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Bancroft [née Wilton], Marie Effie, Lady Bancroftfree

(1839–1921)
  • George Taylor

Marie Effie Bancroft, Lady Bancroft (1839–1921)

by Barraud, 1885 [The Bancrofts: Marie Effie Bancroft (1839–1921) and Squire Bancroft (1841-1926)]

Bancroft [née Wilton], Marie Effie, Lady Bancroft (1839–1921), actress and theatre manager, was born on 12 January 1839, probably in Doncaster, the eldest of the six daughters of Robert Pleydell Wilton (1800–1873), a provincial actor, and his wife, Georgina Jane (1818–1866), the daughter of Samuel Faulkner, proprietor of the London Morning Chronicle.

Burlesque actress

Marie Wilton was taught elocution by her mother and began performing at the age of six, playing the emperor of Lilliput in a pantomime, Gulliver's Travels (Manchester, 1846), followed by Fleance in Macbeth and Prince Arthur in King John. She won praise from both Macready and Charles Kemble for these Shakespearian roles. In 1856 Charles Dillon cast her in the important part of his son Henri in the long-running melodrama Belphegor by Charles Webb at the London Lyceum. By 1858 she was playing both boys and young girls in the burlesques of H. J. Byron at the Strand Theatre. Although modern commentators suggest that sexual titillation was the main appeal of cross-dressing in the Victorian theatre, there was a long tradition of actresses playing adolescent boys in serious drama, and, according to Charles Dickens, Wilton as Pippo in Byron's The Maid and the Magpie was 'so stupendously like a boy, and unlike a woman, that it is perfectly free from offence'. The training in both technique and characterization gained from playing en travestie stood Wilton in good stead throughout her career. Tom Robertson's description of the 'burlesque actress' in the Illustrated Times (1860) indicates the range of talents expected of such a performer:

She can waltz, polk, dance a pas seul or a sailor's hornpipe, La Sylphide, or Genu-ine Transatlantic Cape Cod Skedaddle, with equal grace and spirit; and as for acting she can declaim à la Phelps or Fechter; is serious, droll; and must play farce, tragedy, opera, comedy, melodrama, pantomime, ballet, change her costume, fight a combat, make love, poison herself, die, and take one encore for a song and another for a dance, in the short space of ten minutes.

Clement Scott, a lifelong devotee, claimed that Wilton's 'genius' was matched only by that of the legendary burlesque actor Frederick Robson.

Management and marriage

However, for both professional and social reasons, Wilton did not want to remain typecast in burlesque. In 1864 she planned a management partnership with Byron, performing some burlesques, but extending the repertory beyond that of the Strand Theatre. On 15 April 1865 she opened the refurbished Queen's Theatre, Tottenham Street, as the Prince of Wales's, to which she hoped to attract a ‘respectable’ audience from the residential districts of Bloomsbury, Regent's Park, and St John's Wood. She introduced upholstered stalls into the pit, which was carpeted, and flower vases into the boxes, giving it a 'bright and bonnie appearance' (Bancroft and Bancroft, Recollections). The first season relied on the light comedies and burlesques in which she had made her reputation, but the production of Tom Robertson's Society (11 November 1865) was such a success that it 'was destined to expel burlesque from the Prince of Wales's stage and to establish a new method in authorship, decoration and acting' (Archer, 5.25). For this play she hired two actors she had worked with in Liverpool the previous summer, neither of whom had been born into the profession. The first was John Hare, a clever mimic who specialized in playing old men. The other, whose professional attraction was his manner of confident sociability, was Bancroft, Squire (1841–1926). He had been born Squire White Butterfield on 14 May 1841 in Rotherhithe, the son of Secundus Bancroft White Butterfield (d. 1846/7), an oil merchant, and his wife, Julia, the daughter of Thomas Anthony Wright. The death of his father when Squire was only five meant that he was not sent to public school, but was educated in private schools in London and France.

In search of a career, Bancroft went in 1860 to New York, where he saw E. A. Sothern create his famous caricature aristocrat, Lord Dundreary, in Our American Cousin. Sothern was not of a theatrical family, and his success may have inspired Bancroft to break with his own family to become an actor, starting in January 1861 at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, under the name of Squire Bancroft. He played at several provincial theatres, notably at Liverpool with Mr and Mrs Alfred Wigan, exponents of restrained ‘naturalistic’ acting, where he first performed with Marie Wilton. Archer described him as 'an actor of limited range, but, within that range, of remarkable intelligence, refinement and power … Quiet humour, subdued feeling and unflagging intelligence are his distinguishing qualities—what he lacks in grace he makes up for in manliness'. He also identified him as a 'sound practical businessman' (Archer, 5.31–2). He and Marie Wilton were married on 28 December 1867, at St Stephen's, Avenue Road, Primrose Hill. She had performed her last burlesque, Little Don Giovanni, earlier that year, and Bancroft replaced Byron as joint manager of the theatre. They had one son, George Pleydell Bancroft, born in 1868.

