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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rignall, George Richard (1839–1912)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

George Richard Rignall (1839-1912), by unknown photographer

George Richard Rignall (1839-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10164

George Richard Rignall (1839-1912), actor-manager, was born at Birmingham, Warwickshire, England, son of William Rignall, provincial theatre manager, and his wife Patience, née Blaxland, actress. They used Rignold as a professional name. George and his brother William started as violinists in theatre orchestras. Later George complained of the squalor and hardship of the provincial theatre, but in 1857 he played the messenger in Macbeth at short notice and continued to play bit parts in anything from pantomime to tragedy. On 28 September 1865 at Brighton he married Marie Braybrooke Henderson, comic actress, and noted in his diary 'very pleasant etc'.

From 1870 Rignold played roles ranging from Romeo to Caliban at the Queen's Theatre, Long Acre, London. Back in the provinces, he accepted the offer of American managers A. M. Palmer and Jarrett to play Henry V at the Booth Theatre, New York. They bought costumes and scenery from Charles Calvert's lavish 1872 production and in 1875 presented the play. Women fought over the handsome Rignold and even wore red roses to indicate that they were 'Rignoldites'. He toured the United States and Canada in 1875-76 and with his wife sailed from San Francisco for Sydney. From 28 August 1876, with another overwhelming response from audiences, his run of twenty-four successive performances of Henry V was the first 'long run' of a Shakespearian play in the Australian theatre. After engagements in America and the English provinces, Rignold became sub-lessee of London's Drury Lane Theatre, and in November 1879 presented his opulent version of Henry V; it excited audiences and puzzled critics who panned Rignold for his carelessness and gabbling but forgave him because of his good looks. Staffordshire replicas of Rignold as the king on horseback were made.

In 1880-87 Rignold toured America and Australasia. In 1887-95 he partnered James Allison at Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, and opened on 10 September with Henry V. He settled down to the serious business of becoming a grand man of the theatre. He wrote a flattering retrospective diary, brought out his own acting editions of Shakespeare and made lengthy speeches to his audiences; and while living at Paddington he bought a property at Middle Harbour, called Braybrook, and flew Henry V's standard whenever there.

In 1889 Rignold played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Bottom; next year he played Macbeth and was Ford to the Falstaff of his brother William in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He mixed spectacular Shakespeare with melodramas such as Lights o' London. From 1895 he toured Victoria, Queensland and South Australia with melodramas, and returned to play Othello and Falstaff in the Merry Wives in Sydney at the Criterion Theatre from March 1899. Physical dominance and presence were his main assets as an actor, but his stormy Criterion season forced him to admit that he was a little out-of-date. The Bulletin, 18 November 1899, complained of his arrogance, slow-wittedness, unpleasantness back-stage with minor actors, impatience with stage-managers and interminable 'farewell' performances.

In private life Rignold had many friends and admirers. His wife's failing health prevented them from returning to England early in 1900, and when she died on 25 February 1902 he withdrew to partial seclusion at Middle Harbour. Once a week he collected provisions in Sydney, saw friends at the Athenaeum Club, attended the theatre and gave interviews to reporters. On 3 October 1907 at Neutral Bay he married Georgina Harriet Don (d.1911), daughter of George Coppin.

Despite mismanagement and unhappy years wasted in cheap melodramas, Rignold succeeded largely in persuading his public that he was the great Shakespearian actor he had wished to be. The lavishness of his spectacles brought the pictorial approach to theatre in Australia as far as it could go. He died childless on 16 December 1912 of empyema and cardiac angina at Charlemont Private Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He left the residue of his estate, valued for probate at over £11,000, to the Royal General Theatrical Fund.

Select Bibliography

  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • Era (London), Nov 1879
  • Barrier Weekly Post, Oct 1898
  • playbill collection (Shakespeare Memorial Library, Birmingham)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under Rignold (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Rignall, George Richard (1839–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

George Richard Rignall (1839-1912), by unknown photographer

George Richard Rignall (1839-1912), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H10164

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rignold, George Richard

Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


16 December 1912
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence