MARIE AND SQUIRE BANCROFT

(From Lives of Victorian Literary Figures, Pickering & Chatto, 2007)

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Lady Marie Effie Bancroft, (nee Wilton ) (1839-1921) and Sir Squire Bancroft (1841-1926) were joint actor managers of considerable note.  Squire Bancroft was the son of an oil merchant from Rotherhithe called Butterworth.  He was educated at private schools in England and France and adopted the name Bancroft when he first appeared on the stage in 1861 at the Theatre Royal Birmingham.  He continued acting in provincial companies and met Marie Wilton, his future wife in 1865.  They both had similar backgrounds in comedy and she was instrumental in his coming to London to act in A Winning Hazard at the Prince of Wales.  Squire Bancroft's favourite type of role was the 'swell' and he enjoyed playing parts like Faulkland in The Rivals.

 

Marie Wilton went on the stage as a child and made her London debut at the Lyceum in 1856 after which she successfully appeared at a number of other London theatres.  Her ambition had always been to play comedy.  She was able to borrow 1,000, took the then rather disreputable Queen's Theatre in Tottenham Street and following refurbishment opened it as the Prince of Wales.

 

The Bancrofts married in 1867 and became joint actor managers of the Prince of Wales.  Early productions were comedies such as the plays of T. W. Robertson, Society, Caste and Ours.  Gradually they turned to more serious drama with Man and Wife as their first such venture in February 1873.  They became firm friends with Collins from their early negotiations in 1871.  Other successful productions included adaptations from Sardou, a revival of The School for Scandal, Bulwer Lytton's Money and Boucicault's London Assurance.  The Bancrofts achieved a number of successes and outgrew the Prince of Wales.

 

They therefore acquired the larger Haymarket Theatre in 1879 and, after rebuilding, opened it in 1880.   There was a near riot on the first night because they took the initiative in abolishing the pit to provide more stalls.  They also established morning performances which were called 'matinees' after the French word 'matin'.  The Bancrofts were great technical innovators.  Electric light was used for the first time on the English stage to create the storm scene in Man and Wife, and the scenery gave the illusion of moving clouds.  Despite their acting skills, Marie and Squire Bancroft deliberately preferred to take only small parts such as those of Blanche Lundie and Dr Speedwell in Man and Wife.  Earlier they had seriously considered playing Miss Clack and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone but decided that it was too melodramatic for their theatre.

 

The Bancrofts continued to achieve artistic and financial success with an almost unbroken series of productions including The Rivals, and plays by Tom Taylor and Arthur Pinero.  They retired from management in 1885 with some 180,000.

 

They also introduced social reforms such as increasing the pay and improving the working conditions for their actors.  Their artistic and administrative reforms helped to make the theatre world more respectable.  Well-bred society people could attend performances and a life on the stage became an acceptable profession.

 

After retirement, Squire Bancroft gave public readings of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and raised several thousand pounds for hospital charities.  He was chairman of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a member of the Lord Chamberlain's advisory board for the licensing of plays.  He was knighted in the Jubilee honours of 1897.  The Bancrofts compiled three volumes of reminiscences which all mention Collins.  Marie Bancroft wrote three plays and a novel.

 

Marie and Squire Bancroft,  The Bancrofts: Recollections of ixty YearsJohn Murray, London, 1909.

Marie and Squire Bancroft, Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft: on and off the Stage, 2 vols, Richard Bentley & Son: London , 1888.

Squire Bancroft, Empty Chairs, John Murray, London 1925.

 

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