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   Chapter 6 JOHN HENDERSON.

Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 12610

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

In the bill of the Bath Theatre for October the 6th, 1772, the part of Hamlet is announced to be performed "by a young gentleman." On the 21st of the month,[46] we read, "Richard III., by Mr. Courtney, the young gentleman who acted Hamlet." Mr. Courtney repeated those characters, and subsequently played Benedick, Macbeth, Bobadil, Bayes, Don Felix, and Essex; and on the 26th of December, having thus felt his way and become satisfied of his safety, we have "Henry IV.," with "Hotspur by Mr. Henderson."

After being anonymous and pseudonymous, he added, under his last and proper designation, the following characters to those he had previously acted: Fribble, Lear, and Hastings, Alonzo and Alzuma; and Mr. Henderson was an established Bath favourite.

At this time, Henderson was five-and-twenty years of age. Descended from Scottish Presbyterians and English Quakers, with a father who was an Irish factor, Henderson is the sole celebrity of the street in which he was born, in March 1747,[47] Goldsmith Street, Cheapside. The father died too soon for his two sons to remember him in after life; but the boys had an excellent mother, who unconsciously trained one of her sons to the stage, by making him familiar with the beauties of Shakspeare.

Having succeeded so far in art as to obtain a prize when he was Fournier's pupil, for a drawing exhibited at the Society of Arts; and having been as reluctant as Spranger Barry to be bound apprentice to a silversmith, Henderson longed to win honour by the sock and buskin. This desire was probably fostered by the sight of Garrick in the shop of Mr. Becket the bookseller, a friend of Henderson's. Garrick seldom went to coffee-houses, and never to taverns, but at Becket's shop he held a little court, and Henderson sighed to be as great as he.

The weakly-voiced lad, with no marked presence, and a consumptive look, could obtain audience or favour from no one; least of all from Roscius. He went up to remote Islington, and, in the long room of an inn there, delivered Garrick's Ode on the Shakspeare Jubilee. After this, and, perhaps, in consequence, Garrick received him, heard him recite, shook his head at a voice which was more woolly than silvery, and, after some counsel, procured for him an engagement at Bath, and at a trifling salary.

For five seasons he was a rising, improving, and then cherished actor at Bath. But his fame did not influence the London managers. At length, exeunt Garrick, Barry, Woodward, and Foote! and Colman, lacking novelty at the Haymarket, invites, somewhat unwillingly, young Henderson from Bath. He appeared at the Little Theatre in 1777, and, in a little more than a month of acting nights, put £4500 into the manager's pocket. He played Shylock, Hamlet, Leon, Falstaff (in "Henry IV.," and in the "Merry Wives,"), Richard III., Don John, and Bayes.[48]

In this first season he played three of his greatest parts-Shylock, Hamlet, and Falstaff. The first was selected for his début, contrary to his own inclination. Macklin's Shylock was the Shylock of all playgoers; but the difference between it and Henderson's attracted attention and audiences. Old Macklin himself praised his young rival's conception of the part with energetic liberality. "And yet, sir," said Henderson, "I have never had the advantage of seeing you in the character." "It is not necessary to tell me that, sir," said Macklin, with no conceited modesty. "I knew you had not, or you would have played it differently." Garrick also saw Henderson in the part, and remarked that Tubal was very creditably played indeed! It is said that Henderson, after delighting Garrick, when breakfasting with him in 1772, by imitations of Barry, Woodward, Love (whose single character of note was Falstaff), and some others, offended him by a close imitation of Garrick himself. Colman is reported to have been equally offended by an imitation of himself, at his own table, by Henderson, who did not, as Foote would have done, watch his host, and mimic him at other tables. Henderson seems to have been so little willing to offend, that in playing Bayes, he omitted the imitations of contemporary performers, by which all other actors of the parts had been wont to reap rich harvests of applause.

Macklin said of him that the young man had learned a great deal; but what remained for him was to unlearn much of it, in order that he might learn to be an actor. In this oracular manner there was more kindness than Henderson met with from Foote, previous to his first season in London, and of which Genest has compiled this account:-

"Henderson, accompanied by two friends, waited on Foote, and was received with great civility. Foote's imagination was so lively, his conceptions were so rapid as well as so exuberant, that by a torrent of wit, humour, pleasantry, and satire, he kept the company for a considerable time in convulsions of laughter; however, Henderson's friends thought it, at last, time to stop the current of Foote's vivacities, by informing him of the reason of their visit, and Henderson was permitted to begin a speech in 'Hamlet;' but before he could finish it, Foote continually interrupted him by some unlucky joke or droll thought.... At the conclusion Henderson was, without interruption, allowed to speak Garrick's prologue on his return from the continent. This being no caricature, but a fair representation of Garrick's manner, did not make any impression on Foote; however, he paid the speaker a compliment on the goodness of his ear-dinner was now announced, and when Henderson took his leave, Foote whispered one of the company, he would not do.

"Henderson once requested Palmer 'not to bring him forward in too many parts;' observing that it must be for the manager's interest, as well as his own credit, to have him studied in the parts he was to appear in: he added, 'to learn words, indeed, is no great labour, and to pour them out no very difficult matter; it is done on our stage almost every night, but with what success I leave you to judge-the generality of performers think it enough to learn the words; and thence all that vile uniformity which disgraces the theatre.'" This was rather proud criticism, as it referred to his early Bath colleagues; but Henderson's standard of propriety wou

ld not allow him to speak otherwise.

