Back last February, I went over to 59E59 to see Primary Stages’ New York preem of Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked!, a performance piece about the fantastic adventures in the South Seas of Louis de Rougemont. De Rougemont was in reality Henri Louis Glin (1847-1921), and his “adventures” were indeed “fantastic” . . . because they never actually happened. De Rougemont was unmasked as a fraud and in 1899, Glin toured music halls in South Africa billed as “The greatest liar on earth.” A 1945 biography of Glin is also called The Greatest Liar on Earth.
In 2004, the York Theatre Company premièred Souvenir, a play by Stephen Temperley about Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer ever. It seems to me that with a performance based on the life of the world’s greatest liar and a play about the world’s worst singer having been produced, we’re now more than ready for a play about the worst actor ever on the English-speaking stage: Robert “Romeo” Coates. If any of you knows the “classic” acting text, Michael Green’s immortal The Art of Coarse Acting, which first appeared in the ‘60s and made a comeback in the ‘80s, you will have some idea of Coates’s stage style. Except that Coates didn’t leave his execrable performance style in the theater: he lived as outrageously as he acted.
Michael Green describes a coarse actor as "one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. One who performs . . . amid lethal props," and goes on: "The Coarse Actor's aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act Two so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production." If that doesn’t sound like “Romeo” Coates, I’ll eat my hat! See what you think.
There are plenty of first-hand accounts of Coates’s appearances on the English stage as he became a kind of succès de ridicule. It seems that everyone went to see his over-the-top performances to laugh at him and jeer--though Coates doesn’t seem to have seen that he was the object of derision. The man truly thought he was the greatest artist to tread the boards of England.
Amateur actors, or “gentlemen players,” were part of a grand tradition in England and its colonies for centuries. In August 1865, a journal called Once A Week did a two-part series entitled “Notes on Amateur Actors,” beginning its history with Oliver Cromwell, who did a turn on the stage possibly as early as 1616 when he was at Cambridge or even earlier. In the second part of the history, Dutton Cook, the author, observed: “Hitherto [gentlemen players] had met with consideration, even generosity, from their audiences: but now they were to become ridiculous in the eyes of the public--now one of their number was to be followed throughout his performance by shouts of the most tumultuous derision.” Cook was about to relate the tale of the man who called himself the “Amateur of Fashion,” “Romeo” Coates.
Robert Coates (1772-1848) was born in the West Indies, the seventh child of a wealthy Antigua sugar planter, Alexander Coates, and his wife, Dorothy. Alexander Coates, born in 1734 in one of the British colonies of North America, had 20,000 acres of land and a huge fortune. (Once, when King George III approached Alexander Coates for a £5,000 loan to help protect Antigua from Spanish and French raiders, Coates casually sent the royal envoy off with £10,000.) The Coateses weren’t happy in everything, however: eight of their children died in infancy or early childhood; only Robert survived to adulthood. It’s probably only natural that Alexander and Dorothy would dote on their only surviving son, and when Robert turned eight, his father escorted him to England to attend school among the sons of British aristocrats and upper classes for the education expected of a young man of station and means. Young Robert returned to Antigua at the end of his schooling, presumably to take his place beside his father as heir to the Coates plantation and fortune. Disinclined, however, to take up such an occupation after the exciting years in England, Robert informed his father that he wanted to take a commission in the guards regiment commanded by the Duke of York. But Alexander Coates didn’t relish the idea of his only remaining child going off to fight in Europe, which was then in a period of military turmoil, so he sent Robert off on what was known then as “The Grand Tour,” a circuit of Britain, Europe, and, in Robert’s case, the United States.
