Page 6, 2nd October 1970

2nd October 1970
Page 6
Page 6, 2nd October 1970 — Knights and dames of the theatre
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Knights and dames of the theatre

by Sir FELIX AYLMER

THE ACTOR-MANAGERS by Frances Donaldson (Weidcnfeld & Nicolson 45s.) The six actor-managers who sit to Frances Donaldson for their attractive and entertaining portraits were all knighted. At a later date Lady Bancroft would probably have been a Dame, but Lady Donaldson does something to redress her sex's dependent status at that period by making it clear that the first of the actor managers was Miss Marie Wilton. who captivated Charles Dickens as a child actress, continued a public favourite as a soubrette in burlesque, and when managers were reluctant to let her advance into "straight" comedy. accepted her brother-inlaw's suggestion and backing.

and had made a success of management at the age of twenty-seven, a quite unprecedented achievement.

Only then did she marry Squire Bancroft, having already won the gratitude and future support of Tom Robertson the dramatist. The three of them established that greater realism of presentation which ultimately replaced the earlier declamatory melodramatic style in popular favour. Though their first examples were pooh-poohed as "Cup & Saucer Comedy". they had not long to wait before the outmoded fashion became stigmatised as "ham".

As often happens. just before the demise of the old tradition an actor of genius appeared to raise it to its zenith. Irving, after a hard apprenticeship in the old school, had no desire to change. But his own transcendent power only served to sustain the style for his lifetime.

Tree, on whom Irving's mantle descended. fascinated the public by a unique personality. His special genius was for very original characterisation in which humour was predominant. In herioc parts he usually failed.

Forbes Robertson. never stage-struck, but planning to be a painter, adopted the stage to make a living. With great physical advantages to hack a very considerable talent success came easily. and management followed by what had then become a natural consequence. He was his generation's favourite Hamlet.

Gerald du Maurier, the last on the list, a very brilliant and popular actor, held the throne with the aid of a financially shrewd partner, but with difficulty. and at some sacrifice of his personal ambition. Lady Donaldson had a ring-side seat at his last losing encounter with fortune. He had the had luck to fall asleep while her father was reading his play, The Last of Mrs, Cheyney. "Freddie" Lonsdale thereupon took the piece to Gladys Cooper. and Sir Gerald appeared in it not as manager. but "in support".

Lady Donaldson has earned much gratitude for refreshing memories of these masters of the theatre who quit the scene just too soon to leave those records of their personalities and work that would today be possible.




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