Poor Romeo!

Poor Romeo !

By

Max Beerbohm

EVEN now Bath glories in his legend, not idly, for he was the
most fantastic animal that ever stepped upon her pavement.
Were ever a statue given him (and indeed he is worthy of a
grotesque in marble), it would be put in Pulteney Street or the
Circus. I know that the palm-trees of Antigua overshadowed
his cradle, that there must be even now in Boulogne many who
set eyes on him in the time of his less fatuous declension, that he
died in London. But Mr. Coates (for of that Romeo I write)
must be claimed by none of these places. Bath saw the laughable
disaster of his début, and so, in a manner, his whole life seems to
belong to her, and the story of it to be a part of her annals.

The Antiguan was already on the brink of middle-age when he
first trod the English shore. But, for all his thirty-seven years,
he had the heart of a youth, and, his purse being yet as heavy as
his heart was light, the English sun seemed to shine gloriously
about his path and gild the letters of introduction that he
scattered everywhere. Also, he was a gentleman o f amiable,
nearly elegant mien, and something of a scholar. His father
had been the most respectable resident Antigua could show, so
that little Robert, the future Romeo, had often sat at dessert with
distinguished travellers through the Indies. But in the year 1807

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. K

old

170 Poor Romeo!

old Mr. Coates had died. As we may read in Vol. Ixxviii. of
The Gentleman's Magazine, " the Almighty, whom he alone feared,
was pleased to take him from this life, after having sustained an
untarnished reputation for seventy-three years," a passage which,
though objectionable in its theology, gives the true story of
Romeo's antecedents and disposes of the later calumnies that
declared him the son of atailor. Realising that he was now an
orphan, an orphan with not a few grey hairs, our hero had set sail
in quest of amusing adventure.

For three months he took the waters of Bath, unobtrusively,
like other well-bred visitors. His attendance was solicited for
all the most fashionable routs and at assemblies he sat always
in the shade of some titled turban. In fact, Mr. Coates was
a great success. There was an air of most romantic mystery
that endeared his presence to all the damsels fluttering fans in
the Pump Room. It set them vying for his conduct through the
mazes of the Quadrille or of the Triumph and blushing at the
sound of his name. Alas ! their tremulous rivalry lasted not long.
Soon they saw that Emma, sole daughter of Sir James Tylney
Long, that wealthy baronet, had cast a magic net about the
warm Antiguan heart. In the wake of her chair, by night and
day, Mr. Coates was obsequious. When she cried that she would
not drink the water without some delicacy to banish the iron
taste, it was he who stood by with a box of vanilla-rusks. When
he shaved his great moustachio, it was at her caprice. And his
devotion to Miss Emma was the more noted for that his own
considerable riches were proof that it was true and single. He
himself warned her, in some verses written for him by Euphemia
Boswell, against the crew of penniless admirers who surrounded
her:

Lady,

By Max Beerbohm 171

" Lady, ah ! too bewitching lady ! now beware
Of artful men that fain would thee ensnare,
Not for thy merit, but thy fortune's sake.
Give me your hand—your cash let venals take."

Miss Emma was his first love. To understand his subsequent
behaviour, let us remember that Cupid's shaft pierces most
poignantly the breast of middle age. -Not that Mr. Coates was
laughed at in Bath for a love-a-lack-a-daisy. On the contrary
his mien, his manner, were as yet so studiously correct, his speech
so reticent, that laughter had been unusually inept. The only
strange taste evinced by him was his devotion to theatricals. He
would hold forth, by the hour, upon the fine conception of such
parts as Macbeth, Othello and, especially, Romeo. Many ladies
and gentlemen were privileged to hear him recite, in this or that
drawing-room, after supper. All testified to the real fire with
which he inflamed the lines of love or hatred. His voice, his
gesture, his scholarship, were all approved. A fine symphony of
praise assured Mr. Coates that no suitor worthier than he had
ever courted Thespis. The lust for the footlights glare grew
lurid in his mothish eye. What, after all, were these poor triumphs
of the parlour ? It might be that contemptuous Emma, hearing
the loud salvos of the gallery and boxes, would call him at length
her lord.

