Booth, Barton

, a celebrated tragic actor, was born in the county palatine of Lancaster, 1681. At the age of nine years he was put to Westminster school, under the tuition of the famous Dr. Busby, where he soon discovered an excellent genius and capacity. He had a peculiar turn for Latin poetry, and had fixed many of the finest passages of the antients so firmly in his memory, that he could repeat them with such propriety of emphasis, and gracefulness of action, as to charm every body who heard him. Thence it was, that when, according to custom, a Latin play was to be acted, one of the first parts was given to young Booth; who performed it in such a manner as gained him universal applause, and particular respect from the doctor. This first gave him an inclination for the stage. His father intended him for the church: but when Barton reached the age of seventeen, and was about to be sent to the university, he stole away from school, and went over to Ireland in 1698, with Mr. Ashbury, master of the company. Here he was soon distinguished greatly by his theatrical abilities, especially in tragedy, for which he seemed to be formed by nature; for he had a grave countenance and a good person, with a fine voice and a manly action. When he had been three seasons in Dublin, in which time he had acquired a great reputation, he resolved to return to England; which he accordingly did in 1701, and was recommended to Mr. Betterton, who behaved to him with great civility, and took him into his company. The first character in which he appeared on the English stage, was that of Maximus, in the tragedy of Valentinian; and it was scarce possible for a young actor to meet with a better reception. The Ambitious Stepmother coming on soon after, he performed the part of Artaban, which added considerably to the reputation he had acquired, and made him esteemed one of the first actors. Nor was his fame less in all the succeeding characters which he attempted; but he shone with greatest lustre in the tragedy of Cato, which was brought on the stage in 1712. “Although Cato (says Mr. Cibber) seems plainly written upon what are called whig principles, yet the tories at that time had sense enough not to take it as the least reflection on their administration; but, on the contrary, seemed to brandish and vaunt their approbation of every sentiment in favour of liberty, which, by a public act of their generosity, was carried so high, that one day | while the play was acting, they collected 50 guineas in the boxes, and made a present of them to Booth, with this compliment For his honest opposition to a perpetual dictator, and his dying so bravely in the cause of liberty.” The reputation to which Booth was now arrived seemed to entitle him to a share in the management of the theatre; but this perhaps his merit would never have procured, had it not been through the favour of lord Bolingbroke, who, in 1713, recalling all former licences, procured a new one, in which Booth’s name was added to those of Gibber, Wilks, and Dogget. Dogget, however, was so much offended at this, that he threw up his share, and would not accept of any consideration for it; but Gibber tells us, he only made this a pretence, and that the true reason of his quitting was his dislike to Wilks, whose humour was become insupportable to him. When Booth came to a share in the management of the house, he was in the thirty-third year of his age, and in the highest reputation as an actor: nor did his fame as a player sink by degrees, as sometimes has happened to those who have been most applauded, but increased every day more and more. The health of Booth, however, beginning to decline, he could not act so often as usual; and hence became more evident the public favour towards him, by the crowded audiences his appearance drew, when the intervals of his distemper permitted him to tread the stage: but his constitution broke now very fast, and he was attacked with a complication of distempers, which carried him off, May 10, 1733.

His character as an actor has been celebrated by some of the best judges. Mr. Aaron Hill, a gentleman, who by the share he had in the management of the play-house, could not but have sufficient opportunities of becoming well acquainted with his merit, has given us a very high character of him. “Two advantages (says this gentleman) distinguished him in the strongest light from the rest of his fraternity; he had learning to understand perfectly whatever it was his part to speak, and judgment to know how far it agreed or disagreed with his character. Hence arose a peculiar grace, which was visible to every spectator, though few were at the pains of examining into the cause of their pleasure. He could soften, and slide over with a kind of elegant negligence, the improprieties in a part he acted; while, on the contrary, he would dwell with energy upon the beauties, as if he everted a latent spirit, which | had been kept back for such an occasion, that he might alarm, awaken, and transport in those places only where the dignity of his own good sense could be supported by that of his author. A little reflection upon this remarkable quality will teach us to account for that manifest languor, which has sometimes been observed in his action, and which was generally, though I think falsely, imputed to the natural indolence of his temper. For the same reason, though in the customary rounds of his business he would condescend to some parts in comedy, he seldom appeared in any of them with much advantage to his character. The passions which he found in comedy were not strong enough to excite his fire, and what seemed want of qualification, was only absence of impression. He had a talent at discovering the passions, where they lay hid in some celebrated parts, by the injudicious practice of other actors, which when he had discovered, he soon grew able to express: and his secret for attaining this great lesson of the theatre was an adaption of his look to his voice, by which artful imitation of nature, the variations in the sound of his words gave propriety to every change in his countenance. So that it was Mr. Booth’s peculiar felicity to be heard and seen the same whether as the pleased, the grieved, the pitying, the reproachful, or the angry. One would almost be tempted to borrow the aid of a very bold figure, and, to express this excellence the more significantly, beg permission, to affirm, that the blind might have seen him in his voice, and the deaf have heard him in his visage. His gesture, or, as it is commonly called, his action, was but the result and necessary consequence of his dominion over his voice and countenance; for having, by a concurrence of two such causes, impressed his imagination with such a stamp and spirit of passion, he ever obeyed the impulse by a kind of natural dependency, and relaxed or braced successively into all that fine expressiveness, with which he painted what he spoke without restraint or affectation.

Mr. Gibber has also taken particular notice of Booth, nor has he omitted either his excellencies or defects: this writer, speaking of Wilks and him, says, “they were actors so opposite in their manner, that if either of them could have borrowed a little of the other’s fault, they would both have been improved by it. If Wilks had sometimes too great a vivacity, Booth as often contented himself with too grave a dignity. The latter seemed too | much to heave up his words, as the other to dart them to the ear with too quick and sharp a vehemence. Thus Wiiks would too frequently break into the time and measure of the harmony by too many spirited accents in one line; and Booth, by too solemn a regard to harmony, would as often lose the necessary spirit of it: so that (as I have observed) could we have sometimes raised the one and sunk the other, they had both been nearer the mark. Yet this could not be always objected to them; they had their intervals of unexceptionable excellence, that more than balanced their errors. The master-piece of Booth was Othello; then he was most in character, and seemed not more to animate and please himself in it than his spectators. It is true he owed his last and highest advancement to his acting Cato; but it was the novelty and critical appearance of that character, that chiefly swelled the torrent of his applause; for, let the sentiments of a declaiming patriot have all the sublimity of poetry, and let them be delivered with all the utmost grace and elocution, yet this is but one light wherein the excellence of an actor can shine; but in Othello we may see him in the variety of nature. In Othello, therefore, I may safely aver, that Booth shewed himself thrice the actor that he could in Cato, and yet his merit in acting Cato need not be diminished by this comparison. Wilks often regretted, that in tragedy he had not the full and strong voice of Booth, to command and grace his periods with. But Booth used to say, that if his ear had been equal to it, Wilks had voice enough to have shewn himself a much better tragedian. Now, though there might be some truth in this, yet these two actors were of so mixed a merit, that even in tragedy the superiority was not always on the same side. In sorrow, tenderness, or resignation, Wilks plainly had the advantage, and seemed more pathetically to feel, look, and express his calamity. But in the more turbulent transports of the heart, Booth again bore the palm, and left all competitors behind him.

Besides his professional merit, Booth was a man of letters, and an author in more languages than one. He had a taste for poetry, which discovered itself when he was very young, in translations from several Odes of Horace; and in his riper years, he wrote several songs and other original poems, which were very far from injuring his reputation. He was also the author of a mask or dramatic | entertainment called “Dido and JEneas,” that was very well received upon the stage; but his best performance was a Latin inscription to the memory of a celebrated actor, Mr. William Smith, one of the greatest men of his profession, and of whom Mr. Booth always spoke in raptures. This short elogy has much strength, beauty, and elegance. In his private life he had many virtues, and few of the failings so common to his profession. He had no envy in his composition, but readily approved, and as readily rewarded, merit, as it was in his power. He was something rough in his manner, and a little hasty in his temper, but very open and free to speak his sentiments, which he always did with an air of sincerity, that procured him as much credit with people at first sight, as he had with those to whom he had been long known. He was kind to all the players whose circumstances were indifferent, and took care not to make them uneasy, either in point of salary or of usage. He was no great speaker in company, but when he did, it was in a grave lofty way, not unlike his pronunciation on the stage. He had a great veneration for his parents while they were living, and was also very useful to his brother and sister after their decease. Booth was twice married; first in 1704, to Miss Frances Barkham, daughter of sir William Barkham, of Norfolk, bart. who died in 1710, without issue; and secondly, to Mrs. Santlowe, an actress, who. survived him forty years, and in 1772, erected a monument to his memory in Westminster abbey. In 1737 she married Mr. Goodyer,a gentleman of fortune in Essex. 1


Biog. Brit. Biog. Dram. Cibber’s Lives Life by Theophilus Cibber, 1753, 8vo. Victor’s Works, vol. I. p. 79, 96, 316. -Bowles’s edit, of Pope’s Works. —Gent. Mag. vol. VII. p. 252.