Young Coates returned to Antigua a few years later only to find his experiences abroad had made him feel the provinciality of his homeland more intensely and he looked around for amusement and entertainment. The first theater in Antigua had opened in 1788 and, like most of the European colonies in the New World, the island had its approximation of European cultural outlets, including an orchestra and theatrical troupe, composed mostly of the local residents augmented by some of the soldiers in the British garrison on the island. Occasionally there was also the touring professional from Europe or the United States. Coates gravitated to the stage troupe which performed the classical plays the islanders loved, especially the bloodier and more violent of Shakespeare’s tragedies such as King Lear, Macbeth, and, most particularly, Romeo and Juliet. He was especially partial to the role of Romeo. The island audiences liked their theater “rare and bloody” more than “well done,” but they and the amateur actors enjoyed the crude staging and rough acting. Coates said he didn’t participate, however, until he made a momentous speech some years after his return.
In 1805, Antiguans decided to celebrate the British victory at Trafalgar and memorialize the death of Admiral Lord Nelson (21 October). Nelson had called at the island with his fleet on 4 June on his way to the Battle of Cape Finesterre (22 July) and the islanders had assembled a deputation to greet him; Alexander Coates, as the island’s leading resident, was part of the delegation, accompanied by his son, Robert. The younger Coates was much impressed with Nelson’s demeanor and often mentioned this encounter later. When the Antiguans mounted a festival to commemorate the momentous events, it included a dramatic presentation. Robert Coates delivered two speeches on the occasion, one a patriotic paean and the second, a celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar and a lament for Nelson’s death. Coates’s orations were greeted with effusive applause and the would-be performer was infected with the bug of public appreciation and acclaim. Unhappily, Coates’s love for the theater would be unrequited.
Alexander Coates died in 1807 at 73 and Robert inherited the estate, which brought him an annual income of £40,000, an immense fortune at the turn of the 19th century. (I don’t know how much £40,000 in 1807 comes to in dollars in 2009, but it has to be a helluva lot since £40,000 even today is a considerable income!) He immediately returned to England, settling first in Bath some time late in 1808. He took up residence in stylish Gay Street but appeared daily in the coffee room of the York House for breakfast and lunch and quickly became a figure of curiosity and interest. First of all, he was dark-skinned, a stark contrast in a society where women still used arsenic to make their skin pale. (There were always rumors, given his origins, that he was partly of African heritage, but there is no real evidence to support this. Still, considering the historical behavior of slave-owners in the Americas, it’s not out of the question.) Though his figure was good, Coates’s face was lined with wrinkles, perhaps from his life in the sun of the West Indies, and at 37 years old he looked 50. He also seems to have worn a mustache when he first arrived, though he apparently shaved it off, perhaps at the behest of a lady, before he began to perform on the stage. He went out in daytime attired in furs, irrespective of weather or season, always carrying a thick walking stick with a huge, diamond-studded knob on top. In the evening, he went about in a uniform composed of a pale blue overcoat festooned with braids, tasseled Hessian boots, a high-collared shirt adorned with a brightly-colored bandana, and a large cocked hat. The entire costume was encrusted with diamonds: diamond shirt buttons, diamond knee buckles on his breeches, diamond-studded buckles on his boots, and his ubiquitous diamond-headed cane. Coates sparkled when he moved and seemed to be surrounded by “a halo of rainbow-changing colours like those of the Antiguan moonlight.” In fact, this partiality for diamonds provided him the alternative nickname "Diamond" Coates.
He was driven around town in a huge, heavily gilded, custom-built carriage shaped like a scallop shell. His outlandish appearance, even before he took to the stage, made Coates the object of great interest and renown. Everyone knew of him, but no one knew who he was or where his vast fortune came from. Coates was also sought after for social occasions, as Max Beerbohm, the British caricaturist and wit of the late 19th century, wrote:
His attendance was solicited for all the most fashionable routs, and at assemblies he sat always in the shade of some titled turban. In fact, Mr. Coates was a great success. There was an air of most romantic mystery that endeared his presence to all the damsels fluttering fans in the Pump Room. It set them vying for his conduct through the mazes of the Quadrille or of the Triumph, and blushing at the sound of his name.
By many accounts, Coates was also quite a storyteller himself. A journal editor who met the Antiguan early in his time in Britain and who called on him at his home related that Coates recounted feats of courage he “pretended to be engaged,” such as the time
that a French fleet once appeared off the island, in the West Indies, on which his estates were situated, and that the boats were putting off with the troops to effect a landing, when he put himself at the head of the planters, and all the force they could muster, and, rushing to the shore, drew his sword, and flourished it in the air in defiance of the invaders.
He could have been the subject of one of the novels then in fashion--until, of course, he began his stage career.
Memoirist Pryse Gordon happened to be in residence at the York House when Coates was in the habit of dining there. He described the phenomenon that brought the Amateur of Fashion to his attention:
He shortly attracted my notice by rehearsing passages from Shakespeare during his morning meal, with a tone and gesture extremely striking both to the eye and the ear; and, though we were strangers to each other, I could not help complimenting him on the beauty of his recitations, although he did not always stick to his author's text. On one occasion I took the liberty of correcting a passage from Romeo and Juliet. “Aye,” said he, “that is the reading, I know, for I have the whole play by heart; but I think I have improved upon it.”
Discovering that the fascinating stranger was particularly devoted to the role of Romeo and even kept a costume for the part, which Coates explained he played often in Antigua, Gordon pressed his new acquaintance to perform the play in Bath. “I am ready and willing to play Romeo to a Bath audience,” declared Coates, “if the manager will get up the play and give me a good Juliet." And he added, “[M]y costume is superb and adorned with diamonds, but I have not the advantage of knowing the manager, Dimond.” Gordon reports that Coates was quite amused at his “excellent” pun on the name of the manager of the Theatre Royal, William Wyatt Dimond, whom Gordon explained he knew well and offered either to arrange the performance with Dimond on Coates’s behalf or to write his new friend an introduction. Finishing his breakfast, Coates went off to meet Dimond.
Coates scheduled his British début in Bath on 9 February 1809 and Dimond distributed a handbill announcing that for one night only the Theater Royal would present “ROMEO, BY AN AMATEUR OF FASHION.” The theater sold out as everyone in Bath who had been noticing this odd stranger in their midst for three months came to see the event. In addition, word had leaked out that the rehearsals were more comic than tragic and that Coates’s oral interpretations were, well, unique. In his first performance as Romeo in England, Coates appeared in a costume of his own design, described by the Welsh dandy and memoirist Captain Rees Howell Gronow, a spectator on that night:
[H]e came forward with a hideous grin, and made what he considered his bow--which consisted in thrusting his head forward and bobbing it up and down several times, his body remaining perfectly upright and stiff, like a toy mandarin with moveable head.
His dress was outré in the extreme: whether Spanish, Italian, or English, no one could say; it was like nothing ever worn. In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, surmounted by an enormously thick cravat, and a wig à la Charles the Second, capped by an opera hat, he presented one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage.
To top it off, the hat was festooned with ostrich feathers and the whole costume was, indeed, encrusted with diamonds from head to toe. The audience roared with laughter at this absurdly inappropriate presence as Coates literally snuck onto the scene, Romeo’s first clandestine visit to Juliet’s house, as if in imitation of a burglar, with his face concealed from view. But that wasn’t the end of it. Coates’s costume was so tightly fitted that his arms and legs bulged out in what sounds like a live representation of Popeye. So tightly wrapped, Coates was able to move only stiffly and he jerked across the stage like a faulty robot. What drove the audience out of their stunned state into riotous laughter, however, was the bursting of a seam in the seat of Coates’s trousers “and the sudden extrusion through the red rent of a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag, which was visible whenever he turned round.” At first, spectators thought this was a deliberate effect, a nose-thumbing at conventional mores, but then they realized how oblivious Coates was and the crowd burst into uncontrolled hilarity. Through the first act, the audience wasn’t sure the performance wasn’t an intentional spoof of Shakespeare, as Coates read every line wrong and moved about the stage in such a ludicrous manner, even standing still awkwardly. According to Beerbohm, the Amateur “cut little capers at odd moments.” Eventually, however, the spectators realized that this was no joke and the jeers, catcalls, and shouts of “Off! Off!” began and the rowdies in the balcony began throwing orange peels and apple cores. The balcony scene was stopped by laughter from the house when Coates paused during Juliet’s passionate speech and took out a snuff box. After the actor took a pinch, one wag in the audience shouted out, "I say, Romeo, give us a pinch," and Coates strode over to the boxes and offered his snuff to the gentlemen, then to the ladies. The actor acknowledged the uproar from the house with a nod and a grin and returned to Juliet’s balcony. But the rest of the scene, with Coates’s absurd gestures, was performed as if in dumb-show because the spectators’ roars of laughter drowned out the actors’ voices.
Finally, in the last scenes, some of Coates’s odder conceptions of Shakespearean acting were displayed. First, to retrieve Juliet’s body from her tomb, Coates pried it open with a crowbar. Then, when Romeo is supposed to carry Juliet’s corpse away in sorrow and grief, Coates “dragged the unfortunate Juliet from the tomb, much in the same manner as a washerwoman thrusts into her cart the bag of foul linen” and threw her aside. Before Romeo takes the poison and prepares to die--according to Shakespeare, that is; our Amateur of Fashion . . . well, let’s let Capt. Gronow, who was there, describe Romeo’s death scene:
Out came a dirty silk handkerchief from his pocket, with which he carefully swept the ground; then his opera hat was carefully placed for a pillow, and down he laid himself.
The audience, as might be imagined, roared with laughter at this sight. Coates, nonplussed, challenged them, “Ah, you may laugh, but I do not intend to soil my nice new velvet dress upon these dirty boards,” and returned to his business. Ready now to take the apothecary’s potion, Romeo delivers a soliloquy--but Coates, for unknown reasons, decided to walk downstage and deliver the entire speech in a whisper to one of the boxes as the rest of the house strained to hear a single word. Coates’s actions, however, were plainly visible to one and all: he “died” for minutes, “gasping and grimacing over and over again as he lay writhing on the floor, groaning his way through every stage [of] agony imaginable.” As you might guess, the audience broke into howls of laughter. Gronow provided more first-hand details:
After various tossings about he seemed reconciled to the position; but the house vociferously bawled out, "Die again, Romeo!" and, obedient to the command, he rose up, and went through the ceremony again. Scarcely had he lain quietly down, when the call was again heard, and the well-pleased amateur was evidently prepared to enact a third death; but Juliet now rose up from her tomb, and gracefully put an end to this ludicrous scene by advancing to the front of the stage and aptly applying a quotation from Shakspeare: "Dying is such sweet sorrow, That he will die again until to-morrow."
Well, the house broke out into arguments about whether this was a comic travesty or the buffoonery of a talentless and oblivious fool. Manager Dimond, fearing for the outcome, dropped the curtain abruptly and the audience sat stunned for minutes. Then they broke into uproarious applause! By all accounts, Coates, now known universally as “Romeo” Coates, was more than pleased with his British début and his reception. It’s a wonder how this rank amateur of no observable talent could get onto the stages of England, but if he couldn’t persuade a theater manager to book him--as his fame spread, the Amateur of Fashion’s presence on a bill would guarrantee an SRO audience--Coates simply bribed him. The audiences’ response was often so raucous and unpredictable, that the managers frequently had the police on hand in case the spectators got out of control. The audience habitually responded with angry taunts and jeers--and plenty of laughter. Through it all, Coates blundered ahead, ignoring the ridicule shouted from the auditoriums, and, by all accounts, enjoyed his notoriety immensely. If Coates thought the spectators were becoming too rowdy, he spoke directly to them in the same tone. Nonetheless, he repeated the performance over the next few years--Brighton in 1810, Cheltenham in 1811. Of the Brighton performance, presented, apparently, to a select few friends, the local newspaper said: "[H]is performance . . . astonished the aquatics and submarines of the Sussex coast."
In Cheltenham, however, when Romeo is supposed to exit after one scene, Coates remained on stage, crawling around on all fours. “Come off, come off,” hissed the prompter to no reply. After a time, Coates responded that he had lost a diamond knee-buckle and would leave the stage when he had found it. The audience was delighted, apparently in the hope that something like that would happen again.
