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Robert Courtneidge


COURTNEIDGE, Robert (b Glasgow, 29 June 1859; d Brighton, 6 April 1939). Producer for the British stage whose up-and-down career was highlighted by his introduction of Tom Jones and The Arcadians.

Courtneidge began his theatrical career as an amateur actor in his native Scotland before winning supporting roles at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester, then with the Charles Dillon and Barry Sullivan companies, and in the musical theatre both in companies touring the Gaiety Theatre musicals and with Kate Santley in her Vetah (1886, Hamet Abdulerim Abensellan). In 1892 he toured to Australia, playing comic roles in the Gaiety company's Carmen Up-to-Data (Zuniga), Faust Up-to-Date (Valentine), Miss Esmeralda (Gringoire) and Joan ofArc (Jacques) and stayed to appear (18934) with Williamson, Garner and Musgrove in La Mascotte (Rocco), Paul Jones (Petit-Pierre) and opposite Ethel Haydon in pantomime. His other roles as a musical performer included Pepin in the British production of Coedes's Girouette (1889) and Major Styx in the Scots musical Pim Pom.

In 1896 Courtneidge became manager of the Prince's Theatre (Manchester) and, as such, a prominent member of the Provincial Managers' Association. In 1898, in a quest for material to fill their houses, the PMA ventured into production, with Courtneidge as their executive. The extensive success of the George Dance/Carl Kiefert musical The Gay Grisette, which Courtneidge produced and directed for them, led him to a directing assignment for George Edwardes on the original production of Ivan Caryll's Madame Sans-Gêne operetta, The Duchess of Dantzic (conducted by Kiefert), and then to an extended career as a producer-director. He began, following his resignation from his Manchester post in 1904, with the production (w Arthur Hart and Pat Malone) of The Blue Moon at Northampton.

Courtneidge mounted a revised version of this piece, starring the young Florence Smithson, in London the next year and, following a successful season, it was picked up by the Shuberts for New York. He followed up with the farcical and highly successful The Dairymaids (1906), Edward German's beautifully crafted Tom Jones (1907) and, in 1909, mounted his biggest hit, Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot's The Arcadians (1909).

The Mousmé, the successor to The Arcadians, proved a very expensive semi-failure for its producer, so far used to nothing but success, but versions of Fall's Der liebe Augustin staged as Princess Caprice (1912) and Ivan Caryll's American musical comedy Oh! Oh! Delphine (1913) did altogether better. The home-made musical comedy The Pearl Girl was something of a disappointment, but just when it seemed that Courtneidge might have another genuine hit on his hands with The Cinema Star, the war intervened, and this German musical comedy, a version of Jean Gilbert's Die Kino-Königin, was forced to close its London run.

From there on things went badly for Courtneidge. The very appreciable but indifferently cast My Lady Frayle failed to take on, a trivial piece called The Light Blues (which counted the young Nöel Coward in its cast) was a full-scale flop, and the rather stiff-necked patriotic operetta Young England went nowhere towards recouping anything lost. The producer turned his attentions, instead, to the provinces and to less expensive productions and put out Oh, Caesar! (an early appearance for the young Evelyn Laye) and the music-hally Petticoat Fair, Fancy Fair and Too Many Girls, extravaganzas which played theatres and variety houses indifferently. As a director he fared better, with his staging of the long-running hit The Boy for Alfred Butt at the Adelphi Theatre.

In 1920 Courtneidge again ventured into the West End with a share (w MacDonald and Young) of Cuvillier's short-lived The Sunshine of the World, and attempted slightly stiffer stuff with the production of the comic opera The Rebel Maid, but monetary considerations soon forced him back into the provinces where the old-fashioned Gabrielle (1921) proved a continuous money-spinner for several years and The Little Duchess something less of one.

He returned to London several more times with plays, but on only two further occasions with musicals, as director of Lehar's The Blue Mazurka (1927) for James White at Daly's and as producer-director of an unimpressive Chopin pot-pourri called The Damask Rose (1930). He made one final provincial venture with the musical Lavender, but none of these proved a hit and he never again reached the heights of his earliest days as a producer and of The Arcadians.

Courtneidge was regularly credited with co-authoring status on a number of his shows, although it is doubtful whether his input as a writer was much greater than needed to allow him to claim a continuing interest in the copyright and royalties of the pieces in question. His name appears on some material for The Dairymaids, Tom Jones, The Arcadians, TheMousme, Too Many Girls, Gabrielle, The Little Duchess, The Damask Rose, Lavender, and as the sole author of Petticoat Fair and Fancy Fair, as well as on the libretto of The Babes and the Baron, a revamped version of a Princes' Manchester pantomime played for a short run in New York.

A seriously professed socialist, Courtneidge was known for giving opportunities to brothers in conviction most notably the left-wing journalist turned highly effective librettist, Alexander M Thompson and he is said to have given a practical turn to his beliefs by becoming the first producer to pay chorus members for rehearsals and to give his casts holidays with pay. However, he showed less consideration for his suppliers: he was bankrupted several times, leaving them to whistle for their money whilst he started up operations once again with a clean slate.

Autobiography: I Was an Actor Once (Hutchinson, London, 1930)


Adapted from The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre by Kurt Gänzl.

Page created 29 August 2004