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Thursday, 07 June 2018

Frank Thornton: Man of Many Faces

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Frank ThorntonFrank Thornton as himself, c. 1900s. Photo by Talma, 119 Swanston Street, Melbourne, State Library of New South Wales
Due to the great popularity of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Frank Thornton is best remembered for his work with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, having been associated with the company from its inception in 1877.


Born Frank Thornton Tubbs in London on 16 May 1845, he was a son of Richard Thomas Tubbs and Elizabeth Charlotte Astley. As a youngster he enjoyed singing comic songs and entertaining his friends, and while working in a merchant’s office in the city during the day, he performed in amateur theatricals in the evening reciting humorous monologues and singing popular songs.


Attracting the attention of Richard D’Oyly Carte, he was given the role of Foreman of the Jury in a production of Trial by Jury at the Westminster Aquarium in 1877. In November of that year Carte founded the Comedy Opera Company which was launched with The Sorcerer, the first full length opera to be written by the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership.


In securing artists for the first production of The Sorcerer, D’Oyly Carte invited Frank Thornton to audition for the role of John Wellington Wells. Thornton impressed with his singing and dancing, but was pipped at the post by another newcomer to the comic opera stage, George Grossmith, who like Thornton had commenced his stage career singing comic songs and performing in drawing-room entertainments.


Thornton was offered the position of understudy to George Grossmith and roles in the various curtain raisers and afterpieces that formed part of the bill. He also played a walk-on part in The Sorcerer, that of the Oldest Inhabitant.


frank thornton major murgatroydFrank Thornton as Major Murgatroyd, one of the aesthetic dragoons in Patience, the role he created when the opera was given its premiere at London’s Opera Comique in 1881, © Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonFor the next three years he continued to lead a double life, working in the city by day and performing at the Opera Comique in the evening. Finally, in 1881, he was given the opportunity to create a leading role in a new opera. As Major Murgatroyd, one of the three Officers of the Dragoon Guards in Patience, he scored a great success, personally and professionally - and was finally able to give up his day job!


From August 1879, the company became known as Mr D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company, later shortened to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company … and the rest, as they say, is history!


Over the following years, Thornton continued to ‘go on’ for George Grossmith when required, notably in April 1880 when he played Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and in March 1882 when he performed Bunthorne in Patience (with Arthur Law taking on Thornton’s role of Major Murgatroyd). He also replaced Richard Temple as Dick Dead Eye in HMS Pinafore during 1879 and as Samuel in The Pirates of Penzance in 1880.


In 1883, Thornton played the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe on tour throughout the provinces, and also acted as stage manager for the production. Prior to the commencement of the tour, he was given a special matinee benefit at the Savoy Theatre, when, on 14 February 1882, Broken Hearts by W.S. Gilbert was performed with Thornton as Mousta.


In early 1884, D’Oyly Carte sent him to New York to stage manage the first production of Princess Ida in America.


At the end of the American tour, Thornton felt he needed a change and accepted the position of understudy to W.S. Penley at the Princes Theatre, where Penley had been engaged to create the role of the Reverend Spalding in the first London production of Charles Hawtrey’s farcical comedy The Private Secretary. The play had had its first production at Cambridge in November 1883 with Herbert Beerbohm Tree as the cleric.


frank thornton postersLeft – Advertising Thornton’s fifth Australian tour in 1902, this Troedel poster depicts Thornton standing at the helm of a boat with six of his characters as passengers: clockwise from the left: Lord Markham in A Little Ray of Sunshine, Dick Phenyl in Sweet Lavender, Captain Courtenay in The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown, the Reverend Robert Spalding in The Private Secretary, Lord Fancourt Babberley in Charley’s Aunt, and John Smith in Facing the Music. (Troedel Collection, State Library of Victoria). Right – A postcard by Talma commemorating Frank Thornton’s final Australian appearance; Author’s CollectionIn London, The Private Secretary opened on 29 March 1884, moving to the Globe Theatre on 19 May, where it played for over 500 performances.


Thornton’s familiarity with the role led to him being engaged by A.M. Palmer to perform the lead in the first American production.


The Private Secretary was largely a vehicle for displaying the comic skill of the actor playing Spalding, relying upon a series of improbable situations and pratfalls for laughs, with the central character suffering all sorts of indignities, being “pushed around, tripped up, shoved under tables, tied to a chair, hit by an umbrella, sat on, and stuffed into a chest”.


In New York, The Private Secretary opened at the Madison Square Theatre on 29 September 1884. It ran for 200 nights – something of a record at the time – attracting the attention of Williamson, Garner & Musgrove who promptly engaged Thornton to bring the play to Australia.


Thornton made his Australian debut at the Gaiety Theatre in Sydney on 18 July 1885, the first of six tours of Australia and New Zealand he would make between 1885 and 1909.


During his 15-month stay in Australia, Thornton also appeared as John Wellington Wells in the first Australian production of The Sorcerer at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, and played the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury. But these performances were incidental to touring The Private Secretary throughout Australasia.


Frank ThorntonThornton as the Reverend Spalding in The Private Secretary, c. 1886, in Photograph Album of Australian Actors and Actresses, c. 1870 - c. 1900 [Gordon Ireland Scrapbook], State Library of Victoria, M 6135He returned to Australia again in November 1888 remaining for some 22 months. During this time he revived The Private Secretary and starred in the first Australian productions of Sweet Lavender and Mamma, the first-named a domestic drama by A.W. Pinero and the second a farce by Sydney Grundy. Sweet Lavender was by far the more successful of the two, and as Dick Phenyl, a warm-hearted old barrister with a propensity to drink, Thornton was able to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. In London, the role of Phenyl had been created by Edward Terry.


Thornton was back in Australia in 1893-1894 (his third tour) with Charley’s Aunt, a three-act farce by Brandon Thomas, which Thornton produced in association with Charles Arnold. The story goes that W.S. Penley, who held the rights to the play refused to negotiate with Thornton (was Penley jealous of Thornton’s success with The Private Secretary?), preferring to deal with Charles Arnold.


Charley’s Aunt was a phenomenal success wherever it went. On its first London production it broke existing records by running for 1,466 performances – and has remained popular ever since, being the basis for numerous films and musicals.


Thornton returned to Australia for his fourth tour in December 1896 and during the following 19 months produced in addition to revivals of his previous successes, another cross-dressing play, The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown, and a sporting farce, The Bookmaker; the first by Robert Buchanan and “Charles Marlowe” (Harriette Jay) and the second by J.W. Pigott.


His fifth tour commenced in May 1902, when he opened at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in Facing the Music, a farcical comedy by J.H. Darnley. This play was also the only one he produced in England, performing the lead himself in the provinces and with James Welch at the Strand Theatre in London in February 1900.


Frank ThorntonCharley’s Aunt is one of the most recognisable of theatrical creations. Frank Thornton played the role in Australia many times from 1893. Photo by Falk, 496 George Street, Sydney. (May Pollard Collection, State Library of New South Wales)Thornton’s fifth tour also saw the first Australian production of A Little Ray of Sunshine by Mark Ambient and Wilton Heriot, his only “failure”. In an interview, Thornton said that along with Dick Phenyl in Sweet Lavender, the role of Lord Markham in Sunshine was his favourite. This play has a curious plot – reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol - in which a benevolent old peer returns unexpectedly one Christmas eve after a long absence and although mistaken by family and friends for a village pauper, a money-lender, a housemaid’s uncle, a baker’s man, a Cambridge don and a trainer of racehorses, appears to each of them in turn as a ‘little ray of sunshine’ dispelling any worries or concerns they might have. In London, Thornton’s former nemesis, W.S. Penley played the role.


Thornton’s sixth and final tour saw him open at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 21 December 1907, with When Knights Were Bold by Charles Marlowe, a play that had been performed in London by James Welch.


Thornton made his final Australian appearance in Melbourne on 15 January 1909, when he played Charley’s Aunt for the last time.


From each of his Australian tours, Thornton made a packet, and for the most part rested back in England between visits. However, he made a few notable appearances during these times, joining the London Gaiety Company for the burlesques Miss Esmeralda and Frankenstein in 1886/1887, and creating the role of Pyjama in The Nautch Girl for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1892.


Frank Thornton died in London on 18 December 1918, London, England, aged 73. He was survived by his wife and three children.




Michael Ainger, Gilbert and Sullivan: A duel biography (2002)
Cyril Rollins and R John Witts, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A record of productions, 1875-1961 (1962)
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company,
The New York Clipper, 15 March 1884
"A Chat with Frank Thornton", The Era, 16 March 1895
"Mr Frank Thornton", Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 21 November 1891
"Mr Frank Thornton: Reminiscences of a Great Comedian", Mercury, 17 June 1908
"Mr Frank Thornton", Table Talk, 29 November 1889


Last modified on Thursday, 20 September 2018
Elisabeth Kumm

Elisabeth is a founding member of the Victoria Theatres Trust. Her series Pets of the Public was a regular feature of On Stage from 1999 to 2005, looking at “forgotten” nineteenth century performers. She continues to contribute articles for the THA website, and from 2018 has been editor of the THA Newsletter. As a theatrical historian and biographer she assisted Viola Tait with her book on pantomime – Dames, Principal Boys…and All That (published by Macmillan in 2001) and also worked with her on her memoirs I Have a Song to Sing (published by THA in 2018). Elisabeth has also undertaken research for the Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and JCW Scene Books projects. Most recently she has been working on the Falk Studios album project including acting as editor of The Falk Studios book (published by THA in 2021).