Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brough, Lionel Robert (1857–1906)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Lionel Robert Brough (1857-1906), by unknown photographer

Lionel Robert Brough (1857-1906), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10227

Lionel Robert Brough (1857-1906), actor-manager, was the son of Robert Barnabas Brough (1828-1860), English journalist, satirist and burlesque writer, and the actress Elizabeth, née Romer. His sister Fanny Whiteside (1854-1914) became a celebrated actress in London.

Brough made his début in 1870 and gained his experience as a comedian at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, and the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. He also toured with the D'Oyley-Carte company for their first provincial presentation of H.M.S. Pinafore, in which Buttercup was played by Florence Trevelyn Major, whom he married at Weymouth, Devon, in 1881.

Brough appeared in musical comedy at the Opéra Comique, London in 1882, and then for three years in burlesque at the London Gaiety Theatre. There J. C. Williamson saw the Broughs, and contracted them to Williamson, Garner & Musgrove for a year in Australia; Steele Rudd's Magazine later claimed that this action was the firm's only worthwhile contribution to Australian theatre.

The Broughs' Australian début was at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 9 May 1885 in Iolanthe. Robert was greeted as one of the most outstanding performers seen for some time and although his voice was not powerful, critics said that his clear diction and nasality made him perfect in Gilbert and Sullivan. Florence was less impressive, particularly with the high notes in her role as the Fairy Queen, yet she later became the more accomplished player of the two, and later spoke of her intense dislike of musical comedy. After six months Williamson formed a comedy company at the Bijou Theatre, where the Broughs played until their contract expired. This run suggested to Robert the idea of a permanent comedy company, and he found a partner in Dion G. Boucicault who arrived with his father in 1885.

On 9 October 1886 the Brough & Boucicault Comedy Company opened in Melbourne with the farce Turned Up. The Broughs had gone to England for competent actors and on their return in 1887 leased the Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, and the Criterion in Sydney. The B. & B. ran these two branches concurrently, and for nine years presented the most polished ensemble performances ever seen in Australia. The only criticisms of them were raised after a sumptuous Much Ado About Nothing was put up on Boxing Day 1892, when the Sydney Morning Herald expressed disappointment at the absence of a proper starring couple. Issue was taken with Brough's over-humorous treatment of the play which would, it was thought, have been avoided with more subtle leading actors. Yet, apart from Florence, the company could boast a well-known English actor, George S. Titheradge, Brough's mother, calling herself 'Miss Emily Romer', her daughter by a second marriage, Brenda Gibson, and Florence's sisters Bessie and Emma.

When the Bijou burned down on 22 April 1889 the B. & B. had become the standard against which all other Australian performances were measured. Melbourne football and cricket clubs joined the actors in raising over £1000 to replace the theatre. Meanwhile the company struggled on performing in the Hibernian Hall but by June had to make their headquarters in Sydney. Even when a new theatre was built, the B. & B. could not repeat their earlier financial successes, so beginning with Adelaide in 1893 they inaugurated yearly tours. In 1896 Boucicault retired, exhausted, from the partnership.

Brough managed the company until 1902. He produced all the new comedies from London, particularly those of A. W. Pinero and H. A. Jones, sometimes not waiting to see whether they were successful in England, and thus appeared to the public as the champion of refined and legitimate drama. This and his courage in presenting An Ideal Husband at the height of Oscar Wilde's notoriety in 1895 made Brough the only commercial manager approved by Australian intellectuals, who saw him as challenging Williamson's threat to intelligent theatre. One such, Gregan McMahon, who later founded the Melbourne Repertory Company which produced Australian plays, joined the Broughs in 1900 and later toured the Orient with them.

When the Broughs left Australia in 1902 they claimed to have played in over three hundred pieces, and presented a hundred new plays. They had to retire because of the over-frequent changes of repertoire expected in Australia and the lack of monetary reward for modern comedy. They visited India, England and South Africa, and in April 1905 at Perth Brough contracted with Herbert Flemming for a year's comedy work in Australia and New Zealand. Soon afterwards he collapsed from a heart ailment, but recovered to fulfil most of his engagements. He died at Sydney on 20 April 1906.

The Brough marriage had been considered sacred by their public, so Florence lost much prestige when she announced, soon after Brough died, that she would marry a stage electrician. On 1 August 1924 at a matinée for Maggie Moore in Sydney, 'Mrs Robert Brough' was vice-president of the organizing committee and director of one of the pieces.

During Robert Brough's years in Australia, the boast that the colonies could show productions 'equal to anything in London' first showed some justification. This success was partly due to his selection of broad farces and presentation with the finish of a classical comedy company, but his care in training even the most insignificant player must also have been important. Although 'quaint, grim, humourous' and competent in his roles, he never sought to star, and indeed only played leading roles after Titheradge left the company. He was extremely quiet, and his lack of jealousy at Florence's popularity was considered most admirable. He found little time to make non-professional friends and would not tolerate Bohemianism in his company. Even his obituary in the Church Commonwealth supports the claim that he did for Australia what Henry Irving (1838-1905) had done for England in making the theatre a respectable institution.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Brough, Prompt Copy (Lond, 1952).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Brough, Lionel Robert (1857–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brough-lionel-robert-3071/text4533, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Lionel Robert Brough (1857-1906), by unknown photographer

Lionel Robert Brough (1857-1906), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10227