In his second character in London, Hamlet, he came into more direct contrast with Garrick, whose greatest idolaters found heavy fault in Henderson's young Dane for flinging away his uncle's picture-subsequent to the famous speech in which he compares the portraits of his father and uncle. On a following night he retained the picture in his hand, and the same party ridiculed him, on the ground that if he was right the first night, he must necessarily have been wrong on the second! He was said, too, not to have managed his hat properly on first seeing the Ghost; and similar carpings were made against the new actor, only to hear whose words, "the fair Ophelia!" people went as to the most exquisite music. But what was that to the Garrick faction who pronounced him disqualified, because in the closet scene he did not, in his agitation, upset the chair. "Mr. Garrick, sir, always overthrew the chair."

During his short, but brilliant and honourable career, he originated no new character that may be found in any acting play of the present day. I think he was the first actor who, with Sheridan, gave public readings. They filled Freemason's Hall, and their own pockets, by their talents in this way, and Henderson could as easily excite tears by his pathos, as he could stir laughter by a droll way of reciting Johnny Gilpin, which gave wild impetus to the sale of that picturesque narrative.

His own temperament, however, was naturally grave, derived from that mother whose occasional melancholy was nearly allied to insanity. Yet he was not without humour, or he could not have played Falstaff with a success only inferior to Quin, nor have founded the Shandean Club in Maiden Lane, nor have written so quaint a pastoral love-song as his Damon and Phyllis. In acting ?sop, he delivered the fables with great significance. The chief characteristic of the part lay in its grim splenetic humour, such as he himself showed when he, the high-spirited pupil of Fournier, had to drive his master when he gave drawing-lessons, and to clean the horse and chaise after reaching home again!

He loved praise, honestly owned his love, and worked hard to win public favour. When he was cast for a new character he read the entire play, learned his own part, read the play again, and troubled himself no more about it, although a fortnight might elapse between the last rehearsal and the first performance. Previous to which latter occasion, it was his custom to dine well, and sit at his wine till summoned to rise and go forth. A Garrick-worshipper told him he was wrong.[49] Mr. Garrick, on such occasions, shut himself up for the day, and dined lightly. Henderson was the last of the school of Garrick, and once imitated his master in his diet. The result was a cold and vapid performance of Bireno, in the "Law of Lombardy;" and Henderson registered a vow, to be original and dine generously on like occasions, in future.

Henderson was, in every respect a gentleman; his social position was as good as that of any gentleman of his time. In Dublin, as in London, he was a welcome guest in the best society, even in that for which the stage had few attractions. Personally, he had natural obstacles to surmount. He was short, not gracefully moulded, lacked intelligent expression of the eye, and had a voice too weak for rage and not silvery soft enough for love. But he had clear judgment, quick feeling, ready comprehension, and accurate elocution. Cumberland names Shylock, Falstaff, and Sir Giles as his best characters, but there were portions of others in which he could not be excelled; "in the variety of Shakspeare's soliloquies, where more is meant than meets the ear, he had no equal," and this is high praise, for the difficulty of the task is work for a genius.

Never strong, his poor health failed him early, and on the 8th of November 1785 he acted for the last time. The part was Horatius, in the "Roman Father." In less than three weeks, and at the early age of thirty-eight, troops of friends escorted the body of the man they had esteemed to Westminster Abbey,-one more addition to the silent company of the great of all degrees and qualities, from actors to kings. Professionally, Henderson did not die prematurely. Kemble had already been two years at Drury Lane, and the new school of acting was supplanting the old.

Let me add a word of Henderson's brother. He, too, belonged to art, and promised to be a great engraver, but consumption struck him down early. He was residing, for his health, on the sunny side of a house in then fashionable Hampstead, when death came suddenly upon him. Among the company in the same house was the most beautiful and gay of gay women,-Kitty Fisher. But she was true woman too, and hearing of a lonely stranger menaced with death, she went straightway to tend him, and Henderson's brother died in Kitty's arms.

His readings were attended frequently by Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble; his voice was so flexible that his tones conveyed every phase of meaning. Even his way of reading the words, "They order this matter," said I, "better in France," had a world of significance in it, not to be found when uttered by others; and the letter of Mrs. Ford to Falstaff, when he read it on the stage, shook the house with such laughter as was seldom heard, save indeed when he imitated Garrick and Dr. Johnson, the former reciting his ode, and the latter interrupting him by critical objections. I do not wonder that both Munden and John Kemble who, all their lives, had a longing to play Falstaff, abandoned the idea when they remembered Henderson's excellence.

At the period of Henderson's death, his early prophecy had been fulfilled with regard to Mrs. Siddons;-to whose career we will now direct our notice.


[46] Should be 20th.

[47] Ireland, Henderson's biographer, states that he was born in February 1747. He is said to have been baptized on 8th March.

[48] "Walpole availed himself of Henderson's triumph to say something malicious of Garrick: 'Garrick is dying of yellow jaundice on the success of Henderson, a young actor from Bath,' which was not true" (2d edition).

[49] I think this Garrick-worshipper was Tom Davies.

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