Savin was unquestionably right in dubbing many of Thomas William Robertson’s plays “potboilers.” Robertson spent much of his life as a literary hack, turning a pound the best way he could, when he could. He continued to grind out inferior work even during the period of his greatest success, 1865 and after. Two late plays, produced in 1871 and 1883 respectively, are cases in point: Not at All Jealous (Court Theatre) and A Row in the House (Toole’s Theatre). The first is simply a running farce centered on jealousy and mistaken identity, puns and concealment. The other is equally mechanical, being a farce in which an uncle sorts out the confusion created among three couples by jealousy. In it, Robertson uses his famous double-dialogue technique but fails to achieve freshness.
Robertson was a playwright who knew his craft completely, who had luck in his friends and wives, who was fortunate enough to find managers who would give his ideas scope, and who adapted more than he innovated in preparing the English stage for its modern renaissance.
David Garrick is theatrically better than and shares many characteristics with Robertson’s best work. Savin observed that Robertson worked in this play as an adapter rather than as a mere translator and was encouraged by the play’s success to trust his own originality. The play is essentially a dramatization of an old chestnut: the man who pretends drunkenness to shock the prudish. To that business, however, Robertson attached a theme that became his trademark, the vulgar snobbery of the newly rich mercantile class, which allowed itself to sneer at “mere” actors, as well as a situation, the tender love between two sensitive persons, which also became a recurring feature of his plays. While the tradition of the well-made play is present in some force, that of the farce is not. In the end, the class conflict between the snobbery of the city and that of the theater is reconciled, and the reconciliation is confirmed by a marriage between two superior people.
The last of the better potboilers, and perhaps Robertson’s most underestimated drama, is Dreams, which was staged under the title My Lady Clara in Liverpool before coming to London as Dreams at the Gaiety Theatre on March 27, 1869. That Robertson thought highly of Dreams is suggested in a headnote of the published acting version, which indicated that it should be played as a comedy, not as a melodrama. The relative seriousness of two of its themes supports his view. The first and lesser theme turns on the difficulties a young man encounters in trying to establish himself as a composer of music in England, a difficulty parallel to that encountered by Robertson in establishing himself as a writer. The second is an extended examination of the merits and demerits of a social system based on caste. The conclusion, as usual, is that caste is a good thing that should be challenged only by superior merit. Although Savin dismissed the play as “a rusty excrescence scraped up from the bottom of the pot,” that estimation is extreme at best. A melodramatic interpretation, exaggerating the more sensational features of the play, would certainly be possible, and some such consideration must have led to Robertson’s caveat at the beginning of the script. It is also possible, however, that a troupe, playing as an ensemble and employing Robertson’s by then established understated method of acting, could achieve something delicate, if not entirely fragile.
Even Robertson’s best plays, four of which will be considered here, are far from perfect. In some ways, they could be said not to merit attention from modern readers who have available not only the superb dramas of the past but also those of the present, the best of which make even Ibsen’s work seem quaint, timid, and old-fashioned. Be this as it may, Robertson’s plays are still very readable. If this is so, the odds are that, in skillful hands, they are still good theater and even have some claim to treating serious themes seriously. That they can be treated thematically without much need for plot summary is another clue to their continuing value.
Society, Robertson’s first play in London’s Prince of Wales’s Theatre, followed a year after the success of David Garrick. The play examines the place of wealth in the marriages of the upper-middle classes, the repulsiveness of the newly moneyed social climber, and the plight of the impoverished gentry. The play was celebrated for the novelty of its low-key love scenes set in a realistically staged park (leaves actually fell), for its accurate portrayal of the lives of journalists, and for the “Owl’s Roost” scenes, set in a club modeled after the Savage Club, in which the journalists and other bohemians enjoy themselves.
In regard to dynastic marriage, an old aunt advises her niece to marry for money and thereby restore the honor of the family. She argues that sentiment is the province of servant girls who romance police officers, a pastime beneath a lady. In her view, a commonplace person with an uncommonplace purse is better than the reverse. Later, this theme is picked up in the “Owl’s Roost” when the rejected lover quotes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”: “Thou are mated to a clown.” Later in the play, the heroine rejects a marriage of convenience in a speech...
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