At this time there arrived at the York House Mr. Pryse
Gordon, whose memoirs we know. Mr. Coates himself was
staying at number ** Gay Street, but was in the habit of break
fasting daily at the York House, where he attracted Mr. Gordon s
attention by " rehearsing passages from Shakespeare, with a tone
and gesture extremely striking both to the eye and the ear." Mr.
Gordon warmly complimented him and suggested that he should
give a public exposition of his art. The cheeks of the amateur

flushed

172 Poor Romeo!

flushed with pleasure. " I am ready and willing," he replied, " to
play Romeo to a Bath audience, if the manager will get up the
play and give me a good Juliet ; my costume is superb and
adorned with diamonds, but I have not the advantage of knowing
the manager, Dimonds." Pleased by the stranger s ready wit,
Mr. Gordon scribbled a note of introduction to Dimonds there
and then. So soon as he had " discussed a brace of muffins and
so many eggs," the new Romeo started for the playhouse, and that
very day bills were posted to the effect that " a Gentleman
of Fashion would make his first appearance on February 9 in
a rôle of Shakespeare." All the lower boxes were immediately
secured by Lady Belmore and other lights of Bath. " Butlers and
Abigails," it is said, " were commanded by their mistresses to take
their stand in the centre of the pit and give Mr. Coates a capital,
hearty clapping." Indeed, throughout the week that elapsed
before the premiere, no pains were spared in assuring a great
success. Miss Tylney Long showed some interest in the
arrangements. Gossip spoke of her as a likely bride.

The night came. Fashion, Virtue, and Intellect thronged the
house. Nothing could have been more cordial than the temper
of the gallery. All were eager to applaud the new Romeo.
Presently, when the varlets of Verona had brawled, there stepped
into the square—what?—a mountebank, a monstrosity. Hurrah
died upon every lip. The house was thunderstruck. Whose
legs were in those scarlet pantaloons ? Whose face grinned
over that bolster-cravat, and under that Charles II. wig and
opera-hat ? From whose shoulders hung that spangled, sky-
blue cloak ? Was this bedizened scarecrow the Amateur of
Fashion for sight of whom they had paid their shillings ? At
length a voice from the gallery cried, "Good evening, Mr.
Coates ! " and, as the Antiguan—for he it was—bowed low, the

theatre

By Max Beerbohm 173

theatre was filled with yells of merriment. Only the people in
the boxes were still silent, staring coldly at the protégé who
had played them so odious a prank. Lady Belmore rose and
called for her chariot. Her example was followed by several
ladies of rank. The rest sat spellbound, and of their number was
Miss Tylney Long, at whose rigid face many glasses were, of
course, directed. Meanwhile the play proceeded. Those lines
that were not drowned in laughter Mr. Coates spoke in the
most foolish and extravagant manner. He cut little capers at odd
moments. He laid his hand on his heart and bowed, now to this,
now to that part of the house, always with a grin. In the
balcony-scene he produced a snuff-box, and, after taking a
pinch, offered it to the bewildered Juliet. Coming down to
the footlights, he laid it on the cushion of the stage-box and
begged the inmates to refresh themselves, and to " pass the
golden trifle on." The performance, so obviously grotesque,
was just the kind of thing to please the gods. The limp of
Vulcan could not have called laughter so unquenchable from their
lips. It is no trifle to set Englishmen laughing, but once you
have done it, you can hardly stop them. Act after act of the
beautiful love-play was performed without one sign of satiety
from the seers of it. The laughter rather swelled in volume.
Romeo died in so ludicrous a way that a cry of " encore " arose
and the death was actually twice repeated. At the fall of the
curtain there was prolonged applause. Mr. Coates came forward,
and the good-humoured public pelted him with fragments of the
benches. One splinter struck his right temple, inflicting a scar, of
which Mr. Coates was, in his old age, not a little proud. Such is
the traditional account of this curious début. Mr. Pryse Gordon,
however, in his memoirs tells another tale. He professes to have
seen nothing peculiar in Romeo's dress, save its display of fine

diamonds,

174 Poor Romeo!

diamonds, and to have admired the whole interpretation. The
attitude of the audience he attributes to a hostile cabal. John R.
and Hunter H. Robinson, in their memoir of Romeo Coates,
echo Mr. Pryse Gordon's tale. They would have done well to
weigh their authorities more accurately.

I had often wondered at this discrepancy between document
and tradition. Last Spring, when I was in Bath for a few days,
my mind brooded especially on the question. Indeed, Bath, with
her faded memories, her tristesse, drives, one to reverie. Fashion
no longer smiles from her windows nor dances in her sunshine,
and in her deserted parks the invalids build up their constitutions.
Now and again, as one of the frequent chairs glided past me, I
wondered if its shadowy freight were the ghost of poor Romeo. I
felt sure that the traditional account of his début was mainly correct.
How could it, indeed, be false ? Tradition is always a safer guide
to truth than is the tale of one man. I might amuse myself here,
in Bath, by verifying my notion of the début or proving it false.

One morning I was walking through a narrow street in the
western quarter of Bath, and came to the window of a very little
shop, which was full of dusty books, prints, and engravings. I
spied in one corner of it the discoloured print of a queer, lean
figure, posturing in a garden. In one hand this figure held a
snuff-box, in the other an opera-hat. Its sharp features and wide
grin, flanked by luxuriant whiskers, looked strange under a
Caroline wig. Above it was a balcony and a lady in an attitude
of surprise. Beneath it were these words, faintly lettered :
Bombastes Coates wooing the Peerless Capulet, that's 'nough (that
snuff)
1809. I coveted the print. I went into the shop.

A very old man peered at me and asked my errand. I pointed
to the print of Mr. Coates, which he gave me for a few shillings,
chuckling at the pun upon the margin.

Ah,

By Max Beerbohm 175

" Ah," he said, " they re forgetting him now, but he was a fine
figure, a fine sort of figure."

" You saw him ? "

" No, no. I'm only seventy. But I've known those who saw
him. My father had a pile of such prints."

" Did your father see him ? " I asked, as the old man furled my
treasure and tied it with a piece of tape.

" My father, sir, was a friend of Mr. Coates," he said. " He
entertained him in Gay Street. Mr. Coates was my father's lodger
all the months he was in Bath. A good tenant, too. Never
eccentric under my father's roof—never eccentric."

I begged the old bookseller to tell me more of Mr. Coates. It
seemed that his father had been a citizen of some consequence and
had owned a house in modish Gay Street, where he let lodgings.
Thither, by the advice of a friend, Mr. Coates had gone so soon as
he arrived in the town, and had stayed there down to the day after
his début, when he left for London.

" My father often told me that Mr. Coates was crying bitterly
when he settled the bill and got into his travelling-chaise. He'd
come back from the playhouse the night before as cheerful as
could be. He'd said he didn't mind what the public thought of
his acting. But in the morning a letter was brought for him,
and when he read it he seemed to go quite mad."

" I wonder what was in the letter ! " I asked. " Did your
father never know who sent it ? "

"Ah," my greybeard rejoined, "that's the most curious thing.
And it s a secret. I can t tell you."

He was not as good as his word. I bribed him delicately with
the purchase of more than one old book. Also, I think he was
flattered by my eager curiosity to learn his long-pent secret. He
told me that the letter was brought to the house by one of the

footmen

176 Poor Romeo!

footmen of Sir John Tilney Long, and that his father himself
delivered it into the hands of Mr. Coates.

" When he had read it through, the poor gentleman tore it
into many fragments and stood staring before him, pale as a
ghost. I must not stay another hour in Bath, he said. When
he was gone, my father (God forgive him !) gathered up all the
scraps of the letter and for a long time he tried to piece them
together. But there were a great many of them, and my father
was not a scholar, though he was affluent."

"What became of the scraps?" I asked. "Did your father
keep them ? "

"Yes, he did. And I used to try, when I was younger, to
make out something from them. But even I never seemed to
get near it. I've never thrown them away, though. They're in
a box."

I got them for a piece of gold that I could ill spare—some
score or so of shreds of yellow paper traversed with pale ink. The
joy of the archaeologist with an unknown papyrus, of the detective
with a clue, surged in me. Indeed, I was not sure whether I was
engaged in private inquiry or in research ; so recent, so remote
was the mystery. After two days labour, I marshalled the elusive
words. This is the text of them :

MR. COATES, SIR, They say Revenge is sweet. I am fortunate to find it is so.
I have compelled you to be far more a Fool than you made me at the
fete-champetre of Lady B. & I, having accomplished my aim, am
ready to forgive you now, as you implored me on the occasion of the
fete. But pray build no Hope that I, forgiving you, will once more
regard you as my Suitor. For that cannot ever be. I decided you
should show yourself a Fool before many people. But such Folly
docs not commend your hand to mine. Therefore desist your irksome

attention

By Max Beerbohm 177

attention &, if need be, begone from Bath. I have punished you,
& would save my eyes the trouble to turn away from your person.
I pray that you regard this epistle as privileged and private.

