Tragic hero of Drury Lane

This meticulous account gives Frederick Chatterton a deserved and belated spotlight


This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

When in December 1862 the fresh-faced Frederick Balsir Chatterton arrived to manage the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the road to failure seemed clearly mapped out. The theatre was long associated with financial calamity: an embittered predecessor had labelled the once prestigious establishment a vampire that “sucked the lifeblood out of everyone”.

Shakespeare Spelt Ruin: The Life of Frederick Balsir Chatterton, Drury Lane’s Last Bankrupt by Robert Whelan, Jacob Tonson, £14.50

While Chatterton, just 28 at the time, would indeed one day go down in flames like those before him, his biographer Robert Whelan’s mainly admiring and rigorous account tells the story of a now largely forgotten man whose heyday saw the doom-mongers proved wrong. With upmarket endeavours at Drury Lane increasingly out of favour — it had been converted, among other things, into a circus ring — Chatterton’s bold public aspiration to re-establish its status as the National Theatre soon seemed not only worthy, but workable.

Never compromised by the loose morals so regularly associated with theatricals of the day, Chatterton was devoted to God, closely followed by a worship of all things Shakespearean resembling a religious-like zeal of its own. Limited to only a “patchy” education, his fanboy obsession had been based on buying penny editions of the Bard’s works each week, which he came to know “almost by heart”. Cultural snobbery in adulthood remained absent as a result.

Chatterton’s conviction was rooted in the belief that this greatest of all grammar school boys could still win over the masses. Having informed business partner Edmund Falconer that they would now be the home of “legitimate and classic drama”, Chatterton was resolved to have his Stratford idol centre stage at Drury Lane once more, a century after the theatre’s Shakespearean great, David Garrick. Unlike the high-living Falconer, a playwright/thespian by trade and initially useful frontman for the duo, idealist instincts on Chatterton’s part were matched with a businessman’s pragmatism. Whelan regularly reminds us that amid Drury Lane’s weightier theatrical offerings, a lucrative pantomime was always on hand to steady the ship financially. But it was that initially unswerving, and long unheard of, commitment to core theatrical principles that met with growing admiration.

Aided by the masterful services of the actor Samuel Phelps, Henry IV, Part 1 and Macbeth were among Chatterton’s early Drury Lane hits. A seemingly audacious attempt to adapt Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred — considered by the man himself “quite impossible” for the stage — also won praise. With Phelps again in the title role, it was hailed as a “laudable and spirited attempt to restore some dignity” to the English theatre and revive Drury Lane’s “bygone glories”. Another commentator compared the efforts of the venue’s management at the expense of more lowly offerings to the “removal of filth from the Thames by the construction of the London sewers”.

Two years into Chatterton’s running of Drury Lane, his status as the champion of legitimate drama allowed him to confirm 12 Shakespeare productions for the 1864/65 season. His rising star saw him take over as sole lessee two years later, while by 1870 he was also effectively running the nearby Princess’s and Adelphi, after going into partnership with West End veteran Benjamin Webster.

Such expansion would later be a source of regret. Chatterton was certainly guilty of spreading himself thinly, but as Whelan outlines, the reasons for the subsequent decline were manifold. While Chatterton was a largely principled figure, his colleagues brought their hefty share of difficulties. Take Falconer, who was admittedly responsible for the record-breaking Peep o’ Day during their early stint at the Lyceum.

Chatterton’s “volcanic temper” and tendency to launch into ill-advised public battles with the press damaged him

The rise was soon followed by the fall as the increasingly sozzled Falconer’s subsequent offerings at Drury Lane proved a drain on resources. Jailed over financial irregularities, he was reduced to making shambolic accusations, claiming Chatterton owed him more than £9,000. There was no case to answer, with Chatterton himself left to settle the partnership’s debts — the equivalent of more than £1 million today.

A now-decrepit Webster was another liability who proved more trouble than he was worth. He falsely claimed to have been fleeced by Chatterton in his old age, but the octogenarian’s muddled allegations failed to impress in court. However, they caused considerable embarrassment to his ex-partner, who had in reality been clearing up Webster’s financial messes for years.

The collaboration with his star actor also unravelled: after a glorious beginning, fraught relations between Chatterton and Phelps came to a head in late 1872, with the pair never to work together again. Indeed, perhaps the only man he could ever truly rely on was his jack-of-all-trades father Edward, whose professions included music publisher and box office manager. A longtime mentor to his son, Chatterton senior had been on hand to bankroll his offspring when required, and had notably warned him against signing up with Webster. The author plausibly suggests it’s no coincidence the devoted son’s downward spiral began with his father’s death in 1875.

For all his Christian merits, Chatterton’s “volcanic temper” and tendency to launch into ill-advised public battles with the press damaged him. After enjoying a cosy relationship with The Times’s supportive theatre critic John Oxenford, matters took an unwelcome turn when he was succeeded by the unforgiving Mowbray Morris.

But it was Chatterton who delivered his own unwanted epitaph. Forced by financial necessity to compromise those Shakespearean ideals — crowd-pleasing adaptations of Sir Walter Scott’s old novels became all the rage at Drury Lane — he indignantly let it be known that audiences had forced his hand.

In a published letter he infamously stated: “I found that Shakespeare spelt ruin and Byron bankruptcy.” While they were in fact the words of Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, the aphorism haunted Chatterton evermore.

The original, broadly winning formula of legitimate drama, financially shored up by those trusty pantomimes, eventually ran out of luck. Whelan also makes it abundantly clear that Chatterton ran out of ideas. The decision to later place faith in Scott’s old works, brought to the stage by Andrew Halliday, initially seemed commercially inspired, most notably Halliday’s popular adaptation of Kenilworth, under the title Amy Robsart.

But Chatterton succumbed to the understandable temptation of repetition, with Scott resurrected more than one time too many. After Halliday died in 1877, he curiously hired W.G. Wills, to date not troubled by success, to adapt Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, which he renamed England. It was disastrous.

He could never turn his back on his hero for long, whatever the cost. A woeful season of Shakespeare’s plays starring Charles Dillon, whose prime had sailed by long ago, again confirmed poor Chatterton’s judgment was now spent. His deterioration was made all the more marked in those last years by the glorious rise of Henry Irving over at the Lyceum, whose celebrated performances of Shakespeare’s canon helped consign Chatterton to the status of mere enthusiast by comparison.

Forced out of his venue bankrupt in 1879 and dead by 1886, Chatterton feared he would fade from memory in subsequent decades, and he was sadly proved prescient. Whelan’s meticulous and heartfelt account of this one-time saviour of Drury Lane gives him a deserved and belated spotlight. While financial collapse meant there weren’t even funds to inscribe his name on the family tomb, in Brompton Cemetery lies a man “for whom Shakespeare spelt ruin, but who kept on producing him just the same”.

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