Wednesday, October 1, 2008

British Invasion

Alarums and excursions; in 1830 our English cousins show how ‘tis done

He was three years away from founding an acting dynasty in 1830, but on May 31 the 34-year-old English-born classical actor appeared in lower Manhattan playing Iago to the Othello of Thomas Cooper, a fellow Brit. Diarist Philip Hone was not particularly impressed with Junius Brutus Booth. Speaking of Booth’s performance, he noted, “It was respectable, but wanted spirit, raciness, and point; but I do not wonder at it, for Cooper is a perfect wet blanket resting upon all around, flat, stale, and unprofitable.” Cooper must have been quite accomplished at lameness if he could manage to make his mercurial, eccentric and often downright strange co-star seem spiritless.

Booth kept quite busy touring during the twenties and thirties and may have only played the one night here in Manhattan but, according to historian Charles Haswell he was back in the beginning of September, playing at the Bowery Theater, rebuilt since its fiery destruction last year. No further mention is made of Cooper, but a new competitor (British, of course) was making his way out from the wings at this time. Charles John Kean. Haswell reports the 19-year-old was appearing at the Park Theatre in Richard III. The specific role isn’t mentioned. But that autumn both actors lost the spotlight to an even younger newcomer.

W. C. Fields could have warned them, if he’d been born 100 years earlier. Joseph Burke had been born to a physician and his wife, in Galway, Ireland, in 1817. As the child of a well-to-do doctor he must have been exposed to life’s finer things right from the beginning. As he reached his first birthday he was able to sing back any song he heard. By the time he was two-and-a-half it was reported, "ladies were afraid to play in his presence, as in case they touched any false note, he immediately exclaimed, ‘You have no taste!'" It was shortly after this that young Joe began showing an interest in the violin. Which, of course, stage parents always having been with us, was immediately indulged. Imagine their joy when he not only learned to play the instrument but began reciting dramatic monologues as well. Mom and Dad weren’t going to hide this light under a bushel.

In 1824 the seven-year-old prodigy debuted in Dublin’s Theatre Royale, in a play called Tom Thumb and returned shortly afterwards in the title role in Hamlet. Now in 1830, as he makes his American debut October 22, at Manhattan’s Park Theatre, he’s a seasoned pro and takes the city by storm. James Stuart, having returned to Hoboken, mentions seeing him several times. Haswell reports, “Besides the parts he played on his first night at the Park, he led the orchestra in an overture and sang a comic song.” But it’s on former mayor Philip Hone that Burke makes the greatest impression. He’s gone to see a performance expecting to be disappointed, but comes away a devotee. Soon he’s bringing the twelve-year-old performer home to play with his own son.

Joseph Burke’s successful career carried him on through his late teens, then it became the old story of the child star growing up and the novelty wearing off. He returned to his old love, the violin, and began a second career, touring the United States, introducing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to America, giving Winston Churchill’s mother piano lessons, and appearing with (and being smitten by) Jenny Lind. In the early eighties he rusticated (retired to a farm) in Alexander, New York, where he died in 1902.

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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