"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 10, 2014

Robert Coates: The Greatest of Bad Actors



It’s common to see an actor become a celebrity despite having little talent. It is a cherished rarity to see an actor become a celebrity precisely because he had absolutely no talent whatsoever.

Well, you’re seeing it now. Meet Robert Coates.

Coates was best known in his day as “Romeo” (because of his lifelong inordinate passion for the stage,) or “The Amateur of Fashion” (thanks to a wardrobe that would have given Liberace the vapors.)  He was born in Antigua in 1772. He lived in obscurity until 1810 (some sources say 1809,) when the theaters of England were first graced by his distinctive presence.

His two obsessions were Shakespeare and designing his own costumes. When he played Romeo, for example, he proudly strutted out in a white-feathered hat, blue spangled cloak, red pantaloons, and dozens of diamonds. (On one occasion, he designed his pantaloons a size too small, causing them to split onstage. It was undoubtedly the high point of his performance.) Another outfit was described as “a species of silk so woven as to give it the appearance of chased silver; from his shoulders hung a mantle of pink silk, edged with bullion fringe; around his neck was a kind of gorget, richly set with jewels; and at his side was a handsome gold-hilted sword.” Coates was so delighted with his abilities as a clothes designer that he habitually wore these outfits in public, as well. He also designed his own carriage, in the shape of a kettledrum and driven by white horses. It was decorated with a crowing cock and the motto, “While I live, I’ll crow.”

This multi-talented man was a playwright, as well. Before appearing in a Shakespearean play, he liked to “improve upon it” with various innovations of his own. (As Romeo, he “improved upon” the ending by prying open Juliet’s tomb with a crowbar.) When he forgot his lines—a common occurrence—he would simply improvise dialogue and stage action, leaving his hapless co-stars to follow along as best they could. If the results of a scene particularly pleased him, he would just keep repeating that same scene all evening.

Once, as Romeo, he delivered the line, “Oh, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste,” but, instead of leaving the stage, he started to make a minute survey of the set. When the prompter hissed, “Come off! Come off!” Coates replied quite audibly that “he would so soon as he found his buckle.” During one performance as Lothario in “The Fair Penitent,” (one of his favorite roles,) he was “considerably annoyed” during his climactic tomb scene by repeated audience shouts of “Why don’t you die?” (Perhaps this was the performance witnessed by Lord Byron, who wrote in 1811 of having seen “a Mr. Coates” perform Lothario “in a damned and damnable manner.”)

Contemporary caricature of Coates as Lothario


He probably was the one working actor in history whose bouquets and applause were hysterical laughter, brutal heckling, noisy ridicule, and, on occasion, lynch mobs.

Coates was independently wealthy—he was heir to successful sugar plantations in his native land—leaving him free to follow his dreams, which he did with a determination and panache that can only be admired. When theater managers tried to boycott him, Coates bribed them into submission. When his fellow actors, fearing the wrath of his audiences, refused to perform with him, he mollified them by providing armed guards. When he failed to get cast in leading roles, he simply subsidized his own productions. When he thought the audience heckling was getting out of hand, he would abandon his script to give his detractors as good as he was getting. When onlookers threw fruit and vegetables at him, he ducked.

It is a pleasure to record that his dreams, in his own distinctive way, did eventually come true. Coates, who dubbed himself “the celebrated philanthropic amateur,” hung on long enough to go from mere loser to a famous and, to those with a sense of humor, beloved figure. He even gave command performances in front of royalty.

Coates’ later years, however, were not as fortunate. His private fortune diminished, and along with it his opportunities for work. He eventually became almost forgotten, although he never gave up his beloved profession altogether. His end was peculiarly appropriate. In 1848, he was struck by a carriage while leaving a London theater, and died soon afterwards.

