Monday 31 October 2011

Richard Mansfield (1857-1907)

            Richard Mansfield is a Victorian actor about whom no one would probably give a crap if he wasn’t tenuously connected to the Jack the Ripper murders. [Happy Halloween, everyone!] Born in Berlin to an English wine-merchant father and an opera-singer mother, Richard was educated in England. At some point, he went to the United States with his mother, but had drifted back to England by age 20 (so by 1877). The rest of his life would see him rotate between England and the United States (which is an important tidbit for people who believe in Ripper conspiracy theories). Richard wanted to be some kind of artist or entertainer, and by 1879 he had settled on acting, appearing in light opera. From 1879 to 1881, Richard performed in Gilbert and Sullivan shows, even “creating” the role of Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance. After doing some acting in London in 1881, Richard went to the United States in 1882, where he graced the stages of New York and Baltimore with his presence. In 1887 he began portraying the title role in the play Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella), which was what caused him to become caught up in the Jack the Ripper case.
            In the late summer and autumn of 1888, Richard was performing Jekyll and Hyde at the Lyceum Theatre in London. An audience member accused Richard of being the murderer because said viewer found it impossible to believe someone could so successfully portray a crazed killer (Hyde) without actually being a crazed killer. In a roundabout way, this person was really complimenting Richard on his acting skills! Although then subject to some public criticism, Richard was obviously never arrested as a suspect. As best as I can tell, though, to Ripper conspiracy-theory buffs, Richard Mansfield remains a viable candidate because the murders reportedly stopped shortly after he left London to return to the USA.
            There is, of course, a hole in that theory: Richard Mansfield was in London in 1889, portraying Richard III (oh yeah!) in Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Globe Theatre. Oops. Maybe he had lost his taste for killing prostitutes by then?
            Richard seems to have spent much of the rest of his career in the US. He was among the first to produce (and act in) the plays of George Bernard Shaw in the States, performing in Arms and the Man in 1894 and The Devil’s Disciple in 1897. Mansfield also performed the role of Peer Gynt in Ibsen’s play of the same name in the work’s US premiere.
            Richard died of liver cancer in Connecticut in 1907. He was survived by his wife Beatrice Cameron (married in 1892) and son, Richard Gibbs Mansfield. The younger Richard, sadly, died at an army base in Texas in 1918, laid low by meningitis he had contracted after enlisting to serve in World War I.
            And despite my earlier assessment of Mansfield (that no one would care if he wasn’t connected with Jack the Ripper), he was beloved by contemporaries. According to Wikipedia, quoting The New York Times after Richard had died, “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.”

For more, see:

Also, consider checking out the 1988 TV miniseries, Jack the Ripper (starring Michael Caine). Although I don’t know how accurately Armand Assante captures Mansfield’s character, the movie does a pretty good job of explaining why Richard was a suspect. Plus it’s informative and hilarious in a 1980s-sort-of way.

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