Although Wilton had initiated the policies and set the tone at the Prince of Wales's, once she and Bancroft had married he took control of the commercial business, and increasingly the artistic policy as well. He later complimented his wife that she

placed perfect confidence in my choice of plays, and accepted my opinion in all important matters, even when it chanced to be at variance with her own … She never once allowed her faith in me to be shaken by an occasional mistake.

Bancroft and Bancroft, Recollections, 125–6

They were certainly a formidable team, combining her theatrical charm with his business acumen.

'Social drama'

The success of Robertson's 'social drama' was confirmed by Caste (6 April 1867), the main attraction of which was the 'naturalism' of both staging and acting—solid doors with locks and handles, tea that came steaming out of the pot, and characters who 'looked and talked so like beings of everyday life that they were mistaken for such, and the audience had a curiosity to know how they were getting on after the fall of the curtain' (Bancroft and Bancroft, Recollections, 96). In fact the plots and sentiments of Robertson's ‘cup-and-saucer’ plays remained melodramatic, but they ideally suited the intimate size of the Prince of Wales's and the restrained playing of the company. However, the vivacious comic roles which Robertson provided for Wilton provided scope for her burlesque talents. William Archer wrote that the

practical-humorous heroines—Mary Netley, Polly Eccles, Naomi Tighe—always fell to the lot of Mrs Bancroft, whose alert and expressive face, humid sparkling eyes, and small compact figure seemed to have been expressly designed for these characters. She possessed, too, the faculty of approaching the borderline of vulgarity without overstepping it—an essential gift for the actress who has to deal with Robertsonian pertness.

Archer, 5.31

In 1871 Robertson died. He had directed his last new play for the BancroftsMP (23 April 1870), which ran for 150 performances—from his sickbed, and had attended the first night of their revival of Ours (26 November 1870), which ran for 230. These long runs enabled the Bancrofts to introduce several managerial innovations which were to become general in most London theatres. They abandoned the practice of performing several plays, with entr'acte entertainments, each night, relying instead on a single play for as long as it would sell. This shorter evening suited the ‘carriage-trade’ who wished to dine out as well as visit the theatre. In 1878, with the success of Diplomacy (from Sardou's Dora), they began to present afternoon matinées. Long runs and a relatively small company enabled the managers to improve actors' salaries—George Honey received £18 a week playing in Caste in 1867, but collected £60 for its revival in 1871—and Squire Bancroft was proud of their ‘respectable’ practice of delivering pay packets to the actors rather than have them queuing at the office.

With no more new plays from Robertson, the Bancrofts embarked on a policy of revivals—Bulwer-Lytton's Money (6 May 1872), Sheridan's The School for Scandal (4 April 1874), The Merchant of Venice (17 April 1875)—but the same production methods developed by Robertson were applied, providing settings of meticulous accuracy and acting of understated restraint. This suited the witty dialogue of Bulwer-Lytton and Sheridan, with Marie Bancroft creating 'a lady Teazle who is the fresh, genuine, impulsive maiden wedded to an old bachelor, and not the practiced actress, with all her airs and graces' (Scott, 1.580), but the Shakespeare production, although designed with advice from the artist and architect E. W. Godwin, was ill-served by the conversational tone of Charles Coghlan's Shylock. Ellen Terry's Portia, however, was highly praised—and inspired Henry Irving to recruit her for his Lyceum company.

It was only in later years, shortly before the couple acquired the Haymarket, that Squire Bancroft's own acting received genuine critical praise. After his performance of Triplet, the impoverished poet in Charles Reade's Masks and Faces, a critic remarked: 'it can no longer be said that this excellent actor is merely a “haw haw” swell' (Dramatic Review, 7 March 1875). Irving, a close social acquaintance, wanted him to act in Boucicault's The Corsican Brothers in 1880, and eventually persuaded him to play the Abbé Latour in the French Revolutionary melodrama The Dead Heart (28 September 1889). This was so successful, particularly the spectacular sabre duel (fought by two myopic actors without their glasses!) that Irving remarked to Bancroft, 'What a big name you might have made for yourself had you never come across those Robertson plays—what a pity—for your sake—for no actor can be remembered long who does not appear in classical drama' (Bancroft and Bancroft, Recollections, 333).

The Haymarket years

The Prince of Wales's lease had expired in 1880, and the Bancrofts took over the much bigger Haymarket Theatre, where they introduced similar policies aimed at 'improving the tone' of the audiences. They replaced all the 3s. 6d. pit seats with 10s. orchestra stalls, thus banishing the poorer spectators to the upper gallery. On the opening night there was a vociferous protest of 'Where's the pit?', but the days of theatre riots were past and the embourgeoisement of this once rowdy patent theatre soon prevailed. Symptomatic of their theatrical aesthetic was the new design for the Haymarket proscenium arch. It was 'set all around in an immense gilded frame, like that of some magnificent picture' (H. James, The Scenic Art, 1949, 148). The naturalistic convention of the invisible 'fourth wall', behind which the actors performed apparently oblivious of their audience, was a logical development of the Bancroft style, and foreshadowed in the live theatre the circumscribed illusion of the cinema screen.

