Alexander was born in Reading, Berkshire. He began acting in amateur theatricals in 1875. Four years later he embarked on a professional acting career, making his London debut in 1881. He played many roles in the leading companies, including Sir Henry Irving's Lyceum.
In 1890, he produced his first play at the Avenue Theatre and in 1891 he became the actor manager of St James's Theatre, where he produced several major plays of the day such as Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde (1892). He appeared in The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero in which he played Aubrey Tanqueray and which made Mrs Patrick Campbell into a theatrical star.
One of the most famous first nights in Victorian Theatre occurred on 14 February 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde hit the stage. The Prince of Wales was in attendance and a good dozen policemen could be seen patrolling the streets outside. A tip-off had warned both the author and the actor/manager that Lord Alfred Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensbury was hoping to get into the theatre and create havoc during the play. Fortunately the Marquess was ushered from the premises and in disgust threw his grotesque bouquet of vegetables that he was carrying into the gutter.
Queensbury then set into motion the events that led to Wilde's downfall and disgrace. Upon his release from prison in 1897, Wilde moved to the continent. He claimed to have seen Alexander in the south of France but that the actor gave him "a crooked, sickly smile and hurried on without stopping." Later in 1900, Alexander, who had acquired the acting rights for The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan, visited Wilde in Paris and offered the poverty-stricken former writer some voluntary payments on the plays and to bequeath the rights to Wilde's estranged sons.
Under Alexander, the St James's Theatre was said to be modern in outlook and attire. The imaginative fancy of Mr. Walter Crane had created designs for the decoration of the walls in the foyer. They were covered with embossed paper of green and gold. On the one side a curiously carved mantelpiece in walnut, was surmounted by a picture of Venus emerging from a shell, painted by Mr. J. Macbeth. While on the other side sat the ticket box, having all the appearance of an elegant cabinet, with antique clock and choice 'blue and white' as ornaments. On the floor were spread rich and costly rugs and Indian carpets. A flight of stairs made of Siena marble, covered with Indian carpet, and having brass standards on either side of the banisters, conducted one to the crush-room. Again, fancifully furnished, draped with printed tapestry, and resplendent with mirrors. From the scheme, and the designers, it appears that Oscar Wilde must have advised on the house decoration.
Later The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope followed in 1896. Then more Pinero premieres added to the already overwhelming successes at the St. James's, including Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca (1902). Henry James's dreadful Guy Domville (1895) was a rare disaster.
Having become an actor rather than a financier, as his family wished, Alexander threw himself into the development of the modern drawing room comedy. It was here his true talent shone. With a light comic air and a delicate grace Alec, as he was affectionately known, brought many care-free parts to life. As lessee of the St. James' he was characteristically closely supported by his wife, who undertook much of the set-dressing and wardrobe organisation. This included selecting props and fashionable attire, attending fittings, for both costume and wigs, and also working with a host of scenic artists. Many well-known artists from the Royal Academy either advised or actually painted the St. James's backdrops. One notable worth mention was Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. Tadema had also worked for Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre.
George Alexander remained at the St. James's Theatre to the end of his life. He appears as a character in David Lodge's novel about the life of Henry James, Author, Author. He was knighted for his services to the theatre in 1911.
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