a hardly less restrained mood, Shaw declared in another essay, “Mr. John Hare,” that young people seeing Caste for the first time in 1884 could form no clear idea of the extent of its impact on their fathers, who had spent a lifetime watching dramas whose staging was so far removed from natural representation that a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata might be considered “photographically realistic” in comparison.
Shaw’s most extensive consideration of Robertson’s achievement came in “Robertson Redivivus.” He described Caste as an epoch-making play, newly revived. While he conceded that the epoch and the play were both “very little,” he suggested that few critics encountered more than two plays of such importance in a lifetime. Shaw pointed out, as have most subsequent critics, that Robertson’s new, realistic characters were, in fact, the old stage types very thinly “humanized”: the stage swell, the Dickensian caricature of a rogue, the sentimental hero and heroine, and the conventional haughty mother. Still, Shaw noted, even the swell and the haughty mother were indeed humanized, compared with their counterparts on the stage in the 1860’s. He held that Robertson gave sympathetic qualities to characters previously treated as “beyond redemption.”
Less kind than Shaw, W. Wilding Jones wrote in “Robertson as a Dramatist,” published in 1897, that Robertson’s plays owed their success to the strength of their actors, to Robertson’s good sense in keeping the plays short enough not to try the audience’s patience, to bright dialogue and concise structure, and to the novelty of seeing a play of “home manufacture” on a stage dominated by French adaptations.
Cecil Ferard Armstrong’s “Thomas William Robertson,” published in 1913, was probably the first serious and extensive critical approach to Robertson’s life and plays. Armstrong, too, argued that Caste began two revolutions, but not the revolutions identified by his predecessors. The first he defined as the innovation of highly professional London companies, which, being sent on tour, doomed the old-fashioned provincial stock companies. The second he defined as the establishment of international dramatic copyright laws, triggered by a fuss over a pirated edition appearing before the New York production of Caste. Armstrong refused to acclaim Robertson as a writer who understood the society he undertook to reform, but in compensation, he declared that in the process of keeping “his garden [plays] very neat, and tidy, and pretty,” he “uprooted a host of noxious weeds.”
In contrast, during the centennial year of Robertson’s birth, 1929, Harrison...