Elliston, she tells us has just succeeded to a considerable fortune on the death of an Uncle. I would not have it enough to take him from the Stage; she should quit her business, & live with him in London
Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 20th Feburary ,1807
This of us who may occasionally be keen to hear some gossip about out favourite actors and actresses can take hart: Jane Austen like to gossip about her faves too. As this tiny snippet of gossip referring to Robert Elliston, rather confirms. He was it appears one of her favourite actors.
And his rise to fame coincided with Jane Austen’s stay in Bath from 1801-6.
He was born on the 7 April 1774 in Orange Street, London, the only child of Robert Elliston , a watchmaker, and his wife. Sadly, his father was an alcoholic,and Elliston was cared for by two uncles, Dr William Elliston, master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Dr Thomas Martyn, professor of botany, of the same college. And it was form one of these uncles that in 1807 he inherited £17,000……but we are getting ahead of ourselves in his story….
Under his uncles supervision he was educated at St Paul’s School, London, where he took a special interest in oratory. It would appear that his uncles intended him for the church but spurning this role they had mapped out for him, he “ran away to the theatre” at Bath. Scandalous!
A this time as we have already noted, the Orchard Street theatre in Bath was second in importance in the English dramatic world only to the two London patent theatres- the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden. In conjunction with the theatre at Bristol the Bath company provided a very fashionable and knowledgeable audience with entertainment suitable for the most discerning of tastes.
Eliston made his first appearance at the Orchard Street Theatre in Bath in 1791. He stayed at the Bath theatre till 1804, performing many roles in plays with which Jane Austen was very familiar. Of particular note is the fact that he played the part of Frederick in Mrs Inchbald’s adaptation of Kotzebue’s Lover’s Vows at least ten times in that period.
In 1796 he eloped with and married Elizabeth Rundell, a Bath dance teacher. They had ten children before she died in 1821. Through her dancing academy she helped Elliston’s productions when he later became a theatre manager. Interestingly, she continued her occupation after her marriage despite Ellistons sucess as a leading actor. She first, from 1801, had premises in Trim Street and then from 1812 in Milsom Street. Hence Jane Austen’s rather interesting comment above…..
Elliston finally left Bath for London in 1804, as Richard Sheriden wanted him to appear at his Drury Lane theatre . Initially Elliston had refused a permanent postion in Sheridan’s company but gradually the lure of the London theatre and the riches it could command sucked him in. On 20 September 1804 Elliston began appearing as the leading actor at Drury Lane. He had played successfully in London during the summers of 1796 and 1797, mainly at the Haymarket Theatre, run by the playwright George Colman, but cannily waited until his reputation in Bath was secure before making a complete break with Bath and Bristol in order to move to London.
Although he was versatile, Elliston’s appearance was thought rather against him for the playing of tragedy, for his face was described as:
…the very Mirror of Comedy. His countenance was round and open, his features small, yet highly expressive; laughter lay cradled in his eye, and there was a muscular play of lip, so pregnant of meaning, as frequently to leave the words that followed but little to explain.
(See G. Raymond, Memoirs of Robert William Elliston,(1844)
He seems to have been best in the Charles Surface sort of role from Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal: rakish but generous and warm-hearted chaps, versions of which character were available by the score in the comedies of this era.
He was known as a great lover on stage, just as he was a notorious womanizer off stage……The theatrical critic Leigh Hunt has left us an interesting analysis of Elliston’s skill in this area, when Elliston played opposite Dorothy Jordan in 1805 in the facre Matrimony by James Kenney . They provided
‘altogether the most complete scene of amorous quarrel that I have witnessed’
(see Leigh Hunt Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres (1807)page 190.)
When Drury Lane was destroyed by fire in 1809, Elliston looked around for new worlds -or rather theatres– to conquer and hit upon theatre management. He became known as ‘the Great Lessee’ and ‘the Napoleon of the Theatre’ for his interest in acquiring new property. He also tried very hard to break the monopoly held by the two patent theatres on performing plays. In this aim he was not successful.
He began his theatrical property empire with the Royal Circus in St George’s Fields, which he transformed and managed for five years. At the same time he leased the Manchester Theatre Royal from 1809–10 then purchased Croydon in 1810 but it was seized by creditors in 1826. He leased Birmingham from 1813–18,
to which he added Worcester and Shrewsbury in 1815 to make up a midlands area theatrical circuit, where his company of players could perform.
He then purchased the Olympic Pavilion in London-also known as Astleys for it was built by none other than Phillip Astley- in 1813,and this may have been the site of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin’s reconciliation in Emma!
Elliston leased Lynn in Norfolk from 1817–18, Leicester, and Northampton both from 1818 and Leamington (where he also had a lending library and assembly rooms!!) from 1817, and Coventry in 1821.
When he became the manager of the newly built Drury Lane in 1819 Elliston was indeed “king of the theatre”, and was soon to play that role in his magnificent coronation spectacle of 1821. During his “reign” at Drury Lane, Elliston had many successes with spectacular melodramas, operas, and pantomimes but with not a single new ‘legitimate’ play of any significance ,even though he was at last the manager of a patent theatre which could legitimately perform plays. Theatrical extravaganzas, not drama, and novelty of every kind were what the public now demanded. Edmund Bertram would clearly not have approved ;-)
Following a severe stroke in August 1825, by which time the now sadly severely alcoholic Elliston was but a shadow of his former self, his place as manager was taken over by his eldest son, William Gore Elliston, who formed a successful partnership with his brother, Henry Twissleton Elliston. The results of his pressured lifestyle and alcoholism were making themselves felt earlier than this, however. Certainly in 1814, Jane Austen-that very acute observer- on seeing him perform in London had noted that something was taking a toll on his performance and his appearance:
We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short; and, excepting him and Miss Smith, and she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled and the play heavy. We were too much tired to stay for the whole of “Illusion” (“Nour-jahad”), which has three acts; there is a great deal of finery and dancing in it, but I think little merit. Elliston was “Nour-jahad,” but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him but for his voice.
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 5th March 1814)
Elliston returned to the stage, however, to create his last original role, “Falstaff” in The First Part of King Henry IV, in May 1826. As sometimes happens, he was brilliant in the final rehearsal but unable to reproduce that quality in public. Elliston finished his career as a theatrical manager of the Surrey theatre , where he also acted out his last appearances.His last appearance was as “Sheva” in Cumberland’s The Jew, one of his most popular characters, on 24 June 1831. Two weeks later, on 8 July 1831, Elliston died of an ‘apoplexy’,which was, presumably, a cerebral haemorrhage, and was buried at St John’s Church, Waterloo Road London’
Given his womanising reputation, it would seem that Jane Austen’s advice to his wife was, as ever, quite perceptive….