Now ready to face a London audience, Coates appeared at the Haymarket Theatre on 9 December 1811 in the role of Lothario in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent for the benefit performance. Coates was making his London stage début in a role he had not played in England before and which was commonly regarded as a difficult part. The theater had to turn thousands of would-be patrons away. Some rich ticket-seekers offered as much as £5, an enormous price for theater tickets, to stand backstage; they, too, were disappointed. Among those who attended were ambassadors, dukes, barons, earls, viscounts, and other members of the aristocracy, including friends of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV.
Among the Regent’s friends attending that night was Baron Ferdinand de Géramb who, for some reason, had become an ardent Coates supporter. (Baron de Géramb was himself a man with a peculiar history; some historians question both the place and date of his birth, and his claim of noble descent.) The crowd at the Haymarket seemed to take an instant dislike to the baron as soon as he appeared in his box and began hissing and screaming at him. This was matched in intensity by others who felt this treatment was undeserved by a distinguished foreign visitor and friend of the Regent. This cacophony continued as 6:30, the scheduled curtain time, came and went. After 7, Coates came on stage and made a special bow to Baron de Géramb, provoking the crowd to a cataclysm of whistles, applause, and shouts of “cock-a-doodle-doo!” Undaunted, Coates faced his audience, dressed again in an incredible outfit:
The habiliments of Mr. Coates were very rich, his dress being of 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' head-dress was composed of a Spanish hat surmounted by tall white plumes, while his feet were encased in shoes of the same material as his dress, and these were fastened with large diamond buckles.
As to his acting, Bell’s Weekly Messenger observed:
This Gentleman’s neck has the appearance of having been twisted, as he swings his head round with wonderful velocity, with great apparent ease. He frequently spun it round, like a harlequin in a Pantomime. His head, in fact, seemed accommodated with an excellent swivel, as it moved about first one way and then the other, like a monkey’s on the cowl of a chimney, in a windy day. His deportment altogether was inconceivably ludicrous.
Coates managed to get through the first four acts of The Fair Penitent despite the atmosphere in the house. By the end of the fourth act, however, the spectators who were intent on disrupting the performance grew so loud that the actors could no longer be heard. Coates had paused each time the uproar got too loud, but this tactic no longer worked and the Amateur of Fashion finally stepped forward and offered, “If it is the wish of the nobility and gentry present that the play shall go on, I will pay the price if those noisy people will go out.” There was a burst of applause and the house quieted for a moment, only to explode into deafening sound again. One review of the evening described Coates amusing himself during the interruption by standing center stage and twirling his sword, which, the journal said, “he did with wonderful dexterity,” to the amazement of the audience. The other actors on stage walked off and Coates, seeing he was alone on stage, “gave another speech, made a very fine bow, and left the stage, snapping his fingers at the audience” and the curtain fell at the end of Act Four. A few supporters waited briefly in the hope that the play would resume, but eventually, everyone, dignitaries, rowdies, and ordinary playgoers, left the theater as the lights were turned off.
It’s unknown whether Coates simply returned to his home alone to a solitary dinner or if, as some suppose, he was accompanied by his friend, the Baron de Géramb. In any case, the critics were especially cruel the next day. One description characterized the evening as “the most ludicrously extraordinary dramatic exhibition at the Haymarket Theatre, that was ever beheld on a London or any other stage . . . .” The same critic concluded: “It is, we might almost say, a lamentable instance of human imbecility, to see any person so far forget himself, as thus unnecessarily to expose himself to public ridicule.” But the papers attacked not only Coates’s performance, ignoring the charitable purpose of the appearance, but his features as well. Cartoonists made fun of his costume, of course, but critics also targeted his native country and there were doubts cast on his lineage, hinting that he was black and even suggesting that he was gay. Coates, who never before or after even acknowledged any criticism of his acting or behavior, felt compelled to respond. He wrote a long letter to the Morning Herald, the one paper all of fashionable London read. Published on 11 December, the letter declared in part:
In regard to the innumerable attacks that have been made upon my lineaments and person in the public prints, I have only to observe, that as I was fashioned by the Creator, independent of my will, I cannot be responsible for that result, which I could not control.
The last scene in The Fair Penitent is usually a crowd-pleaser, especially in Coates’s hands. A later observer describes what the audience at the Haymarket missed:
Who shall describe the grotesque agonies of the dark seducer, his plastered hair escaping from the comb that held it, and the dark crineous [sic: yellowish-brown] cordage that flapped upon his shoulders in the convulsions of his dying moments, and the cries of the people for medical aid to accomplish his eternal exit? Thus, when in his last throes his coronet fell, it was miraculous to see the defunct arise, and after he had spread a nice handkerchief on the stage, and there deposited his head-dress, free from all impurity, philosophically resume his dead condition; but it was not yet over, for the exigent audience, not content that when the men were dead, why there’s an end, insisted on a repetition of the awful scene, which the highly flattered corpse executed three separate times, to the gratification of the cruel and torment-loving audience.
In Coates’s second appearance as Lothario, this is perhaps what the audience saw. (I don’t actually know when the observer, probably a newspaper critic, saw the performance described above.) On 11 September 1812, Coates repeated his performance at the Theatre Royal, Richmond, again for charity, this time finishing the play. Once again, the house was packed; in fact, the theater was so crowded that the pit was even occupied by upper-class spectators who couldn’t get seats in the boxes. Among the high-ranking viewers was the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, who had expressed a wish to see Coates in this role. The duke, of course, attended with a large, impressive retinue. A review in the Morning Herald the following day described the scene:
The tragedy of The Fair Penitent was performed at the Theatre Royal, Richmond, last night, when that fashionable amateur Mr. Coates appeared in the lady-killing character of the gay, the gallant Lothario! and there never was so brilliant an assemblage ever seen within the walls of this theatre, since its first establishment.
(All these royals are hard to keep straight, especially here in the anti-monarchical U.S. George III--that’s the one who lost the Revolution to our own George--was still king in name, but he was nuts, so his oldest son, George, Prince of Wales, became Regent in 1811. The Prince Regent had a slew of siblings--plus a few no one mentioned--who included Frederick, Duke of York; William, Duke of Clarence; Edward, Duke of Kent; and several princesses and princes, some of whom went on to rule other European principalities. G3 died in 1820 and the Prince Regent became G4, but he died in 1830 without leaving a legitimate male heir. So younger bro William succeeded G4 as W4. Then he died in 1837 with the same deficiency as his older bros, so guess who inherited the throne, the last Hanoverian monarch. Here’s a hint: She lived a long time, gave her name to an era, and her name wasn’t Elizabeth. Got it? William’s niece, the daughter of his younger brother, Edward, Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandrina Victoria. All this went on during Coates’s life in Britain.
(Victoria reined until 1901--63 years, the longest rein in English history, though Elizabeth II, who stands at 57 and counting, is catching up. Victoria’s son and heir, Edward VII, was the first British monarch in the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which his son, George V, changed to Windsor during WWI so that the British monarchy wouldn’t have a German name. In turn, G5’s son and successor was Edward VIII, who reined for less than a year in 1936 because he abdicated in favor of his brother to marry the woman he loved. He became the Duke of Windsor and his brother became George VI, the father of the current queen, E2. Everyone caught up now?)
Also in attendance, at the request of the theater’s manager, was a policeman named Lavendor, engaged in fear of an uproar like the previous time Coates performed The Fair Penitent. Everyone was fortunate, however, since so many seats were taken by the gentry and supporters of Coates that the rowdies who would have fomented a disturbance were only present in a very small number. Between acts, Coates treated his audience to a recitation of “The Hobbies,” a practice in which Coates (and other performers of the day, I believe) frequently engaged.
Coates gave his performance in relative calm and several scenes were very well received by the friendly audience. “[W]hile the princely and noble critics applauded with their hands,” reported the Morning Herald, “many an elegant fan was fractured by the ladies, in the amiable zeal of their approval.” The duke was reported to have been “well pleased” with the evening’s efforts as well.
Coates appeared again at the Haymarket on 11 January 1813 as Lothario and again on 29 January in the same role, both for the benefit of widows who had applied to him for help. The performances were well attended; Coates recited his favorite poem, “The Hobbies” as had become his practice; and the appearances were without incident, other than excessive delight on the part of the spectators. One of the journals that had been especially critical of the Amateur’s theatricals, however, published an observation a few days after the later performance:
We consider the gentry who pick up a living by shows of this kind, do not introduce some other animal in the part of the gallant gay Lothario. A baboon, dressed up for the character, would perhaps not be a novelty sufficiently striking, immediately after Mr. Coates; but we should think a bear, a Newfoundland dog, or a full sized tom cat, might prove very attractive, and well deserve the title of “the celebrated amateur of fashion.”
On Monday, 1 February, Coates welcomed an honor he had long sought: he was presented to the Prince Regent at Carlton House, the prince’s residence. Though he had been among the select friends of the prince’s brothers, the Dukes of York and Clarence, he had wanted for a long time to be counted among those welcome at the Prince Regent’s home; now, he thought, his dream would be realized. On Thursday, 4 February, Coates wasn’t surprised, then, to receive “a portentous missive sealed with the Royal arms, and left, so the attendants stated, by a ‘gentleman’ in a scarlet coat.” He ripped open the envelope and found an ornate engraved card with royal insignia which read:
The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by His Royal Highness the Prince Regent to invite Mr. Robert Coates to a ball and supper at Carlton House on Friday evening. The company to appear in the costume of the manufacture of the country. Hour of attendance ten o'clock.
Coates ordered a magnificent new suit and had his diamonds polished in preparation. On the appointed evening, he left his residence in full regalia, diamonds blazing from his clothing, his fingers, and the hilt of his sword. He rode in a hired sedan chair born by two expensively liveried footmen. Upon arrival at Carlton House, Coates was allowed to pass the first of the prince’s attendant officers, but the second stopped him. The coveted invitation, the colonel informed him politely, was a forgery! Coates withdrew and, upon starting for home--his chair had been dismissed--he was halted by a muffled stranger who asked why Coates was leaving so early. The disappointed Coates replied that there had been some small irregularity, and that he was going to ask his friend the Chevalier Ruspini, who lived almost directly across from Carlton House, to allow Coates to watch the arrival of the rest of the illustrious guests from the chevalier’s balcony.
What Coates couldn’t know was that the man who accosted him outside Carlton House was the infamous hoaxer Theodore Hook. Having obtained an invitation card for a few hours, Hook had used his talents as a counterfeiter of signatures to make Coates the butt of a joke. It was even rumored that Hook had dressed up in borrowed military finery to deliver the phony invitation to Coates himself. There’s no report whether Hook ever paid a price for his cruelty, though the prince was very angry that Coates was treated so badly. It is said, however, that Hook never mentioned his joke at Coates’s expense without an expression of guilt. And the joke fell somewhat flat because the intended butt never seemed to recognize that that’s what had happened. Coates was hard-pressed to find bad in anyone and seldom recognized malice when he met it.
The next morning, having been informed of the incident, the Prince Regent sent his secretary to call on Coates and apologize for the slight and to invite him to come to Carlton House to see the party decorations, which were still up. Coates, of course, graciously accepted both the apology and the invitation.
About a week later, Coates was asked to perform his recitation of “Bucks, have at ye all” during a performance of The Devil's Bridge, a three-act opera by Samuel James Arnold, at Drury Lane. It became routine for Coates occasionally to deliver a recitation at a performance in which he had no other hand. Coates’s presence on the bill--as “The Celebrated Amateur of Fashion”--guaranteed a full house. Following this, Coates again performed Lothario at the Haymarket on 24 February, to a standing-room-only crowd, packed with both admirers who came to see the famous amateur act--among them Coates’s friend, the Baron de Géramb--and rowdies who came to disrupt the performance. The noise was so fierce before the curtain rose that three other members of the cast came out to address the audience and plead for courtesy. The noise abated briefly and Coates came out to start the play, only to be greeted with applause from the supporters and shouts from the noisemakers. The performance was interrupted constantly until, in the scene where Horatio confronts Lothario, the actor playing Horatio nearly stopped the show entirely. Instead of saying his lines as written, “When you are met among your set of fools, talk of your dress, of dice, or horses, and yourselves; it's safer, and becomes your understanding better,” the actor substituted the word "curricles" for “horses,” and the house cracked up! Not a word could be heard for about 15 minutes; Coates walked downstage but couldn’t get a hearing and walked back up towards Horatio, who also couldn’t make himself heard. Horatio left the stage, and Coates took advantage of a short lull to address the audience:
Ladies and gentlemen, I was solicited to play for a lady who I was informed was an object deserving of attention. (Applause.) I further 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 a most unwarrantable liberty with me. Many of you may have doubtless read the play of The Fair Penitent, and, if not, you may do so tomorrow, but there you will find something about horses and merriment. But a performer has no right to endeavour to hurt my feelings by inserting allusions to me not [sic] in his part. Let my equipage be laughed at by those that choose; my father, who left me a large fortune, wherewith I indulge my whims, likewise taught me good manners. I am little given to boasting, but if I may be allowed to say a few words on my own conduct, I can say I consider myself a most useful character; for, if my dress be extravagant, and my equipages expensive, let it be remembered it is this that supports the working-classes. Does it not assist the tailors, mercers, and coach-makers? In these respects I set, what I think, a laudable example.
The audience applauded (with a few of the troublemakers continuing to make noises), and Horatio came forward to state that he had explained to Coates that he hadn’t intended any offense by his ad-libbing. Coates shook the actor’s hand, ending the episode, and the play concluded without incident. In the audience that night was the actor Charles Mathews the elder, a popular comic actor of the day who was famous for his impersonations. Coates considered Mathews a friend, though Mathews’s subsequent conduct might throw some doubt on Coates’s judgment.
On the next day, at Covent Garden, the production of a two-act farce by Sir Henry Bate Dudley called At Home opened. One of the characters in the play, which apparently had an illustrious cast for a trifle, was named Romeo Rantall, a parody of Coates. For 25 nights, At Home was greeted with peals of laughter as Rantall held Coates up to ridicule for his acting. One 19th-century magazine describes some of At Home:
In a drawing room scene Romeo amuses the company with recitations from the dramatic poets. He is loudly applauded, and makes a speech after the manner of Mr. Coates: “Cheered by your exhilarating applause, I proceed; but know I possess a soul that scorns to bend to interruption!” He then gives a dying scene--in which he demonstrates great solicitude as to his hat and feather, and is careful to raise his right leg so as to display his diamond shoe-buckle to the best advantage.
Rantall was played by Mathews and the Amateur was in a box on opening night to see the parody. Just as Coates had done on his first Haymarket appearance, Mathews came down front and shook hands with the Amateur. Dressed as Coates had been the previous evening, mimicking the Amateur’s actions (including a parody of Coates reciting “The Hobbies”), Mathews “enacted the principal scenes of Lothario; in the whole of which, even to the death, he was Coates all over, and to the very life.” According the the impressionist’s “memoir,” written shortly after his death by his widow, Anne Jackson (no relation to Eli Wallach’s wife, as far as I know), “The effect was amusing to the highest degree, convulsing the great majority of the audience with laughter. A considerable party, however, manifested a strong opposite feeling.” As usual, Coates took the ridicule with good humor, though reports suggest that Mathews went further than Bate Dudley had intended with his travesty.
Many publications, which were not always friendly toward Coates, took exception to this form of ridicule. The European Magazine of March 1813 made a special effort to defend the Amateur by publishing a “Memoir of Robert Coates, Esq.” with which they printed an engraving of one of the few portraits of the actor that was not comic. Characterizing At Home as “coarse buffoonery” and “vulgar imitation,” the editors wrote:
Most men have their peculiarities, some latent, others more apparent; but surely, when the latter are neither immoral nor offensive to society, they can scarcely be deemed, however obnoxious, fair subjects of ridicule, the toleration of which . . . seems a degradation of human nature, and is, in itself, a travestie of the best passions of the human heart.
While the European Magazine acknowledged that Coates’s acting was less than laudable in terms of talent and execution, the editors recognized that “if he chooses to make his humour subservient to a charitable purpose, to engraft virtue upon his whims, and give the solid worth of a benevolent act to harmless eccentricity, who is to prohibit or blame him” and then concluded: “Mr. Coates deserves very great credit for the motive of his performances, whatever difference of taste may exist as to their merit.”
Mrs. Mathews asserts that Coates bided his time to take his revenge on the impersonator, making an appearance at the Drury Lane Theater to recite “Bucks, have at ye all.” I haven’t seen any record of a second appearance at Drury Lane, and Coates’s biographers state that his recitation there after the performance of The Devil's Bridge was a fortnight before At Home was staged at Covent Garden. At any rate, Mathews’s memoirs record that after Coates’s recitation, the Amateur declared:
Ladies and Gentlemen, -- Having had the honour of being imitated at another theatre by a performer of great celebrity, I will now, with your permission, imitate the imitator. If I do not succeed, I hope you will pardon me. As it is my first attempt, (imitating Mr. Mathews,) it
will be “Hit or Miss.”
Hit or Miss is the title of a musical farce by Isaac Pollock in which Mathews had appeared some years earlier, and Mrs. Mathews writes that Coates changed into a costume resembling the one her husband wore in that performance and “strutted about the stage cracking his whip, and recited several passages in that farce to the great amusement of the audience.” Calling her husband “inimitable” and proclaiming that he couldn’t be caricatured, Mrs. Mathews labeled Coates’s parody an “outrage on all sense and propriety.” The pot calling the kettle black, maybe? She went on to “exhort” the management of the Drury Lane “never to permit a similar outrage” on its stage again--though apparently it was all right for the management of Covent Garden to permit its stage to serve as the venue for a travesty of Coates. Hmmm . . . .
