By Rachelle Hughes
Brandon Thomas dreamed of being known as a famous actor but correctly predicted his true fame would come from being the playwright of Charley’s Aunt. In reality, his acting career was long and prolific but his play Charley’s Aunt, was the crown jewel in his theatrical career that spanned over thirty years.
Born Walter Brandon Thomas on 24 December 1848 to Walter Thomas and Hannah Morris in Mt. Pleasant Liverpool, he came to be known as Brandon Thomas. Thomas was born into meager circumstances as the oldest of three children. His father Walter was a cobbler and an inventor and although able to send his son to the private school at one time, they struggled financially when his father failed to patent his invention for the elastic sided boot. To make ends meet, the Thomas family took in theatrical lodgers, one of which included the young actor Henry Irving who would later become one of the most famous actors of his time (“A Write Charley—Brandon Thomas,” The Stage.co.uk, 28 January 2005, http://www.thestage.co.uk/people/2005/01/a-write-charley-brandon-thomas). Perhaps, this is where Thomas’s love of theater began. Although he would start writing at age seventeen, it would be a while before Thomas’s acting and playwriting career began. First, he would have many adventures in different careers.
At age fourteen, he enlisted in the Royal Marines and was soon apprenticed to a shipbuilder. He also learned bookkeeping and became a clerk to a timber merchant. In 1875 he took a similar post near his family in Hull. However, he continued to have a love affair with theater and music and performed as an amateur at music halls and in drawing rooms by singing his own songs, playing the piano, and reciting. At age thirty, he secured his first professional role at the Court Theatre in London as Sandy in The Queen’s Shilling.
Thomas played several small roles with the Court Theatre while continuing to write. In 1882, Court Theatre managers William and Madge Kendal accepted his comedy play Comrades for production after a revision by B.C. Stephenson. Despite his new success in playwriting, Thomas continued to pursue his dream of becoming a famous actor. In 1885, he joined Rosina Voke’s Company as a leading man in their American tour. On his return to London he continued to appear in supporting roles and received acclaim over the next several years as an uncouth Scottish highlander, a captain, a young lover, and a cynical model.
In 1888, just two months shy of his fortieth birthday, Thomas married his long-time sweetheart, Marguerite Leverson, the daughter of a diamond merchant. Their marriage had been delayed due to religious objections from the family. Marguerite’s father finally relented and Thomas and Marguerite married and became the parents of three children: Amy, Jevan and Sylvia. Both Amy and Jevan went on to have theatrical careers of their own.
Thomas was surrounded by well-known artists and actors during his career, many of whom he called friends. One of those friends, W.S. Penley, asked Thomas to write “a pretty little three act comedy with plenty of fun in it and a touch of sentiment” (“About the Play,” Performance Study Guide: Charley’s Aunt, Theatreworks for Schools, 4 May 2010, www.theatreworks.org/media/studyguide.charleysaunt.pdf). Brandon, on seriously contemplating the idea, asked Penley, “Have you ever thought of playing a woman?” (The Stage.com).
Two years later, in 1892, the comic play Charley’s Aunt was produced by Penley, who also took the lead role as Lord Fancourt Babberly; and they began touring in the English provinces in February of 1892. When the Royalty Theatre in London became unexpectedly vacant, Penley snatched up the available theater and opened Charley's Aunt there on 21 December 1892. Thomas also took to the stage in his own play (as he often did in the plays he wrote) playing Sir Francis Chesney for the first few weeks. The play garnered immediate success and praise and transferred to the larger Globe Theatre on 30 January1893 where it broke all historic records for plays of any kind when it ran for a record-breaking 1,466 performances across four years, closing on 19 December 1896. The play saw success throughout the world and was translated into several languages. It has brought laughter to audiences from America to Germany, from France to Holland. In 1893 it had a successful run on Broadway and has experienced several revivals both on Broadway and on theater stages worldwide.
Thomas continued to prosper as both an actor and a playwright. In 1892, he played in W. S. Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a parody of Hamlet, and Faithful James, by B. C. Stephenson, with Ellaline Terriss, both at the Court Theatre. He was especially well known for his ability to adapt his speech to portray different dialects as a character actor. Thomas’s later play titles included Marriage, 1892; The Swordsman's Daughter (an adaptation of a French play, with Clement Scott), 1895; 22a Curzon Street, 1898; Women Are So Serious, 1901; Fourchette & Co., 1904; and A Judge’s Memory, 1906. However, none of his later works ever saw the success of Charley’s Aunt.
Thomas died in 1914 at age sixty-five after a brief illness. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery. He left behind a legacy of comedy in his triumphant Charley’s Aunt that continues to grace modern day stages over 100 years since its first run in England. In his obituary The Times quoted him as saying, "I hoped to go down to fame as a great actor. If I go at all it will be as the author of Charley's Aunt" (Obituary, The Times, 20 June 1914, p. 10).