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Archer, Williamlocked

  • J. P. Wearing

William Archer (1856–1924)

by Sir Emery Walker, 1891

Archer, William (1856–1924), theatre critic and journalist, was born at 6 North Methven Street, Perth, Scotland, on 23 September 1856, the eldest son of the nine children of Thomas Archer (1823–1905) of Glasgow and his wife, Grace Lindsay Morison (1832–1911), the daughter of James Morison of Perth.

An inveterate itinerant, Thomas Archer roamed Norway, Australia, and California before his marriage in 1853 in Perth, Scotland. He then returned to Gracemere (named for his wife) in Australia for the three years before William was born. The Archers belonged to the separatist Glasite sect with its emphasis on individualism, moral principles, rationalism, and anti-clericalism, which left their marks on the boy; fortunately, he was untainted by the sect's anti-theatricalism. Influential, too, were his father's treks around Britain to find employment. Consequently, Archer was educated at numerous schools: the Perth and Dollar academies (Scotland), Solent grammar school (Lymington), Reigate grammar school, and George Watson's College (Edinburgh). He read widely, and, through visiting relatives in Larvick, Norway, became fluent in Norwegian. When he was twelve and his family was living near London, he discovered the theatre and became an avid theatregoer. He was particularly entranced by pantomimes at Drury Lane.

When his family returned to Gracemere in 1872, Archer remained in Scotland, having secured a bursary to study English literature, moral and natural philosophy, and mathematics at Edinburgh University. In Edinburgh he saw bad stock theatre at the Princess's Theatre as well as much better London touring companies which exposed him to T. W. Robertson's plays, in which he witnessed the glimmerings of an English dramatic revival. While still at university, he secured a position in 1875 at the Edinburgh Evening News, writing leader articles for an annual salary of £80. After graduating with an MA in 1876, he visited his family in Australia for a year; the trip was not successful since the entire family was reticent and emotionally undemonstrative. Archer agreed reluctantly to his father's proposition to study for the bar as a secure and respectable profession.

Archer returned to Edinburgh and the Evening News (1877–8) while awaiting his move to London. He and two friends created a minor furore with their The Fashionable Tragedian (1877), in which they attacked Henry Irving and his style of acting for preventing real growth in the theatre. Interestingly this immature work advocated a national theatre, one of Archer's enduring goals, and marked the beginning of his missionary zeal for reforming the theatre.

Archer moved to London in 1878 and was admitted to the Middle Temple. He studied law grudgingly and qualified for the bar in 1883, but never practised. He preferred the reading-room of the British Museum, and supported himself as the theatre critic of the London Figaro (1878–81). He subsequently held similar positions at The World (1884–1906), The Tribune (1906–8), The Nation (1908–10), and The Star (1913–20), and over the years contributed countless books reviews and articles to the Pall Mall Gazette, Daily Chronicle, Morning Leader, Daily News, and many other newspapers.

The English stage was still finding its way after Robertson's efforts to establish realism. Melodrama, farce, and adaptations from the French remained the vogue, and no English playwright matched Ibsen's achievement in social drama, which Archer embraced as the model for serious theatre. His own translation of Ibsen's work usually known as The Pillars of Society (entitled Quicksands) received a matinée performance at the Gaiety Theatre on 15 December 1880, but the production was hurriedly mounted, was not well received, and created little interest. The following year he met Ibsen during a tour of Italy, and thus began an enduring relationship of mutual respect, fostered by Archer's translations and productions of Ibsen's plays.

During that same Italian tour Archer met Frances Elizabeth Trickett (1855–1929), the youngest of the eight children of John Trickett, a retired engineer. Frances was accomplished, speaking French, Italian, and German, and, with her family, she and Archer journeyed through France and Switzerland. They married on 23 October 1884, and had one son, Tom (1885–1918), who was killed in action in the First World War. Frances was a sympathetic and supportive wife, but the marriage was never a passionate one, particularly from 1891 onwards, when Archer began a relationship (lasting for the rest of his life) with the actress Elizabeth Robins (1862–1952) (herself an ardent theatre reformer), and Frances devoted herself to her Nerve Training Colony in the Hertfordshire countryside.

Another profound long-standing relationship began in 1883 when Archer encountered George Bernard Shaw in the British Museum. They attempted a collaboration on a play, which Archer quickly abandoned but which Shaw later turned into Widowers' Houses (1892). Archer also procured various journalistic assignments for the impecunious Shaw, including in 1886 that of art critic of The World. Their intimate friendship could also be very turbulent, since both men were forthright and honest. Shaw respected Archer's intelligence and integrity, and penetrated his formality and deliberately cultivated dour Scots façade. Archer thought Shaw brilliant if perverse, and concluded that he never achieved his great potential because he was too much a jester.

In 1882, in English Dramatists of Today, Archer argued that the prospects for the English theatre resided with Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero, although neither playwright had then written a serious drama. However, Pinero soon fulfilled Archer's prophecy with The Profligate (1889) and The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893), plays produced in the mainstream theatre. Archer (by now a handsome, tall, well-built man with a moustache) was also becoming more prominent and significant as a critic with his books About the Theatre (1886), Masks or Faces? (1888), and the five-volume collection of his World articles entitled The Theatrical ‘World’ (1894–8). Concurrently he helped direct his translation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, staged at the Novelty Theatre on 7 June 1889 for twenty-four performances. He was meticulous in his attention to expressive details, concerned always at achieving thoroughly realistic effects. He did so again with the Independent Theatre's notorious production of Ghosts (Royalty, 13 March 1891), and with Hedda Gabler (Vaudeville, 20 April 1891), in which Elizabeth Robins gave a brilliant performance as Hedda. Interestingly, he scrupulously refused payment for the use of his translations and successfully camouflaged his close involvement in the productions. 1891 also saw the completion of Archer's five-volume edition of Ibsen's prose dramas (Archer's The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen appeared in eleven volumes, 1906–8).

Another theatrical venture with Elizabeth Robins was the New Century Theatre, one of several fringe theatre societies spawned in this period to stage plays not acceptable in the regular commercial theatre. Their first production in 1897 was Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, but neither this nor the two following productions were successful and the organization languished.

A visit in 1899 to America, which had always entranced Archer, yielded a series of articles of social and political observations for the Pall Mall Gazette, published collectively as America Today: Observations and Reflections (1900). Later overseas travels resulted in Through Afro-America: an English Reading of the Race Problem (1910) and India and the Future (1917); neither embraced particularly tolerant attitudes towards native customs and practices, although Shaw characteristically praised the latter work for its necessarily painful incisiveness. Far more palatable was Archer's investigation of the Spanish government and Catholic church's culpability in the death of the radical teacher Francisco Ferrer, published in 1911 as The Life, Trial and Death of Francisco Ferrer. Theatrical matters suited Archer best: for example, he wrote a manual on how to write plays, Play-Making: a Manual of Craftsmanship (1912), which began bluntly with 'there are no rules for writing a play'. Earlier, he had collaborated with Harley Granville Barker (1877–1946) on a proposition for the establishment of a national theatre, published privately in 1904 as Scheme & Estimates for a National Theatre, which considered all the practical aspects of such an enterprise as well as possible repertories.

Archer regarded Granville Barker, with whom he enjoyed a father–son relationship, as a true man of the theatre and greatly admired his plays. Chief among these was The Voysey Inheritance (1905), produced during Granville Barker's joint management with J. E. Vedrenne of the Royal Court Theatre from 1904 to 1907. The same seasons also established Shaw as a major dramatist. The banning of Granville Barker's Waste by the censor in 1907 plunged Archer again into the censorship controversy. Unlike an earlier foray in 1892, more dramatists sided with Archer, and by 1909 yet another government committee of inquiry was instituted, which resulted predictably in inaction. Such setbacks were balanced when, in 1908, the king of Norway conferred on him the honour of knight first class of the order of St Olav.

