W. G. Wills

William Gorman Wills (28 January 1828 – 13 December 1891), usually known as W. G. Wills, was an Irish dramatist, novelist and painter.

W. G. Wills
Portrait of W. G. Wills, c. 1898.
William Gorman Wills

(1828-01-28)28 January 1828
Died13 December 1891(1891-12-13) (aged 63)
EducationTrinity College, Dublin
Royal Hibernian Academy
OccupationPainter, playwright, poet
Known forOphelia and Laertes
Notable work
Charles I

Early life and career

Wills was born at Blackwell lodge in the neighbourhood of Kilmurry, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the son of the Reverend James Wills (1790–1868), author of Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen, and his wife Katherine Gorman Wills. As a young man, he was educated at Waterford Grammar School and later went to Trinity College, Dublin where he took no degree, but was awarded the Vice-Chancellor's Medal for his poem "Poland." He later left the university and studied at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin where he studied painting.[1]

Though he had originally planned to study law, WIlls preferred the arts. His first novel was Old Times, for which he also drew and engraved the illustrations. After publishing Old Times in an Irish magazine, he travelled to London, and for some time wrote for periodicals without much success. A second novel, The Wife's Evidence was dramatised with some success. Wills then chose to live a bohemian lifestyle, lodging at the Arundel Club.[2] He later joined the Garrick Club.

For a period, he attempted to make a career as an artist. He set up as a portrait-painter in 1868. He had some success, despite limited artistic training, but his disorderly lifestyle and reputation for missing appointments undermined his career.[3] He also painted narrative works.


He found his true vein in drama, and produced over 30 plays, after having his first major success with The Man of Airlie, which was shown in London and New York. He worked mainly with the Lyceum Theatre. Some of his most notable works were Medea in Corinth, Eugene Aram, Jane Shore, Buckingham, and Olivia, a dramatisation of The Vicar of Wakefield, which had great success. Wills' plays were typically in verse, participating in the revival of verse drama at the time.

Many of his plays were based on historical events. Charles I, about the life of the English king, was one of his major successes. These works has been strongly criticised for their freedom with historical fact. Harold Child in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature commented,

Richard Cordell described Charles I as "an amazing picture of Charles as the guileless prince yoked to a perfect queen, with Cromwell as the heavy villain."[5]

Wills worked regularly with Henry Irving. Irving produced his Vanderdecken in 1878, a version of the Flying Dutchman story. In 1880 he created a revised version of Henrik Hertz's play King René's Daughter under the title Iolanthe.[6] Irving commissioned King Arthur in 1890, but it remained unproduced as Irving was unhappy with the work.[7] He asked J. Comyns Carr to rewrite it. Irving also commissioned a version of Don Quixote but did not produce it.[8]

Other works

He wrote several novels after The Wife's Evidence, including Notice to Quit (1863) and The Love That Kills (1867), both of which deal with the aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine. He also published Life's Foreshadowings and David Chantrey.

Wills' long blank verse narrative poem Melchior, in the manner of Browning, was strongly recommended by Oscar Wilde.[9] It tells the story of a German composer inspired by a young woman whom he imagines to be Saint Cecilia. He also wrote many song lyrics.


His biography, W.G. Wills: Dramatist and Painter, was written by his brother Freeman Wills in 1898. However, even by then Wills' reputation was in decline. His works were very rarely revived or read after his death and have been subject to some scathing criticism. Richard Cordell described Broken Spells as "a flatulent Napoleonic piece", adding that Wills "wavered between uninspired verse plays and noisy melodrama".[5] Peter Thomson calls Eugene Aram "semi poetic drivel".[10]

James Joyce alludes to him and to his play A Royal Divorce (concerning Napoleon's divorce from Joséphine) many times in Finnegans Wake.


  1. Wills, Retrieved 7 March 2007
  2. W.G. Wills.; A Biography of the Irish Bohemian Playwright, New York Times, 1898.
  3. Wells encyclopedia, William Gorman Wills
  4. Harold Child, The Victorian Age, A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller (eds), The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume XIII.
  5. Richard A. Cordell, Henry Arthur Jones and the Modern Drama, R. Long & R.R. Smith, New York, 1932, p.6.
  6. "Miss Ellen Terry's Benefit", The Era, 23 May 1880, p. 6
  7. Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry IrvingMacmillan, 1906, Vol. 1, p.253.
  8. Jeffrey Richards, "Henry Irving: the Actor-manager as Auteur", Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. Volume 32. Issue 2., 2005, p.20f
  9. Wilde, Oscar. Reviews, p. 6.
  10. Peter Thomson On Actors and Acting, University of Exeter Press, 2000, p.158.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons via Wikisource.

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