E. T. L. 10 of February.

The letter lies before me, as I write. It is written throughout
in a firm and very delicate Italian hand. Under the neat initials
is drawn, instead of the ordinary nourish, an arrow, and the
absence of any erasure in a letter of such moment suggests a
calm, deliberate character and perhaps rough copies. I did not
at the time suffer my fancy to linger over the tessilated document.
I set to elucidating the reference to the fete-champetre. As I
retraced my footsteps to the little book-shop, I wondered if I
should find any excuse for the cruel faithlessness of Emma Tilney
Long.

The bookseller was greatly excited when I told him I had
recreated the letter. He was very eager to see it. I did not
pander to his curiosity. He even offered to buy the article back
at cost price. I asked him if he had ever heard, in his youth, of
any scene that had passed between Miss Tilney Long and Mr.
Coates at some fete-champetre. The old man thought for some
time, but he could not help me. Where then, I asked him, could
I search old files of local newspapers ? He told me that there
were supposed to be many such files mouldering in the archives of
the Town Hall.

I secured access, without difficulty, to these files. A whole
day I spent in searching the copies issued by this and that
journal during the months that Romeo was in Bath. In the
yellow pages of these forgotten prints I came upon many compli-
mentary allusions to Mr. Coates : "The visitor welcomed (by all
our aristocracy) from distant Ind," " the ubiquitous," " the charit-

able

178 Poor Romeo!

able riche" Of his " forthcoming impersonation of Romeo
and Juliet " there were constant puffs, quite in the modern manner.
The accounts of his début all showed that Mr. Pryse Gordon's
account of it was fabulous. In one paper there was a bitter attack
on " Mr. Gordon, who was responsible for this insult to Thespian
art, the gentry, and the people, for he first arranged the whole
production
"—an extract which makes it clear that this gentleman.
had a good motive for his version of the affair.....

But I began to despair of ever learning what happened at the
fete-champetre. There were accounts of " a grand garden party,
whereto Lady Belper, on March the twenty-eighth, invited a
host of fashionable persons." The names of Mr. Coates and of
" Sir James Tilney Long and his daughter " were duly recorded
in the lists. But that was all. I turned at length to a tiny file,
consisting of five copies only, Bladud's Courier, Therein I found
this paragraph, followed by some scurrilities which I will not
quote :

" Mr. C**t*s, who will act Romeo (Wherefore art thou Romeo ?) this
coining week, for the pleasure of his fashionable circle, incurred the
contemptuous wrath of his Lady Fair at the Fete. It was a sad pity
she entrusted him to hold her purse while she fed the gold-fishes. He
was very proud of the honour till the gold fell from his hand among
the gold-fishes. How appropriate was the misadventure ! But Miss
Black Eyes, angry at her loss and her swain s clumsiness, cried : Jump
into the pond, sir, and find my purse, instanter ! Several wags en-
couraged her, and the ladies were of the opinion that her adorer should
certainly dive for the treasure. Alas, the fellow said, I cannot
swim, Miss. But tell me how many guineas you carried and I will
make them good to yourself. There was a great deal of laughter at
this encounter, and the haughty damsel turned on her heel, nor did she
vouchsafe another word to her elderly lover.

"When

By Max Beerbohm 179

When recreant man
Meets lady's wrath, &c. &c."

So the story of the début was complete ! Was ever a lady more
inexorable, more ingenious, in her revenge ? One can fancy the
poor Antiguan going to the Baronet's house next day with a
bouquet of flowers and passionately abasing himself, craving her
forgiveness. One can fancy the wounded vanity of the girl, her
shame that people had mocked her for the disobedience of her
suitor. Revenge, as her letter shows, became her one thought.
She would strike him through his other love, the love of Thespis.
" I have compelled you," she wrote afterwards, in her bitter
triumph, " to be a greater Fool than you made me." She, then,
it was that drove him to his public absurdity ; she who insisted
that he should never win her unless he sacrificed his dear longing
for stage-laurels and actually pilloried himself upon the stage. The
wig, the pantaloons, the snuff-box, the grin, were all conceived, I
fancy, in her pitiless spite. It is possible that she did but say :
" The more ridiculous you make yourself, the more hope for you."
But I do not believe thac Mr. Coates, a man of no humour, con-
ceived the means himself. They were surely hers.

It is terrible to think of the ambitious amateur in his bedroom,
secretly practising hideous antics or gazing at his absurd apparel
before a mirror. How loth must he have been to desecrate the
lines he loved so dearly and had longed to declaim in all their
beauty and their resonance ! And then, at the daily rehearsals,
with how sad a smile must he have received the compliments of
Mr. Dimonds on his fine performance, knowing how different it
would all be " on the night ! " Nothing could have steeled him
to the ordeal but his great love. He must have wavered, had
not the exaltation of his love protected him. The jeers of the mob

must

180 Poor Romeo!

must have been music in his hearing, his wounds love-symbols.
Then came the girl s cruel contempt of his martyrdom.

Aphrodite, who has care of lovers, did not spare Miss Tylney
Long. She made her love, a few months after, one who married
her for her fortune and broke her heart. In years of misery
the wayward girl worked out the penance of her unpardonable sin,
dying, at length, in poverty and despair. Into the wounds of him
who had so truly loved her was poured, after a space of fourteen
years, the balsam of another love. On the 6th of September 1823,
at St. George's, Hanover Square, Mr. Coates was married to Miss
Anne Robinson, who was a faithful and devoted wife to him till
he died.

Meanwhile, the rejected Romeo did not long repine. Two
months after the tragedy at Bath, he was at Brighton, mingling
with all the fashionable folk and giving admirable recitations at
routs. He was seen every day on the Parade, attired in an extra-
vagant manner, very different to that he had adopted in Bath. A
pale-blue surtout, tasselled Hessians, and a cocked hat were the
most obvious items of his costume. He also affected a very
curious tumbril, shaped like a shell and richly gilded. In this he
used to drive around, every afternoon, amid the gapes of the popu-
lace. It is evident that, once having tasted the fruit of notoriety,
he was loth to fall back on simpler fare. He had become a prey
to the love of absurd ostentation. A lively example of dandyism
unrestrained by taste, he parodied in his person the foibles of Mr.
Brummell and the King. His diamonds and his equipage and other
follies became the gossip of every newspaper in England. Nor
did a day pass without the publication of some little rigmarole
from his pen. Wherever there was a vacant theatre—were it in
Cheltenham, Birmingham, or any other town—he would
engage it for his productions. One night he would play his favourite

part,

By Max Beerbohm 181

part, Romeo, with reverence and ability. The next, he would
repeat his first travesty in all its hideous harlequinade. Indeed,
there can be little doubt that Mr. Coates, with his vile perform-
ances, must be held responsible for the decline of dramatic art in
England and the invasion of the amateur. The sight of such
folly, strutting unabashed, spoilt the prestige of the theatre. To-
day our stage is filled with tailors dummy heroes, with heroines
who have real curls and can open and shut their eyes, and, at a
pinch, say "mamma" and "papa." We must blame the Antiguan,
I fear, for their existence. It was he—the rascal !—who first
spread that scenae sacra fames. Some say that he was a schemer
and impostor, feigning eccentricity for his private ends. They are
quite wrong. Mr. Coates was a very good man. He never made
a penny out of his performances ; he even lost many hundred
pounds. Moreover, as his speeches before the curtain and his
letters to the papers show, he took himself quite seriously. Only
the insane take themselves quite seriously.

It was the unkindness of his love that maddened him. But he
lived to be the lightest-hearted of lunatics, and caused great
amusement for many years. Whether we think of him in his
relation to history or psychology, dandiacal or dramatic art, he is a
salient, pathetic figure. That he is memorable for his defects, not
for his qualities, I know. But Romeo, in the tragedy of his wild
love and frail intellect, in the folly that stretched the corners of
his "peculiar grin" and shone in his diamonds and was emblazoned
upon his tumbril, is more suggestive than some sages. He was so
fantastic an animal that Oblivion were indeed amiss. If no more,
he was a great Fool. In any case, it would be fun to have seen him.





MLA citation: Beerbohm, Max. "Poor Romeo!." The Yellow Book 9 (April 1896): 169-181. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2013. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV9_beerbohm_romeo.html