[A postscript: The following are several rather delightful eyewitness accounts of Coates in his heyday. As we today are sadly deprived of being able to view the Master at work, these descriptions must stand as the next best thing:]

"Richmond Theatre, Sept. 1811.—The people of Richmond, and its vicinity for several miles round, including many families of the highest rank and fashion, and great numbers even from London, crowded to Richmond Theatre on Wednesday night, the 4th of September, 1811, to see that celebrated Amateur, Mr. Coates, perform the part of Romeo. While the audience impatiently awaited the rising of the curtain, Mr. Coates's performance was the subject of general and audible conversation, from which it was easy to anticipate that the pathetic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet would, for this time, be one of the most laughable comedies with which merry Old England was ever entertained.

At length the hero appeared; clad in a most splendid, and really very beautiful, dress, consisting of yellow and silver tissue, with a large sash of pink and silver, put on in the manner of a Scotch plaid, and a Spanish hat, with a rich plume of ostrich feathers; to these were added a profusion of rich jewelry, in all the various shapes of collars, buckles, buttons, &c. to the amount, it was said, of several thousand pounds. We are not disposed to be severe on Mr. Coates's performance, which afforded singular amusement; but it is necessary, in order to give a just idea of it, to say, that for some time it was not so much below mediocrity, that it appeared likely to pass off in that flat routine which is neither forcible enough to affect the feeling in the pathetic, nor absurd enough to amuse by provoking the risible faculties.

At length a sudden start, or rather frisk and jump, in one of the love speeches, called forth an universal burst, and from that moment the laugh was not discontinued, nor the audience composed for one instant to seriousness for the remainder of the night; and whether Romeo addressed Juliet, or Juliet pronounced the praise of Romeo, laughter convulsed the house, and made it sometimes impossible for the love-sick maid herself (though represented in a very superior manner by a young lady of the name of Watson) to forbear from a smile and a titter, where a sob and a tear would be appropriate, if the tragedy had not been so superlatively comedized, or rather farcified by her lover.

‘Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’

was harped upon in a very particular manner; but when she spoke of ‘cutting him up into little stars,’ &c. the effect produced was beyond all description. Everyone in the house burst by one common and irresistible impulse into a peal of laughter, which shook their frames, the benches, and the house with them: it would be tiresome to notice every successive instance in which this recurred. It was most forcible at the time when the hero forgot his text, and trying back to recover the cue, as the prompter calls it, after audibly expressing his doubt and hesitation, by the contradictory monosyllables, no, yes, actually begun over again the very speech that he had just finished. Again, when he said, ‘Is it a dream, or am I mad?’ the laugh exceeded even its former excess. At length the dying scene came, and was performed amidst unceasing roars of laughter, in which several extraordinary sounds mingled, such as crowing and chuckling like a cock, crying cock-a-doodle-do, &c. till the curtain fell, and here the play closed, the audience vociferously and repeatedly, though ineffectually, demanding, by cries of encore, encore, &c. that the death scene should be re-acted, as it had been on Mr. Coates's former performance of Romeo at Cheltenham. Mr. Coates did, however, appear again, and recited, ‘Bucks have at you all!’ in a style somewhat less laughable than his Romeo. There were some alterations to suit his own particular case; and an allusion to some of the Cheltenham critics, whom he supposed to have mixed among the Richmond audience, had a very good effect. The audience was at last put into good humor, and they sincerely applauded and called for a repetition of the address. But Mr. Coates not appearing, while the encore was insisted on for a quarter of an hour, the manager, Mr. Beverley, came before the curtain, dressed for the character of the Jew, in the afterpiece of the Jew and Doctor; and having obtained silence, a long dialogue ensued: he stated, that Mr. Coates had actually left the house, therefore could not appear to repeat the performance that night, but promised that the same should be repeated another night, which was well received."

The following described a performance of “The Fair Penitent,” in 1813:

“The house was completely crammed in a few minutes after the doors were opened, and the performance instantly commenced—for, on this occasion matters were reversed, as compared with other theatres, the most prominent performers being before the curtain.—The boxes, pit, and galleries were filled with actors, mutually exerting themselves for the amusement of each other; the galleries were particularly active in punning on the name of the 'Amateur of Fashion,' and continued to call for him as ‘Long Coates, Driving Coates, Flannel Coates, Petty Coates, Turn Coates!’ &c. until they were interrupted by a loud crowing of cocks, which was very melodious, and gave a lively idea of a feeding loft, on the eve of a grand Welch main. At length the histrionic hero appeared, clad in silver and satin, and blazing in jewels, towering in majesty and feathers far above his worthy compeers, and looking as though he bore the whole empire of Thespis on his Atlantean shoulders. On his entree he was greeted, or, as Shakespeare has it, bruited, in a manner which we will not attempt to describe, and for similar reasons we will forbear to criticize his acting—we are unable to do so, we have no standard of comparison; for we most solemnly assure Mr. Coates, that though we have seen all the great actors of the present age, we have never seen one that can even for an instant stand in comparison with him.

The piece went off very rapidly, and the fourth act did not occupy more than two minutes, including the death of Lothario, which delighted the assembly (for an obvious reason we cannot call it audience) so much, that a unanimous encore was the consequence. The performer, however, was dead to this mark of favor, and would not comply, and a noise ensued, which we can only characterize by describing what it surpassed— Billingsgate on Saint James's day, when delicious oysters first appear, is quiet—a bull frog concert, heard in a South American Savannah, soft music—and an O. P. row absolutely tame, compared with this wild hubbub and strange uproar. The fifth act of the play was over in about three minutes; and though the interval between the play and farce was rather long, the spectators continued almost as gay and merry as at any time during the tragedy. Between the acts of the farce, Mr. Coates again came forward, and after apologizing for appearing before the ladies without boots and spurs, spoke some lines about hobbies, which, from their extraordinary beauty and classical elegance, we suppose to be his own production. He was particularly happy in the harmony and quantity of his verse, as well as in grammatical precision. Our readers may take this couplet as a specimen of his rhyme—

‘Horses which are dull and stubborn,
Are as difficult as our wives to govern.’

Of Lord Wellington, Mr. Coates said,

‘Lord Wellington's hobby in these bloody wars,
Is breaches, ambuscades, and ugly scars;
In time of peace how chang'd his trade is,
His Lordship's hobby is then the ladies.’

His own hobby he described as

‘Acting for widows, driving on high cushions,
And playing for our brave allies—the Russians.’

He was loudly encored, and returned, but as appeared in the sequel, not to repeat his address, but merely to give a sage and interesting piece of advice to the ladies, in these words—

‘Since I've repeated my hobbies through,
Pray, ladies, don't let the fortune-hunters jockey you!’

Mr. Coates then retired amidst a most tumultuous uproar of approbation.

A review from the "Morning Post" of Coates' appearance in "Herod and Marianne," December 24, 1816:

After a slumber, tolerably profound, of some thirty or forty years,, the repose of the above amiable couple has been disturbed by our managers: but the revival is by no means complimentary to their taste. The chief attraction of the night was

"THE CELEBRATED AMATEUR OF FASHION."

At the end of the 2d Act, the curtain drew up, and discovered " Romeo," in all his glory--studded with jewels--leaning like Patience, on a monument, smiling at grief. Tricked out in the trappings and suits of woe, he advanced in a most solemn, measured, tragic stride.

" Thrice made his bow--cried Hem!--and then began." What the Monody on the death of Nelson was like, whether it was very like a whale, or very like a camel, or very like an ouzel--nobody could tell: for when that Mr. Coates--a wight

"--whose very sight would
Entitle him--Mirror of Knighthood ! "

began to open his mouth, the audience was, (I presume) in extacies; for they clapped and cried bravo! and roared silence! so loud, that nothing but silence could be heard for a long time...The skirt of his coat, or by whatever name you call it, was (accidentally on purpose) pushed under the waistband of his small-clothes: and at the words (or some such) of "nature cast away," the Amateur of Fashion suddenly laid hold of it, disengaged it with such a jerk, and cast it away so gracefully, and so pathetically, that the whole house was electrified. The Amateur retired. It was, however, too good a thing to be parted with so easily; and encore! encore! encore! sounded and resounded from boxes, pit and gallery. But the more they called, the more he would not come. The whole house thumped with sticks, hissed, groaned, kicked, bellowed "Romeo! Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?" " Cock-Cock-a doodle doo-Cock a doodle doo encore! encore!" The High Priest of the play, in pontificabilus, came forward, and was assailed with "No, no; off, off, off; encore, encore." In consequence of which he bowed and retired.

And, finally, a regrettably crabby view of our hero from the "Morning Chronicle" for February 25, 1813:
Last night Mr. Coates "in all his glory re-appeared," in the character of the "gallant gay Lothario" in Rowe's "Tragedy of the Fair Penitent."

We know not whether the town is more obliged to this gentleman for the mirth he occasions among the idle and thoughtless, or disobliged to him for the sorrow he creates among the sensible and reflecting: to witness the senseless tricks of a mountebank at Bartholomew fair; to see there a being of the same species with the noblest ornaments of our race, degrade his nature below the brute creation, is surely sufficiently humiliating to the vanity of man; but what must be the feelings of the considerate, when they see a creature calling himself an Amateur of Fashion, sink himself even below the standard of the most debased! The mountebank has besides, an excuse to which Mr. Coates cannot pretend: he may say with some justice "Il faut vivre," but if Mr. Coates were to employ this apology we should rely on the words of the acute Frenchman, "Monsieur je ne vois pas la nécessité. de cela."--In the latter instance there is an additional aggravation, for this successful candidate for contempt, is committing a crime little short of sacrilege upon the sanctity which belongs to the productions of one of our best poets--Amateur of Fashion! it is a profanation of language: What is a man of fashion? Certainly not one who because fortune, unluckily for the rest of mankind, has placed him a little above want, thinks it right to dress himself like Gahano's monkey, and to drive about the town, the laughing stock of all who view him. We have always imagined that a man of fashion is one whose ambition at least it is to excel in all useful and polite accomplishments; who, it is true, accommodates himself to the general customs of the country, but does not deviate into all the ridiculous extravagancies that fools or madmen can invent. Sir Philip Sidney was such a man of fashion; the admirable Crichton was such a man of fashion: is Mr. Coates such a man of fashion? Times have changed since Sir Philip Sidney was the pattern of perfection, and language may also have altered; modern acceptation may make those words, that in the reign of Elizabeth signified every thing that is excellent, in the reign of George the Third imply every thing that is contemptible. We speak not thus out of enmity, but out of charity to Mr. Coates, and no man above the level of an idiot can misunderstand us. If nothing else will produce an effect, we shall, to use the words of Randolph, employ

"The whip of steel, that with a lash
Can print the characters of shame so deep,
Even in the brazen forehead of proud folly,
That not eternity shall wear it out."
-Muse's Looking-Glass.

The performance of Mr. Coates was as usual absurd beyond conception. When he entered on the first act, in the same way that the Ghost in "Hamlet" makes his exit, with the crowing of the cock, from all parts of the Theatre. The actor's voice was scarcely audible at any time, and its sepulchral tone, and the antic gestures that seconded it, when it was heard, rendered his appearance more ludicrous than description can represent it--In the second act, in the altercation between Lothario and Horatio, the latter introduced the following lines, not in the original part:--

"Why drive you thus in state about the town,
With curricle and pair, the crest a cock."

