George Alexander (actor)
Sir George Alexander (19 June 1858 – 15 March 1918), born George Alexander Gibb Samson, was an English stage actor, theatre producer and theatre manager.
Alexander was born in Reading, Berkshire. He began acting in amateur theatricals in 1875. Four years later he embarked on a professional acting career, making his London debut in 1881. He played many roles in the leading companies, including Sir Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre, London.
In 1890, he produced his first play at the Avenue Theatre, and in 1891 he became the actor manager of St James's Theatre, where he produced several major plays of the day such as Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde (1892). He appeared in The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero in which he played Aubrey Tanqueray and which made Mrs Patrick Campbell into a theatrical star.
One of the most famous first nights in Victorian theatre occurred on 14 February 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde hit the stage. The Prince of Wales was in attendance, and a good dozen policemen could be seen patrolling the streets outside. A tip-off had warned both the author and the actor/manager that Lord Alfred Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry was hoping to get into the theatre and create havoc during the play. Fortunately the Marquess was ushered from the premises and in disgust threw his grotesque bouquet of vegetables that he was carrying into the gutter.
Queensberry then set into motion the events that led to Wilde's downfall and disgrace. Upon his release from prison in 1897, Wilde moved to the continent. Nevertheless, Wilde still felt indebted to Alexander as a result of his artistic integrity in producing two of Wilde's plays so successfully. But when Wilde was at the seaside resort in Napoule in December 1898, he suddenly encountered Alexander on a bicycle, as he wrote to Robbie Ross: "He gave me a crooked, sickly smile, and hurried on without stopping. How absurd and mean of him." By the summer of 1900, however, Wilde had forgotten the slight, and greeted Alexander warmly: "It was really a great pleasure to see you again, and to receive your friendly grasp of the hand after so many years." Alexander, who bought the rights to Lady Windermere's Fan and Earnest after Wilde was declared bankrupt, voluntarily agreed to spread the payment for the plays over a certain period — to which Wilde responded, "...I know it was dictated by sheer kindness and the thoughtfulness of an old friend." Alexander later willed the rights of the plays to Wilde's son, Vyvyan.
Under Alexander, the St James's Theatre was said to be modern in outlook and attire. The imaginative fancy of Mr. Walter Crane had created designs for the decoration of the walls in the foyer. They were covered with embossed paper of green and gold. On the one side a curiously carved mantelpiece in walnut, was surmounted by a picture of Venus emerging from a shell, painted by Mr. J. Macbeth. While on the other side sat the ticket box, having all the appearance of an elegant cabinet, with antique clock and choice 'blue and white' as ornaments. On the floor were spread rich and costly rugs and Indian carpets. A flight of stairs made of Siena marble, covered with Indian carpet, and having brass standards on either side of the banisters, conducted one to the crush-room. Again, fancifully furnished, draped with printed tapestry, and resplendent with mirrors. From the scheme, and the designers, it appears that Oscar Wilde must have advised on the house decoration.
Later The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope followed in 1896. Then more Pinero premieres added to the already overwhelming successes at the St. James's, including Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca (1902). Henry James's Guy Domville (1895) was a rare disaster.
Having become an actor rather than a financier, as his family wished, Alexander threw himself into the development of the modern drawing room comedy. It was here his true talent shone. With a light comic air and a delicate grace Alec, as he was affectionately known, brought many care-free parts to life. As lessee of the St. James' he was characteristically closely supported by his wife, who undertook much of the set-dressing and wardrobe organisation. This included selecting props and fashionable attire, attending fittings, for both costume and wigs, and also working with a host of scenic artists. Many well-known artists from the Royal Academy either advised or actually painted the St. James's backdrops. One notable worth mention was Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Alma-Tadema had also worked for Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre.
George Alexander remained at the St. James's Theatre to the end of his life. He appears as a character in David Lodge's novel about the life of Henry James, Author, Author. He was knighted for his services to the theatre in 1911. From 1907 to 1913 he was a member of London County Council, one of two Municipal Reform Party councillors representing St Pancras South. He was active in the Actors' Orphanage Fund (now the Actors' Charitable Trust), serving as a Trustee for more than 10 years, and chairing general meetings after the death of Sir Henry Irving.
Alexander was married to the actress Florence Jane, (née Théleur).
- Chisholm 1911.
- Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman, published in 1987
- The London County Council Election, Great Municipal Reform Victory, The Times, 4 March 1907, p.6
- "Florence Jane (née Théleur), Lady Alexander". National Portrait Gallery, London.
- "ALEXANDER, SIR GEORGE (1858–1918)". English Heritage. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
- Mason, A. E. W. (1935) Sir George Alexander & the St. James' Theatre
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