Monday, 15 October 2018

Robert "Romeo" Coates THE "BEST" BATH’S WORST ACTOR.

Robert "Romeo" Coates (1772–1848) was an English eccentric, best remembered for his career as an amateur actor. His self-image included a highly mistaken belief in his own thespian prowess. Born in Antigua in the West Indies, the only surviving child of a wealthy sugar planter, and educated in England, he began to appear in plays in Bath in 1809, and became notorious for his fondness for appearing in leading roles. His favourite part was the male lead in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, hence his widely used nickname. After professional theatrical producers failed to cast Coates in roles prominent enough to satisfy him, he used his family fortune to subsidise his own productions in which he was both the producer and the lead actor.

Historian Catherine Pitt tells the story of a man considered to be the worst actor in history, yet Bath audiences queued to see him perform

Bath, 1808 – genteel, sedate, elegant. Quietly the social season began unhindered, the glorious colour and buzz of the Beau Nash years a faded memory. Into this calm stepped an exotic character – the self-styled Amateur of Fashion, a man who was soon to be considered “the worst actor in English theatrical History”. Ladies and Gentleman, allow me to introduce to you – Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates.

Born in 1772 in Antigua, the only surviving child of plantation owners, Coates was schooled in England but returned to the West Indies after his parents refused to allow him to pursue a military career. When he wasn’t travelling, Coates would dabble in amateur dramatics. After his father’s death in 1807, Robert rapidly headed for England, first to London and then to Bath.

When Coates appeared on the peaceful city streets in 1808, few had seen his like before. Even in the period of Regency dandyism his appearance raised more than a few eyebrows. He was wont to wear vast furs in all weathers even during the day, and at the height of summer. In the evenings he would appear in the Pump Room and Assembly Rooms resplendent in a sky blue coat, yellow breeches, a multi-coloured cravat and a feathered hat.

If this wasn’t enough, Coates embellished every accoutrement of his attire – from his shirt buttons to his garter and shoe buckles, with hundreds of diamonds. Even his walking cane was topped with a vast sparkling jewel. He was, as one observer noted, surrounded by a “halo of rainbow-changing colours like those of the Antiguan moonlight” and almost immediately gained the moniker of ‘Diamond’ Coates.

To add to his outlandish image, Coates chose to travel in a carriage of his own design. This two wheeled chariot, known as a curricle, was shaped like a shell or kettle drum, and was pulled by two white horses. Atop the curricle was Coates’ mascot and motto – a crowing fighting cockerel, wings outstretched, and underneath the boast: “Whilst I live I’ll Crow”.

Despite his noticeable presence in Bath, few knew who he was or where he was from; all they knew was that he must be a man of wealth to indulge in such eccentricities. There are conflicting views as to where exactly he lodged in Bath, but what is certain is that he could be found, daily, enjoying breakfast and lunch at York House on George Street, a large coaching inn (and still a hotel today). It was here that, according to Pryse Gordon, a man who takes the claim (or blame) for introducing Coates to the Bath stage, he approached Coates when overhearing him rehearsing passages from Shakespeare. Apparently correcting Coates on a line, he was met with the words, “Aye, that is the reading I know . . . but I think I have improved upon it.”

On further enquiry Gordon discovered Coates’ passion for Shakespeare and for amateur dramatics, and currying favour with this wealthy eccentric, Gordon offered to introduce Coates to the manager of the Theatre Royal, William Wyatt Dimond. Coates declared that he was “ready and willing to play Romeo to a Bath audience.”

Dimond was unwilling to risk the theatre’s reputation on an unknown, but much reassurance from Gordon that seats would be filled (Gordon had persuaded a number of his friends to purchase theatre boxes prior to the performance) and probably some monetary reassurance from Coates, Dimond agreed to a date. Playbills were plastered throughout the city announcing that on 8 February 1809 a new production of Romeo and Juliet was opening and that the male lead, Romeo, was to be played by “an amateur actor from the fashionable world”.

As word spread of Coates’ acting debut, seats began to fill up fast. On the evening of the production the Theatre Royal was packed with curious Bathonians, with many more turned away at the door. Inside the anticipation was palpable. Bejewelled necks craned to the stage and excited murmurings were heard in the packed house.