The audience relished the joke exceedingly, but Mr. Coates started back several paces with indignation, and then advanced in apparent agitation to the front of the stage: he attempted to obtain a hearing, but in vain; he retired towards Horatio, and looked terrific, as if denouncing vengeance. Horatio next tried to make himself audible, and unsuccessful, withdrew: thus while the spectators were bursting with laughter, and Mr. Coates was swelling with rage, the two actors by turns made their exit and appearance. At length silence was obtained, and the Amateur spoke as follows:--"Ladies and Gentlemen, I was solicited to play for a Lady whom I was informed was an object deserving of my attention." Loud applauses succeeded, and Mr. Coates, in the interval, employed himself in selecting the most engaging attitudes. He proceeded, "I beg leave to state that there are several performers in this place who belong to our great theatres, and let me add, that one of them has taken most unwarrantable liberties with me."--This sentence was received with shouts and hisses, and Mr. Coates was busily engaged in brow-beating his enemies in the pit, and in running to one of the stage boxes, where some friends were stationed. Silence being again obtained he resumed, "You doubtless have read the play of "The Fair Penitent," and if not, you may do it to-morrow morning, but there you will find something about horses and merriment; but a performer has no right to hurt my feelings by inserting what is not in his part. Let my equipage be laughed at by those that chuse; but though my father blest me with a good fortune, he always taught me good manners. I am little skilled in boasting, but I must say that I feel myself a most useful character: for if my dress be extravagant, and my curricle and equipage expensive, let it be remembered it is this that supports the lower orders: does it not assist the taylor, the mercer, and the coach-maker? In these respects I set what I think is a laudable example, that cannot be too soon followed." Mr. Coates here ended, and laughter for some time incapacitated the audience from listening to Horatio, who stood piteously pleading in the front of the stage. At length he said, that he was not one of the public performers to whom Mr. Coates alluded, and that his sole object in appearing was charity. He had already assured Mr. Coates that he meant to give him no offence, and on his honour he now disclaimed any such intention. This apology was satisfactory to the company, and Mr. Coates, after consulting with his friends in the box, most generously condescended to shake hands with his antagonist. Thus terminated a dispute from which dangerous consequences might have resulted. Mr. Coates might have died never to die again.

The tragedy proceeded without much interruption until the scene where Lothario is killed by Altamont, when the audience behaved with unprecedented barbarity to the Amateur--for having already received three mortal wounds, they kept him in the agonies of death nearly ten minutes, without permitting him to terminate his existence. At length he died, and tears bedewed the cheeks of the whole company--tears of laughter. We should not omit to notice "a young lady" of about 60, who made her appearance as Calista, whose voice rivalled a jew's-harp, and whose person, like that of Mr. Coates, was a caricature upon human nature. Some persons asserted that it was Mrs. Coates, and, sure, such a pair were never seen.

After the play some time elapsed for the Hero of the Night to array himself for the purpose of speaking an address for the occasion, of his own composition. When he appeared, he seemed to give an intimation that he intends, on a future occasion, to play Hamlet, for his dress was such as usually belongs to that character. This production was of a piece with its author, and its repetition was loudly called for; but Mr. Coates doubtless thought that the treat would be too great, and therefore did not comply.

The house was filled to excess, and while the exquisite talents of Mrs. Jordan are wasted upon empty benches, the exquisite absurdity of Mr. Coates is found to attract crowds!--Really, John Bull is the most good-humoured, easily pleased fellow breathing.

You have to say this for Robert Coates: he always kept his audiences (if not the critics) entertained and happy.  How many modern celebrities can say the same?

2 comments:

  1. There is something pathetically endearing - or endearingly pathetic - about someone who is terrible at what he loves. Often, the person knows this and is unhappy about it; at least, Mr Coates was oblivious to his utter talentlessness, or simply didn't care, and therefore seemed quite content. And you're right: his audiences were happy. And he was happy. Perhaps then one of the most successful entertainers in history (as opposed to a successful actor...)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mr Robert Coates sounds like a really entertaining character. He should have gone into comedy. Thankfully for him he already had enough money to go by otherwise he might have been left wanting.
    most difficult actors to work with

    ReplyDelete

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