The financial acumen with which the Bancrofts exploited their theatres was such that, even having spent £10,000 renovating the Prince of Wales's and £20,000 refurbishing the Haymarket, they were able to retire in 1885, having made a personal profit over twenty years of management of £180,000. According to Arthur Pinero it was Bancroft's rule

that expenses should not exceed one-third of the holding capacity of the theatre. If it held £1200 a week, he would not spend more than £400 on salaries and so on. He could well afford to play to houses which were not full every night.

Fyfe, 268

Retirement and reputations

However, neither Marie Wilton's popularity nor her skill had diminished with her retirement, and she returned to the stage, with her husband, under the management of their old colleague John Hare, in revivals of Diplomacy (1893) and Money (1894). She also appeared in Sardou's Fedora, with Mrs Patrick Campbell, under Herbert Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket in 1895. Her final performance was for a charity benefit, featuring act II of Robertson's Ours (1896).

Squire Bancroft was certainly respected by his fellow actors, and, when no longer in the invidious position of manager, he was often asked to arbitrate theatrical disputes and to preside at gatherings such as the celebration of Irving's knighthood in 1895. When Bancroft was himself knighted in the 1897 diamond jubilee honours it was more for his professional pre-eminence than his artistic merits. He had always been socially influential as a member of the Athenaeum and the Garrick, at a time when few actors were accepted as members, and of the more informal Lambs, Kinsmen, and Irving's own Beefsteak dining clubs. After their retirement he and Marie regularly entertained members of 'polite society' at their home, 18 Berkeley Square, London. In 1882 Bancroft, Irving, and J. L. Toole had founded the Actors' Benevolent Fund, financed by West End managements, and in 1891 Bancroft supported the Actors' Association founded by Robert Courtneige and Frank Benson. In 1906 he became its president, but was opposed by several members who felt the association was dominated by actor–managers whose interests were incompatible with the association's increasingly trade union-like activities.

Indeed Bancroft, born into a family of entrepreneurs, had brought to the theatre a strong sense of capitalist professionalism. His own companies had been run as tight businesses, and many late Victorian and Edwardian West End managers had received their tutelage under the Bancrofts. In 1900 Beerbohm Tree invited him to join the council of his Academy of Dramatic Art (later RADA), where he endowed the Bancroft gold medal for the most outstanding student of the year.

Marie Wilton's career epitomized the general change in the London theatrical scene during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Brought up in the brash popular traditions of burlesque and melodrama, she contributed both as an actress and as a manager in partnership with her husband to a social transformation. They gave theatre-going a middle-class respectability, as the materialistic literalism of their productions appealed to middle-class audiences more than the raw emotions of mid-Victorian spectacular melodrama. They were not the only innovators, indeed several other husband and wife teams—the Wigans, the Kendals, and the Vezins—had championed domestic dramas set in respectable society, but the Bancrofts, having Tom Robertson as their house playwright and stage director and adopting commercial strategies appropriate to the changing market, won the acclaim of Clement Scott: 'The Bancrofts and the Bancrofts alone, must have the full credit for what has been justly called the renaissance of English dramatic art …'. Less extravagantly he recorded that

their unselfishness is beyond question … she who could make a play, and has never marred one, again and again effaced herself when it was deemed necessary, and, with a rare generosity extended a helping hand to a younger generation … Apart from the nobility of it all, it proved a most remunerative plan … The Bancrofts [were] pioneers of what is now known as ‘natural acting’ … and earned the confidence of the learned and liberal professions.

Scott, 2.362–4

Lady Bancroft remained a respected member of her profession, though in retirement she channelled her irrepressible energy into ‘good works’—she was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1885—and into writing three plays and a novel, The Shadow of Neeme (1912). She died at the Burlington Hotel, Folkestone, on 22 May 1921. Sir Squire Bancroft survived her for five years, and died at his flat, A1, The Albany, Piccadilly, London, on 19 April 1926.

Sources

Archives

  • King's Cam., letters to Oscar Browning

Likenesses

  • H. Watkins, albumen prints, 1856–9, NPG
  • Count Gleichen, bust, exh. RA 1880, Garr. Club
  • Barraud, photograph, 1885, NPG [see illus.]
  • T. J. Barker, oils, NPG
  • Spy [L. Ward], lithograph, repro. in VF (1891)
  • Walery, photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£3596 10s. 4d.: administration, 26 Sept 1921, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£174,535 4s. 11d.—Squire Bancroft: probate, 6 July 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales