Epic actor at Royal Alex had role in theatre revolution

Up until the late 19th century nearly all stage actors spoke their lines directly to the audience rather than to the other actors on stage and in most cases in an overly dramatic and bombastic style of acting that early audiences loved.

There was a time in my life when the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King West was my second home. Not only was I an usher there during my formative teenage years but I also made my professional stage debut as a young lad of 18 upon its hallowed boards, albeit the third guy from the left in the chorus of a pantomime production of Cinderella.

It was while working as an usher that I got to observe some of the 20th century’s greatest actors including Maggie Smith, Ralph Richardson and Katherine Hepburn plus the brilliant Angela Lansbury in Gypsy and Yul Brynner in a bizarrely fascinating musical based on Homer’s Odyssey.

For me the best was a wickedly funny performance given by British actor Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt Courtly in the 1841 comedy London Assurance. Some 40 years later, just thinking about it still makes me laugh.

In the play Sinden, best known here for his 1970’s TV show Two’s Company with Elaine Stritch, played an aging dandy in homage to that early style of acting where he would give subtle asides and winks to the audience.


I was also lucky enough to speak to Donald Sinden (later Sir) during his 4-week run at the Alex a few times backstage and once we got talking about this form of acting where the invisible wall between actor and audience disappears.

He told me it was an actor in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 1905 in Finland who first started to ignore the audience and began to speak his lines to a fellow actor on stage, which was very revolutionary for its day.

While today the director and/or playwright usually dominates the theatre world, before the onslaught of World War I a stage was under the control of a larger-than-life character known as the actor/manager. These men and women would tour the world relentlessly with their own acting companies of which they oversaw the casting, sets, lighting, directing and—foremost—were the stars of the show.

Decked in furs and surrounded by a cluster of steamer trunks these legends of the stage would disembark at the old Union Station amidst an explosion of camera flash powder and adoring fans as they made their way to the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The idea behind the Royal Alex sprung from the mind of millionaire Cawthra Mulock, the 21-year-old president of Guardian Trust who was determined to make his theatre on King Street a Toronto home for touring companies based in London and New York.

The Royal Alexandra was billed as “the most beautiful theatre on the continent” and named for the Queen Consort of King Edward VII (r1901-1910). It opened on Aug. 26, 1907. One of the most famous actor/mangers in the world during this time was Johnston Forbes-Robertson, celebrated by the Toronto press as “the finest actor on the English-speaking stage” who would make his Toronto debut at the Royal Alex in May of 1910.

He was here appearing in Jerome K. Jerome’s new play, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, in which Forbes played a mysterious man who, while staying at a boarding house, changes the dreary lives of the other residences.

Forbes-Robertson’s career bridged the two styles of acting and while his mentor the great Sir Henry Irving was one of those larger-than-life performers,

Forbes was more subtle, creating what would be regarded as the quintessential Hamlet deeply internalizing and less melodramatic than 19th-century audiences were accustomed to. As an actor/manager.

Forbes would produce plays with his own acting company that often co-starred his wife an equally great star of the British stage, Gertrude Elliott.

The entire week’s run for the Forbes-Robertson Company was sold out, breaking a box office record for the 3-year-old Royal Alex. However after four performances and terrific reviews, word comes from Buckingham Palace that King Edward VII had died. It was feared that Forbes, a great friend of the theatre-loving king would cancel his sold-out Friday and Saturday performances, thus generating a huge financial loss to the Royal Alex.

So in the hope that Forbes wouldn’t hear the news of the king’s death, ushers were sent out to buy all the newspapers along King Street where, ironically, he was staying at the King Edward Hotel. Thus he would walk to the theatre along King Street.

The plan worked until he reached the theatre where he overheard two stagehands talking about the king’s death and not only refused to go on, he demanded that the entire weekend be cancelled.

The Royal Alex managers pleaded with him to at least do this one show because the theatre was packed. In a gesture of the-show-must-go-on he did. But he cancelled all further performances.

Three days before the death of Edward VII Forbes was celebrated at a Toronto Press Club banquet held in second-floor Ball Room of the King Edward Hotel. That night during his speech he said he would return to play Hamlet but he never did and retired from the stage in 1913.

The Press Club dinner for Mr. (soon to be Sir) Johnston Forbes- Robertson is regarded as the last truly Edwardian banquet held at the King Edward Hotel, for after the death of Edward VII a new era was dawning.

The decade that was to follow would bring war, prohibition, radio, movies and the twilight of the actor/managers. Sir Johnston Forbes- Robertson died in 1937 at the age of 84.

Join me at C’est What nightclub 67 Front Street E, Monday July 15 at 7:30pm for my ongoing History of Toronto series where I will talk about the people and places that have defined our city. Phone 647-393-8687 or visit brucebelltours.ca for reservations $20 per person.