Robert “Romeo” Coates. Not a name many people are familiar with now. However, back in the day, he was a star of Regency London, because he was a terrible actor. Yes, you heard that right. People from distant places travelled to see for themselves if the stories surrounding Coates’ poor acting abilities were true. He did not disappoint. The incompetence displayed amounted to dramatic genius. Elaborate costumes and better performing artists couldn’t detract the audience from the awfulness of his acting.
For instance, in one play, where Coates had to die, he drew out a dirty, silk handkerchief from his pocket in order to dust the stage. He would then place his elegant headdress on it so that he would expire in style. This amused the audience so much that they demanded encores and had him die several times over in the same play.
Coates was born in the West Indian island of Antigua in 1772, and was the only surviving child of a wealthy sugar planter and merchant, Alexander Coates, and his wife Dorothy. He was brought up and educated in England, and it was here where he developed a passion for theatre. On returning to Antigua, he took part in academic dramatics. When he inherited his father’s vast estate and a large collection of diamonds in 1807, he moved to Bath in England, which at that time was a centre of the rich and fashionable world. Eventually, he drew the attention of the manager of the Theatre Royal, Bath and had begun to appear in plays in 1809, though not as a professional actor.
He became notorious for his fondness for appearing in leading roles. His favorite part was the lead role in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For years, he wore a self-designed bejeweled ‘Romeo’ costume, without ever getting the invitation to play the part. The costume, had a flowing, sky-blue cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a vest made of white muslin, a large cravat, and a plumed “opera hat”, according to Captain Rees Howell Gronow-not to mention dozens and dozens of diamonds, which were not at all suitable for the part. Finally, on February 9, 1810, he did get the opportunity to play Romeo in Bath. However, his garments were too small, and would cause his stiff movements during the play, and at some point, his pants split open. This was enough for the audience to burst into helpless roaring laughter.
His acting was so appalling that it became an overnight hit. He would go on to tour the British Isles. If a theatre manager refused or hesitated to let him showcase his abilities on stage, he would bribe them. In turn, managers would call the police if things took a wrong turn in a serious way.
Coates was convinced that he was the ‘best actor in the business’. Or at least that is what he used to claim. He forgot his lines all the time and invented new scenes and dialogue on the spot. He ad-libbed outrageously. He took a liking to dramatic death scenes and would repeat them-or any other scenes that he fancied-three to four times over. The audience would respond with angered catcalls and embarrassed jeering-while roaring into laughter. His fellow actors would try to make him leave the stage. Coates would often address the audience in the middle of scenes, often threatening to fight those who laughed too hardly.
He also claimed that he wanted to improve well known classics. At the end of his first appearance as Romeo, he returned to the stage, armed with a crowbar and tried to pry open Capulet’s tomb. In another of his hilarious antics, he made the actress playing Juliet so embarrassed that she clung to a pillar and refused to leave the stage. Needless to say, no actress would agree to play a part with him.
During his first performance of Romeo and Juliet, he pulled out his snuff box in the middle of the scene and offered some to the occupants of a box. Once, when he dropped a diamond buckle when he was exiting the stage, he crawled around the stage looking for it.
Eventually, his fame spread and people would flock theatres featuring him to see for themselves, if all of this was real in any way. Even the Prince Regent, who would go on to be King George IV, would go to see him. In 1811, when he played the part of Lothario in The Fair Penitent in London’s Haymarket Theatre, thousands of would-be spectators had to be turned away, In another performance in Richmond, Surrey, several audience members had to be treated for excessive laughter.
Outside the stage Coates tried to amaze the public with his taste in clothing. He wore furs even in hot weather. 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”. He became so prosperous that he flaunted himself in a carriage shaped like a kettledrum, painted in brilliant colors and drawn by two white horses. On its side was emblazoned a heraldic cock with his motto: ‘While I live I’ll crow.’
And he kept his word.
He was never a professional actor, and only made stage appearances for charitable causes. But his own nickname of choice was ‘the Celebrated Philanthropic Amateur’. After 1816, however, managers grew wary of him using their premises. Hence, his performances ceased thereafter. Later he fell into financial difficulties and would move to Boulogne-sur-Mer, to avoid creditors. It was where he met Emma Anne Robinson, daughter of a naval lieutenant. After putting his finances back into better order, they returned to England, and were married on 6 September 1823. They had 2 children. Both predeceased Coates.
A London street accident on February 15, 1848 would ultimately be his undoing. While crossing the street to retrieve his opera glasses left in the theatre, Coates was caught and crushed between a passing hansom cab and a private carriage. At his inquest the coroner brought in a verdict of manslaughter by person or persons unknown.
He died six days later.