14 January 2018

Johnston Forbes-Robertson

Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937) was a British actor and theatre manager. He was considered the finest Hamlet of the Victorian era, and also played Hamlet a few times on the screen.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet
British postcard by Beagles Photocards, no. 781. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Caption: Mr. Forbes Robertson as Hamlet. Sent by mail in 1913.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson
British postcard by Rotary Photo, EC, no. 105 A. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith.

Forbes-Robertson
British postcard in the Fine Art Post Cards Series by Shurey's Publications. Photo: Langfier.

Highly successful Romantic style of acting


Johnston Forbes-Robertson was born in London in 1853. He was the eldest of the eleven children of theatre critic and journalist John Forbes-Robertson and his wife Frances.

One of his sisters, Frances, and three of his brothers, Ian, Norman and John, also became actors. He was the brother-in-law of famed actress Maxine Elliott, the uncle of economist Roy Harrod, and great-uncle of actress Meriel Forbes (granddaughter of his brother Norman), who married actor Ralph Richardson.

While intending to become an artist, he trained for three years at the Royal Academy, but reluctantly and for financial needs he began a theatrical career, when dramatist William Gorman Wills offered him a role in his play Mary Queen of Scots.

His many performances led him into travel to the U.S., work with Sir Henry Irving, and moving in the highest aristocratic and cultural circles.

In 1895 he took over the management of the Lyceum Theatre, with Mrs. Patrick Campbell as leading lady. Here he gave memorable performances as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo, and produced himself Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande, in which his Romantic style of acting was highly successful.

Forbes-Robertson
British postcard, dated 17-7-1903. Photo: Lafayette, London, no. 2014.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet
British postcard by Beagles' Postcards, no. 179 G. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Publicity still for a stage production of Hamlet.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet
British postcard by Beagles Photocards, no. 179 J. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Publicity still for a stage production of Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson
British postcard by F.H.L., no. 1419.

One of the most individual and refined of English actors


Forbes-Robertson was hailed as one of the most individual and refined of English actors, noted for his ascetic features but even more for his fine elocution.

George Bernard Shaw praised him and wrote especially for him the part of Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, which premiered in March 1899 at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. Later, Shaw considered him the greatest Hamlet he had ever seen.

Forbes-Robertson played opposite Gertrude Elliott as Cleopatra, both were part of Mrs. Patrick Campbell's company. Other notable roles were Othello, and Leontes in The Winter's Tale. 

Forbes-Robertson did not play Hamlet until he was 44 years old, but after his success in this part he continued playing it until 1916, including a surviving silent film, Hamlet (Hay Plumb, 1913).

Highly successful was also his lead in Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which he performed on Broadway in 1908. It was filmed in 1916, and released two years later, The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Herbert Brenon, 1918).

Bob Lipton in his review at IMDb: "The actors are a bit over the top in their performances - except, interestingly, for Forbes-Robertson - but 1918, with the First World War raging, was certainly good moment for a serious, spiritual play."

Forbes-Robertson as Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co., London, no. 179 V. Photo: Lizzie Caswall Smith. Forbes-Robertson as Julius Caesar in G.B. Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (1899).

Forbes-Robertson as Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra
British postcard by Rotary Photo, E.C., no. 105 K. Photo: Lizzie Caswall Smith. Forbes-Robertson as Julius Caesar in G.B. Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (1899).

Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott in Caesar and Cleopatra
British postcard by Rotary Photo, E.C., no. 105 M. Photo: Lizzie Caswall Smith. Forbes-Robertson as Julius Caesar and Gertrude Elliott as Cleopatra in G.B. Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (1899).

Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott in Caesar and Cleopatra
British postcard by Rotary Photo, E.C., no. 105 T. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield. Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott in G.B. Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (1899).

A Player Under Three Reigns


In the 1880s, Johnston Forbes-Robertson acted in plays with the gifted actress Mary Anderson. He asked her hand in marriage, but she kindly turned him down, though they remained friends.

Later he and actress Beatrice Campbell enjoyed a brief affair during the time she starred with him in a series of Shakespearean plays in the mid-1890s.

In 1900, at age 47, he married American-born actress Gertrude Elliott (1874–1950), sister of Maxine Elliott, with whom he had four daughters. Their second daughter Jean Forbes-Robertson became an accomplished actress. Through her he is the grandfather of actress Joanna Van Gyseghem.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson was knighted in 1913 at the age of 60, at which point he retired from acting. He returned to the stage, however, for a farewell tour of the US in 1914-1915, making his last appearance onstage at the Sanders Theatre in Boston with a performance of Hamlet.

In the last years of his life he produced plays by George Bernard Shaw and Jerome K. Jerome. His literary works include: The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps (actor and theatre manager) as well as his own autobiography Johnston Forbes-Robertson: A Player Under Three Reigns (1925).

In 1937, Johnston Forbes-Robertson died at St. Margaret's Bay, near Dover, Kent, and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London. He was 84.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Shylock
British postcard in the Real Photographic Series by Davidson Brothers, London, no. 2216. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Caption: Mr. Forbes Robertson as "Shylock". Sent by mail in 1908.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice
British postcard by Beagles' Postcards, no. 179 U. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Publicity still for a stage production of The Merchant of Venice with Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Shylock. Sent by mail in 1913.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Getrude Elliott in The Light That Failed (1903)
British postcard in the Rotary Photographic Series, no. 1632 A. Photo: Lizzie Caswall-Smith. Publicity still for the stage production of The Light That Failed (1903). Caption: Mr. Forbes Robertson as Dick Helder (sic), Gertrude Elliott as Maisie, "Maisie, my Maisie".

The play The Light That Failed by George Fleming was based on the novel of the same name by-English author Rudyard Kipling, first published in 1891. Most of the novel is set in London, but many important events throughout the story occur in Sudan and Port Said. It follows the life of Dick Heldar, an artist and painter who goes blind, and his unrequited love for his childhood playmate, Maisie. The first stage production starred Forbes-Robertson, Elliott, and Sydney Valentine. It was performed in the West End from February to April 1903 and moved on to Broadway in November, making the story more famous. In 1939, it was made into a film by Paramount, starring Ronald Colman as Heldar, and also with Muriel Angelus, Ida Lupino, and Walter Huston.

House of Forbes Robertson
London, Bedford Square, Bloomsbury. House of Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937).

Sources: Bob Lipton (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.
See Forbes-Robertson play Hamlet: YouTube and YouTube.
Hear Forbes-Robertson reciting Hamlet: Britannica, also YouTube (these are recordings from 1928, when the actor was 75).

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