In June 2021, the Folger Book Club read David Nicholls’s Sweet Sorrow, a touching coming-of-age story about a teenager trying to win over a girl by participating in an amateur version of Romeo and Juliet. While researching the opening presentation, I was curious to find out what the Folger had in its collection related to amateur performance. It was through this research that I discovered the man I would like to introduce to you today: Robert Coates.
Born in Antigua in 1772, Coates was sent to England for his education. His father, Alexander, was a prosperous plantation owner, sugar merchant, and enslaver, and Robert was the only one of the nine Coates children to survive. When Alexander died in 1807, Robert inherited a large fortune, including an impressive collection of diamonds.1
Writing in 1862, Captain Rees Gronow recalled of Coates:
His dress was remarkable: in the day-time he was covered at all seasons with enormous quantities of fur; but the evening costume in which he went to the balls made a great impression, from its gaudy appearance; for his buttons as well as his knee-buckles were of diamonds.2
In addition to elaborate dress, Coates also was showy in his choice of transport, as
His love of notoriety led him to have a most singular shell-shaped carriage built, in which, drawn by two fine white horses, he was wont to parade in the park; the harness, and every available part of the vehicle (which was really handsome) were blazoned over with his heraldic device—a cock crowing, and his appearance was heralded by the gamins of London shrieking out “cock-a-doodle-doo.”3
In consequence of these choices, Robert was known as both “Diamond” and “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo” Coates, but it is a third nickname by which he is mostly remembered today: “Romeo.” 4
You see, in addition to being a flamboyant man about town, Coates fancied himself quite the actor and in 1810 took it upon himself to play Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover at a charity performance in Bath. Gronow quite ominously writes of the performance, “everybody was prepared for a failure. No one, however, anticipated the reality.”5
Highlights of the performance include a costume so snug Coates split his pants part way through, a quick snuff-break during the balcony scene that included offerings to the audience, and Coates attempting to pry Juliet’s tomb open with a crowbar, but “the clamour [from the audience] was so great the drop fell to rise no more.” 6
Amazingly, this was but the start of Coates’s career and he continued to perform across England, always as an amateur and always for charity. Writing about performances at the Cheltenham Theatre later that year, The Times commented on Coates’s “rose-colored silks, silver tissue, nodding plumes, and a profusion of jewellery [sic],” before going on to roundly pan his performance:
His delivery was uncouth, his attitude most awkward, and his emphasis uniformly misplaced . . .he alternately whined and bellowed like a Methodist preacher to the beginning of the 4th act, when the groans and hisses shewed the patience of the audience to be exhausted and the curtain was dropped. The hero, still undaunted, paraded to the front of the stage, [claiming] to be heard to the end, and he was at length carried off by force.7
He gained a reputation and began to be referred to as “The Amateur of Fashion.” A Coates performance could include scenes that were repeated or the curtain made to fall early by the vocal responses of the crowd. He routinely broke character to engage directly with his audiences and new scenes wound up being created from his antics. Death scenes could be extremely fastidious, with Coates carefully dusting the stage so as not to sully his clothing. Such scenes sometimes inspired calls from the audience for encores, which could lead to on-stage negotiations between the theatre manager and “corpse”.8 An 1811 performance of The Fair Penitent contained a sword fight where neither Coates nor his scene partner “seemed to know at which end a sword should be held.”9
The audiences showed up in droves to revel in the unintended(?) hilarity onstage, themselves disrupting the action through heckling and, at one notable performance, throwing a live rooster onstage. 10 Meanwhile, the critics complained he “ought to be taken up for counterfeiting SHAKESPEARE, and clipping the King’s English” and that “These scenes are so irrational and disgusting, that it is not easy to say whether the actor or the audience is more disgraced by them.” 11
His notoriety was such that occasionally off-stage appearances also made the papers. In 1813, he was presented to the Prince Regent “and excited an attractive curiosity through the whole courtly circle.”12 Soon after, there was a report that he received a fake invitation to a ball at Carlton House, where he arrived splendidly attired only to be turned away. Despite the embarrassment and the care of a new outfit, he “with his usual good humor, retired to a friend’s house in front of the scene . . . and enjoyed . . . the pleasure of seeing the guests go in. 13 An angry Prince Regent then invited him to view the decorations the next day. 14.
By 1817 he had exhausted the patience of theatre managers and no longer appeared at public performances, though his legacy remained. 15 The Times, deeply disappointed in Junius Booth’s 1825 performance of Richard III, lamented that Richard’s death scene “ was accompanied with such gasping, such plunging, such face-making, as we never before recollect to have witnessed on the stage, except when Mr. Romeo Coates was in the zenith of his scenic glory.”16 He appeared in 19th-century literature as a byword for ostentatious dress and terrible acting.17
It was theater that brought him fame and, remarkably, the theater that contributed to his death. On February 15, 1848 he was returning to the Drury Lane Theatre to retrieve his opera glasses when he was knocked down and run over by a hansom cab. He sustained multiple injuries, including broken ribs and though it was reported he “was suffering but little pain and seemed cheerful” he passed away from his injuries on February 21. Rather than dwell on his theatrical career, The Times remembered him as a man “held in universal esteem for his charitable character.” 18
Many people wish themselves back in time to see Richard Burbage, Sarah Bernhardt, or Lauren Olivier tread the boards. For my own part, I would gladly use my time-machine for a raucous, ridiculous, remarkable performance of Robert “Romeo” Coates.
- Banerji, Nilanjana and K. D. Reynolds, “Cotes, Robert [known as Romeo], Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Accessed Thursday, May 11, 2023.
- Gronow, Rees. “Reminiscences of Captain Gronow: Formerly of the Grenadier Guards, and M.P. for Stafford: being Anecdotes of the camp, the court, and the clubs, at the close of the last war with France. Related by himself.”. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 10 May 2023.
- Gronow. Also described in J. R. Robinson and H. H. Robinson, The life of Robert Coates (1891), pg. 46.
- Banerji and Reynolds.
- Gronow; Robinson and Robinson,. pg. 23
- The Times (London, England), September 1, 1810.
- Robinson and Robinson, pg. 159-160. Gronow reports that at Coates’s debut the audience called for him to “Die again, Romeo!” and he obliged, preparing to die a third time before the actor playing Juliet interrupted the scene. This conflicts with other reports the curtain was dropped before the end of the play.
- “Singularities of Mr. Coates;” Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham, England); Thursday, December 19, 1811.
- Robinson and Robinson, pg 111-118.
- “THE MIRROR OF FASHION,” Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, September 27, 1814; “Home News,” Cheltenham Chronicle (Cheltenham, England), Thursday, December 26, 1816.
- “Friday and Saturday’s Posts,” Northampton Mercury (Northampton, England), Saturday, February 6, 1813.
- “EPIGRAM,” Morning Post (London, England); Monday, February 8, 1813.
- Banerji and Reynolds
- Robinson and Robinson, pg. 181.
- “Drury-Lane Theatre;” The Times (London, England) Friday, October 14, 1825.
- Surr, Thomas Skinner, Russell: or, The reign of fashion, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley (London), 1830; Happiness: a tale, for the grave and the gay, Printed for Francis Westley, sold by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown (London), 1821; Wilson, Margaret Harries, Our Actresses; Or, Glances at Stage Favourites, past and Present, Smith, Elder & Co. (London), 1844; Romer, Isabella Frances, Filia Dolorosa, Richard Bentley (London), 1852.
- “CORONER’S INQUEST,” The Times (London, England), Thursday, February 24, 1848.
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