On Coates’ entrance the audience were at first dumbfounded at the vision stood before them, described by an observer as “one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage”. Romeo wore “a spangled coat of sky blue silk, crimson pantaloons,” the usual diamond additions; plus a huge baroque wig. Balanced on top of this was a white trimmed hat with plumes of ostrich feathers. Coates took a nervous bobbing bow, grinning away, and the audience burst into peals of laughter and roars of applause in equal measure.

Unfazed Coates proceeded, though it was like no version of Shakespeare’s play ever seen before or since. Coates had a tendency to forget his lines, add in his own where he thought they needed improving, and would alternately whisper sections to just one box in the theatre. During the famous balcony scene, Coates turned away from Juliet, pulled out his snuff box and proceeded to take a pinch. As the public roared their approval he took this as a sign and ended up offering it to a number of ladies and gentlemen in the audience.

As if that wasn’t enough to amuse the Bath audience, Coates’ costume was so tight, it made him move about the stage in an awkward and what must have been highly amusing gait. Half way through the play, during the rendition of an impassioned speech, the seams at the seat of his red breeches could take no more and burst open, revealing a “quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag!”

“Convulsed with laughter a number of members of the audience shouted out “Die Again, Romeo” and happily Coates obliged, not once but twice more”

On appearing at the tomb of Juliet, crowbar in his hand, the audience thought there couldn’t be more to this tragedy turned farce, but before proceeding with his death scene, Coates took out a silk handkerchief, laid it on the boards, put his hat down to act as a pillow and then went through a most lengthy and, apparently from his grimaces and groans, agonising ‘death’ before carefully laying himself out on stage.

Convulsed with laughter a number of members of the audience shouted out “Die Again, Romeo” and happily Coates obliged, not once but twice more. He was about to attempt a third encore when Juliet appeared from the wings and stopped him. Dimond, unsure on what to do at this juncture, and fearing retribution from the public, hastily dropped the curtain bringing the play, finally, to an end. Meanwhile on stage Coates ran around, hanging off boxes, shouting “Haven’t I done well?”– so Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates was born.

It seems that the jeers and heckles that Coates received made little impact on him – in fact he could give back as good as he got and thought nothing of turning to the offending heckler and giving them a piece of his mind. He was positively buoyed by what he considered his success in Bath, so much so that he decided to tour his production of Romeo and Juliet around the country, including playing the Haymarket Theatre in London, as well as in Brighton and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although a subject of mockery and satirisation around the country, Coates still considered himself just an amateur actor and did not take a wage. In fact he probably had to pay actors and actresses to appear alongside him. His reputation preceded him so theatres were packed. Any profits Coates would request went to charity.

By 1816 Coates decided to forgo the stage, and in December he headed to the city, and theatre where it had all began, for the final act. Over three days in Bath he decided to perform another of his favourite plays, The West Indian, but for the final public performance Coates went full circle and chose Romeo and Juliet.

It was said by audience members who had seen him seven years previously that he was much improved but by how much is not implied. As before, Coates was jeered, but this time he didn’t ignore the jibes; but paused and declared that people could request their money back if they were not happy with his performance, but that his intention was that the money from this play, and his performance the following day, were to go to the local Pierrepont Street Charity. Shamed into silence, a more reverent crowd allowed Coates to continue.

After 1816 he would do the occasional private charitable performance, but it was the last the public would see of ‘Romeo’ Coates. Dogged by debt collectors during the financial troubles of the 1830s, Coates took refuge in Boulogne for a few years where he was often spotted in his furs.

His death, in February 1848, was as bizarre as his life had been – he was crushed between two carriages in London’s Covent Garden after a night at the Opera. Alas, Poor Romeo!

Coates claimed to be the best actor in Britain. He would appear in bizarre costumes of his own design, invent new scenes and dialogue mid-show, and repeat parts of the play he particularly liked—usually dramatic death scenes—up to three or four times a night. His fame quickly spread and people flocked to see whether Coates was really as bad as they had heard. They laughed and jeered at him; Coates sometimes turned to the audience and answered in kind. By 1816 audiences had tired of mocking Coates, and theatre managers were no longer willing to let him use their premises. After some years living in France to avoid creditors, he returned to England, married in 1823, and had two children who both predeceased him. Coates died in London in 1848, aged about 76, after a Hansom cab hit him outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Robert Coates was born in Antigua in the West Indies, the only surviving child of a wealthy sugar planter, Alexander Coates, and his wife Dorothy. He was educated in England, and on returning to Antigua took part in amateur dramatics. When he inherited his father's estate and a large collection of diamonds in 1807, he moved to Bath, England, where he lived as a man of fashion. He eventually drew the attention of the manager of the Theatre Royal, Bath and had begun to appear in plays in 1809, though not as a professional actor.

Later he appeared in Romeo and Juliet in the part of Romeo – in a costume of his own design. The costume had a flowing, sky-blue cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, a large cravat, and a plumed "opera hat," according to Captain Rees Howell Gronow – not to mention dozens of diamonds – which was hardly suitable for the part. The too-small garments caused him to move stiffly, and at some point, the seat of his pants split open. The audience roared with laughter.

Despite this ridicule, Coates went on to tour the British Isles. If a theatre manager would hesitate to let him show his talents, he would bribe them. Managers, in turn, often called in the police in case things went seriously wrong.

Coates was convinced he was the best actor in business – or at least that is what he claimed. He forgot his lines all the time and invented new scenes and dialogue on the spot. He loved dramatic death scenes and would repeat them – or any other scenes he happened to take a fancy to – three to four times over.

Coates claimed that he wanted to improve the classics. At the end of his first appearance as Romeo he came back in with a crowbar and tried to pry open Capulet's tomb. In another of his antics he made the actress playing Juliet so embarrassed that she clung to a pillar and refused to leave the stage. Eventually no actress would agree to play the part with him.

The audience usually answered with angered catcalls and embarrassed jeering – and loads of laughter. His fellow actors would try to make him leave the stage. If Coates thought the audience was getting out of hand, he turned to them and answered in kind.

His fame spread and people would flock to see whether he really was as bad as they had heard. For some reason, Baron Ferdinand de Geramb became his foremost supporter. Even the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) would go to see him. In 1811, when he played the part of Lothario in The Fair Penitent in London's Haymarket Theatre, the theatre had to turn thousands of would-be spectators away. In another performance in Richmond, Surrey, several audience members had to be treated for excessive laughter.

Coates went on with his antics. Once, when he dropped a diamond buckle when he was going to exit the stage, he crawled around the stage looking for it. During his first performance of Romeo & Juliet, he pulled out his snuff box in the middle of a scene and offered some to the occupants of a box. Then, during Romeo's death scene, Coates carefully placed his hat on the ground for a pillow and used his dirty handkerchief to dust the stage before lying on it. Finally, at the invitation of the audience, he acted out Romeo's death twice—and was about to attempt a third before his Juliet came back to life and interrupted him.[4] The amusement of the audience was enormous. There is some question as to whether Coates believed he was a great actor as he professed to, or if his performances weren't brilliant parody.

Outside the stage Coates tried to amaze the public with his taste in clothing. He wore furs even in hot weather. He went out in a custom-built carriage with a heraldic device of a crowing cock and the motto While I live, I'll crow. In receptions he glittered from head to toe with diamond buttons and buckles. His predilection for diamonds of all kinds gave him the nickname "Diamond Coates".

Coates was never a professional actor, and only made his stage appearances in support of charitable causes: his own nickname of choice was 'the Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur'. After 1816 his performances ceased, as audiences had tired of laughing at him and theatrical managers were wary of allowing him use of their premises. Later he fell into financial difficulties and to avoid creditors moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he met Emma Anne Robinson, daughter of a naval lieutenant.After Coates put his finances back into better order they returned to England and were married on 6 September 1823. The two lived quietly in London, living lastly at his residence, 28 Montagu Square.They had two children, both of whom predeceased Coates. Emma remarried in the year of Coates's death, her second husband being Mark Boyd.

Robert Coates died in London in 1848 after a street accident. He was caught and crushed between a Hansom cab and a private carriage as he was leaving a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 15 February, and died at home six days later. At his inquest the coroner brought in a verdict of manslaughter by person or persons unknown. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

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