Lawrence, William John (1862–1940), drama critic, was born 29 October 1862 in Belfast, son of Joseph Lawrence, railway station manager; nothing is known of his mother. He was educated at the dowager countess of Annesley's private school at Newcastle, Co. Down, and at Methodist College Belfast. On leaving school in 1878 he served a commercial apprenticeship with Messrs Kirker Green & Co. of Belfast and subsequently became a clerk and commercial traveller in the wine and spirit trade for the Comber distillery. His great passion was the stage: his first articles on stage history appeared in the Belfast Magazine (1878), and in 1892 he published by subscription his first book, a life of the tragedian Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (qv). This was followed in 1893 by Barry Sullivan: a biographical sketch about the nineteenth-century tragedian. His next undertaking was more ambitious: he advertised in 1896 that his Annals of the old Belfast stage would be available to subscribers in an edition of 250 copies. Only thirty-six subscribers appeared and the project was abandoned, but he was by this time sufficiently well-known to be engaged by the Dictionary of National Biography to write notices of actors, though his name did not always appear after his articles. This encouraged him to give up his day job, and from November 1902 to the following May he was in London, engaged in research in the British Museum. He then transferred to Dublin, where, after a short period working as an advertiser, he began to carve out his niche as a journalist. The London journal The Stage engaged him as its Dublin correspondent and reviewer and he also had a prolific freelance career. In addition he continued with his meticulous research into the early history of the stage.
His period as drama critic coincided with the Irish dramatic renaissance and the formative years of the Abbey Theatre. He and his close friends, diarist Joseph Holloway (qv) and actor Frank Fay (qv), are the most important sources for reviews of the early twentieth-century Dublin stage. Lawrence was an exceptionally thorough reviewer, evaluating plot, acting, and stage design. His judgment was frequently apt but his reputation has suffered due to his bitter public denunciations of W. B. Yeats (qv) and J. M. Synge (qv). He was among the most vehement protesters against ‘The playboy of the Western world’, announcing in the Abbey debate: ‘I am not going to praise Mr Yeats tonight. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’ (Hogan, 21). He continued until 1915 his habit of disrupting various performances with hissing and booing. The plays concerned offended his rather narrow, puritanical sensibility but he was more outraged by the high-handedness of the Abbey directors, particularly Yeats, in imposing their taste on the public. He held that the audience was the best judge of a play.
In 1912 the publication of the first volume of The Elizabethan playhouse brought him scholarly renown. The culmination of years of research, it looked at the practical staging of plays in the Elizabethan era and, by uncovering entirely forgotten works, placed famous plays in their historical and literary context. In this he foreshadowed the late twentieth-century literary theory of new historicism. Through this and his seven subsequent works on the Elizabethan stage, he established his reputation; the poet and critic T. S. Eliot noted that ‘he has arrived nearer than anyone towards the reconstruction of the conditions under which the Elizabethan plays were played’ (Hogan, 13).
In 1916, apparently shaken by the rising, Lawrence moved to America and lived in New Jersey for the next two and a half years, going on a lecture tour to Yale, Harvard, and other universities in late 1917. However, he profited only by $376 from touring and was obliged to work as a typist, shopkeeper, and factory packer. When he returned to Dublin in 1919 he resumed reviewing for The Stage, but in 1922 was able to avail himself of a civil list pension, which enabled him to take a sabbatical and spend nine months researching in Oxford. In 1925 and 1926 he was visiting lecturer at Harvard; his lectures were published in 1927 as The physical conditions of the Elizabethan public playhouse. This was followed by the substantial Pre-restoration stage studies (1927). The following year the increasing ill health of his wife, the former Fanny Florence Bradley, forced him to move from Dublin to the south of England, where he lived the rest of his life.
In his last years he was heaped with honours, receiving a D.Litt. from QUB in 1931 and another from the NUI in 1940, in which year he was also made an honorary member of the London Critics Circle. His first wife died in 1938; the following year he married Jennie Aloysius Easom, but died shortly afterwards in Dulwich on 9 August 1940. He had no children. His achievements, given his rudimentary education, were spectacular; his obituary and the address on the occasion of his honorary degree from NUI make reference to his freshness, unconventionality, and bold inferences; though the critic Robert Hogan (1930–99) more recently referred to his pedantry and rather laborious, clichéd style. His copious notes on Irish drama are in the NLI and a number of his Stage reviews were published in the Journal of Irish Literature in 1989. W. S. Clark cites Lawrence's articles and unpublished research as important sources for his comprehensive The Irish stage in the country towns, 1720–1800 (1965).