R. H. Wyndham (1813–1894)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

Theatrical Fires

Wyndham could also claim to have had four Scottish theatres burned under him, a record for a theatre manager in Scotland. Fire was a constant hazard for nineteenth century theatre managers. The Adelphi, where R. H. Wyndham made his Scottish debut in 1844 in The Hunchback scorched in 1853; the second Edinburgh Theatre Royal also burnt but was rebuilt in 1853, only to burn again in 1875.; The Queen's Theatre and Opera House, Edinburgh, which he ran from 1857, also burnt in 1865.

Six theatres burnt in Edinburgh between 1853 and 1879; eleven theatres burnt in Glasgow between 1780 and 1870. The fire at the Theatre Royal , Edinburgh, killed six people backstage, started when lighting gas battens.  Wyndham was in London at the time and had sub-leased the theatre to his brother-in-law, Edward Saker.

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Howard and Wyndham

During 1869, Wyndham senior took leave of theatrical affairs and leased the theatre to J.B. Howard for a summer season. This younger actor, who came from western Ireland, had become a star of the company, principally through playing the title role in revivals of Rob Roy and Guy Mannering (Sir Walter Scott, 1816).

He inspired one critic, writing under the name Thalia: Mr.Howard exhibited a superiority of acting seldom witnessed on our boards. He gave an importance and effect to Rob Roy Macgregor to which we were strangers.  .  .  .  His triumph over the audience was complete and electrified the house with all the delicious luxury of woe and crowned the conquest of the actor with drama's chaplet.

Text in Preparation

...His play particular ranges of parts, such as walking gentleman, leading lady, low comedian or Harlequin.

The “stock” was the standard range of plays that Wyndham had in repertory, to be played whenever required, often at short notice and with little rehearsal. The main “business” of the play was traditionally stereotyped and when an outside “star” actor of the play was engaged, he looked after himself, only giving a few instructions to the company on arrival in Edinburgh.

All the plays and the casting of them were recorded in the “Stock Book”, which was a vital tool for forward planning.  Many future luminaries served their apprenticeship in this system under Wyndham: the actress and pioneering manager, Lady Bancroft, née Marie Wilton (1839-1921), the international star John Laurence Toole (1830-1906), the actor-manager Edward Compton (1852-1918) and playwright Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934).

[Text based on The Companion 4 Sepetember 1852, Edinburgh and Howard and Wyndham Actor-Managers in Edinburgh, 1851-94]

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The “stock” wa
s the standard range of plays that
Wyndham had in repertory, to be play
ed whenever required, often at short
notice and with little rehearsal. The main “business” of the play was
traditionally stereotyped and when an
outside “star” actor of the play was
engaged, he looked after himself, on
ly giving a few instructions to the
company on arrival in Edinburgh. All th
e plays and the casting of them were
recorded in the “Stock Book”, which
was a vital tool for forward planning.
Many future luminaries served their
apprenticeship in this system under
Wyndham: the actress and pioneering manager, Lady Bancroft,
néeThe short period of Lloyd’s manage
ment at The Theatre Royal quickly
became over-extended financially, unable
to cope with the wage costs of over
one hundred members of the stock company. Wyndham took over the
management, reducing the payroll to thir
ty-five actors, until he was forced to
sell the theatre in 1859 to the government
, for construction of the General Post
Office.
9
He transferred operations to th
e Queen's Theatre and Opera House,
one of the many earlier theatres on the
site of the present Festival Theatre.
His seasons included many revivals of the National Drama, the dramatised
Waverley novels. Wyndham always lived
in a flat above his theatres, and it
was at the Adelphi in 1853, four days be
fore the fire, that his son, (Frederick)
F. W. P. Wyndham (1853-1930), was born.
During 1869, Wyndham senior took leave
of theatrical affairs and leased the
theatre to J.B. Howard for a summer
season. This younger actor, who came
from western Ireland, had become a star
of the company, principally through
playing the title role in revivals of
Rob Roy
and
Guy Mannering
(Sir Walter
Scott, 1816).
10
He inspired one critic, wr
iting under the name Thalia:
Mr.Howard exhibited a superiority of acting
seldom witnessed on our boards. He gave
an importance and effect to Rob Roy Macg
regor to which we were strangers....His
4
play particular ranges of parts, such
as walking gentleman, leading lady, low
comedian or Harlequin. The “stock” wa
s the standard range of plays that
Wyndham had in repertory, to be play
ed whenever required, often at short
notice and with little rehearsal. The main “business” of the play was
traditionally stereotyped and when an
outside “star” actor of the play was
engaged, he looked after himself, on
ly giving a few instructions to the
company on arrival in Edinburgh. All th
e plays and the casting of them were
recorded in the “Stock Book”, which
was a vital tool for forward planning.
Many future luminaries served their
apprenticeship in this system under
Wyndham: the actress and pioneering manager, Lady Bancroft,
née
Marie
Wilton (1839-1921), the international st
ar John Laurence Toole (1830-1906), the
actor-manager Edward Compton (1852-1918)
and playwright Sir Arthur Wing
Pinero (1855-1934).
14
The company used the same actors for a year or more of
different productions. It was a self-s
ufficient ensemble, capable of producing
old and new plays with the same nucleus of actors, augmented in many
weeks by a visiting star. Wyndham wa
s often the leading man, and travelled
as talent scout to recruit new acto
rs. Toole wrote of his debut with
Wyndham’s company:
I was with Dillon in Dublin where Mr. Robert Wyndham, of the Edinburgh Theatre,
saw me and offered me an engagement at 3s. a week, which I accepted. On the 9th of
July 1853, I made my first appearance on the Edinburgh stage as ‘Hector Timid’ in the
play
The Dead Shot
. I had travelled from Dublin to
Edinburgh in the afternoon, very
tired and weary. I put up at Milne’s Hotel in
Leigh Street, and after a rehearsal went to
bed, fairly worn out. I left instructions wi
th the landlady to call me and bring me a cup
of tea at a certain hour, which would give
me plenty of time to get to the Adelphi
Theatre; but she forgot her instructions
, and I was still sleeping soundly when a
messenger arrived from the theatre to inquir
e for me. The curtain was up. I was in a
terrible fright. I sprang out of
bed, dressed, rushed to the theatre, and was just in time
to scramble upon the stage and take up
my cue from Wyndham! In entering, I
stumbled over a mat and fell on the manager, and this so worried and upset me that
throughout the whole piece I was nervous an
d wretched. Next day, however, I was
agreeably surprised to find the critics unanimous in their praise of my acting, specially
pointing out how ‘appropriate to the char
acter of “Hector Timid” was the uneasy
manner and faltering gait of the young comedi
an.’ Everything, you see, had happened
for the best, even the carelessness of my landlady, my accident, my nervousness, all my
disasters and the forgiveness of Robert Wyndham.
15
A characteristic of Howard and Wyndha
m’s management in this period was
decentralisation. Their Theatre Royal
was run as an independent entity, for
under the stock company system with it
s own company of actors, albeit with
occasional visiting stars, th
ere was little inducement for the actor-managers to
establish business relationships with
other theatres beyond Edinburgh.
Having its own, permanent, resident
producing company meant that they had
nothing to gain from alliances with other theatres or other producing
companies and, in turn, these had noth
ing to offer Howard and Wyndham. It
was entirely self-sufficient. They had their own actors and were under their
own management, both in administration and production. They owned their
5
sets, properties and wardrobe. They di
d not even have to look for plays to
produce, for besides the standard classi
cal Scottish and English dramas that
were in the repertoire, they could,
in the absence of adequate copyright
legislation, readily obtain, at low cost, pirated versions of newer successes.
As “manager”, R. H. Wyndham’s work
encompassed a great deal more than
his late-twentieth centur
y successors. He was pr
imarily an actor, whose
duties included play selection, casting,
directing (at least to the extent that
directing existed in those days), design
ing, publicity, building management
and looking after finances -
all functions which, especially with the advent of
subsidy, have today become speciali
sed and individualised. His supremacy
was won by playing the great Shakespe
arean roles, but unlike the actor-
managers in London who chose mainly
plays that fitted their personality,
Wyndham was not jealous of his standi
ng, and engaged stars from London
who were often other actor-managers.
Nonetheless, he was so popular and
able a performer that he was able to di
ctate the policy of the theatre, whereas
his counterpart today has often reli
nquished the business and promotion
functions to administrators:
We all know that the effect of the actor-
manager system at the Theatre Royal is to
impose on every author who wishes to have
his work produced in first-rate style, the
condition that there shall be a good part fo
r Messrs. Howard or Wyndham in it. This is
not in the least due to the vanity and jealousy
of our actor-managers: it is due to their
popularity. The strongest fascination at a th
eatre is the fascination of the actor or
actress, not of the author. More people go
the Theatre Royal to s
ee Mr. Howard or Mr.
Wyndham than to see the plays. If Mr. Wyndham were to produce a tragedy, or Mr.
Howard a comedy, in which they were cast
as walking gentlemen, the public would
stay away; and the author would have reason to curse the self-denial of the actor-
managers.
16
Wyndham and Howard, operating as acto
r-managers without subsidy or the
regular private backing of “angels”,
ran a theatre sustained by a tension
between “art” and “commerce”, and these extremes were to continue through
their successors’ work, up to the closur
e of the company a century later. This
is illustrated in a variety of ways,
from the small dramas of the mid-
nineteenth century compared with the spectacular melodramas of the same
period, to the subsidised theatre’s pr
ejudice against the popular theatre of
writers such as No
ë
l Coward and Terence Rattigan, whom Howard and
Wyndham presented in revivals up to th
e 1970s. Managers have always been
forced into a stance where they must
negotiate this tension in order to
survive. Since even relatively successful regional theatres today are only able
to earn approximately 50 per cent of their expenses at the box office, new
funding strategies are constantly being te
sted in order to ensure that “art” has
a “commercial” market to appeal to
the government funding bodies. The
uneasy landscape between art and
commerce characterised much of the
repertoire in Edinburgh, as suggested
by their five hours’ bills which mixed
serious drama with sketches, addresses,
musical interludes and excerpts from
other favourite plays.
6
In addition to the tension between high art and low art, there was also a
tension between what theatre was st
aged in Scotland and what was
happening in London. In the ei
ghteenth century, John Home’s
Douglas
(1756)
had entered the London repertoire, whilst in the nineteenth century, the
National Drama was occasionally exported
to Covent Garden and Drury Lane
at the two Theatres Royal, but after
these stage adaptations of Sir Walter
Scott’s novels, examples of Scottish wr
itten work transferred to London were
few and far between. Edinburgh be
came, under Wyndham, mainly an
extended English stock company circui
t, built into the big business of a
touring theatre chain by his successors.
Historically, theatre in Britain has
been perceived largely as a history of th
e London stage, despite the fact that
there was a vast amount of activity
elsewhere. The tension of London
domination versus the provincial su
pplicant, or West End versus the
“regions” as they are known today, is
illustrated by Howard and Wyndham’s
use of visiting stars from London, en
gaged at their Theatre Royal stock
company in the fashion begun in the 1790s. However, the company was one
of the few that did not have to depend on stars exclusively, for the managers
were local stars in their own right.
The rivalry between London and Scotland,
and between London and the English provinces, continued between stock
companies and touring companies and this
tension led eventually to the move
of Howard and Wyndham’s headquarters
from Edinburgh to London. The
founding actor-managers had settled for kingship in Scotland, whereas their
business manager successors made Lond
on the summit of their ambition.
Provincial theatres were used by the pr
ofession as the natural places to obtain
the training and the experience need
ed to work in London. Wyndham’s
contribution to the training of actors
before the advent of drama schools was
acknowledged by Irving:
In a country where there is no Academy, the only professors of acting are the actors,
and the only true school of acting is a well-conducted playhouse. For the first years of
my early stage life, I was engaged by Mr.W
yndham at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh,
an actor who took pleasure in imparting to
the younger members of the company, as
well as circumstances permitted, much of
his own knowledge and the rudiments of his
art. I then spent some years in another th
eatre, under the management of a proprietor
not an actor. During the whole of these late
r years I missed grievously the kind advice
of my old actor-manager, Mr.Wyndham, and I had to grope my way as well as I could
without his counsel and friendship. Such
was my own experience of the system in
Edinburgh and I owe him a lasting debt of gr
atitude. I make no attempt to argue the
question as to the right and proper people to
become the managers of theatres. This is
a matter which the public decide for themselves. I speak from an experience of over
thirty years, and of this country only; an
d I can say, without hesitation, that the
managements which have benefited and advanc
ed our calling and added vastly to the
intellectual recreation of the people have been those of actors.
17
John Laurence Toole, foremost low comedian of the nineteenth century’s last
decades, also acknowledged
his training in Edinburgh:

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