Betterton, Thomas

, a celebrated English actor, was born in Tothill-street, Westminster, 1635; and, after having left school, is said to have been put apprentice to a bookseller. The particulars, however, relating to the early part of his life, are not ascertained. It is generally thought that he made his first appearance on the stage in 1656, at the opera-house in Charter-house-yard, under the direction of sir William Davenant, and continued to perform here till the restoration, when king Charles grained patents to two companies, the one called the king’s cornpa ly, and the other the duke’s. The former acted at the theatre royal in Drury-lane, and the latter at the theatre | in Lincoln’s-Inn-fields. Betterton went over to Paris, at the command of king Charles II. to take a view of the French scenery, and at his return made such improvements as added greatly to the lustre of the English stage. For several years both companies acted with the highest applause, and the taste for dramatic entertainments was never stronger than whilst these two companies played .*


Mr. Cibher says, that plays having been so long prohibited, people came to them with greater eagerness, like folks alter a long fast to a great feast; and that women being now brought upon the stage was a great advantage for on all former stages, female characters were performed by boys, or young men of the most effeminate aspect. He takes notice also of a rule which was established, that no play which was acted at one house should be attempted at the other. All the capital plays therefore of Shakspeare, Fletcher, and Jonson, were divided betwixt them, by the approbation of the court, and their own choice; so that when Hart was famous for Othello, Betterton had no less a reputation for Hamlet. By this means the town was supplied with greater variety of plays than could possibly have been shewn, had both companies been employed at the same time upon the same play. Gibber’s Apology for his life, p. 74, 75, &c.

The two companies were however at length united; though the time of this union is not precisely known, Gildon placing it in 1682, and Cibber in 1684. But however this may be, it was in this united company that Mr. ‘Betterton first shone forth with the greatest degree of lustre for, having survived the famous actors upon whose model he had formed himself, he was now at liberty to display his genius in its full extent. His merit as an actor cannot now be very accurately displayed, and much of the following passage from Gibber’s Apology, seems to be mere stage-cant and declamation. Cibber says, “Betterton was an actor, as Shakspeare was an author, both without competitors, formed for the mutual assistance and illustration of each other’s genius! How Shakspeare wrote, all men who have a taste for nature may read and know; but with what higher rapture would he still be read, could they conceive how Betterton played him! Then might they know the one was born alone to speak what the other only knew to write! Pity it is that the momentary beauties, flowing from an harmonious elocution, cannot, like those of poetry, be their own record! that the animated graces of the player can live no longer than the instant breath and motion that present them, or at best can but faintly glimmer through the memory or imperfect attestation of a few surviving spectators! Could how Betterton spoke be as easily known as what he spoke, then might you see the muse of Shakspeare in her triumph, with all her beauties in her best array, rising into real life, and charming her | beholders. But alas! since all this is so far out of the reach of description, how shall I shew you Betterton? Should I therefore tell you that all the Othellos, Hamlets, Hotspurs, Macbeths, and Brutuses, you have seen since his time, have fallen short of him, this still would give you no idea of his particular excellence. Let us see then what a particular comparison may do, whether that may yet draw him nearer to you? You have seen a Hamlet perhaps, who, on the first appearance of his father’s spirit, has thrown himself into all the straining vociferation requisite to express rage and fury; and the house has thundered with applause, though the misguided actor was all the while (as Shakspeare terms it) tearing a passion into rags. I am the more bold to offer you this particular instance, because the late Mr. Addison, while I sat by him to see this scene acted, made the same observation asking me, with some surprise, if I thought Hamlet should be in so violent a passion with the ghost, which, though it might have astonished, had not provoked him? For you may observe, that in this beautiful speech, the passion never rises beyond an almost breathless astonishment, or an impatience, limited by a filial reverence, to inquire into the suspected wrongs that may have raised nim from his peaceful tomb and a desire to know what a spirit so seemingly distrest might wish or enjoin a sorrowful son to execute towards his future quiet in the grave. This was the light into which Betterton threw this scene; which he opened with a pause of mute amazement! Then rising slowly to a solemn, trembling voice, he made the ghost equally terrible to the spectator as to himself. And in the descriptive part of the natural emotions which the ghastlyvision gave him, the boldness tit‘ his expostulation was still governed by decency manly, but not braving his voice never rising into that seeming outrage, or wild deli an ce, of what he naturally revered. But, alas to preserve this medium between mouthing, and meaning too little, to keep the attention more pleasingly awake by a ’tempered spirit, than by mere vehemence of voice, is, of all the master strokes of an actor, the most difficult to reach. In. this none have equalled Betterton. He that feels not himself the passion he would raise, will talk to a sleeping audience. But this was” never the fault of Be item n. A farther excellence in him was, that he could vary iiis spirit to the different characters he acted. Those wild impatient | starts, that fierce and flashing fire which he threw into Hotspur, never came from the unruffled temper of his Brutus (for I have more than once seen a Brutus as warm as Hotspur): when the Betterton Brutus was provoked in his dispute with Cassius, his spirits flew out of his eyes his steady looks alone supplied that terror which he disdained an intemperance in his voice should rise to. Thus, with a settled dignity of contempt, like an unheeding rock, he repelled upon himself the foam of Cassius; not but in some part of this scene, where he reproaches Cassius, his temper is not under this suppression, but opens into that warmth which becomes a man of virtue; yet this is that hasty spark of anger, which Brutus himself endeavours to excuse. But with whatever strength of nature we see the poet shew at once the philosopher and the hero, yet the image of the actor’s excellence will be still imperfect to you, unless language could put colours in our words to paint the voice with. The most that a Vandyck can arrive at is, to make his portraits of great persons seem to think a Shakspeare goes farther yet, and tells you what his pictures thought; a BetU-rton steps beyond them both, and calls them from the grave to breathe, and be themselves again in feature, speech, and motion, at once united and gratifies at once-your eye, your ear, your understanding. From these various excel lenci s, Betterton had so full a possession of the esteem and regard of his auditors, that, upon his entrance into every scene, he seemed to seize upon the eyes and ears of the giddy and inadvertent. To have talked or looked another way, would have been thought insensibility or ignorance. In all his soliloquies of moment, the strongest intelligence of attitude and aspect drew you into such an impatient gaze and eager expectation, that you almost imbibed the sentiment with your eye,’ before the er could reach it."

En lowed with such excellences, it is no wonder that Bettertcrti attracted the notice of his sovereign, the protection of the nobility, and the general respect of all ranks of people. The patentees, however, as there was now only one theatre, began to consider it as an instrument of accumulating wealth to themselves by the labours of others; and this had such an influence on their conduct, that the actors had many hardships imposed upon them, and were oppressed in the most tyrannical manner. Betterton endeavoured to convince the managers of the injustice and | absurdity of such a behaviour which language not pleasing them, they began to give away some of his capital parts to young actors, supposing this would abate his influence. This policy hurt the patentees, and proved of service to Betterton for the public resented having plays ill acted, when they knew they might be acted better. The best players attached themselves wholly to Betterton, urging him to turn his thoughts on some method of procuring himself and them justice. Having a general ao quaintance with people of fashion, he represented the affair in such a manner, that at length, by the intercession of the earl of Dorset, he procured a patent for building a new playhouse in Lincoln’s-inn-fields, which he did by subscription. The new theatre was opened in 1695. Mr. Congreve accepted a share with this company, and the first piay they acted was his comedy of Love for Love. The king honoured it with his presence when Betterton spoke a prologue, and Mrs. Bracegirdle an epilogue on the occasion. But notwithstanding all the advantages this company enjoyed, and the favourable reception they at first met with, they were unable to keep up their run of success, above two or three seasons. Vanbrugh and Gibber, who wrote for the other house, were expeditious in their productions and the frequency of new pieces gave such a turn in their favour, that Bctterton’s company, with all their merit, must have been undone, had not the “Mourning Bride” and the “Way of the World” come to their relief, and saved them at the last extremity. In a few years, however, it appearing that they could not maintain tneir independence without some new support from their friends, the patrons of Betterton opened a subscription for building a theatre in the Haymarket, which was finished in 1706. Betterton however being now grown old, and his health being much impaired by constant application, declined the management of this house, resigning it entirely to sir John Vanbrugh and Mr. Congreve; but from the decay of Betterton, many of the old players dying, and other accidents, a re-tmion of the companies seemed necessary, and accordingly took place soon after.

When Betterton had reached seventy, his infirmities increased to a great degree, and his fits of the gout were extremely severe. His circumstances also grew daily worse; ancl wore, yet he kepi up a remarkable spirit and serenity of mind and acted when his health would permit. The | public, remembering the pleasure he had given them, would not allow so deserving a man, after fifty years service, to withdraw without some marks of their bounty. In the spring of 1709, a benefit, which was then a very uncommon favour, was granted to him, and the play of “Love for Love” was acted for this purpose. He himself performed Valentine Mrs. Bracegirdle and Mrs. Barry, though they had quitted the stage, appeared on this occasion; the former in the character of Angelica, and Mrs. Barry in that of Frail. After the play was over, these two actresses appeared leading on Betterton; and Mrs. Barry spoke an epilogue, written by Mr. Rowe.

Betterton got by this benefit 500l. and a promise was given him, that the favour should be annually repeated as long as he lived. Sept. 20, in the succeeding winter, he performed the part of Hamlet with great vivacity. This activity of his kept off the gout longer than usual, but the fit returned upon him in the Spring with greater violence, and it was the more unlucky, as this was the time of his benefit. The play he fixed upon was, the “Maid’s Tragedy,” in which he acted the part of Melanthns and notice was given thereof by his friend sir Richard Steele in the Tatler but the fit intervening, that he might not disappoint the town, he was obliged to submit to external applications, to reduce the swelling of his feet, which enabled him to appear on the stage, though he was obliged to use a slipper. “He was observed that day to have a more than an ordinary spirit, and met with suitable applause but the unhappy consequence of tampering with his distemper was, that it flew into his head, and killed him.” He died April 28, 1710, and was interred in Westminster-abbey. Sir Richard Steele attended the ceremony, and two days after published a paper in the Tatler to his memory.*


Having received notice,” says the author of this paper, "that the famous Mr. Betterton was to be interred this evening in the cloisters, near Westminster-abbey, I was resolved to walk thither, and see the last office done to a man whom I had always very much admired, and from whose action I had received more impressions of what is great and noble in human nature, than from the arguments of the most solid philosophers, or the descriptions of the most charming poets I had ever read. Such an actor as Mr. Betterton ought to be recorded with the same respect as Roscius amongst the Romans. The greatest orator has thought fit to quote his judgment, and celebrate his life. Roscius was the example to all that would form themselves into a proper and winning behaviour. His action was so well adapted to the sentiments he expressed, that the youth of Rome thought they wanted only to be vir-


tuous, to he as graceful in their appearance as Roseius. I have hardly a notion, that any performance of antiquity could surpass the action of Mr. Betterton, in any of the occasions in which he has appeared on our stage. The wonderful agony which he appeared in, when he examined the circumstances of the handkerchief in Othello; the mixture of love that intruded upon his mind upon the innocent answers Desdemona makes, betrayed in his gestures such a variety and vicissitude of passions, as would admonish a man to be afraid of his own heart, and perfectly convince him, that it is to stab it to admit that worst of daggers, jealousy. Whoever reads in his closet this admirable scene, will find that he cannot, unless be has as warm an imagination as Shakspeare himself, find any but dry, incoherent, and broken sentences; but a reader that has seen Betterion act it, observes, there could not be a word added; that longer speeches had been unnatural, nay impossible, in Othello’s circumstances. The charming passage in the same tragedy, where he tells the manner of winning the affection of his mistress, was urged with so moving and graceful an energy, that while I walked in the cloisters, I thought of him with the same concern as if I waited for the remains of a person who had in real life done all that I had seen him represent. The gloom of the place, and faint lights before the ceremony appeared, contributed to the melancholy disposition I was in; and I began to be extremely afflicted that Brutus and Cassius had any difference; that Hotspur’s gallantry was so tin fortunate; and that the mirth and good humour of Falstaff could not exempt him from the grave."
Tatier, No. 167.

Mr. Booth, who knew him only in his | decline, used to say, that he never saw him off or on the stage, without learning something from him; and frequently observed, that Betterton was no actor, that he put on his part with his clothes, and was the very man he undertook to be till the play was over, and nothing more. So exact was he in following nature, that the look of surprise he assumed in the character of Hamlet, astonished Booth (when he first personated the ghost) to such a degree, that he was unable to proceed in his part for some moments. The following dramatic works were published by Mr. Betterton, 1. a The Woman made a justice,“a comedy. 2.” The Unjust judge, or, Appius and Virginia,“a tragedy, written originally by Mr. John Webster, an old poet, who. fiourisiied in the reign of James I. It was only altered by Mr. Betterton. 3.” The Amorous widow, or the wanton wife," a play written on the plan of Moliere’s George Dandin. 1

Abridged in the last edition of this Dictionary from the Biog. Brit.—Biog Dramatica.—Cibber's Lives.—Life of Betterton, 1710, 8vo.