The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Frederick Robson as 'Medea'

Frederick Robson as 'Medea'

Many commentators considered Frederick Robson the greatest comic actor of his day and his Medea his finest creation. A burlesque at the Olympic by R.B. Brough, it travestied Adelaide Ristori’s coeval success at the Lyceum but Robson’s interpretation blurred the distinction between comedy and tragedy. An anonymous reviewer writing for The Athenaeum (No.1499, 19 July 1856, page 904) thought that: 'Mr Robson, though he has become famous through burlesque, is not a burlesque actor. He is at bottom a tragedian, and his burlesque efforts result merely in exaggerations of comic expression. He rises to the sublime before he passes into the ridiculous.'

According to Robson’s obituary in London Society (October 1864):

'Can any one who remembers that strange figure, half queen, half pauper, one minute telling her woes in the querulous tone of the regular street beggar, the next turning like lightening upon the bystanders and terrifying them with her passionate voice and gestures; now with frightful effort suppressing her rage while Jason confesses his engagement to another, and now losing all control and overwhelming him with reproaches; here standing before us a woman abandoned by the world, utterly hopeless, and here gathering strength from very desperation and playing her revenge with still-increasing passion, till she breaks into that wild frenzied dance that gives grotesqueness to the whole – can any one remember this [...] and compare it with the burlesque of any other actor? The truth is Robson’s burlesque was unlike anything else of the kind. The Medea was a piece of acting that you could compare with nothing unless you went to Robson again for comparison.'

Although some theatre-goers found Ristori’s style of acting naturalist and a welcome contrast to the restrained classicism then prevailing, others considered it overblown, abandoned and melodramatic. Audiences were unsettle by the emotional intensity of Ristori’s performance yet applauded the intensity of Robson’s, which was filtered for them through one remove by his gender. Ristori herself came to see his performance and pronounced him a ‘Uomo straordinario!’

Photographed by Herbert Watkins of London.


Code: 122173
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