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   Chapter 10 MASTER BETTY.

Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 11852

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

William Henry West Betty was born at Shrewsbury, in 1791,-a Shropshire boy, but of Irish descent. His father, a man of independent means, taught him fencing and elocution, and was unreasonably surprised to find that a histrionic affection came of this double instruction.

"I shall certainly die, if I do not become an actor!" said the boy, when residing near Belfast, and after seeing Mrs. Siddons in the ungrateful part of Elvira, in "Pizarro." Ho was then ten years old; was a boy with a will and decision of character; and, in his twelfth year, he made his first appearance at Belfast, on the 11th of August 1803, as Osmyn, in "Zara." The judgment of the Irish manager, Atkins, was that he was an "Infant Garrick."

Master Betty also played Douglas, Rolla, and Romeo; and he went up to Dublin, in November, with the testimony of the Belfast ladies that he was "a darling." In the Irish capital, he acted Douglas, Frederick, Prince Arthur, Romeo, Tancred, and Hamlet. As he is said to have learned and played the last part within three days, I have small respect for his precocious cleverness and do not wonder that the Dublin wits showered epigrams upon him.

"The public are respectfully informed that no person coming from the theatre will be stopt till after eleven o'clock." Such was the curious announcement on the Irish playbill which invited the public to go and see Master Betty, and advised them to get home early, if they would not be taken for traitors. Those days were the days of United Irishmen, when Ireland was divided into factions, and Dublin not quite at unity as to Master Betty's merits.

The majority, however, worshipped the idol, before which Cork, Waterford, Londonderry, and other cities, bowed the knee. The popular acclaim wafted him to Scotland. In Glasgow, there was one individual who was not mad, and would criticise; but in return for "a severe philippic" administered by him, the wretch "was compelled to leave the city!"

If he went to Edinburgh, he found more excess of dotage than he had left in Glasgow. It was not merely that duchesses and countesses caressed the boy, but there was Home himself, at the representation of his own "Douglas," blubbering in the boxes,[79] and protesting that never till then had young Norval been acted as he had conceived it! And he had seen West Digges, the original, in Edinburgh; and Spranger Barry, the original, in London. Critics said the Infant Roscius excelled Kemble; and Lords of the Court of Session presented him with books, and gave him old men's blessings!

Birmingham next took him up, and the English town confirmed the verdicts of Ireland and Scotland. Miss Smith (afterwards Mrs. Bartley) played mother to him one night, and maid beloved the next; and at the close of a dozen performances, the Infant Roscius was celebrated by a Bromwicham poet as having crushed the pride of all his predecessors, and being "Cooke, Kemble, Holman, Garrick, all in one!"

"Theatrical coach to carry six insides, to see the young Roscius," was the placard on many a vehicle which carried an impatient public from Doncaster races to Sheffield, where crowds of amateurs from London fought with the country-folk for admission to the theatre, and a poetic Templar, rather loose in his Italian, remarked in a long poem in his praise:-

"Would Sculpture form Apollo Belvidere,

She need not roam to France, the model's here!"

Liverpool, Chester, Manchester, Stockport, all caught the frenzy, and adored the boy,-to whom Charles Young played subordinate parts! Occasionally, Master Betty played twice in the same day, and netted about £500 a week! Royal dukes expressed their delight in him, grateful managers loaded him with silver cups, and John Kemble wrote to Mr. Betty père, to express the happiness he and Mr. Harris would have in welcoming the tenth Wonder to Covent Garden Theatre,-at £50 per night and half a clear benefit.[80]

Accordingly, on Saturday, the 1st of December 1804, at ten in the morning, gentlemen were "parading" under the Piazza. By two o'clock serried crowds possessed every avenue, and when the doors were opened, there was a rush which ultimately cost some persons their lives. "The pit was two-thirds filled from the boxes. Gentlemen who knew that there were no places untaken in the boxes, and who could not get up the pit avenues, paid for admission into the lower boxes, and poured from them into the pit, in twenties and thirties at a time." Contemporary accounts speak in detail of the terrible sufferings not only of women, but men. "The ladies in one or two boxes were occupied almost the whole night in fanning the gentlemen who were beneath them in the pit.... Upwards of twenty gentlemen, who had fainted, were dragged up into the boxes.... Several more raised their hands as if in the act of supplication for mercy and pity." As for the play, "Barbarossa," the sensible public would have none of it before the scene in the second act, in which Selim (Master Betty) first makes his appearance. When that arrived, he was not disturbed by the uproar of applause which welcomed him; and he answered the universal expectation. "Whenever he wished to produce a great effect he never failed." He was found to be "a perfect master." His whisper was "heard in every part of the house," says a newspaper critic; "there is something in it like the undernotes of the Kembles; but it has nothing sepulchral in it.... The oldest actor is not equal to him, he never loses sight of the scene.... His judgment seems to be extremely correct.... Nature has endowed him with genius which we shall vainly attempt to find in any of the actors of the present day;"-after which last sweeping judgment comes the qualifying line, "If he be not even now the first, he is in the very first line; and he will soon leave every other actor of the present day, at an immeasurable distance behind him."

The critics evidentl

y had small confidence in their own judgments, but princes led the applause; their Majesties were charmed with their new "servant;" royalty received him in its London palace, and to the Count d'Artois (future King of France) and an august party at Lady Percival's, the small-eyed and plump-faced boy shook his luxuriant auburn curls, and acted Zaphna, in French.

The philosophers went as mad as the "quality" and critics. Quid noster Roscius egit was given by Cambridge University as the subject for Sir William Brown's prize-medal. Old "Gentleman Smith," the original Charles Surface, came up from Bury St. Edmunds, and presented him with a seal bearing the likeness of Garrick, and which Garrick, in his last illness, had charged him to keep only till he should "meet with a player who acted from nature and from feeling." Having found such actor, Smith consigned to him the keeping of the precious relic.

Then, if the overtaxed boy fell ill, as he did more than once, the public forgot the general social distress, the threats of invasion, war abroad and sedition at home, and evinced such painful anxiety, that bulletins were daily issued, as though the lad were king-regnant or heir-apparent.

Subsequently, Drury Lane and Covent Garden shared him between them. In twenty-three nights,[81] at the former house, he drew above £17,000, and this double work so doubled his popularity, that on one night, having to play Hamlet, the House of Commons, on a motion by Pitt, adjourned, and went down to the theatre to see him! This flattery from the whole Senate was capped by that of a single legislator; Charles Fox read Zanga to the little actor, and commented on Young's tragedy, with such effect, that the young gentleman never undertook the principal character.[82]

Except John Kemble and Mrs. Siddons, there was scarcely an actor of celebrity who did not play in the same piece with him, including Suett and Joey Grimaldi, who were the Gravediggers to his Hamlet. At the close of the season he passed through the provinces, triumphant, and returned to Drury Lane in 1805, to find "garlick amid the flowers," and a strong sibilant opposition, which he, however, surmounted, and again played the usual round of tragic heroes, carrying heaps of gold away with him to the country, where he easily earned large additions to the heap.[83]

But the London furore henceforth subsided. The provinces continued their allegiance for a year or two, but the metropolis no longer asked for, or thought of him. His last season was at Bath, in 1808; in the July of which year he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, as a Fellow Commoner; subsequently hunted in the vicinity of the Shropshire estate, purchased for him by his father, and became Captain Betty of the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry.

So ended Master Betty! But, in 1812, his father being dead, Mr. Betty longed again for the incense of the lamps and the dear homage of applause, and he went through a course of provincial theatres, ending with a month at Covent Garden, with questionable success. His old admirers would have it that he was the English, as he had been the Infant, Roscius; but the treasury account told another tale, and Mr. Betty could only take rank as a respectable actor.

His name, however, was still a tower of strength beyond the metropolis; and, in country towns, the intelligent young man drew audiences still. In Edinburgh, Mr. Macready played Edward to Mr. Betty's Warwick; in which last character, after fitful appearances in the country, and acting for a single night now and then in London, as an additional attraction for a benefit, Mr. Betty took his final farewell of the stage, at Southampton, on August the 9th, 1824, being then but thirty-two years of age.

There can be no doubt of Master Betty having been the most "promising" young actor that ever delighted his contemporaries, and disappointed those that were to be so hereafter. His wonderful memory, his self-possession, his elegance of manner, his natural and feeling style of acting-all but his habit of dropping his h's, were parts of a promise of excellence. But his early audiences took these for a whole and complete performance. He was master of words but not of ideas, and in his boyhood was imperfectly educated. He could learn Hamlet in three or four days, and, no doubt, he played it prettily; but to play prettily and to act masterly, are different things. Hamlet is no matter for a boy to handle. Betterton acted it for fifty years, and, to his own mind, had not thoroughly fathomed the profoundest depths of its philosophy even then. Master Betty commenced too early to learn by rote; and the habits he then formed never permitted him to study as well as learn, by heart. The feeling and the nature, for which he was once praised, were those of a boy; they kept by him, and they were found weak and nerveless in the man. But therewith he reaped a large fortune, and he has prudently kept that too. May the old man long enjoy what the young boy, between natural abilities and the madness of "fashion," earned with happy facility.

There remains but one name more of exceeding greatness to be mentioned,-that of Edmund Kean; but, ere we let our curtain fall on him, I have to notice something of the manners, customs, sayings, and doings of a past time, which differed greatly from that in which Kean was reared, flourished, and fell. Let us glance at that olden period before we summon him to occupy our final scene.

Mr. Foote as Mrs. Cole.


[79] This is somewhat fanciful. Jackson says nothing about Home, who was seated at the wing, "blubbering."

[80] It is generally stated that the terms were fifty guineas and a clear benefit.

[81] Should be twenty-eight nights.

[82] This is wrong. Betty did play Zanga.

[83] He again played at both houses, but his attraction was already waning.

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