Thomas William Robertson

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Engraving of Tom Robertson

Thomas William Robertson (9 January 1829 – 3 February 1871), usually known professionally as T. W. Robertson, was an English dramatist and innovative stage director best known for a series of realistic or naturalistic plays produced in London in the 1860s that broke new ground and inspired playwrights such as W.S. Gilbert and George Bernard Shaw.

Life and career

Born in Newark-upon-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England, Robertson was the oldest son of William Robertson, a provincial actor and manager. His family was famous for producing actors. The actress Margaret (Madge) Robertson was his youngest sister. As a child, Robertson acted in juvenile parts in Rob Roy, Pizarro, The Stranger, "French" parts and eccentric comedy on the Lincoln Circuit and at the Marylebone in London. He also visited Paris as the stage manager and interpreter for an English company.[1] Never a successful actor himself, he wrote numerous plays, mostly comedies, many of which achieved popularity. Robertson died at the age of 42 and is buried, as is his wife Elizabeth, at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.[2]


As a dramatist, Robertson began with adaptations of Dickens novels and wrote music hall songs for comedians.[1] He produced a farcical comedy, A Night's Adventure at London's Olympic Theatre in 1851, but this did not catch on, and he remained for several more years in the provinces, acting and continuing with play writing and writing for newspapers. In 1860, he moved to London and worked as an editor, also writing a novel, later dramatised under the title Shadow Tree Shaft. He also wrote a farce entitled A Cantab, which was played at the Royal Strand Theatre in 1861. This brought him a reputation among a Bohemian clique of writers, the Fun magazine gang (including W. S. Gilbert, Tom Hood, Clement Scott, and F. C. Burnand), but so little profit that he thought of abandoning the profession to become a tobacconist. Finally, in 1864, he had his first notable playwriting success, David Garrick, produced at the Haymarket Theatre with Edward Sothern in the title role. Robertson also wrote the libretto to the 1865 comic opera Constance, with music by Frederic Clay.

Robertson found fame in 1865 with the production of his comedy Society, under the management of Squire Bancroft and his wife Marie (née Wilton) at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in the West End. The play includes a scene that fictionalized the Fun gang, who frequented the Arundel Club, the Savage Club, and especially Evans's café, where they had a table in competition with the Punch 'Round table'.[3] This play became regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue.[4]

All of Robertson's popular plays, except for David Garrick, were produced by the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales's Theatre. Other Robertson successes included the domestic dramas Ours (1866), Caste (1867), Play (1868), School (1869), and M.P. (1870). He also wrote Dreams for the Gaiety Theatre, London, which opened that new theatre in 1868 together with Gilbert's Robert the Devil. His last play, War, was produced at the St. James's Theatre in 1871, the year in which he died. Robertson's plays are still occasionally seen. For example, Ours was given a professional production in July 2007 at the Finborough Theatre, London.[5]

Innovations in realism and directing

Robertson's plays became known as 'problem plays', because they dealt seriously and sensitively with issues of the day. In the 1850s and 1860s, Robertson's plays, both in style and substance, were considered revolutionary. Caste was about marriage across the class barrier and explored prejudices towards social climbing.[6][7] These plays were notable for their "cup and saucer" realism, treating contemporary British subjects in settings that were realistic, unlike the oversize acting in Victorian melodramas that were popular at the time.[8] For example, whereas previously a designer would put as many chairs into a dining room scene as there were actors who needed to sit down, Robertson would place on stage as many chairs as would realistically be found in that dining room, even if some were never actually used. Or, if someone came in from a blizzard, snow would blow in from the doorway. In Ours, a pudding was made on stage, and this caused a major furore – people were not used to seeing such realistic tasks in a stage setting. Also, the characters spoke in normal language and dealt with ordinary situations rather than declaiming their lines.[6]

In addition, the importance of everyday incidents, the revealing of character through apparent "small talk", and the idea that what is not said in the dialogue is as important as what is said are all Robertson trademarks. Some critics wrote that there was nothing in Robertson's plays but commonplace life represented without a trace of wit and sparkle, but many admired the new style of play and new style of acting. George Bernard Shaw called Robertson's play Caste "epoch making" and referred to Robertson's innovations as a "theatrical revolution". It is now disputed whether Robertson really originated some of his innovations, but Society and its successors were viewed at the time as something new and, in a quiet way, revolutionary.

The Bancrofts, impressed with Robertson's dedication and skill, gave Robertson unusual artistic freedom to control his scripts and direct (or as it was then called, "stage manage") his plays.[8] Before Robertson and James Robinson Planché, star actors generally had control of scripts, and theatre managers had control of casting in the theatre. Robertson insisted on retaining control over his scripts and casting and required that his actors follow his directions - a novel concept at that time. Robertson directed his own plays and aimed to get rid of the unreal stylisation and bombast of the old melodramas. He did not act in his plays but instead took on the role of a professional director to control the action on stage.[8] W. S. Gilbert attended Robertson's rehearsals to learn from the older playwright's use of "stagecraft" and personally directed his own plays and operas based on what he had learned. Gilbert later recalled:

Why, he invented stage management. It was an unknown art before his time. Formerly, in a conversation scene for instance, you simply brought down two or three chairs, and people sat down and talked, and when the conversation was ended the chairs were replaced. Robertson showed how to give life and variety and nature to the scene, by breaking it up with all sorts of little incidents and delicate by-play. I have been at many of his rehearsals and learnt a great deal from them.[9]

These pioneers opened the way for later proponents of realism in drama, such as Shaw, and for modern methods of play production. Robertson was also a leader in requiring a fee from his managers for every performance of his plays, thus pioneering the modern royalty system.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Stedman, Jane W. "General Utility: Victorian Author-Actors from Knowles to Pinero", Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, October 1972, pp. 289-301, The Johns Hopkins University Press
  2. Savin, Maynard (1950). Thomas William Robertson: his plays and stagecraft. Brown University. p. 44.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Information about the bohemian round tables
  4. Pemberton, T. Edgar. The English Drama from its Beginning to the Present DaySociety and Caste, D. C. Heath & Co., Publishers Boston USA and London (1905)
  5. Information about the 2007 production of Ours at the Finborough Theatre
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Cup and Saucer drama," 19th Century Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, accessed 22 October 2011
  7. Culme, John. Information about Caste, especially the 1910 revival. Footlight Notes, No. 315, 27 September 2003
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Vorder Bruegge, Andrew "W. S. Gilbert: Antiquarian Authenticity and Artistic Autocracy" (Associate Professor, Department Chair, Department of Theatre and Dance, Winthrop University). Professor Vorder Bruegge presented this paper at the Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States annual conference in October 2002, accessed March 26, 2008
  9. Archer, William. Real Conversations, 1904, quoted in Baily, p. 60


  • Baily, Leslie (1956). The Gilbert and Sullivan Book. London: Cassell.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bancroft, Squire and Marie. The Bancrofts: Recollections of Sixty Years (Dutton and Co.: London, 1909)
  • Durbach, Errol. "Remembering Tom Robertson (1829-1871)", Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3 (October 1972), pp. 284–88.
  • Pemberton, T. Edgar. The Life and Writings of T. W. Robertson. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893.
  • Principal Dramatic Works of Robertson; with Memoir by his son. London, 1889
  • Savin, Maynard. Thomas William Robertson: His Plays and Stagecraft. Providence: Brown UP, 1950.
  • Tydeman, William, (ed.) Plays by Tom Robertson 1982 ISBN 0-521-23386-0
  • Post-mortem profile in The Illustrated London News, dated 25 February 1871.

External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource