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Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 22564

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

About the time when Garrick was reluctantly bidding farewell to his home on the stage, at Drury Lane, a hopeful youth, of twenty years of age, born no one can well tell where, but it is said, in a barrack, of an English sergeant and a Scottish mother, was making his first grasp at the dramatic laurel, in the little town of Brentford.

With the exception of a passing appearance at the Haymarket, for a benefit, in 1778, as Castalio,-when London was recognising in Henderson the true successor of Garrick-the town knew nothing of this ambitious youth for more than twenty years; then he came to Covent Garden to dethrone John Kemble; and he disquieted that actor for awhile. In ten years more, his English race was done, and while Kemble was beginning the splendid evening of his career, Cooke passed over to America, prematurely ending his course, in disgrace and ruin, and occupying a grave which a civilised Yankee speedily dishonoured.

If Cooke was an Irishman, it was by accident. He was certainly educated in England; and he early acquired, by reading Otway and seeing Vanbrugh, a taste for the drama. In school theatricals, he made his Horatio outshine the Hamlet of the night; and his Lucia,-though the boy cried at having to play a part in petticoats,[74]-win more applause than his schoolfellow's Cato. School-time over, the wayward boy went to sea, and came back with small liking for the vocation; turned to "business," only to turn from it in disgust; inherited some property, and swiftly spent it; and then we find him in that inn-yard at Brentford, enrolled among strollers, and playing Dumont in "Jane Shore," to the great delight of the upper servants from Kew, Gunnersbury, and parts adjacent, sent thither to represent their masters, who had not the "particular desire" to see the play, for which the bills gave them credit.

The murmur of London approval, awarded to his Castalio, was the delicious magic which drew him for ever within the charmed circle of the actors, and George Frederick passed through all the heavy trials through which most of the vocation have to pass. He strolled through villages, thence to provincial towns, and I think, when in 1786, he played Baldwin to the Isabella of Mrs. Siddons, that lady must have been compelled, perhaps was willing, to confess, that there was a dramatic genius who, at least, approached the excellence of her brother.

From York, after much more probation, Cooke went over to Dublin, where he acted well, drank hard, and lost himself, in one of his wild fits, by enlisting. Fancy the proud and maddened George Frederick doing barrack scullery-work, and worse!-he who had played the Moor in presence of a vice-regal court! If his friends had not purchased his discharge, Miss Campion would certainly soon have heard that her Othello had hanged himself. The genius who would not be a soldier, though born in a barrack, found an asylum in the Manchester theatre; and subsequently Dublin welcomed him back to its well-trod stage. There, he and John Kemble met for the first time.

John took the lead, George Frederick played,-I can hardly call them secondary parts, for Booth had acted some of them to Betterton, Garrick to Sheridan, and one great performer to another,-such parts, in fact, as Ghost to Kemble's Hamlet, Henry to his Richard, Edmund to his Lear, and a similar disposition of characters. What Kemble then thought of his acting, I cannot say, but he complained of being disturbed by Mr. Cooke's tipsily defective memory. George Frederick was stirred to anger and prophecy. "I won't have your faults fathered upon me," he cried; "and hark ye, Black Jack,-hang me if I don't make you tremble in your pumps one day yet."

He kept his word. On the 31st of October 1801,[75] he acted Richard, at Covent Garden, to the Henry of Murray, the Richmond of Pope, the Queen of Miss Chapman, and the Lady Anne of Mrs. Litchfield;-and Kemble was present to see how Cooke would realise his promise. Kemble had played Richard himself that season at Drury Lane, to the Richmond of his brother Charles,-Henry, Wroughton; Queen, Mrs. Powell; Lady Anne, Miss Biggs. I fancy he was satisfied that in the new and well-trained actor there was a dangerous rival. Kemble acted Shylock and one or two other characters against him. They stood opposed in some degree as Quin and Garrick were, at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, in 1742-43. In that season, Garrick played Richard eleven times.[76] In Cooke's first season at the Garden, he acted the same part double the number of times. Shylock, Iago, and Kitely, he acted each ten times. Macbeth, seven; Sir Giles Overreach, five; the Stranger, twice; and Sir Archy Macsarcasm, several times.

Of his first reception in Richard, Cooke speaks, as being flattering, encouraging, indulgent, and warm, throughout the play and at the conclusion. Cooke was not blinded by this triumphant season. Long after he said, when referring to having played with and also against John Kemble: "He is an actor. He is my superior, though they did not think so in London. I acknowledge it!" Having made Black Jack "tremble in his pumps," Cooke honestly acknowledged, in homely phrase, that he could not stand in Kemble's shoes.

Kemble, however, was not superior to Cooke in all his range of characters. In the very first season of their opposition, after an obstinate struggle, Kemble gave up Richard, but in Macbeth he remained unapproachable by Cooke, who, in his turn, set all competition at defiance in his Iago, in which, says Dunlap, "the quickness of his action, and the strong natural expression of feeling, which were so peculiarly his own, identified him with the character." In Kitely, his remembrance of Garrick confessedly served him well. In Sir Giles, he excelled Kemble; but the Stranger was speedily given up by Cooke, and it remained one of his rival's glories to the last.

Cooke's general success, the position he had attained, and the prospect before him, steadied his mind, strengthened his good purposes, made him master of himself under a healthy stimulus, careful of his reputation, and strict in performing his duties. I record this, as his previous biographers have registered the character. Consequently, on the night he was announced to appear, to open his second season of anticipated triumph-September 14th, 1801-as Richard, a crowded audience had collected about the doors, to welcome him, as early as four o'clock. At that hour no one could tell where he was, and a bill was issued, stating that it was apprehended some accident had happened to Mr. Cooke; and the play was changed to "Lovers' Vows." In five weeks the truant turned up, played magnificently, and was forgiven.

During his truant time, young Henry Siddons made his first appearance at Covent Garden. He played Herman in a dull new comedy, "Integrity," and Hamlet; but the Charter-house student would have done better if he had accepted the vocation to which his mother would have called him-the Church. Henry Siddons acted Alonzo to Cooke's Zanga, Hotspur to Cooke's Falstaff, and Ford to the other's Sir John, in the "Merry Wives." Cooke's criticism on his own performance was, that having acted all the Falstaffs, he had never been able to please himself, or to come up to his own ideas in any of them. His great failure was Hamlet, in which even young Siddons excelled him, but a triumph which compensated for any such failures, and for numerous offences given to the audience-made victims of his "sudden indispositions"-was found in Sir Pertinax, in which, even by those who remembered Macklin, he was held to have fully equalled the great and venerable original.

In the season of 1802, Cooke's indispositions became more frequently sudden, and lasted longer. On the days of his acting nights, his manager was accustomed to entertain him, supervise his supply of liquor, and carry him to the theatre; but George Frederick often escaped, and could not be traced. In many old characters he sustained his high reputation, but his Hamlet and Cato only added to that of Kemble. Perhaps his Peregrine, in "John Bull," of which he was the original representative, would have been a more finished performance but for-not the actor, but the author's indiscretion. "We got 'John Bull' from Colman," said Cooke to Dunlap, "act by act, as he wanted money, but the last act did not come, and Harris refused to make any further advances. At last necessity drove Colman to make a finish, and he wrote the fifth act, in one night, on separate pieces of paper. As he filled one piece after the other, he threw them on the floor, and, finishing his liquor, went to bed. Harris, who impatiently expected the dénouement of the play, according to promise, sent Fawcett to Colman, whom he found in bed. By his direction Fawcett picked up the scraps, and brought them to the theatre."

In the season of 1803-4, when Kemble became part proprietor and acting manager at Covent Garden, he played in several pieces with Cooke. They were thus brought into direct contrast. Kemble acted Richmond to Cooke's Richard; Old Norval to his Glenalvon; Rolla to his Pizarro; Beverley to his Stukely; Horatio to his Sciolto-Charles Kemble playing Lothario, and Mrs. Siddons, Calista,-such a cast as the "Fair Penitent" had not had for many years! John Kemble further played Jaffier to Cooke's Pierre; Antonio to his Shylock; the Duke, in "Measure for Measure," to his Angelo; Macbeth, with George Frederick for Macduff; Henry IV. to Cooke's Falstaff; Othello to his Iago; King John, with Cooke as Hubert, and Charles Kemble as Faulconbridge-Mrs. Siddons being, of course, the Constance; Kemble also played Ford to Cooke's Falstaff, and Hamlet to Cooke's Ghost; and, in a subsequent season, Posthumus to his Iachimo, with some other parts, which must have recalled the old excitement of the times of Garrick and Quin, but that audiences were going mad about Master Betty, to the Rolla of which little and, no doubt, clever gentleman, George Frederick, needy and careless, was compelled to play Pizarro!

For a few seasons more he kept his ground with difficulty. He did not play many parts well, it has been said, but those he did play well, he played better than anybody else. But dissipation marred his vast powers even in these; and recklessness reduced this genius to penury. After receiving £400 in banknotes, the proceeds of a benefit at Manchester, in one of his summer tours, he thrust the whole into the fire, in order to put himself on a level to fight a man, in a pothouse row, who had said that Cooke provoked him to battle, only because he was a rich man, and the other poor!

It is not surprising that prison locks kept such a man from his duties in the playhouse; but the public always welcomed the prodigal on his return. When he reappeared at Covent Garden, as Sir Pertinax, in March 1808, after a long confinement, it was to "the greatest money-house, one excepted, ever known at that theatre. Never was a performer received in a more flattering or gratifying manner."

But he slipped back into bad habits, was often forgetful of his parts, and was sometimes speechless; yet he was generally able to keep up the Scottish dialect, if he could speak at all, and his part require it. O

nce, when playing Sir Archy Macsarcasm, he forgot his name, called himself Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, and was corrected by a purist in the gallery. Cooke looked up, and happily enough remarked, "Eet's aw ane blude!"

He was hardly less happy, when, for some offence given by him, on the stage, at Liverpool, he was called on to offer an apology to the audience. Liverpool merchants had much fattened, then, by a fortunate pushing of the trade in human flesh. "Apology! from George Frederick Cooke!" he cried; "take it from this remark: There's not a brick in your infernal town which is not cemented by the blood of a slave!"

The American Cooper found him in the lowest of the slums of Liverpool, and tempted, or kidnapped him to America, whence this compound of genius and blackguard never returned. On one of his early appearances, in New York, he is said, being elated, to have refused to act till the orchestra had played "God Save the King;" and then he insisted, with tipsy gravity, that the audience should be "upstanding." In seventeen nights following the 21st of November 1810, when he first appeared in New York, as Richard, the treasury was the richer by twenty-one thousand five hundred and seventy-eight dollars. He felt and expressed, however, such a contempt for the Yankee character, that New York soon deserted him, and Philadelphia paid him little or no homage. Once he was informed that Mr. Madison was coming from Washington, expressly to see him in a favourite character.

"Then, if he does, I'll be -- if I play before him. What, I, George Frederick Cooke, who have acted before the Majesty of Britain, play before your Yankee President! No! I'll go forward to the audience, and I'll say, Ladies and gentlemen,-

"The King of the Yankee-doodles has come to see me act; me, George Frederick Cooke, who have stood before my royal master, George III., and received his imperial approbation ... it is degradation enough to play before rebels; but I'll not go on for the amusement of a king of rebels, the contemptible King of the Yankee-doodles!"

From among the "Yankee-doodles" Cooke found, however, a lady with the old dramatic name of Behn, who became his second wife; but his condition was little improved thereby. Dr. Francis, in his Old New York, gives the following picture of him at this time:-

"After one of those catastrophes to which I have alluded, I paid him a visit at early afternoon, the better to secure his attendance at the theatre. He was seated at his table, with many decanters, all exhausted, save two or three appropriated for candlesticks, the lights in full blaze. He had not rested for some thirty hours or more. With much ado, aided by Price the manager, he was persuaded to enter the carriage waiting at the door to take him to the playhouse. It was a stormy night. He repaired to the green-room, and was soon ready. Price saw he was the worse from excess, but the public were not to be disappointed. 'Let him,' says the manager, 'only get before the lights and the receipts are secure.' Within the wonted time Cooke entered on his part, the Duke of Gloster. The public were unanimous in their decision, that he never performed with greater satisfaction. As he left the house he whispered, 'Have I not pleased the Yankee-doodles?' Hardly twenty-four hours after this memorable night, he scattered some 400 dollars among the needy and the solicitous, and took refreshment in a sound sleep. A striking peculiarity often marked the conduct of Cooke: he was the most indifferent of mortals to the results which might be attendant on his folly and his recklessness. When his society was solicited by the highest in literature and the arts, he might determine to while away a limited leisure among the illiterate and the vulgar, and yet none was so fastidious in the demands of courtesy. When the painter Stuart was engaged with the delineation of his noble features, he chose to select those hours for sleeping; yet the great artist triumphed and satisfied his liberal patron, Price. Stuart proved a match for him, by occasionally raising the lid of his eye. On the night of his benefit, the most memorable of his career in New York, with a house crowded to suffocation, he abused public confidence, and had nothing to say but that Cato had full right to take liberty with his senate."

In this strange being, there are two phases of character that are beyond ordinary singularity. The first was his "mental intoxication," of which he thus speaks in one of his journals: "To use a strange expression, I am sometimes in a kind of mental intoxication; some, I believe, would call it insanity. I believe it is allied to it. I then can imagine myself in strange situations and strange places. This humour, whatever it is, comes uninvited, but it is nevertheless easily dispelled,-at least, generally so. When it cannot be dispelled, it must, of course, become madness." Here was a decided perception of the way he might be going,-from physical, through mental, intoxication, to the madhouse!

His common sense is another phase in the character of this great actor, who manifested so little for his own profit. He was the guardian of female morals against the perils of contemporary literature! "In my humble opinion," he says, "a licencer is as necessary for a circulating library, as for dramatic productions intended for representation; especially when it is considered how young people, particularly girls, often procure, and sometimes in a secret manner, books of so evil a tendency, that not only their time is most shamefully wasted, but their morals and manners tainted and warped for the remainder of their lives. I am firmly of opinion that many females owe the loss of reputation to the pernicious publications too often found in those dangerous seminaries."

Cooke may be said to have been dying, from the day he landed in the, then, United States. His vigorous constitution only slowly gave way. It was difficult for him to destroy that; for in occasional rests he gave it, when he sat down to write on religion, philosophy, ideas for improving society, and diatribes against drinking, in his diary, his constitution recovered all its vigour, and started refreshed for a new struggle against drunkenness and death. The former, however, gave it a mortal fall, in July 1812, when Death grasped his victim, for ever. Cooke was taken ill, while playing Sir Giles Overreach, at Boston, on the 31st of the above month.[77] He went home, irrecoverably stricken, met his fate with decency, and calmly breathed his last in the following September, in full possession of his mental faculties to the supreme moment.

He was buried in the "strangers' vault," of St. Paul's Church, New York, with much respectful ceremony, on the part of friends who admired his genius and mutilated his body, as I shall presently show. Meanwhile, let me record here, that Cooke was of the middle size, strongly and stoutly built, with a face capable of every expression, and an eye which was as grand an interpreter of the poets, as the tongue. He was free from gesticulation and all trickery, but he lacked the grace and refinement of less accomplished actors. In soliloquies, he recognised no audience; and his hearers seemed to detect his thoughts by some other process than listening to his words.

Kemble excelled Cooke in nobleness of presence, but Cooke surpassed the other in power and compass of voice, which was sometimes as harsh as Kemble's; and indeed I may say the Kemble voice was invariably feeble. In statuesque parts, and in picturesque characters,-in the Roman Coriolanus, and in Hamlet the Dane,-Kemble's scholarly and artistic feeling gave him the precedence; but in Iago, and especially in Richard, Cooke has been adjudged very superior in voice, expression, and style; "his manner being more quick, abrupt, and impetuous, and his attitudes better, as having less the appearance of study." Off the stage, during the progress of a play, he did not, like Betterton, preserve the character he was acting; nor like Young, tell gay stories, and even sing gay songs; but he loved to have the strictest order and decorum,-he, the most drunken player that had glorified the stage, since the days of George Powell! Could he have carried into real life the scrupulousness which, at one time, he carried into the mimicry of it, he would have been a better actor and a better man.

When Edmund Kean was in America, Bishop Hobart gave permission for the removal of Cooke's body, from the "strangers' vault," to the public burial-ground of the parish, where Kean was about to erect a monument to the memory of his ill-fated predecessor. On that occasion, "tears fell from Kean's eyes in abundance," says Dr. Francis; but those eyes would have flashed lightning, had Kean been aware that there was a headless trunk beneath the monument; and that, whoever may have been the savage who mutilated the body and stole the head,-that head was in the possession of Dr. Francis! To what purposes it has been turned, this gentleman may tell in his own words.

"A theatrical benefit had been announced at the Park, and 'Hamlet,' the play. A subordinate of the theatre hurried at a late hour to my office, for a skull. I was compelled to loan the head of my old friend, George Frederick Cooke. 'Alas, poor Yorick!' It was returned in the morning; but on the ensuing evening, at a meeting of the Cooper Club, the circumstance becoming known to several of the members, and a general desire being expressed to investigate, phrenologically, the head of the great tragedian, the article was again released from its privacy, when Daniel Webster, Henry Wheaton, and many others who enriched the meeting of that night, applied the principles of craniological science to the interesting specimen before them.... Cooper felt as a coadjutor of Albinus, and Cooke enacted a great part that night." If Cooke could have spoken his great part, he would assuredly have added something strong to his comments on what he used to call the civilisation of Yankee-doodle.

The monument, erected by Edmund Kean, consists of a pedestal, surmounted by an urn, with this inscription:-"Erected to the memory of George Frederick Cooke, by Edmund Kean, of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1821;" and, beneath, this not very choice, nor very accurate distich:-

"Three kingdoms claim his birth.

Both hemispheres pronounce his worth!"

And below this superscription lies all that has not been stolen of what was mortal of one among the greatest and the least of British actors.

During his career, flourished and passed into private life a boy, who still survives, rich with the fortune rapidly acquired in those old playgoing days,-Master Betty.[78]

Mr. Moody as Simon.


[74] His appearance as Lucia was after his becoming bound to a printer, and his crying is apocryphal.

[75] Should be 31st October 1800.

[76] Should be fourteen times. See note in vol. ii. page 82.

[77] Cooke was playing at Providence, with the Boston company. Dunlap does not say, or imply, that he was taken ill specially on that night, which finished his engagement at Providence.

[78] Died 24th August 1874, aged eighty-two.

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