The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VIII. Nineteenth-Century Drama

§ 14. T. W. Robertson

During Byron’s career, the drama became affected by an influence which proved to be more important than the positive achievement of the writer who exercised it, Thomas William Robertson. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the drama had become all but wholly stagey. Broad farce, theatrical comedy and machine-made melodrama, written in doggerel verse or cumbrous and showy prose, were produced in enormous quantities; but playwrights had not yet learned how to make use of the freedom and the comparative security conferred upon them by the act of 1843. Most dramatists were still, practically, in the position of writers retained by this or that theatre, to compose whatever the manager might demand of them; and the tyranny of the actor was still paramount. Twenty years separated the passing of the act from the first distinguishable effect of its provisions, which is to be found in the plays of Robertson. Robertson began his work as dramatic author much as did all the men of his time. He adapted plays and knocked off trifles of many kinds. A play called David Garrick, which he made out of a novel of his own composition, founded upon Melesville’s three-act comedy, Sullivan, brought him into notice in 1864; but David Garrick belongs wholly to the drama of the first half of the century. Robertson’s proper achievement begins with Society (1865), which, after being rejected by many managers, at last found a home at the Prince of Wales’s theatre. In Society, he made a distinct attempt to introduce naturalism into the drama. To a modern reader, the tone of the play does not seem very natural, unless it be contrasted with the purely theatrical plays that preceded it; but it bears evidence that the author observed life about him, and endeavoured to reproduce it. The result is a commonplace of nineteenth-century drama—a picture of tender and sentimental youth in a setting of worldliness and cynicism. The plot is bald and crude; and these qualities, though they have no merit in themselves, at least distinguish the play from others, which depended entirely upon the spinning of intrigue. But the dialogue is natural—or, if unduly smart, as in Robertson’s favourite device of antiphonal, or echoing, speeches, it is not tainted with the display familiar in the contemporary drama. The characters behave, on the surface, like people of their day; the atmosphere which the author endeavours to create is the atmosphere of the life going on outside the walls of the theatre. Though, to modern readers, the psychology of Society and other plays by Robertson may seem childish, his presentation of manners and his reliance upon nature rather than upon plot or violence were signs of the emancipation of the drama from a long tyranny. Thanks, largely, to the manner in which the play was presented by young actors fully in sympathy with the author’s naturalistic aims, Society achieved a success which encouraged Robertson to go further along the same path. Ours was produced in 1866; Caste in 1867; Play in 1868; School in 1869; and M.P. in 1870. Both Ours and Caste show an advance on Society in Robertson’s peculiar province of manners, though his plots remain crude and his characterisation elementary. School which was partly founded upon the Aschenbrodel of Benedix, is a very pretty idyll, lacking the quality of ease which is to be found in Robertson’s best work. Play is a feeble piece of work, and M.P. was written when the author was practically dying.

Robertson’s direct influence was not so strong as it might have been, because, soon after his death, another and an opposed influence cut clean across it in the taste for the plays of Sardou. The French literature which Robertson enjoyed was that of Alfred de Musset and George Sand: the drama of Sardou had reduced romanticism, for others, to a mechanical trick, and the English public fell once more a victim to the wholly unnatural “Well-made play.” This was a return to the drama of the first half of the century; with the only difference that Sardou was an accomplished craftsman, whose work was all but proof against bungling adaptation, whereas preceding adaptations from French or German and the few original English plays were almost all the work of bunglers. It needed a stronger influence than that of Robertson’s delicate and native little pieces to arouse in England the demand for dramatic truth and good sense. Meanwhile, however, the work of Robertson had its effect upon certain playwrights of his time, upon Byron, for instance, and upon James Albery, a successful dramatist, none of whose pieces have been printed. In comedy and domestic drama alike, Byron showed himself lacking in originality, in taste and in dignity. His humour, though not coarse, is mean; his plots are at once complicated and puerile; and his characterisation is purely theatrical. Nevertheless, he deserves mention among dramatists of the latter half of the century because of an undeniable cleverness, and a shrewd ingenuity in the management of familiar materials, which distinguish such pieces as Cyril’s Success (1868), Our Boys (1875) and Uncle Dick’s Darling (1869); and because, also, of certain flashes of homely verisimilitude which are due to the influence of Robertson. That influence having failed to produce any marked effect, there was no other yet at work. The “artistic revival” of the eighteen-seventies found expression rather in the mounting of plays and in stage-decoration than in the quality of the drama produced; and it was not until the influence of Ibsen, however reviled by its opponents and misunderstood by its very champions, had percolated into the theatre that the English drama made any noticeable effort to burst the chains of outworn tradition and a constricted view of the province of dramatic art.