Dr. William John Lawrence, D.Litt., who has died at Dulwich at the age of 78, owed his eminence as a theatrical historian entirely to his own initiative and energy.
Born at Belfast, the son of an English stationmaster, and sent early into business, he wrote his first book (1892), a life of Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, the Irish actor, while he was a commercial traveller. In 1893 came his life of another Irish actor, Barry Sullivan. In 1902 Lawrence gave up commerce and confined himself to writing and study; and in 1912 and 1913 his two volumes of "The Elizabethan Playhouse and other studies," printed and published by A. H. Bullen, made him famous, not only within the circle of students of theatrical history.
His special contribution to learning was insistence that no drama, and least of all Elizabethan drama, could be understood without a minute knowledge of the theatre and the stage, and of all theatrical custom and usage. Unconventional, unhampered by academic or personal loyalties, and as shred as he was laborious, he blew away, in book after book, large quantities of conjecture and error, and left very little of his own for future students to blow away. He was a first-rate lecturer, as Harvard University and the Malvern Festival could witness, and his enthusiasm and his generosity in sharing his knowledge won him many friends.In 1930 Lawrence was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1931 he was made an honorary D.Litt. of the Queen's University, Belfast, and early in the present year an honorary D.Litt of the National University of Ireland. It is understood that, in spite of failing eyesight, he was lately at work upon a book to be entitled "Shakespeare's Lost Hamlet."