January Books 6) Actors of the Century

6) Actors of the Century: a Play-Lover’s Gleanings From Theatrical Annals, by Frederic Whyte (.co.uk, .com)

Published in 1898, this was my distant relative’s first book (and he didn’t write another until 1925). It’s very difficult to write about performances that happened long ago, by actors who are long dead, and yet make it interesting. I think Whyte does it as well as is possible. It’s a chatty account of great actors of the nineteenth century, illustrated with lots and lots of photographs (or engravings, for the older subjects) some of which are really striking – Edmund Kean, for instance, looks extraordinary. My copy of the book has a dozen or so extra contemporary loose-leaf photographs of contemporary actors tucked inside it as an unexpected bonus. I’ve scanned and uploaded the one of Lily Langtry, nowadays better remembered as the lover of the future King Edward VII, partly because I really can’t work out what is going on with her costume.

Whyte runs through several generations of great British actors, but also extends his view to the United States, writing for example of how Junius Brutus Booth emigrated from London to a career of success in which he was followed by his son Edwin; and also of how the play Our American Cousin had provided a ready-made role for the best American actors to perform in Europe. The off-stage part played by Junius Booth’s younger son at a Washington DC performance of Our American Cousin on 14 April 1865 is not mentioned. I discovered while checking this on WikiPedia that Junius Booth’s younger brother Algernon, who stayed in England, apparently was the great-great-great-grandfather of Cherie Booth, who is married to Tony Blair.

Whyte is also very keen to emphasise the Irish links of all the key theatrical figures he possibly can (in the year this book was published, he was heckled while giving a public lecture on “Irish Actors and Dramatists” by both George Bernard Shaw and Bram Stoker, who were in the audience). I was surprised that I knew one he missed – William Betty, who (as reported here and elsewhere) took the London stage by storm aged 13 in 1804, was brought up in Dromore, Co Down.

I was especially struck by Whyte’s exhortation to the reader, after quoting extensively from someone else’s glowing review of Mrs Patrick Campbell’s 1895 performance as Juliet, as follows:

The theatrical dilettante of a hundred years hence, who may turn over these pages at the British Museum, will accept this passage, I imagine, as we accepted those in which [Charles] Lamb and [his colleagues] sang the praises of the players of their time.

Do so, Casual Reader of 1998! Do so, without hesitation!

It is startling to be addressed so directly from the past, by a writer who was born precisely a hundred years before me. OK, it’s eight years later than he was aiming for, but it’s a good shot none the less.

One thought on “January Books 6) Actors of the Century

  1. A few years ago I’d have said “no it bloody isn’t” – but, having written for her in audio, and having learned more of the behind-the-scenes story, then yeah, that pairing would be a prime candidate for rebooting and doing right…

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