wherefore art thou?

Robert “Romeo” Coates (1772-1848) was the son of a wealthy sugar planter in Antigua.

more Antigua carnival images here

As a young adult, he emigrated to England and became an amateur actor. His self-image included a highly mistaken belief in his own thespian prowess. After professional theatrical producers failed to cast Coates in significant roles, he used his family fortune to subsidize his own productions in which he was both the producer and the lead actor.

His favourite part was Shakespeare’s Romeo, hence his widely-used nickname. He appeared in a costume of his own design: a flowing sky blue cloak spangled with sequins, red pantaloons, an enormous cravat and a plumed hat – not to mention dozens of diamonds – which was hardly suitable for the part. The audience cracked up with laughter.

Romeo Coates found here

***The glittering outfit was so tight that his limbs bulged out like sausages. In the middle of the play his pants burst open at the seat. Audience members watched in disbelief at the sudden extrusion of a quantity of white linen which was visible whenever he turned around.

image found here

Coates was convinced he was the best actor in business yet he forgot his lines all the time and invented new scenes and dialogue on the spot. He loved dramatic death scenes and would repeat them – or any other scenes he happened to take a fancy to – three to four times over.

Romeo and Juliet by Annie Leibovitz

At the end of his first appearance as Romeo he came back in with a crowbar and tried to pry open Capulet’s tomb. In another of his antics he made the actress playing Juliet so embarrassed that she clung to a pillar and refused to leave the stage. Eventually no actress would agree to play the part with him.

image found here

His fame spread and people would flock to see whether he really was as bad as they had heard. In 1811, when he played the part of Lothario in The Fair Penitent in London’s Haymarket Theatre, the theatre had to turn thousands of would-be spectators away. In another performance in Richmond, Surrey, several audience members had to be treated for excessive laughter.

image found here

Outside the stage Coates continued to amaze the public with his taste in clothing. He wore furs even in hot weather. He went out in a custom-built carriage with a heraldic device of a crowing cock and the motto “While I Live, I’ll Crow”. In receptions he glittered from head to toe with diamond buttons and buckles. His predilection for diamonds of all kinds gave him the nickname “Diamond Coates“.

Joe Namath in fur coat found here

His ridicule and fame increased with each month. “At Home”, a spoof of Coates’s acting, ran nightly at Covent Garden Theatre. When an appearance by “The Celebrated Amateur of Fashion” was promised after a performance of Othello, curious audience members waited back to see him.

The curtain rose to reveal Coates sitting at a table drinking a glass of wine. He strolled to the edge of the stage, drank to the audience’s health and launched into a poetic recitation. A single actor onstage drinking wine and inviting his audience to join him was unlike any performance ever seen at Haymarket before. The crowd roared its approval.

image found here

Eventually though, his plantations on Antigua suffered reversals and he found himself with less income to flaunt. His star faded from the British stage and he retired in his fifties, married and moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Sometimes when a visitor recalled the old days in London, he could be coaxed into giving one of his famous recitations, but he refused to ever take to the stage again.

*** excerpt from Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins

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33 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. it looks like a case of no publicity is bad publicity

  2. And his grandson, Liberace, inherited his dress sense.

  3. Coaxed into one of his famous recitations in which he forgot his lines, presumably, poor deluded fool

  4. “treated for excessive laughter” Huh? I’d like to be treated TO excessive laughter.

    • I’ll treat you Syncy xx

  5. I think I’ve met a couple of his spiritual sucessors right here in Cape Town.

  6. They have similar Carnival parades here in New York and I always thing think that the costumes leave little to the imagination. I like to peel away the mystery.

    I saw a vanity production once of Romeo and Juliet that was paid for by the woman who played Juliet’s husband. She was about 35 years old! It was absurd!

    Banvard’s Folly is a great book! I thought I was the only one who bought a copy. I met Paul Collins at a signing. A very quiet guy.

    • Yes it is a great book, it deserves a wider audience

  7. Coates was a genius! He invented Improv!

  8. It is amazing how many people will still today flock to see no talent actors and sing their praises while others languish in obscurity. Gotta have a hook.

  9. the florence foster jenkins of his day.

    • Oh she was a doozy wasn’t she!

  10. And still he would be more rounded actor than Keanu Reeves… Coates appeared in a historical novel I read a few months ago. What a truly entertaining experience it must have been to see him

    • Hey, don’t knock The Canoe! Some of the best laughs I’ve ever had belong to him.

      • I loved him in My Own Private Idaho

  11. Hmmm…
    At first I thought you might be describing Charlie Sheen’s upcoming one-man show, N.M.! 🙂

    • Poor Charlie, someone please please take his webcam away

  12. The glittering outfit was so tight that his limbs bulged out like sausages.
    So this style of dress is nothing new then?

    • Old as the hills Scarlet, old as the hills

  13. A legend in his own mind! Reminds me of loony-millionaire-turned-murderer John DuPont, only with a theatrical bent.

  14. Finally! – finally I’ve found someone with the same view of Romeo as I!

  15. I was 26 before I realised that a thespian is not a rug muncher with a serious lisp.

  16. That is a Romeo I could watch from behind for hours I think. 🙂

    • I know what you mean… luscious as a peach

  17. So shows a snowy cock trooping with crows.

    • Aargh… I need a drink to untwist my tongue now

  18. “she clung to a pillar and refused to leave the stage”

    Sounds like my wedding.

    • Ha… wish I’d been there for that!

  19. He sounds fantastic, now where’s that time machine, Queenie must have hidden it again.

    The King

    • I’ve got it over here. Under the bed.

  20. I thought the punch line would be he’s related to Charlie Sheen.

  21. This sounds an awful lot like my acting style. I’m starting to wonder whether the crowd was laughing with me or at me.

  22. I used to have a highly mistaken belief in my own lesbian prowess.

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