Born in Antigua in the West Indies Robert Coates was the son of a wealthy sugar planter. When he inherited the estate in 1807, he moved to Bath in the UK to pursue an acting career. His lack of any skill in acting was obvious to his contemporaries but notwithstanding a lack of any ability in this area he eventually drew the attention of the manager of the Theatre Royal Bath and finally began to appear in plays in 1809.
He later appeared in a production Romeo and Juliet in the role of Romeo. When performing the role Coates appeared in a costume of his own design. The costume had a flowing cloak with sequins, red pantaloons, a large cravat and a plumed hat – not to mention dozens of diamonds – which was hardly suitable for the part. Unsurprisingly, the audience collapsed in gales of laughter. The reaction of his audiences, however, did not dissuade him from the view that he was ‘…the best actor in the business‘ – or at least that is what he claimed.
He routinely forgot his lines and invented new scenes and dialogue on the spot. He loved dramatic death scenes and would repeat them – or any other scenes to which he happened to take a fancy three to four times over – mid performance.
Coates claimed that he was driven by a desire to ‘improve the classics‘.
At the end of his first appearance as Romeo he came back in with a crowbar and tried to pry open Capulet’s tomb. In another of his antics he made the actress playing Juliet so embarrassed that she clung to a pillar and refused to leave the stage. Eventually no actress would agree to play the part opposite him. His audience usually answered with angered catcalls and embarrassed jeering and always howls of laughter. His performances were so outrageous that even his fellow actors would try to make him leave the stage and if Coates thought the audience was getting out of hand, he would often turn on them and jeer and heckle them.
As Coates’ notoriety spread people would flock to see whether he really was as bad as they had heard. For some reason, Baron Ferdinand de Geramb became his foremost supporter. Even the Prince Regent would go to see him.
In 1811, when he played the part of Lothario in The Fair Penitent at London’s Haymarket Theatre, the theatre had to turn thousands of would-be spectators away. In another performance at Richmond, several audience members had to be treated for injuries occasioned by excessive laughter.
Coates went on with his antics unperturbed and undeterred. Once, when he dropped a diamond buckle when exiting the stage, he returned crawling around the stage looking for it.
Offstage Coates tried to amaze the public with his taste in clothing. He wore Furs even in hot weather and got about in a custom-built carriage with a heraldic crest of a crowing cock emblazoned upon it along with the motto ‘While I live, I’ll crow‘.
At receptions he glittered from head to toe with diamond buttons and buckles. His predilection for diamonds of all kinds gave him the nickname ‘Diamond Coates‘.
After 1815 his performances decreased in frequency and his public profile diminished alongside his remaining inheritance.
Robert Coates died in London in 1848 in a street accident, when he was hit by a Hansom Cab as he was leaving a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
During his career the crowd reactions were such that he can probably lay claim to being the most successful comedian of the period – except that when he was inducing fits of injurious laughter in his audience he was in fact ‘playing it straight‘.
Robert ‘Romeo‘ ‘Diamond‘ Coates – So Much Fail!