It was also at about this time, 1811, that Coates moved to London, taking a residence in the Strand. A rich bachelor, fond as he was of displaying his wealth and attire, Coates drove all over town from the immediate vicinity of his residence to the center of the city where he stopped to do business at the Bank of England. His shell-shaped carriage, known as a curricle (a light, two-wheeled open carriage, drawn by two horses abreast), became so well-known in London that it provided Coates with yet another familiar nickname: “Curricle” Coates. Coates’s biographers gave a detailed description of the vehicle:
Its shape was that of a scallop shell; the outside was painted a beautiful rich lake colour, and bore its owner's heraldic device--a cock, life-size, with outspread wings, and over this the motto, "While I live, I'll crow." The step to enter the vehicle was also in the form of a cock. The interior was richly lined and upholstered, and the whole mounted upon light springs with a pair of high wheels picked out in well-chosen colours. The vehicle was drawn by two white horses of faultless figure and action, and which must have been matched and acquired at great cost. Their trappings were of the latest fashion and ornamented with the crowing cock in silver. The horses were driven in pair, and the splinter bar was surmounted by a carved brass rod; on top of this stood a plated cock, crowing.
Such a carriage, which Coates called his “triumphal car,” could not help but attract curiosity and attention from anyone who saw it anywhere in London. As “Curricle” Coates drove by, onlookers would shout, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Long before the Amateur of Fashion presented himself on a London stage, he became even more famous than the reports from Bath had made him, much, it can be assumed, to his gratification. He became the subject of frequent newspaper gossip.
Coates’s notoriety also made him the object of appeals for loans and charity from hangers-on--the 19th-century equivalent of his posse. And just as his father had been a generous and benevolent benefactor in Antigua, Robert Coates lent his money freely, seldom expecting repayment. The more pitiful the supplicant, the more generous was Coates, who never looked for any social gain from his generosity. For all his obliviousness to criticism of his acting and mode of dress, Coates was a guileless and honest kind man. So when he was approached for help by a poor widow, he immediately lit on the best solution: a benefit performance. He needed to warm up first, however, so, at the request of friends in Richmond, outside the city, Coates arranged a one-night stand at the Theatre Royal there. On 4 September 1811, Coates reprised his performance as Romeo to a packed house. The gentry came to applaud their friend and benefactor and rowdies--the period counterpart of soccer hoodlums--came prepared with pockets full of ripe fruit.
For the most part, this performance went along smoothly--or at least without significant interruption. Until, that is, Romeo’s death scene. When Coates took the poison, several young men, probably drunk, broke out into such paroxysms of laughter that a doctor who was in the audience, concerned for their well-being, ordered them removed from the theater to be treated for “excessive laughter.” Coates was so annoyed by this display that at the end of the performance, he came down to the proscenium and recited “Bucks, have at ye all,” a poem reportedly used occasionally by David Garrick. Coates’s recitation included lines written for him to use in just such circumstances, delivered while pointing at the boxes from which the disturbance had come: “Ye Bucks of the boxes there, who roar and reel, / Too drunk to listen and too proud to feel.” The house broke into applause as the spectators lept to their feet. As untalented as Coates might have been, he had one attribute rare in the theater of his day: total ingenuousness. (But then, we must remember, this also describes Bottom the Weaver of the Rude Mechanicals . . . and we know what a travesty he and his cohorts made of a classical play!)
(There’s much more to tell, but because this post grew so large as I was preparing it, I’ve split it into three parts. I’ll be posting Part 2 in a few days and Part 3 a few days after that. Can you bear to wait?)
[A blog doesn’t seem the right place for footnotes and such-like source documentation. When I put together these kinds of historical posts--the ones on Everybody Comes to Rick’s/Casablanca and The Group of Hissed Authors are in this same vein--I do have the citations for all the research. If anyone feels the need to challenge me on any of this, go ahead and maybe I’ll clue you in. I ain’t no Doris Kearns Goodwin!]