Biographical materials for Thomas William Robertson’s life necessarily begin with the “Memoir” to The Principal Dramatic Works of Thomas William Robertson by his son, T. W. Robertson, and with the two Bancroft memoirs of 1889 and 1909. Additional material is to be found in Dame Madge Kendal, by Herself (1933), by Robertson’s sister, a famous actress.
Robertson’s life was bound up in the theater from beginning to end. For several generations, his family had been actors and managers in the old theater circuits in the north of England. As a young child, he appeared in bit parts before being sent off, under the care of his actress-poet great-aunt, Fanny Maria Robertson, to attend such undistinguished schools as Henry Young’s Spalding Academy in 1836 and Moore’s School at Whittlesea in 1841. He seems to have been a normal, fun-loving child, inclined to be frail of health.
At the age of fourteen or fifteen, Robertson rejoined the family acting company based in Lincoln. There he gained practical experience in all aspects of the theater business except playwriting itself. During all of this activity, Robertson found time to continue studying under the supervision of his father, who was a cultured literary man. The regimen included mastering French, a skill that later would prove useful in translating and adapting French plays for the English stage, a process that contributed much to Robertson’s understanding of the playwright’s business.
In 1848, the family business was in a bad way, and Robertson went to London to seek his fortune. As things went badly, Robertson involved himself in an escapade that haunted him the rest of his life. He simply dropped out of sight for six weeks, to the distress of his family, spending the time miserably in Utrecht, the Netherlands, as a sort of assistant teacher. The mutual antipathy he felt for a fellow assistant teacher eventually surfaced in the character of Krux in the play School.
In 1851, Robertson met H. J. Byron, who became a lifelong friend. Together they produced a dramatic fiasco that attracted a single spectator who ultimately demanded his money back. The pair also made an abortive attempt to enlist in the Horse Guards. Meanwhile, Robertson freelanced...
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