(At Home wasn’t the only stage parody of Coates that London audiences saw. In 1816, the year Coates would make his final public appearance on stage, a two-act musical farce called All at Coventry by W.T. Moncrieff was performed at the New Olympic Theatre in London. In Act Two, a character named Lively, speaking in different voices, says:
"Ah, Romeo! my rum one, how are you?" -- “Eh! why how the plague did you know me?” -- “Why by your Coates, to be sure.” -- “Yes, they're the thing, 'ent they ? -- Diamond buttons, cost me five hundred a-piece. -- Here, John, give that beggar a penny, and be sure you tell him it comes from the Philanthropist of Fashion.”)
Coates, who occasionally styled himself “the celebrated Philanthropic Amateur of Fashion,” made his fifth appearance at the Haymarket solely in a recitation following the presentation of Othello on 1 March 1813. He was roundly applauded and called back for a brief encore. (Before commencing, the actor poured himself a drink, walked downstage, and with good humor toasted his enemies, “whom he desired might live to see him prosper.") On 26 April, Coates appeared for the sixth time at the Haymarket, returning to his favorite role, Romeo, which he hadn’t performed since Bath. The house was packed, and the first act was performed in a deliberately shortened version, but the play proceeded well until the marriage scene. A commotion began in the gallery as the actress, Miss FitzHenry, who played Juliet and was the beneficiary of the performance, exited. The actress shot the gallery a glance of anger, and when she came back, the pit had joined the gallery and the disturbance had grown to such a level that she became distressed at the boos and hisses directed at her. Miss FitzHenry clung to the set, her arms wrapped around a stage pillar until the commotion died down. She addressed the audience to ask why they responded this way but she was drowned out and left the stage. The audience quieted and the cast chose to complete the play, which finished relatively calmly. FitzHenry never understood what caused the audience’s reaction, but she was ultimately happy with the financial benefit she received from the show and was grateful to Coates for his generosity.
On 10 May, Coates made his seventh appearance at the Haymarket, again as Romeo, and faced an especially noisy house. There was apparently an organized effort to disrupt the performance and members of the conspiracy were seated in every section of the theater. Every time Coates appeared on stage, he was met with hoots and crows as well as insults and catcalls. The Amateur ignored these for most of the performance, but when the duel between Romeo and Tybalt was about to start, the actors were interrupted by a rooster, which one of the conspirators had sneaked into the theater and released at just the right moment, strutting along the edge of the stage, almost at Coates’s feet. The audience broke into riotous laughter and a collaborator shouted out, “O most gallant Romeo, stain not thy sword with the blood of Tybalt, but kill the cock before you," initiating another burst of laughter. Just as the rooster was about to crow, which is what the rowdies were all waiting for, Old Capulet disappointed them. The actor grabbed the bird in his arms and threw it off stage. Deprived of their prize gag, the troublemakers shouted at Capulet and banged on the sides of their boxes with sticks or rattled other noisemakers they had smuggled into the theater. Despite the commotion, however, the actors completed the scene, Romeo killed Tybalt, and Coates exited the stage. He paused just visible enough at the wing, however, for the conspirators in the box from which the rooster had been released to see him, and he shook his sword at them. The rowdies in the box demanded Coates apologize for this action, but he refused, of course, and completed his exit. The disrupters pelted the remaining cast with orange peels and the actors made quick exits.
One of the occupants of the box came down onto the stage and tried to address the house. The spectators in the pit, angered that these people had disrupted their enjoyment of the play, shouted him down and he returned to his seat. When Coates reentered, the same young man stood up and again demanded an apology from the Amateur. Coates again refused and the spectators in the pit took this opportunity to pay the disrupters back in their own manner: they threw orange peels at the young man until he retreated into his box. The rest of the play went on rather dully, the steam obviously having gone out of the cast, until the scene in which Romeo kills Paris. As Paris lay “dead” on the stage, he was jarred back to life when he was battered on the nose by a whole orange. The actor, incensed, rose and, pointing to the orange, stalked off the stage to further uproar from the house. When Coates returned to the stage to enact Romeo’s death, his signature histrionics brought forth a chorus of “Why don’t you die?” from the gallery.
Coates again played Romeo in a benefit for an actor named Eyre of the Drury Lane company. Eyre asked Coates to appear at the Lyceum Theatre on 29 March 1813, and the only glitch this time around was that the actress who originally agreed to play Juliet had to withdraw at the last minute. Eyre was able to find a replacement on a few hours’ notice, however, and the performance proceeded with no more than minimal interruptions and concluded well.
(There’s still more to the story. Part 3 will be up in a few days. Keep waiting--in fact, hold your breath!)
[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!]