Robertson, Agnes (1833–1916)
Robertson, Agnes (1833–1916)
Scottish actress . Name variations: Agnes Kelly Robertson. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 25, 1833; died in London, England, on November 6, 1916; daughter of Thomas Robertson; married Dionysius Lardner (Dion) Boucicault, also known as Dion Boucicault the Elder (1822–1890, an actor and dramatist), in 1853 (divorced 1889); children: Dion William; Eva (or Eve) Boucicault; Darley George ("Dot") Boucicault, later known as Dion Boucicaultthe Younger (1859–1929, an actor, manager and stage director who married actress Irene Vanbrugh ); Patrice Boucicault; Nina Boucicault (1867–1950, an actress); Aubrey Boucicault (an actor and writer).
Born on December 25, 1833, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Agnes Robertson was said to have begun her acting career at age ten, with an appearance at the Theatre Royal in Aberdeen. Little is known about her early years, although some reports say she may have acted with Fanny Kemble and William Charles Macready. In 1850, at age 16, Robertson appeared on stage at the Princess' Theatre in London, and may have come under the guardianship of the theater's manager Charles Kean at this time. During her three-year association with the Princess' Theatre, she appeared in several plays, including The Vampire and The Prima Donna by prolific Irish playwright Dion Boucicault the Elder. A romance developed between Robertson and Boucicault, and when she left for America in August 1853, he followed her a few weeks later. Though no date is known, it is generally assumed that they married shortly before, or shortly after, their move to the United States.
Robertson's first North American appearance was in Montreal, Canada, in September, followed by her New York debut at Burton's Theater on October 22, 1853, playing multiple roles in The Young Actress, a musical farce adapted by Boucicault. She quickly became one of the most popular actresses in America. Her petite beauty and the sweetness she conveyed through characters like Jessie, the Scottish servant maid in Jessie Brown, or The Relief of Luck now (1858), and Eily O'Connor in the enduringly popular The Colleen Bawn (1860), earned her the nickname "the fairy star." Boucicault wrote most of the plays in which she appeared, and he tailored her characters to complement her unique charm, particularly as a sweet and simple peasant girl, and occasionally showcasing her voice in ballads. Robertson also starred in successful productions of Dot and Smike (1859), The Octoroon (1859), and Jeanie Dreams (also called The Heart of Midlothian, 1860). In 1860, Robertson returned with Boucicault to England, where she was known as "the Pocket Venus" by theater audiences. Her 12-year stay in England included roles in Boucicault's Arrah-na-Pogue (1865) and The Long Strike (1866). In 1872, she returned to America for a year-long revival of some of her most popular roles.
The following two decades proved to be personally tumultuous for Robertson as she endured Boucicault's repeated infidelities. The two were often apart, with Robertson acting principally in London and Boucicault residing in the United States. She went so far as to initiate divorce proceedings, but halted the process in 1883. The final straw, however, occurred in 1885, when Boucicault departed for an Australian tour with two of their children and Louise Thorndyke , one of his longtime acting partners. In Australia, Boucicault married Thorndyke, claiming he had never legally married Robertson. Robertson sued for divorce, which was granted along with court costs on June 21, 1888; it became final six months later. Boucicault died the following year.
Robertson's final appearance occurred at the Princess' Theatre in 1896. She died in London on November 6, 1916. Her legacy to the theater lived on in three of her six children: Aubrey became an actor and writer; Dion Boucicault the Younger enjoyed a successful career as an actor, manager and stage director, creating roles in several of A.A. Milne's plays; and Nina Boucicault had a distinguished acting career both in movies and on stage, where she originated the role of Peter Pan for J.M. Barrie.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Brenda Kubiac , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan