Hall of Hams #101: Richard Mansfield


Today is the birthday of the great thespian Richard Mansfield (1857-1907).

Mansfield’s background is every bit as interesting as his stage career (which I can’t wait to get to, either). His maternal grandfather, Joseph Rudersdorff was a German violinist, who worked as a court musician for the Russian Imperial family. Mansfield’s mother Erminia Rudersdorff, who was born and raised in Russia, was an internationally famous opera singer. Mansfield’s father was a British wine dealer; because of his work, Mansfield was born in Berlin and spent his early life on the German island of Heligoland, which was a British possession from 1814 to 1890. (It would be easy to digress and talk about the fascinating history of this island. It is ethnically and culturally Frisian, a sort of lingual and cultural mid-point between England and mainland Germany.)

Though (much like the later John Barrymore) Mansfield started out as a painter, there were more lucrative opportunities on the stage and his family background made the musical theatre a natural place for him to gravitate to. I got his early experience in the family-oriented High Victorian “German Reed Entertainments”, to which W.S. Gilbert was one of the contributors. From here it was natural for him to appear with the D’Oyly Carte company, where he starred from 1879 to 1881 in the original London productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Sorcerer. His association with the company would last until 1886; in the intervening years he toured America in productions of The MikadoIolanthe, and Planquette’s Rip Van Winkle. These were alternated with productions by other companies in England and America.

In 1887, he created the first stage characterization of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Madison Square Theatre, a performance that was so popular it was later brought to London and then back to Broadway. The London performance coincided with Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders, creating a sort of association of the two in the public’s mind — a sort of double-edged sword of notoriety.

By now he had become an actor-manager and began to make a reputation playing the great roles of Shakespeare: Richard III (1889 and 1905), Henry V (1900), Julius Caesar (1902), and The Merchant of Venice (1905). He was an early champion of Shaw in America (Arms and the Man, 1894 and The Devil’s Disciple, 1897). Other triumphs included Cyrano de Bergerac (1898-1899), Monsieur Beaucaire (1901), The Misanthrope (1905) and the original U.S. production of Peer Gynt (1907). His wife Beatrice Cameron (a.k.a. Mrs. Richard Mansfield) was often his co-star.

Mansfield was taken in his prime at the comparatively young age of 50 (liver cancer). It’s especially vexing because we don’t get to see him on film. Cinema had existed for about a decade at the time he expired, but he hadn’t gotten around to it. While top stage actors had a well-known prejudice against films, many or most of them eventually succumbed to the temptation, which is why we have the pleasure of seeing some of Mansfield’s contemporaries, like William Gillette and Sarah Bernhardt on film today. If Mansfield had lived another ten or 20 years, he might have gotten around to it as well. Instead we must content us with written accounts and photographs. But truly, if we start lamenting the lateness of the invention of cinema, why stop there? Because personally, I would like to see some dinosaur footage.

For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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