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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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