When the First World War erupted, Archer wanted to help his country as he had done during the South African War, when he had enlisted in the Inns of Court Rifles. Then he was still young enough to drill and take part in manoeuvres, although he was a conspicuously poor soldier. Now his age confined him to the War Propaganda Bureau, while his son, Tom, faced active duty with the London Scottish regiment. So, although dissatisfied, he produced a series of propaganda pamphlets and hoped the war might be succeeded by socialism. He also wrote a propagandistic play about the 1914 German destruction of Louvain entitled War is War, published in 1919 but unperformed. After the war he worked with various precursor organizations to the League of Nations, and became, for example, part-time secretary for the League of Free Nations Association.

Archer was, however, unimpressed by post-war drama, although he saw potential in John Galsworthy's The Skin Game (1920). Ironically, when Archer himself wrote a play in this period it was the melodramatic and highly successful The Green Goddess (Philadelphia, 1920; London, 1923). He candidly admitted the play, inspired by a dream, had little literary value and that it was essentially a money-spinner for his old age. He was still advocating improvement in the theatre, as his work in revitalizing the Memorial Theatre at Stratford upon Avon and his Old Drama and the New (1923) attest.

Archer's career ended rather abruptly when a cancerous tumour was discovered in his left kidney. On 20 December 1924 he underwent an operation in a London nursing home (56 Hallam Street) to remove it, and he died there of post-operative complications on 27 December. Against his wishes, his wife arranged a small funeral three days later at All Saints' Church, Kings Langley, where he was buried, which was attended by only a few family members. Elizabeth Robins and the theatrical profession (except for E. A. Baughan representing the Critics' Circle) were absent.

Archer was a clear, logical man whom some saw as too narrowly rationalistic; however, he possessed perception, intuition, and imagination. As a drama critic he was enormously influential, not least because he reviewed plays for virtually all his professional life. He had his blind spots, as in his failure to understand Chekhov, Strindberg, and Shaw, but he was incorruptibly honest and unwaveringly committed to the improvement of what fascinated him most, the theatre. His pioneering advocacy of Ibsen in England cannot be underestimated (he wrote more than 175 pieces about Ibsen), although his other contributions to the theatre are equally valuable.


  • P. Whitebrook, William Archer: a biography (1993)
  • T. Postlewait, Prophet of the new drama: William Archer and the Ibsen campaign (1986)
  • C. Archer, William Archer: life, work and friendships (1931)
  • H. Schmid, The dramatic criticism of William Archer (1964)
  • M. Quinn, ‘William Archer’, Modern British dramatists, 1900–1945, ed. S. Weintraub, DLitB, 10 (1982), 3–11
  • G. B. Shaw, ‘How William Archer impressed Bernard Shaw’, in W. Archer, Three plays (1927), foreword
  • The Times (29 Dec 1924)
  • A. B. W. [A. B. Walkley], ‘A great intellectual critic’, The Times (7 Jan 1925)


  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 45290–45297, 65376–65379
  • British Theatre Association Library, corresp. and papers
  • NL Scot., letters
  • U. Edin. L., letters
  • V&A, theatre collections
  • BL, corresp. with Max Beerbohm, Add. MS 45290, fols. 206–42
  • BL, corresp. with Joseph Conrad, Add. MS 45291, fols. 45–55
  • BL, corresp. with E. R. Dibdin, Add. MSS 65370–65375
  • BL, corresp. with John Galsworthy, Add. MS 45291, fols. 142–80
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Harley, Add. MS 45292, fols. 38–155
  • BL, corresp. with George Meredith, MS 45293, fols. 212–18
  • BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MSS 45296, 50528
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56656
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Sir Henry Bond
  • NL Scot., letters to Sir Graham Balfour
  • NL Scot., letters to Patrick Geddes
  • U. Edin. L., corresp. with Charles Sarolea
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters mainly to Henry Arthur Jones


  • E. Walker, photograph, 1891, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1893–9, repro. in Postlewait, Prophet of the new drama
  • W. Rothenstein, lithograph, 1897, BM, NPG
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1904, U. Texas
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1904, Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1908, AM Oxf.
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1911, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, Lilly Library
  • photographs, 1920–24, repro. in Archer, William Archer
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, U. Texas
  • photograph, BM; repro. in The Theatre (1886)
  • photographs, repro. in Whitebrook, William Archer

Wealth at Death

£21,691 13s. 0d.: probate, 11 May 1925, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Dictionary of Literary Biography