He was considered by many to be the greatest English actor of the nineteenth century. Yet underneath the veneer of accomplishment was someone who, it is said, never actually liked performing on the stage.
And on Thursday, March 30, 1916, he visited the city of Mansfield for the only time in his career. His performance that night was one in a series of highly significant moments in the worldwide history of theatre.
When Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson came to town, he was not only on his last tour of America, but on the last acting tour of his storied career. North central Ohio was one of his last stops. Typically, Mansfield theatre impresarios booked top talent traveling back to the east coast after tours in the western United States.
For Forbes-Robertson, this meant that the stage in Mansfield was one of the last on which he performed. The very last last took place on April 24, just three weeks later, at Sanders Theatre on the campus of Harvard University.
Among his many successes, it was the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that gave him his greatest accolades. Noted playwright George Bernard Shaw considered him the greatest ever in that part. Other noted roles included Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, as well as title turns in Shakespeare tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Othello.
What did he perform in Mansfield? Forbes-Robertson and his troupe actually presented Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the stage of the Opera House. The Opera House was the precursor to the Madison Theatre, and stood in what is now the parking lot behind the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building on Park Avenue West.
Ticket prices at the Opera House that night ranged from 50 cents to 2 dollars. The next day, the Mansfield News reported that the auditorium was “comfortably filled” for the event, and that “The rendition of the role was a treat to the senses.”
After stepping down from acting, Forbes-Robertson became a successful producer. He died in 1937, and is memorialized by a statue at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C..
Below is a 1928 audio recording of Forbes-Robertson reciting lines from Hamlet.