Richard Mansfield (24 May 1857 – 30 August 1907) was an English actor-manager best known for his performances in Shakespeare plays, Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and the play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was elected to The Lambs in 1883.
Mansfield was born in Berlin and spent his early childhood on Heligoland, Germany, an island in the North Sea, then under British rule. His parents were Erminia Rudersdorff (1822–1882), a Russian-born operatic soprano, and Maurice Mansfield (died 1861), a British London-based wine merchant. Mansfield was educated at Derby School, in Derby, England, where he studied painting in London. His mother took him to America, where she was performing, but he returned to England at age 20. Finding that he could not make a living as a painter, he gained some success as a drawing-room entertainer, eventually moving into acting.
He first appeared on the stage at St. George’s Hall, London, in the German Reed Entertainments and then turned to light opera, joining Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Comedy Opera Company in 1879 to appear as Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore on tour. He continued to play the Gilbert and Sullivan comic “patter” roles on tour in Britain until 1881. Mansfield created the role of Major General Stanley in the single copyright performance of The Pirates of Penzance in Paignton, England, in 1879. In addition to Sir Joseph and the Major General, in 1880 he also began to play John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer.
He left the D’Oyly Carte company in 1881, returned to London, and soon made his London debut in Jacques Offenbach’s La boulangère. He played several further roles in London and then travelled to America in 1882, where he made his Broadway debut as Dromez in Bucalossi’s Les Manteaux Noirs with a D’Oyly Carte touring company. He then played the roles of Nick Vedder and Jan Vedder in another D’Oyly Carte production, Robert Planquette’s Rip Van Winkle (1882).
He appeared successfully in an original play, Prince Karl, and in several plays adapted from well-known stories, and his 1887 rendering of the title-characters in Thomas Russell Sullivan’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Palmer’s company at Madison Square Theatre, only a year after publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, created a profound impression. It was with this play that he made his London reputation during the 1888 season at the Lyceum Theatre, by invitation of Henry Irving. He also reprised the role in Broadway revivals.
Mansfield continued his acting career but had also begun a career as a theatrical manager in America in 1886. He produced the play Richard III in 1889 at the Globe Theatre. He was back on Broadway in 1890 in Beau Brummell (he reprised this role several times). He was one of the earliest to produce George Bernard Shaw’s plays in America, appearing in 1894 as Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, and as Dick Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple in 1897. The latter production was the first Shaw production to turn a profit. As a manager and producer of plays, Mansfield was known for his lavish staging. He often produced, starred in (often opposite his wife), and directed plays on Broadway, sometimes also writing under the pseudonym Meridan Phelps. His other Broadway roles in the 1890s included Napoleon Bonaparte (1894), the title role in The Story of Rodion, the Student (1895), Sir John Sombras in Castle Sombras (1896), Eugen Courvoisier in The First Violin (1898 and 1988), the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac (1898 and 1899).
He began the new century on Broadway in the title role in King Henry V (1900), followed by the title character in Monsieur Beaucaire, Brutus in Julius Caesar (1902), Karl Heinrich in Old Heidelberg (1903 and 1904), and roles in Ivan the Terrible (1904), A Parisian Romance (1904 and 1905), The Merchant of Venice (1905), Richard III (1905), Alceste in The Misanthrope (1905), The Scarlet Letter (1906) and Don Carlos (1906), among others. He continued to perform until his final year. One of his last performances, just a few months before his death, was the title role in a Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peter Gynt, the play’s U.S. premiere.
Mansfield was married in 1892 to Beatrice Cameron (1868–1940), an actress. After their wedding, she was often referred to as Mrs Richard Mansfield by the press. In 1898 the couple had their only child, Richard Gibbs Mansfield (1898–1918). The younger Mansfield was an ambulance driver in France early during World War I, eagerly enlisting while underage (with his mother’s consent). When America entered the war, he joined the U.S. Army and went to Texas to be part of an aviation unit. There he contracted meningitis and died in 1918.
Mansfield’s popularity as a Shakespearean actor was immense. Upon his death, The New York Times stated: “As an interpreter of Shakespeare, he had no living equal in his later days, as witnessed by the princely grace, the tragic force of his Richard, his thrilling acting in the tent scene of “Caesar”, the soldierly dignity and eloquence of his Prince Hal, and the pathos of the prayer in that play. He was the greatest actor of his hour, and one of the greatest of all times.”
Mansfield died in New London, Connecticut, 30 August 1907, at age 50, from liver cancer.